Thursday brought the hotly anticipated draw for the 2023-24 UEFA Champions League group stage, and what a doozy. Manchester United have been drawn against Bayern Munich in Group A, while Paris Saint-Germain got arguably the toughest quartet in Group F, with Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan and Newcastle United standing between them and a place in the round of 16.
Holders Manchester City will be heavily favoured to reach the knockout stages after drawing RB Leipzig, Red Star Belgrade and Young Boys in Group G, while Real Madrid are bidding to add to their record 14 European Cup titles but must first see their way through Group C against Napoli, Braga and Union Berlin.
How will it all play out? Mark Ogden (Groups A, B, C and D) and Julien Laurens (Groups E, F, G and H) have assessed each group, breaking down the narratives, picking the must-see matches and predicting which teams will advance to the last 16.
Bayern Munich, Manchester United, FC Copenhagen, Galatasaray
This is a group loaded with box office fixtures and headline-grabbing personalities, with Bayern Munich's Harry Kane heading back to England to face Manchester United, a club linked for so long with the former Tottenham striker. Of course, United instead opted to sign Atalanta youngster Rasmus Hojlund and the Denmark international will get the chance to face his first club, FC Copenhagen, after the Danish champions were also paired with United and Bayern in Group A.
United will certainly be wary of Copenhagen and Galatasaray having suffered group stage defeats against both teams in the past. But this group is all about the glamour of Bayern vs. United and a repeat of the 1999 Final, which United won 2-1 with two goals in stoppage time in Barcelona.
It will be about Kane vs. Hojlund, coach Thomas Tuchel vs. Erik ten Hag and a renewal of a major European rivalry that has been on hold since Bayern eliminated David Moyes' United in the 2013-14 quarterfinals.
MUST-SEE MATCH: Bayern Munich vs. Manchester United
These two European giants have won nine Champions League titles between them (Bayern six times, United three) and every season in which they play in the competition, the objective is to win it. However, the two teams are at different levels of readiness. Bayern's summer move for Kane makes them a genuine threat to Manchester City's crown this season, but United are still in transition under Ten Hag and still look some way short of being a Champions League winner again.
The two games against Bayern will be a real gauge of United's ability to compete against Europe's elite, making for intriguing TV at Old Trafford and the Allianz Arena.
PREDICTION: Bayern Munich, Man United, Galatasaray, FC Copenhagen
Bayern are likely to dominate the group and could win every game as they attempt to hammer home their credentials. The drama will come in the race for second spot and although United should have enough to qualify with Bayern, their inconsistency will be a concern for Ten Hag.
United's hopes of progression are likely to hinge on their results in Istanbul and Copenhagen. If they lose either of those games, then it will be a real battle to make it into the round of 16. Watch out for Galatasaray, though, as they're more than capable of springing an upset.
Arsenal are back in the Champions League for the first time in six years and Mikel Arteta's side have had a soft landing after being grouped with Sevilla, PSV Eindhoven and Lens.
Although Sevilla have become the perennial Europa League winners -- last season's success earned them a place among the seeded teams in Pot 1 -- they finished 12th in La Liga, while neither PSV nor Lens won their respective leagues. PSV made it through to the group stage with a comfortable win against Rangers in the qualifiers, but they're unlikely to pose a threat to Arsenal, despite a 2-0 win against the Gunners in the Europa League group stage last October.
And while Lens narrowly missed out on the Ligue 1 title last season, finishing just a point behind champions Paris Saint-Germain, they have lost last term's 21-goal top scorer, Loïs Openda, to RB Leipzig this summer.
If they play to anything like their potential, Arsenal should win Group B comfortably and earn themselves a place among the seeded teams for the round of 16 in the second half of the season.
MUST-SEE MATCH: Sevilla vs. Arsenal
Despite Sevilla's lowly finish in La Liga last season, they are stacked with European pedigree, having won seven Europa League titles in just 17 years. They have never been able to translate that success into Champions League glory, but there is no doubt that they have the pedigree to battle it out with Arsenal for top spot in the group.
If Sevilla can win one of their matches against the Gunners, then top spot will come into play and that could be significant for the hopes of both sides in terms of going deep into the competition.
PREDICTION: Arsenal, Sevilla, Lens, PSV
Arsenal have developed into one of the strongest teams in the Premier League under Mikel Arteta and while they still lack top-level European experience, this group gives them the opportunity to boost their knowledge against midranking opposition.
Sevilla will be the biggest threat to Arsenal finishing top, but neither PSV nor Lens have the strength or depth to challenge. This will be Arsenal and Sevilla all the way, with the Premier League team most likely to come out on top.
Napoli, Real Madrid, SC Braga, Union Berlin
This looks to be one of the more imbalanced groups, with Italian champions Napoli and Real Madrid likely to be way too strong for Braga and a Union Berlin side making the club's debut in the competition. Braga finished a distant third behind Benfica and Porto in the Primera Liga last season, but they were still able to edge out Sporting for Portugal's final Champions League spot. Union Berlin, meanwhile, finished fourth in the Bundesliga just four years after being promoted to Germany's top division for the first time.
Against such European heavyweights as Real and Napoli, it would seem that Braga and Berlin will be fighting it out for third spot in the group and the chance to drop into the knockout stages of the Europa League.
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U.S. forward Brenden Aaronson, on loan at Union from Leeds United, will get a taste of top-level Champions League quality when he faces Real and Napoli, but it will be a tough group for the Bundesliga minnows. The big question will focus on whether Real are ready to bounce back from last season's semifinal against Manchester City by winning the group, or if Napoli can upset former boss Carlo Ancelotti and top the group instead.
MUST-SEE MATCH: Union Berlin vs. Real Madrid
There is precious little romance in the modern-day Champions League, but when 14-time European champions Real Madrid visit the 22,000-capacity Stadion An der Alten Forsterei, it will be one of those moments the Union Berlin fans will cherish forever.
A club with roots in the old East Germany, Union endured tough financial times in the 1990s and almost suffered bankruptcy on two occasions. They did not even play in the Bundesliga until 2019, which makes the prospect of facing Real Madrid in the Champions League a rare fairytale for the competition.
PREDICTION: Real Madrid, Napoli, Braga, Union Berlin
Even though Real have lost Karim Benzema to Al Ittihad and Vinícius Júnior is likely to miss the early stage of the group because of injury, they rarely struggle to do anything other than top their group. Napoli will push them all the way and their formidable home record will give them a chance of beating Real at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, but Real know how to navigate the group stage.
Braga's greater European experience should give them the edge over Union Berlin in the race for third spot.
Benfica, Inter Milan, FC Salzburg, Real Sociedad
This group is wide open and any of the four teams could finish top, thereby making it into the round of 16. Despite reaching last season's final before losing to Manchester City in Istanbul, Inter have lost goalkeeper André Onana and strikers Edin Dzeko and Romelu Lukaku during the summer transfer window, making them far weaker than they were 12 months ago.
Benfica were beaten by Inter at the quarterfinal stage last season, but they are the favourites to win the group. It won't be easy for the Portuguese champions, though, because Salzburg have proved themselves to be a strong group stage competitor -- especially at home -- while Real Sociedad are also capable of beating every team in the group.
Salzburg are likely to be the team to watch because of their ability to constantly unearth young talent to replace the players they have moved on. Sadio Mané, Erling Haaland and Benjamin Sesko have all come through the Salzburg system before leaving for bigger clubs, so it will be intriguing to see who emerges this time around.
MUST-SEE MATCH: Benfica vs. Inter
The Italian team eliminated Benfica on the way to the final last season, but summer departures have weakened Simone Inzaghi's squad; this clash will shed light on whether Inter can be competitive again this year.
Inter's history as three-time winners and their proud history will ensure they are under intense pressure to emerge from the group, but they will need to get at least one positive result against Benfica to avoid being dragged into a scrap for second place.
PREDICTION: Benfica, Salzburg, Inter, Real Sociedad
Benfica's recent pedigree and the intimidating Estadio da Luz make them favourites to top the group, but it could be close all the way until matchday six with all teams being of a similar level.
Salzburg have proved to be a competent outfit against wealthier clubs from stronger leagues in recent seasons while Real Sociedad's success in finishing fourth in La Liga highlights their quality. If Inter are strong, they will make the top two, but they look to have lost too many key players in the summer.
Feyenoord, Atletico Madrid, Lazio, Celtic
This is one of the most interesting groups in this draw. Atletico Madrid must be the favourites, though their form in recent European campaigns has not been great. They have started their season really well domestically and if Diego Simeone can make this team play a more attacking style in Europe, they will be hard to beat.
Beyond them, things are wide open. Celtic Park will have to be a fortress for Brendan Rodgers' team to progress, but they can do it. Lazio have been poor in Serie A so far this season, losing their first two games, and said goodbye to their best player, midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, in the summer. However, Feyenoord also lost their playmaker, Orkun Kökcü, and their lack of experience in this competition could be an issue.
MUST-SEE MATCH: Feyenoord vs. Celtic
Take this game the way you want, either in Glasgow or in Rotterdam, it doesn't matter as you are in for a treat as two of the best atmospheres and sets of fans in Europe try to "out-chant" each other. It will be a special ambiance whether it's at Celtic Park or at De Kuip.
PREDICTION: Atletico Madrid, Celtic, Feyenoord, Lazio
I believe this is a group the Spanish team should win. There will be tricky away ties, but they are the strongest side. Behind them, I fancy Celtic to grab second place with a great home run and a solid performance away from home.
Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan, Newcastle United
This is undoubtedly the hardest of this season's Champions League group stages. It's a superb draw if you are a neutral fan; a nightmare if you're a fan of any of these four teams. With Milan in Pot 3, there was always a risk of a stacked group, and this is it!
PSG should be slight favourites because they have Kylian Mbappé, the best player in the world, back in their ranks after another summer of wondering whether he'd be leaving. Luis Enrique is trying to make his PSG squad play like a proper team and after a summer of transfers, they will be tested to the limit by this group!
Milan are not far behind them after good recruitment in the summer -- Christian Pulisic, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Yunus Musah and Samuel Chukwueze are all great additions -- and their semifinal run in last season's competition. Borussia Dortmund have struggled so far in 2023-24, and losing Jude Bellingham to Real Madrid this summer leaves a gap in midfield that they'll struggle to fill.
Finally, Newcastle have a champagne draw for their return after a 20-year absence. They have nothing to lose, and will compete with PSG and Milan for a place in the last 16.
MUST-SEE MATCH: PSG vs. Newcastle United
This is a battle of teams with Middle Eastern owners, as Saudi Arabia's PIF-backed Newcastle take on Qatari-owned PSG. Eddie Howe and his Newcastle players won't fear anyone and will believe they have a chance, while PSG will be under massive pressure not to be upset by the underdogs.
PREDICTIONS: PSG, Newcastle United, Milan, Borussia Dortmund
I expect a big battle between PSG, Newcastle and Milan for the top two spots. Dortmund are clearly behind the others, meaning it's between Milan and Newcastle for second place -- I fancy the Magpies despite their lack of experience in this competition.
Manchester City, RB Leipzig, Red Star Belgrade, Young Boys
If there were a potential dream draw for Manchester City, it would probably be very close to the one they actually received in Monaco on Thursday night.
The holders will face RB Leipzig, whom they destroyed last season in their last-16 home tie, with Erling Haaland scoring five goals. Leipzig are still a good team, but after losing their two best players (defender Josko Gvardiol to Man City, playmaker Christopher Nkunku to Chelsea), they're not the force they used to be. Then you have Red Star Belgrade and Young Boys, two of the weakest sides in this draw.
City very much got the luck of the draw here. Pep Guardiola will be able to rotate his team easily, and the European champions could qualify for the last 16 very early. Even for Leipzig, this is a good draw considering the level of the other two teams in the group. The Germans will fancy massively their chances to advance.
MUST-SEE MATCH: Man City vs. RB Leipzig
Manchester City didn't lose a single game last season in their winning campaign, but the one time they were a bit rattled was actually in Leipzig, where the home side gave them a good run for their money and got a convincing draw. They were then battered back in Manchester in the second leg, but let's see what happens this time in Leipzig.
PREDICTIONS: Man City, Leipzig, Red Star, Young Boys
There is no match for City in this group and there is no match for Leipzig outside of City either. They will qualify easily for the last 16, leaving Red Star and Young Boys to fight for a place in the Europa League.
Barcelona, FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Royal Antwerp
What a contrast for Barcelona compared with a year ago! Last season, they got the toughest draw, with Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. This time, they got one of the easier groups and Xavi will be very happy with who they are facing.
Porto are always a good team to play against and Portuguese teams haven't been fun for Barcelona. However, the Catalans will be hungry to show that they can do better in the competition than last year.
That said, Porto should also be happy with the draw, as they project to be too strong for Antwerp and Shakhtar. For the Belgian champions, what a treat to be there -- they will enjoy every second after having waited 66 years since their last, and only, appearance in the competition. For the Ukrainians, it's another chance to give some joy, hope and support to their fans and their people.
MUST-SEE MATCH: Antwerp vs. Barcelona
It's a true David against Goliath. For their return in the top club's competition, Antwerp are facing one of the biggest clubs in the world. The atmosphere will be incredible and it is a just reward for their wonderful Belgium title last season.
PREDICTIONS: Barcelona, Porto, Antwerp, Shakhtar Donetsk
Barcelona will top this group easily. If their away game in Porto might be a bit tricky, they will be too strong. Porto will finish second without too much trouble and I think Antwerp can finish third and qualify for the Europa League. They have great confidence and momentum, as well as nothing to lose.