The draws are in for the 2023-2024 UEFA Champions League which starts with Matchday 1 on September 19th and 20th. And as expected there are some easier groups and some tougher groups. Such is the luck of the draw. However, this year there is on just incredibly tough group…more on that later.
1. There are no significant rule or format changes this season. Next year, however, there are some big changes coming down the pike. Most notably an expansion from 32 to 36 teams and the way those extra teams are going to be added. The big benefit seems to be to the EPL which stands to land a 5th spot!
2. Group play will run with one match window in September, two each in October and November, and the final match day in December.
3. The draw for the knockout stages will be held on December 18th.
4. Play will take its normal winter break with Round of 16 matches February and March. Quarter finals in April. Semi finals in late April and early May with the final set for June 1, 2024 in the most well known soccer stadium in the world. London’s Wembley Stadium. Not that EPL teams need any extra incentive to win the UCL title but, well, a final win in Wembley would be pretty special.
Its a long six months of playing these tough matches on top of the players respective domestic leagues, domestic cups, and national team duties. Roster depth and management is critical. So on the the groups and what to look for.
Bayern Munich – Sitting in first in the Bundesliga and one of the pre league favorites its hard to find any holes in this lineup. With Thomas Tuchel, like him or hate him, one of the best coaches around, they will go far. How far remains to be seen but they are going to score goals in bunches. Just like always some will say and that’s not wrong. Ok so last years leading scorer, Serge Gnarby is back but he’s not Robert Lewandowski. Sure, but they still won the Bundesliga last season without Lewy. Not satisfied thought they went out and stole Harry Kane from Tottenham. How is Kane faring in his early time with Bayern? Well in 3 matches hes scored 3 goals and wWhas 1 assist. Good luck keeping this team off the scoresheet.
FC Copenhagen – The best news for fans of Copenhagen is that they are sitting atop the Danish Super Liga having scored 16 times in their first 7 matches while allowing just 7. The bad news for their fans is that the delta between the former and later numbers will likely flip in UCL. They are a solid club and will show well at home but not likely to have enough horses on the road.
Galatsaray – The Turkish champions are a mainstay in UCL having competed 19 times under the current UCL format including 4 of the last 7 seasons. So far this early season they sit in 3rd on the Turkish Super League but in their 3 matches they have earned 3 clean sheets. And its not like they don’t have some pretty well known stars led by Wilfried Zaha, Hakim Ziyech, and Dries Mertens. Mainstays of the Ivory Coast, Moroccan, and Belgium national teams, respectively. They are probably not strong enough given this group but don’t sleep on them.
Manchester United – The Red Devils have not started the EPL season in the best of shape sitting clear down in 11th after the first 4 matches. Most alarming so far has been their defense which has allowed 7 goals thus far. Allowing almost 2 goals/match isn’t going to take you far in most any soccer competition. Now that said, you look at their roster and its deep deep deep. They can field a number of different combinations in their starting XI that look like All Star teams. If coach Erik Ten Hag can fix the backline they have the quality to make a good run.
USMNT Players to Watch – None
Prediction – A pretty easy group to judge. Two of the top 7 in the competition according to the oddsmakers face off against 2 of the bottom 2. So Bayern and Man U advance.
Arsenal – A solid start in the EPL finding them tied for 2nd. A strong attack and a good defense as well as a terrific keeper. A pretty good combination for heading into UCL. And it all starts in the back for the Gunners with Aaron Ramsdale. One of the top keepers in the league right now. Not flashy but just doesn’t make mistakes. Then they have a midfield with Bukayo Saka and Declan Rice, two of the top mids for England. Up top they have Martin Odegaard and Eddie Nketiah. And the roster has lots a familiar names beyond those stars. After missing the last 7 UCL seasons Arsenal will be looking to show well.
Lens – The problem with smaller clubs like Lens is that they can have huge fluctuations in performance from one season to the next based upon how they handle the transfer windows. Last season Lens was but a single point behind French Ligue 1 champions PSG. But they sold two of their top players in Seko Fofana and Lois Openda. And after 4 matches this far they find themselves in next to last having scored 4 but allowing 10. Not the look you want heading into UCL.
PSV Eindhoven – Tied for first in the Dutch Eredivisie early on they look like the real deal. They have a deep roster and although its not filled with super stars of some of the bigger European clubs they can play some ball. This team will run at you and run at you and they have a couple of terrific goal scorers in Luuk de Jong and Yorbe Vertessen. Along with Joey Veerman who is a sweet midfield play maker. The general problem teams from the Dutch League is that they tend to play wide open and don’t have enough defensive bite against bigger clubs. In this group that may not matter.
Sevilla – Lets see how to sugar coat this. They currently sit in last place in La Liga. Ok its only been 3 matches thus far and they have scored 5 times in those matches. But they have allowed 8. Yikes. Sorry no sugar coating available. They did go out and get Sergio Ramos during the transfer window and his experience should help bolster the back line. Will that be enough to turn things around? Time will tell but I wouldn’t bet on it.
USMNT Players to Watch – Ricardo Pepi, Sergino Dest, and Malik Tillman all on PSV. Love this Dutch side.
Prediction – Arsenal is clearly the class of the group and should win it. PSV has a lot of young firepower. I like then to advnace.
Braga – Coming off a 3rd place finish in Portugal last year, they return to UCL for just the third time. They finished 3rd and last in their first two trips to the group stage. Can their fans expect a better showing this time around? They made two major signings in the last transfer window brining in Jose Fonte (defender) and Joao Moutinho (midfileder) which should provide some solid experience in the back. Their problem is that that experience comes with a significant drawback. Fonte is 39 and Moutinho is 37. Probably tough to expect them to hold up with all the matches they will be facing.
Napoli – Watch out for this team. They won the Serie A for the first time in 33 years and have started well so far this season. When you look at their roster one name stands out. And he’s a standout striker. Nigerian Victor Osimhen is a goal scoring dynamo. He found the back of the next 26 times in 32 matches last season and scored 3 in the first 3 matches this year. Nobody has found the key to containing him. Perhaps somebody in UCL will unlock the code. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
Real Madrid – This team is just a fixture in UCL. They were 2nd in La Liga last season and sit in first so far this season. They are spearheaded by the Energizer Bunny, Luka Modric, in the midfield. The 38 year old Croatian midfielder just keeps doing his thing. Although he is to the point where he can’t go 90+ minutes every single game he still is a must start player. Last season they lost in the UCL semis to eventual winner Manchester City. Most disappointing was their offensive showing so being a big money club they did what big money clubs do. Spend money and this time it looks to be well spent bringing in English midfielder Jude Bellingham for just a small fee of $107M. So how’s it working out? Well in his first 4 matches he has 5 goals and an assist. So far so good. They will make a deep run.
Union Berlin – A bit of an outlier as far as Bundesliga teams go. They play defense first and foremost and it lead them to a 4th place finish last year. In fact they tied with Bayern Munich for the fewest goals allowed (38). In tightly contested competitions like UCL strong defenses can serve a club well. In this case the draw did they no favors. They will need to steal some points from Napoli to have a chance to move through.
USMNT Players to Watch – Brenden Aaronson on Union Berlin.
Prediction – Union Berlin’s defense will provide some challenges for Real Madrid and Napoli but they are just too good overall and advance.
Benfica – This team has come out firing shots on goal and lead the Portugal Premier League in goals early this season. Eleven goals in 4 matches is killer and if that continues they will be a tough out in both their domestic league and UCL. Like most good clubs they have strength up the middle with center back Nicolas Otemendi, midfielders Angel Di Maria and Rafa (3 goals already for each) and David Neres up top (2 assists).
Inter Milan – So what have you done for me lately? How about starting out in Serie A with 3 matches. Three wins. Three clean sheets. You can have a stout defense but to earn lots of clean sheets you must have a solid goalkeeper. And they do in Swiss national player Yann Sommer. If striker Lautaro Martinez stays in his current form watch out. He’s scored 5 goals in so far this season. To get an idea how good they might be they have a must watch match against cross town rival AC Milan on Saturday., Both undefeated so far.
Real Sociedad – Simply put who replaces David Silva who retired? They brought in Scottish defender Kieran Tierney and striker Andre Silva (Portugal) but they have a combined one appearance thus far. Hopefully that’s just a matter of getting them transferred into the new club. But replacing David Silva’s quality and leadership is a big task.
Salzburg – They problem they face is what the bigger clubs from the smaller leagues all do. They just don’t play the level of competition week in and out so when they get to UCL can struggle to find the game. Salzburg is clearly the top team in the Austrian Bundesliga having won 10 straight titles. Yet they have only advanced out of the group stage once during that run. The thing that makes them so hard to play is that they truly play as a team. There isn’t one or two guys who they rely on to score. Their goals come from anywhere on the field. Case in point so far this season in 6 matches they have had 10 different players score and 4 of those have scored multiple goals. That style of play is hard to defend!
USMNT Players to Watch – None
Prediction – A pretty interesting group. Inter and Benfica should advance but with no real powerhouse here Sociedad and Salzburg, who got a favorable draw, have a shot.
Atletico de Madrid – Atletico has started out strong in La Liga with going 2-1-0 while scoring 10 and allowing but 1 goal. Certainly the start their fans were hoping for and it bodes well for the start of UCL. BHow does this sound for an attacking trio? Antoine Griezmann, Memphis Depay, and Alvaro Morata are that trio. If that doesn’t scare you ….well it should. They have combined for 6 goals already. Oh, and this team also can play some stellar defense lead by Stefan Savic and Mario Hermoso with Cesar Azpilicueta added for good measure. Put a stout keeper in the form of Jan Oblak behind them and they can be difficult to score on. Plus theis team benefits from a weaker overall group so may be able to rest players which could pay dividends come the knockout stages.
Celtic – Much like Salzburg above, they struggle a bit when playing outside the Scottish Premier League. The SPL is not a very deep league and most of the talent is tied up in two teams. Celtic and Rangers. So it can take them a bit to adapt to the speed of play when they get to UCL. They have some good talent and keeper Joe Hart is at the top. Last year, with all their promise, they failed to win a single UCL match. However, they did get a good taste for the level of play necessary to compete and perhaps this year they will have a shot to advance. They have a solid goal scorer in Kyogo Furuhashi but the Japanese international is a mere 5’7″ and 139#. He’s quick on his feet and adept at avoiding physical play. But opposing teams will try and beat him up. Lets see how he holds up.
Feyenoord – If you want to watch an explosive attacking team then this is the one. They have tallied 13 goals in their first 4 league matches with Santiago Gimenez leading the way with 5.More impressively is that he’s managed 16 shots in those 4 matches. If he can keep that pace up during the group stage you have to like their chances. The biggest issue with Dutch teams is their historical lack of defense. They can run with the best offenses around but can leave a bit to be desired in the back. The last season or two the level of defense in the Eredivisie has improved so we’ll see.
Lazio – A less than stellar start to the Serie A has Lazio fans worried. And they should be. After finishing 2nd in the league last year things were looking up. But after such a dreadful start going 1-0-2 with losses to Lecce and Genoa (two less than top quality sides). Now on the plus side they did hand Napoli there one loss so far. They play Juventus on Saturday and that match should give us an idea if those two bad losses were just early season flukes or if something is amiss.
USMNT Players to Watch – Cameron Carter-Vickers on Celtic.St. s a slight favorite over Celtic to move through.
Sports always have lots of peripheral discussions outside of the actual games being played. Whose the GOAT in the NBA, Michael or LeBron? Or how about whose the greatest QB of all time? Many argue Tom Brady. Others argue that the QBs from back in the day were better and Brady has had the advantage of significant rule changes built to protect the QBs and put more offense into the game. Those things give fans something to discuss (or whine about depending on your perspective) in between the actual games. Certainly soccer fans are no different. Messi versus Pele or Maradonna? Germany vs Brazil as the best all time program? But soccer also has a unique topic of conversation absent in most sports and that is the dreaded tournament “Group of Death.” Probably the most similar discussion would be about a teams seeding in March Madness. But tournament soccer is a different animal …..well because its a tournament. And historically there are usually two or sometimes three groups in a tournament that fans of particular team argue that they got the horrible draw and ended up in the Group of Death. So back on August 31st fans around the world watched the draw to see how their club faired. Many attended watch parties clad in their club jerseys with a cold beverage in hand in anticipation. Hoping for the best and fearing the worst. But this years draw is akin to the Tom Brady vs Dan Marino discussion. While fans debate who is the GOAT nobody debates that Brady is a first ballot hall of famer. Well bad news for fans of these four teams because nobody is debating that they drew the short straws. This IS the Group of Death.
Dortmund – The boys clad in yellow and black are coming off a disappointing season failing to win the Bundesliga on the last day of the season via goal differential to Bayern Munich. Then to pour salt into the wound Jude Bellingham was transferred out. All this leading to Dortmund sitting down in 9th place. Now its early and the havent lost a match yet either having gone 1-2-0 . They focus around midfielder Julian Brandt. Transition from defense to attack usually goes through him. The midfield trio of Brandt, Marcel Sabitzer, and Emre Can control the tempo of the game. And they are equally good at penetrating passes through the lines or playing the ball outside to the wingers to attack down the flank. Defending them is a difficult task for sure.
AC Milan – Looking to improve upon their 4th place finish in last season Serie A they made some big transfer moves this summer. Most notably bringing in Christian Pulisic and Reuben Loftus-Cheek from Chelsea and that has already started paying off. Pulisic is now paired up with Milan striker Olivier Giroud. The two worked well together at Chelsea and once Giroud left Pulisic seemed to fall out of favor. Well the duo have combined for 6 goals in their first 3 matches. Critics say they haven’t face any tough competition so far. Well they play co league leader Inter Milan tomorrow. Must watch match! Note that Pulisic was named the AC Player of the Month for the August. Not bad for your first month with the club.
Newcastle – Welcome back to the Nut Brown Ale’s after a 21 year absence. Too bad the draw wasn’t very kind. Newcastle took 4th in the EPL last season on the strength of the best defense in the league. They allowed only 33 goals in their 38 matches lead by keeper Nick Pope and fa back four of KIeran Trippier, Sven Botman, FAbian Schar, and Dan Burn. And all 4 are back this season. However, all is not well in the early season at St. James’ Park as they have opened up this year a weak 1-0-3 having allowed 7 goals already. Not the start you want to see but they are too good to continue clear down in 14th place. They face a tough test right out of the gate next Tuesday opening their UCL campaign at AC Milan. Lets see if they can steal a point down in Italy.
Paris Saint Germain – The perennial French champions are still looking for their first UCL trophy. What this team does well is score goals in bunches. The lead Ligue 1 last season scoring 89 times. 19 more than the next best. With an attack of Kyliam Mbappe, Lionel Messi, and Neymar with 29, 16, and 13 goals respectively, its just impossible to scheme a defense to stop that. Impossible. But Messi and Neymar have transferred on. To repalce them PSG went out and spent over $200M to bring in Osumane Dembele (Barcelona), Randal Kolo Muani (Eintrecht Frankfurt) and Bradley Barcola (Lyon). Too early to tell how those transfers will work out but they are solid if not star players. If manager Luis Enrique figures out how to best utilize those three they may have the makings of a deep run.
USMNT Players to Watch – Gio Reyna (Dortmund) and Christian Pulisic and Yunus Musah (AC Milan).
Prediction – There are 32 teams in this tournament. Oddsmakers have these 4 ranked as the 6th, 8th, 12th, and 13th favorites. So if you just go with the odds then pick PSG and Newcastle. But if you like your money I’d stay away from this group. But I am going with a little bit of an upset here. PSG wins the group and AC Milan takes second, barely.
Crevena zvezda – Runaway winners of the Serbian Super League and sitting in second so far this season but unfortunately that doesn’t mean much. The SSL isn’t even ranked in the top 30 leagues in the world (for reference MLS is ranked 16th). Now its not that they don’t develop some top flight players in Serbia. In fact they do and some play for some well known clubs. In fact two play for Juventus. The problem is that the Serbian domestic league just does not have the financial capability to keep domestic players at home. In the latest FIFA player rankings not a single player in that top 100 plays for this club. Bottom line? They’ll be lucky if they et more than a point or two and it won’t be a surprise if they go home pointless.
RB Leipzig – A well balanced club that has routinely finished in the top 4 of the Bundesliga that last number of years. Emil Forsberg and Xavi Simons are the midfield focal point in getting the ball to their two front runners Lois Openda and Benjamin Sesko. What they lack in name recognition they make up for in structure. The entire Red Bull family of teams from Red Bull New York (MLS), Red Bull Salzburg (Austria), Red Bull Bragantino and Red Bull Brasil (both Brazil) to this parent club all play the same approach. This enables them to develop players at the smaller clubs and move them up through their system with little difficulty. They aren’t likely to make a deep run but they have the tools to advance especially out of this weak group.
Manchester City – Not sure there is much to say about this side that hasn’t been said in these pages for the last handful of years. They are just stacked top to bottom. They are the #1 rated club in the world for good reason. They have won 5 of the last 6 EPL titles. They won last years FA Cup. They won UCL last season and were runners up two years before that. So how are they looking so far in this year’s EPL? Well same old same old, Four matches, 4 wins, 11 goals scored, and only two goals allowed. All while missing all world midfielder Kevin De Bruyne who sustained a significant hamstring injury in their first match. And they haven’t missed a beat without him. But with a roster with names like Kyle Walker Jack Grealish, Rodri, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, and Julian Alvarez what more do you need? Well if that’s not enough they also have this little 6’4″ beast from Norway by the name of Erling Haaland. If you haven’t heard of him then you are Rip Van Winkle and just woke up. He scored 36 goals in is first EPL season last year and has already scored 6 so far this season. He’s unstoppable and expect Man C to make a very deep run again. Manager Pep Guardiola is looking for his 5th, and record setting, UCL title. Its a good bet.
Young Boys – Like Salzburg and Celtic above (although not as good as those two teams) they have a similar problem. They are one of if not the best club in the Swiss Super League. Most years the league is a two team race between them and Zurich. So once again when they face the much tougher competition like in UCL it can take a number of matches to pick up their speed of play. And usually that means starting behind the eight ball and a hole that is too deep to dig out of. The good news is that they tend to play a fast wide open style which makes them entertaining to watch. The bad news is that they usually just don’t have the talent to hang with the big boys in UCL and this year isn’t likely to be different.
USMNT Players to Watch – None
Prediction – This is one of the softer groups and easy to predict. Man C wins the group (anything short of that would be a huge upset) and Leipzig takes second. In other groups Liepzig probably doesn’t advance but they got a really good draw this year (oddsmakers have Crevena at 29th and Young Boys at 31st).
Antwerp – One of the top clubs in the Belgian Pro League they still will have a long road ahead of them at this level . While they can score their forte is keeping the opponents off the board and lead the league in fewest goals allowed last season and are on track to far this year. And it all starts with Richie de Laet and Jelle Bataille along the back orchestrated by long time Belgian international Toby Alderweireld. toby provides the muscle in the air and is strong in keeping set pieces out of the net. This will be critical during their group play.
Barcelona – While not the powerhouse of just a few years ago they still won La Liga last year and have loads of talent. With Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the net, Andreas Christensen and Jules Kounde in the back, newly transferred in Ilkay Gundogan and Frenkie de Jong in the midfield, and Robert Lewandowski up top they have plenty of horses to make a run. If you aren’t familiar with Gundogan take a look at this clip from the FA Cup. Not only was this the fastest goal in FA Cup history but what a strike. Man City fans were not happy to see him go but Barca fans are quite the opposite!
FC Porto – Defense, defense, and more defense is what you need to know about this side from Portugal, Second in the league last year in the standings and in goals allowed. Just giving up 22 in 34 matches. That’s playing some terrific D. And lest you think that’s all they can do well they also scored 73 times for a whopping goal differential of +51 or exaclty 1.5 goals/game. You win most of the time with that kind of a scoring line. And with such a defensive stat line it should come as no surprise that the name to know is Diogo Costa. The 23 year old keeper is one of the best in the world and will likely be the club keeper and for the Portugal National Team for a long time. This kid is good, really good. Porto’s advancement will like in this kids hands by and large. They won’t score a lot in UCL but oh that defense is going to stiffle some teams.
Shakhtar Donetsk – This side routinely wins the Ukraine Premier League and qualifies for UCL. And of late they haven’t been to overly matched. In fact they earned 6 points in last year’s group stage with a 1-3-2 record. Not bad for such a small club from a small league. Unfortunately due to the war between Russia and Ukraine they will have to play their home matches in Hamburg, Germany. They probably don’t have the talent to move through but they’ll be a fan favorite for sure.
USMNT Players to Watch – Sam Vines (Antwerp) although he was injury in a recent league match and me be out for an extended period.
Prediction – Another fairly easy group to predict. Barcelona and Porto advance.
So another season coming up next Tuesday and like the last several, Paramount+ will be the US broadcaster. Keep a close eye on Group F. Its going to be quite entertaining.
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O’s. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.