AS USUAL, the Champions League provides a string of appetising fixtures as the group stage begins. The competition is loved by many, despised in equal numbers and tolerated by the rest, but it cannot be denied it makes for compelling viewing at times.
Dinamo Zagreb – Chelsea
Chelsea have had an indifferent start to the season and they could have had an easier first game, even though they will be favourites to come away from Zagreb with three points. Dinamo have dominated Croatian football for most of the 21st century and have won 16 titles in 17 years. The club is also renowned for their fanatical support, notably the Bad Blue Boys who will give the travelling Chelsea fans an uncomfortable evening in the Croatian capital. Chelsea have been busy in the transfer market and have spent around £ 260 million. Dinamo will do well to avoid defeat against Thomas Tuchel’s developing but inconsistent side, but they won’t lack confidence.
Red Bull Salzburg – AC Milan
Salzburg are getting used to being involved in the group stage and last season reached the last 16. Milan, Champions League royalty, had a tough group in their first Champions League season in a while in 2021-22, but the club is regaining its confidence and won Serie A last season for the first time since 2011. Milan are unbeaten this season and won the first derby of 2022-23 when they beat Inter 3-2. Salzburg have lost one of their seven Austrian Bundesliga games but are back on top of the table and are aiming for their 10th consecutive title.
Celtic – Real Madrid
In days gone by, this would have been a classic tie. Two clubs who have been European champions, the latter on multiple occasions. Nevertheless, although Celtic are not the force of 1967, they are Scotland’s champions and looking formidable, as evidenced by their 4-0 win over Rangers. Real have had a relatively quiet summer, although signed Antonio Rüdiger from Chelsea but they’re already on top of La Liga with a 100% record after four games. Real, the holders, have developed the habit of winning the competition even when they don’t seem to have the strongest team, so they will be in contention once more.
RB Leipzig – Shakhtar Donetsk
Shakhtar are regulars at this stage of the Champions League, but the war in Ukraine will undoubtedly hamper their chances of progress. They’ve only just restarted playing football in Ukraine and Shakhtar are unbeaten in three games and yet to concede a goal. Leipzig were beaten 4-0 by Eintracht Frankfurt in their most recent Bundesliga game and they haven’t started the season well, with just one win. They did make progress in the DFB Pokal, though, beating Teutonia Ottensen 8-0 in the first round. Leipzig bought back their former striker Timo Werner from Chelsea and he has scored four times.
Borussia Dortmund – FC Copenhagen
Dortmund should have been sitting top of the Bundesliga with a 100% record, but they lost one of their five games thanks to a late capitulation at home to Bremen. They were 2-0 ahead but conceded three goals from the 89th minute. Having sold Erling Haaland to Manchester City, Dortmund signed Ajax’s Sebastien Haller for € 31 million in the summer, but sadly he has been sidelined with testicular cancer. FC Copenhagen have had a clumsy start to the Danish Superliga campaign, losing four of their eight games, including two at home. However, they won through to the group stage for the first time since 2016 after beating Turkey’s Trabzonspor in the play-off round.
Sevilla – Manchester City
Manchester City, the Premier League champions, embark on another attempt to win the one trophy that has eluded Pep Guardiola since he joined the club. His team was strengthened in the summer with the signing of Erling Haaland, who has scored 10 goals in six games. Sevilla have yet to win a game in La Liga and were beaten at home 3-0 by Barcelona in their last fixture. They have scored just three goals. In 2021-22, they finished fourth in the league and reached the last 16 of the Europa League.
Benfica – Maccabi Haifa
Benfica, who last won the Portuguese Primeira Liga in 2019, have started the new season well and have won all five of their league games. As ever, the club has shown its skill in the player trading market and sold Darwin Núñez to Liverpool for € 75 million. The next star to attract a big fee could be 21 year-old striker Gonçalo Ramos, who has netted six goals this season. Maccabi Haifa have already played six games in the competition, beating Red Star Belgrade in the play-off round. Benfica overcame Midtjylland FC and Dynamo Kyiv to reach the groups.
Paris Saint-Germain – Juventus
Another cracking tie between in-form Paris Saint-Germain and strangely out-of-sorts Juventus, whose performances have lacked some inspiration and invention. PSG’s embarrassment of riches has yielded plenty of goals, an average of four per game in Ligue 1. Neymar appears to have found his form with nine goals and Kylian Mbappé has netted seven. Juventus have lacked goals but they have conceded just two in Serie A. They may be unbeaten, but they have drawn three of their five games. Juve signed a number of new players, including Polish striker Arkadiusz Milik on loan from Marseille, Paul Pogba from Manchester United and Angel Di Maria from PSG. Pogba was injured in July and is yet to appear in a competitive fixture.