We go again, hopefully not exactly the same.
Last season’s Champions League was eventually able to resume and then finish in altered circumstances for obvious reasons, but – for now – we’re back to the classic format as the 2020-21 group stages kick off on Tuesday evening.
Bayern Munich were lifting the famous old trophy in Lisbon just 59 days ago, and the Germans are seen the favourites to do so again as Europe’s heavyweights converge on the continental top table.
Could there be some surprises though?
Here, ahead of the big kick-off, we take a look at where all 32 clubs are going into the competition and rank them on just how likely they are to lift the big shiny thing.
Note: This isn’t necessarily a ranking of the best clubs, but more how likely they are to win the Champions League based on their group stage draw, squad strength and current form
One of Europe’s evocative old names return to the Champions League for the first time in 25 years, and they do so at the Nou Camp.
Given that the Hungarians have also been put in a group with Juventus then a repeat of their 1995 third-placed finish is surely the best they can hope for,
Dynamo Kiev will have a thing or two to say about that.
31. FC Midtjylland
Having got to this stage for the very first time, the Danes seem set to enjoy themselves.
They’ve been cast in a group which made the purists swoon and includes Liverpool, Ajax and Atalanta, with the side owned by Brentford supremo Matthew Benham certainly set up to play their part in that company.
Whether they’ll have enough to beat any of them is another matter though.
30. Lokomotiv Moscow
Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Salzburg is surely a marginally better group than last year’s Juventus, Atletico and Bayer Leverkusen, and so the Russians will at least have a fair crack at a third-place finish.
Nothing more than that though.
29. Shakhtar Donetsk
Third in their group last season and then Europa League semi-finalists, the Ukrainians would deserve to be higher than this if we were determining the list on ability alone.
But after being joined by Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Borussia Moenchengladbach in Group B then you worry for what is not a vintage Shakhtar group.
28. Club Brugge
Well beaten by Manchester United in last season’s Europa League, the Belgians will take heart from what looks to be a relatively open group.
It’s just unfortunate for them that Borussia Dortmund, Lazio and Zenit St Petersburg are all better than them.
27. Istanbul Basaksehir
Sadly the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, Robinho and Gael Clichy have hopped off the vehicle for former Premier League footballers that are the Turkish champions, but there are still plenty more recognisable names.
Demba Ba, Martin Skrtel, Nacer Chadli and Fabio da Silva will all emerge from the early part of the last decade and into a group that includes Fabio’s old team Manchester United.
Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig’s presence mean Basaksehir are probably staring at last place though.
An upstart team who are well backed by their Russian owner and looking to make a splash in Europe… Chelsea are also in Krasnodar’s Group E.
The Londoners will represent the toughest test for the Russian Premier League side, but they’ll fancy a crack at them and also Sevilla and Rennes in what looks an entertaining group.
Former Newcastle midfielder Remy Cabella and experienced Swedish forward Marcus Berg can be a handful.
25. Dynamo Kiev
Toppling one of Barcelona or Juventus in Group G would be the story of this and many a Champions League season, and while that doesn’t look like happening then a third place finish above Ferencvaros looks on for the Ukrainians.
Veteran boss Mircea Lucescu is in his 15th job and sixth decade as a manager, although his long association with Dynamo’s rivals Shakhtar Donestk means his summer appointment hasn’t gone down too well with the club’s fans.
A heavy beating by one of the big boys could spell trouble for him.
The likes of Erling Haaland and Takumi Minamino made Salzburg fun to watch on the way to a third place finish behind Liverpool and Napoli last season, and their group this time around looks just as daunting.
Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid will surely pip them to the top two spots, but in the likes of Patson Daka and Dominik Szoboszlai they have players who should make third place a fortmality.
The perennial group stage competitors are almost always reliant on the quality of their opponents when it comes to their chances of qualifying, and they might have a sniff this time.
They won’t beat Manchester City, but might see Marseille and Porto as two teams they can attack as they look to reach the knockout stages for the first time since 2014.
22. Zenit St Petersburg
The Russians are full of enough experienced campaigners to make life tough for their opposition, and a spot in the top two isn’t out of the question as they battle Dortmund, Lazio and Club Brugge.
If they get there then it will be their first knockout appearance since 2016, although a decent run at the Europa League could be on the horizon too.
21. Borussia Moenchengladbach
The Bundesliga outfit can test anyone on their day, and their home matches with Real Madrid and Inter Milan in Group B could end up being among the most watchable matches in the competition.
Getting past those two to qualify is another matter though, and a tilt at the Europa League may have to be settled for.
One of France’s grand old names are playing some good football under a rejuvenated Andre Villas-Boas, and they’ll be hopeful of getting out of Manchester City’s Group C, which looks pretty open below Pep Guardiola’s men.
Olympiakos and Porto will make for fascinating opponents, but it is doubtful that either has a player as skilful as the darling of the Cote d’Azur, Dimitri Payet.
Eighteen months after they were seconds away from facing them in the Champions League final, Ajax play Liverpool on Wednesday looking about as far away from that 2018/19 side as possible.
Star names have gone and been replaced by up and coming talents and those who have returned to Dutch football, like the former Everton midfielder Davy Klaassen.
Young forwards Antony and Lassina Traore could cause trouble in a group that looks packed with goals, in which a battle for second place with Atalanta looks likely.
Making their first group stage appearance since 2007, the Italian giants might be guilty of focusing too much on the Champions League already given their below-par start to the Serie A campaign.
Two defeats and a draw in four games isn’t great going, but their group of Dortmund, Zenit and Club Brugge does seem like a kind re-introduction to European football’s top table.
Ciro Immobile, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and company are good enough to advance from it.
One of the staples of the Champions League are back and cast into a group that might just be perfect for them.
The Portuguese club’s star players will get their chance to strut their stuff against Manchester City in the sort of match in which reputations are made, and lucrative transfers secured.
They’ll also take on Olympiakos and Marseille as a spot in the last-16 will be the expected outcome from within the club.
They may have lost goalkeeper Edouard Mendy to Group E opponents Chelsea, but Rennes have reinvested that money and are still unbeaten seven games into the Ligue 1 season.
Forty-year-old head coach Julien Stephan is an ambitious figure, and he’s built an outfit that can target knockout stage qualification, with new France international Edouard Camavinga and young Belgian forward Jeremy Doku ones to watch.
In many ways the story of last season in Champions League, for a variety of factors, Gian Piero Gasperini’s great entertainers are back after scoring 14 goals in their first four Serie A games of their season.
You can expect open, exciting matches in Group D when the Italians take on Liverpool and Ajax, and while the Reds might have too much attacking power in a shootout with them, they’ll fancy themselves to reach second spot.
14. RB Leipzig
Yes Timo Werner has gone, but the players he left behind aren’t too shabby.
Julian Nagelsmann’s team would probably have hoped for an easier group having fallen short at the semi-final phase last season, and he’d definitely have not wanted to see Paris Saint-Germain again.
But with the squad they have, then the Bundesliga leaders can feel fairly confident that a battle with Manchester United for second place will go right down to the wire, when they host the Premier League side on the final matchday.
13. Manchester United
There’s no doubt that United have the individual talents to go far in the competition, but as Leipzig’s Angelino rather ominously observed recently, they can also be incredibly inconsistent.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have happy memories of his side’s trip to Paris 19 months ago, but they really don’t seem set up to worry PSG this time, and a bad result there could kick off a very tricky-looking group.
They still have to be considered more likely to qualify than Leipzig because of their squad, but its pretty close.
Emboldened by yet another Europa League success, Sevilla arrive for another crack at the top table and into a decent group.
They’ll trouble Chelsea and will fancy themselves as favourites against Rennes and Krasnodar, meaning a top two finish – and thus no Europa League football this season – looks likely.
Do they want that though?
11. Inter Milan
If any team was going to prise the Europa League trophy out of Sevilla’s grasp then Inter seemed perfectly set up to do that in August, only to fluff their lines.
They’d only dropped into the secondary competition last season because they’d been grouped with Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, but they’ll fancy their chances of getting the better of another Borussia, Moenchengladbach, this time around.
In fact Antonio Conte will be desperate for his side to make an impact, and his job could depend on it.
The Londoners and their exciting raft of new faces might just be better set up for the Champions League than the domestic chaos of the Premier League.
After all, the likes of Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech and Thiago Silva are used to impressing on this stage, and the open-looking group of Sevilla, Rennes and Krasnodar just seems to be crying out for someone to take hold of it.
If would be a deep disappointment if Chelsea don’t make the knockout stages, and Frank Lampard can’t really afford that.
9. Borussia Dortmund
Jadon Sancho stayed, Erling Haaland is progressing just as everyone predicted and Dortmund have been given a group in which they can express themselves.
Lazio, Zenit and Club Brugge are the opposition for the cool kids of the Bundesliga, and with a clear run at that group and a kind last-16 draw, this has the potential to be a tournament that opens up for them.
8. Atletico Madrid
How do you make Europe’s toughest, gnarliest competitors even more unpleasant to play against?
You throw Luis Suarez into the mix.
Atletico’s victory over Liverpool at Anfield last season served as the last hurrah for the Champions League as we knew it, and arguably they were the team that suffered the most from the switch to the sterile settings of Lisbon.
They’ve got Bayern in their group this time, meaning they’re likely to be the second-placed team everyone wants to avoid in the last-16.
There’s a chance that the sound of the Champions League music triggers an element of PTSD in the Barca players as their minds drift back to August’s 8-2, but you’d back Lionel Messi to rise above that.
In fact, the prospect of this being Messi’s Last Dance as he tries to lead a changing squad back to glory would make for a plot as good as anything on Netflix, especially when you can throw in the character of Cristiano Ronaldo in the group stage.
Both ageing icons will get through there, but neither seems to have the support cast for a glorious ending.
Ronaldo’s two seasons in Turin have both effectively ended with him storming off the pitch after a last-16 loss in this competition.
Sure he’s won a couple of Serie A titles, but you don’t really get the impression that that’s what he’s in it for, and the manner of those European losses to Ajax and Lyon certainly seemed to sting.
Juve will crave getting at least a little further this time, and if they can play one of the really big boys – like Barca in the group – then that could be where Ronaldo really comes alive.
5. Real Madrid
Inter and Gladbach won’t be without their difficulties to navigate, but this is Zinedine Zidane in the Champions League and you’d expect Real to get it done.
The loss to Manchester City in the last-16 last season meant that he went a little off script, although it must be remembered that Real were leading in that first leg back in the normal football world before a late collapse.
They’ll be as formidable as ever in this competition, and Zidane will think that nothing but the last four is good enough.
Developments inside Virgil van Dijk’s knee mean that Liverpool have to drop a couple of places from where they would have been, simply because of the uncertainty that devastating injury has created.
They should still get through an entertaining group, and in fact there is an argument that they’ll miss the Dutchman a little less in the Champions League where Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Fabinho will all be able to put their foot on the ball.
Van Dijk will be targeting the latter stages of this competition to make his comeback, and his teammates have the quality to get him there.
3. Manchester City
If at first you don’t succeed.
City’s affair with the Champions League is never one you could describe as loving, but it is clear that they crave it above all else as it has come to represent their sense of legitimacy, however much they dislike UEFA.
So is it this year for Pep? Maybe.
He’s still a reliable forward short, but City maintain that ability to overwhelm teams that often can’t be handled across the continent, and the semi-finals will be the target that they once again strive for, only to keep missing.
2. Paris Saint-Germain
It remains to be seen whether those regretful August trudges will be the closest that Neymar and Kylian Mbappe ever get to the Champions League trophy in a PSG shirt.
At least one of them, Mbappe you’d think, are about to embark on their final attempt at winning it for the club for the very first time, but they have just as good a chance this time around as that disrupted 2019/20 season.
Their group stage looks a formality, and as the tournament goes on there could just be a sense of duty and destiny powering their two most recognisable stars.
1. Bayern Munich
The holders return less than two months after thrusting the trophy to the empty Lisbon stands, and unsurprisingly they still look absolutely formidable.
Hansi Flick has assembled a squad that seem capable of doing everything, and one that has impressively reduced the age profile along their route to recent successes.
There is a chance that they simply look upon the defence of this trophy as an extension of winning it the first time, and the Bavarians are certainly the team to beat.
Who will win the Champions League? Have your say in the comments below
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