When they finally got around to drawing the Champions League group stage early Thursday afternoon, the results should result in an exciting few months of football in Europe. A couple of groups are very top heavy, featuring four of the top eight clubs (according to UEFA rankings entering the season). The English champions seemingly have the “easiest” draw, while the defending champions probably hoped the balls were drawn a little different for them today.
Here’s how the groups stack up:
Let’s take a look at some of the individual groups:
Liverpool entered the group stage as the defending champions, and, for the most part, avoided the clubs that they needed to in the draw. That’s not to say that the draw is easy; by our math, Group E measures out to the third-most difficult draw of the round. This is partially due to the relative close groupings of the UEFA rankings of the four clubs: four spots between Liverpool (11) and Napoli (15), 18 spots between Liverpool and Red Bull Salzburg (29), and 49 spots (tied for 1st in that category) between Liverpool and Genk (60).
Napoli was in Liverpool’s group last year, with a 1-0 loss on matchday 6 resulting in a third-place finish and a move to Europa League, where they lost to Arsenal in the quarter-finals. Red Bull Salzburg lost to Napoli in last season’s Round of 16 in Europa League, so they will be looking for a bit of revenge. Genk is happy to be back in the Champions League after a six-year absence, with their last visit a winless 4th-place finish in 2011-12.
Our friends at FiveThirtyEight give Liverpool the leg up in the group, giving them an 87% chance to advance to the Round of 16. As if to show how close this group really is, Napoli and RB Salzburg are both around 50%, so it will likely come down to who can pick up the full three points in either of their matchups when the time comes. Genk is just hoping to play spoiler and somehow finish in third place to secure that trip to Europa League.
“Group of Death”
By the same measures mentioned above, our “Group of Death” by a fairly substantial margin is Group D, which is nominally led by Juventus, but is one of two groups where the Pot 2 club has a higher UEFA rank and coefficient than the champion at the top of the group (Group A is the other).
The group features four clubs in the top 54 of UEFA rankings, with an average rank of 22.75. The average “pot ranking” – where each of the clubs ranked within their respective pots for the draw – is also the lowest, with the group featuring the 3rd-ranked club from Pot 1 (Juventus), 2nd-ranked from Pot 2 (Atlético Madrid), 2nd-ranked from Pot 3 (Bayer Leverkusen), and the highest-ranked club from Pot 4 (Lokomotiv Moscow).
Juventus lost in last season’s Champions League quarterfinals (to Ajax), while Atlético Madrid lost to Juventus in the Round of 16. Meanwhile, Bayer Leverkusen lost to a Russian club (Krasnodar) in the Round of 32 in Europa League, so they can find some measure of revenge against Lokomotiv Moscow is another club just happy to find a home in this season’s Champions League after a poor performance – a 4th-place finish in the group stage – last season.
FiveThirtyEight doesn’t see the group the same way that we do; they have Juventus as the favorite to advance (81% chance), with Atlético Madrid (57%) and Leverkusen (52%) pretty far behind. Juventus did show some cracks last season in the group stage, losing twice (to Manchester United and Young Boys), but I would be surprised if they fell to third despite the impressive resumes of the two clubs directly behind them.
The Favorites’ Draw
FiveThirtyEight has anointed English champion Manchester City as their current favorite, and their group draw is likely the reason why. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 99% chance of reaching the next round, and a 93% chance of finishing 1st.
Pot 2 club Shakhtar Donetsk is no slouch, and we enjoyed following the club during last season’s competition due to their nomadic status in Ukraine. They were in Manchester City’s group last year – losing both matches by a combined score of 9-0 – but they finished third in the group to continue on in Europa League. There, they lost to eventual semi-finalist Eintracht Frankfurt in the Round of 32. In this group, they are favored to finish second, and should be able to get at least six points from the clubs below them.
Dinamo Zagreb entered in the second qualifying round, and have thus far accumulated a 4-2-0 record through three rounds (with a +11 goal differential). This marks their return to the Champions League group stage for the first time since 2016-17 (a 4th-place finish) after coming up just short in last season’s tournament, where they lost to Young Boys in the playoff round. They have about equal chance with Atalanta – who make their Champions League debut this season – to finish third, and thus earn a trip to the knockout stages of Europa League.
We’ll be back with a more in-depth look at some individual match-ups as the group stage progresses over the next few months, so be sure to check back often so you don’t miss anything!
Until next time…
 We used five factors in making our determination: average UEFA rank, average UEFA coefficient, and the UEFA rank difference between the Pot 1 club and the other three clubs (1v2, 1v3, and 1v4). We then ranked these factors one through eight and took an average of the five individual factors.