The Champions League is back for a competition unlike any other. The final year of the traditional group stage will see the six dramatic rounds squeezed into less than two months, making room for the Qatar World Cup in a season that will ask more of players than any before. You can catch all the action live on Paramount+.
Throughout the season, this column will be here to guide you through some of the tactical and statistical intricacies of the contenders. But not this week. Instead we’re going to start off by swinging for the fences with everything we expect to see on the road to Istanbul in May.
1. The winners
The 2022-23 Champions League dawns with broadly the same group of favorites for this season’s competition as the year before. And the year before. And the year before. The English juggernauts Manchester City and Liverpool join Bayern Munich in the trinity at the top with the likes of Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain just trailing them. There are a few other teams one might throw into the mix but the candidates who could realistically win this competition are more static now than they have been in recent memory, an inescapable truth when finances in European football are so stratified.
Among these select few Manchester City feel like the natural choice. Yes they may seem to have their particular hang-ups around this competition, but they also have been one of the Champions League’s most consistent clubs. They’ve been quarterfinalists in each of the last five years, finalists in 2021 and a few seconds away from repeating that feat against Real Madrid. Erling Haaland has made an immediate impact, but could provide his most telling contributions in the sort of games like last season’s semifinal when the radar of Riyad Mahrez or Phil Foden go askew in front of goal.
A great team has just got even better. They have to be favorites. These will get bolder, I promise.
2. The dark horse who could stun Europe
Looking outside the pre-tournament favorites for a team that might have a shot at winning it all, Inter Milan emerge as an intriguing option with one almighty caveat. Their hopes of even reaching the knockout rounds are up in the air with Barcelona and Bayern Munich joining them in Group C; for that reason most bookmakers give them long odds to win the whole competition. But if they were to escape there is plenty in this squad that suggests it could spring a surprise or two.
Simone Inzaghi has a settled side whose depth has been enhanced by the additions of Andre Onana, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and the returning Romelu Lukaku. Indeed, with the exception of central midfield, Inter might just have the quality across the squad to weather injuries in plenty of positions. They have struggled against top tier Serie A opposition so far this season but if this becomes just a slightly improved version of the team that so tested Liverpool in last season’s knockout stages, they could achieve a great deal in Europe.
3. The favorite who falls at the group stage
Implicit within naming Inter as dark horses is that one of the big names will have to fall but it seems something of a cop out to answer this question with Barcelona, who will have to prove very quickly that they can blend all their talent into a cohesive unit, or even Bayern Munich. The Bundesliga champions have wobbled in recent weeks; such is the nature of this condensed schedule that one dip in form could be critical. Instead the spotlight falls on Juventus, where head coach Massimiliano Allegri is struggling to inspire much confidence with supporters in effectively earmarking his side’s two games against Benfica as the ones that will dictate their involvement in the Champions League beyond Christmas.
Juve might be unbeaten in Serie A this season but they have drawn three and won two. Against Fiorentina they registered just one shot on target and their expected goal (xG) difference of almost exactly zero is firmly in the middle of Italy’s pack and with key players such as Federico Chiesa and Paul Pogba yet to return from long term injuries it is fair to ask how much better they can get. They don’t have long to make swift improvements though; if an in-form Benfica come to Turin and wins next week that could be that for Juventus.
4. The logic defying team
You can already see the trajectory of Atletico Madrid’s Champions League campaign before it has gone. It is the same one as ever. Diego Simeone’s side make heavy weather of a favorable group, muddle through the winter and look a diminished force going into the knockout stages. Then something clicks into gear for Los Rojiblancos and they unearth the spirit of Gabi, Diego Godin et al to grind out wins they simply should not get on the balance. It won’t be last season’s Real Madrid levels of logical defiance — how could it be again? — but if you had to pick a semifinalist who had done little to suggest they should be there come the spring you could do a lot worse than Atletico.
5. The Golden Boot winner
The obvious answer here is Haaland, who has made the Champions League his personal fiefdom with 23 goals in 19 games. And damn it all City if you’re not leaving me with no choice but to pick him. What we are really looking for in a Golden Boot winner is generally a player who can fill his boots against reasonably favorable opposition in the group stages and then tick along with a few more in the knockouts. Karim Benzema’s remarkable run through the best defenses in Europe is not the usual bar for top scorers.
Indeed, if there is anyone who might rival Haaland for the scoring crown it is the Frenchman, who won it last time out. Madrid have perhaps the only group that is as inviting as City’s, and there is no question that Carlo Ancelotti’s side are set up to funnel chances towards Benzema. On the basis that I expect Haaland and his team mates to be involved in the competition until later than the holders it’s the Norwegian that is worth backing.
6. The breakout star who earns a midseason move
You can do worse with this particular prediction than simply look for the brightest stars at Red Bull Salzburg. Dominik Szoboszlai, Karim Adeyemi and Haaland have lit up the group stages in recent years before earning big money moves, there’s no reason to think Noah Okafor or Luka Sucic won’t follow in their footsteps. Liverpool, it is said, are tracking both of them.
However the surest of sure things tend to wear the red of Benfica. Last season it was Darwin Nunez, this it could well be Enzo Fernandez, already labelled the future of Argentina’s midfield at 21 years of age. Already he can do it all, winning the ball back one minute and progressing it up the field the next. He might only have moved to Portugal at the start of this season, but, if his statistics are in any way reflective of his talent, it could be a matter of months rather than years until the Premier League clubs that have been tracking him make the plunge.
7. USMNT’s breakthrough prospect
With Christian Pulisic tends to come alive in this tournament.draw, this could be a banner year for the USMNT on the biggest stage. If Giovanni Reyna can stay fit there is no reason why he cannot light up the competition, while
But it is in Scotland that we find the most intriguing player who could be wearing the stars and stripes in Qatar. Bayern Munich loanee Malik Tillman is already making a mark for himself in this competition, having scored the winner against Union Saint-Gilloise then excelling against PSV Eindhoven, leading his team with five chances created across the two legs. When a string of former players are praising not just his talent but his character — former Gers defender Craig Moore hailed “his desire to get on the ball and make things happen” — you can feel confident he won’t be overawed by the tests that will come against Ajax, Liverpool and Napoli.
8. The result that will shock Europe
Why not bring this competition back with a bang? Dinamo Zagreb have claimed plenty of shock upsets at the Maksimir Stadium, including Arsenal and Tottenham in recent years, and will be welcoming a struggling Chelsea to Croatia for the opening game of this season’s Champions League. Mislav Orsic, Bruno Petkovic and Josip Drmic are all in great form whilst Arijan Ademi might feel confident about his ability to match on an opposing midfield that will be without N’Golo Kante. With no Thiago Silva at the back too this feels like it could be an opportune moment for a major shock.
9. The best performing Scottish club
It’s not often that we get to see Celtic and Rangers share Europe’s brightest spotlight like this (though Scotland’s impressive coefficient form means it may become more frequent), so let’s give them some space to shine. The former have the superior recent pedigree in Europe and any team that have beaten Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and PSV in recent months should welcome their opponents to Ibrox full of belief. If they can upset Napoli on matchday two then opportunities might suddenly open up for Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side.
Celtic don’t show quite the same confidence in the European arena, but they have picked the perfect moment to return to the group stages, fresh off a stunning demolition of their great rivals at the weekend. With RB Leipzig struggling under Domenico Tedesco and Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk in an unknowable position while playing their home matches in Poland, there would appear to be a very real prospect that Ange Postecoglu’s side can actually make the round of 16.
10. The baffling Guardiola tactical tweak will be…
… successful. I’m calling it now, a 4-4-2 with Julian Alvarez and Haaland up top that swings a knockout tie that was on a knife edge in City’s favor.