If there is a true beginning to a given Champions League season, it might as well be now. The final five qualifying playoffs concluded on Wednesday, the draw took place on Thursday, and the group stage is set. The first round of games is only a few weeks away.
The draw offered up a bevy of enticing matchups:
2017-18 Champions League groups
Group A: Benfica, Manchester United, FC Basel, CSKA Moscow
Group B: Bayern Munich, PSG, Anderlecht, Celtic
Group C: Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Roma, FK Qarabag
Group D: Juventus, Barcelona, Olympiacos, Sporting CP
Group E: Spartak Moscow, Sevilla, Liverpool, NK Maribor
Group F: Shakhtar Donetsk, Manchester City, Napoli, Feyenoord
Group G: Monaco, Porto, Besiktas, RB Leipzig
Group H: Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham, APOEL Nicosia
The draw’s non-immediate aftermath presents a perfect opportunity to take a look at the bigger picture. Now that we know the 32-team field and the eight groups, which of the 32 are realistic contenders? Which of the 32 could make surprise semifinal runs? Which could make some noise in the group stage? Which have absolutely no hope whatsoever?
The best way to answer those questions is with some tiered rankings:
TIER 1: THE FAVORITE
1. Real Madrid (Group H) — They are the reigning champs. And the reigning reigning champs. They’ve won three of the past four titles, and are the most successful club ever. There’s not a single hole in their first-team, and the reserve side could probably make the Champions League quarters. Los Blancos aren’t just favorites to vanquish Europe for a third year running; they’re in a tier by themselves atop the sport at the moment.
TIER 2: THE CHALLENGERS
2. Bayern Munich (B) — Over the past six years, Bayern has made six Champions League quarterfinals and five semifinals. It won the 2012-13 competition, and bowed out to the eventual winners on four other occasions. Its 2017 quarterfinal exit, at the hands of Real Madrid, was as controversial as can be. The continental success, coupled with domestic dominance, puts Munich at No. 2 on this list by default. There are slight rumblings of concern about this year’s squad, particularly after the retirements of Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso, but it’s a squad still bursting with talent and top-level experience.
3. PSG (B) — A Champions League quarterfinal victory has been PSG’s primary aspiration for several seasons now, but it has remained elusive. A semifinal hasn’t arrived in Paris since 1995. Last year’s Camp Nou collapse was the latest agonizing failure. But, after years of tailoring its squad specifically to end the drought, the 2017-18 edition is more capable than its predecessors. Neymar, the dynamite attacker who sent PSG tumbling out last year, is just the player who could propel the Parisians to the semis and beyond this time around.
4. Juventus (D) — Last year’s run to the final was anything but a fluke. The 3-0 semifinal undressing of Barcelona was comprehensive. And you could argue that, despite the sale of Leonardo Bonucci to AC Milan, this year’s squad is just as strong. The age of key contributors is something to at least be cognizant of, but there’s enough depth and youth here to keep Juventus near the top of Europe. Plus, there’s the narrative and emotional power of Gianluigi Buffon’s ongoing quest for Champions League glory. Juventus will do anything it possibly can to make the last leg of his journey a memorable one.
5. Barcelona (D) — Lionel Messi gives Barcelona a shot in any game, any two-legged tie, and therefore any tournament. But he’ll be dragging a supporting cast through this year’s Champions League that, arguably, is weaker than any he’s ever carried. This is still Barcelona, and it’s still Messi, with Luis Suarez alongside him, so it’s still a true contender. But Barcelona is no longer on top of the footballing world, and it’s further away from the summit than you might realize.
6. Atletico Madrid (C) — Diego Simeone has transformed Atletico from plucky Champions League upstart to quarterfinal mainstay and two-time finalist. And while last year’s jaunt to the semifinals was aided by kind knockout round draws, there’s no suggestion the trend is unsustainable. Atleti’s transfer ban has hampered summer business, but more importantly, the outgoing flow of first-choice players to “bigger” clubs has seemingly been curbed. Last year’s core is back in full. Come January, it will be supplemented by Vitolo and perhaps Diego Costa. Simeone and Atletico looked primed for another deep run.
7. Manchester City (F) — Recurring defensive issues undercut City’s Champions League run last year, but the attacking potential of Pep Guardiola’s side this season is boundless. And Pep certainly knows how to navigate Europe’s toughest competition.
8. Manchester United (A) — So does Jose Mourinho. He’s won it twice, and is overdue for a third Champions League crown. And while Mourinho’s approach against fellow contenders has been rightly criticized when employed in a hypercompetitive league, it’s a threat to any opponent – superior or inferior – in a knockout format. United might actually be more dangerous in Europe than City.
TIER 3: THE SEMIFINAL HOPEFULS
9. Chelsea (C) — Give Antonio Conte a big game to win, and chances are he’ll go and win it. His ability to do just that was on display this past weekend, and it’s what makes Chelsea a threat. But the lack of squad depth could make a deep Champions League run unmanageable.
10. Borussia Dortmund (H) — Dortmund has had its fair share of post-Jurgen Klopp wobbles, both in the Bundesliga and in Europe. It hasn’t been past the Champions League quarters since the memorable 2012-13 charge to the final. But we still don’t know what this team will look like under new boss Peter Bosz. The range of possible outcomes for Dortmund this season is wide.
11. Napoli (F) — It’s about time Napoli made some noise in Europe. The club deserves it. Italy deserves it. Heck, we deserve it, because this team is exhilarating. It is delightful. It’s difficult to watch a Napoli game and not be transfixed for 90 minutes. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a 2013 Dortmund-esque run. And it definitely wouldn’t be disappointing.
12. Monaco (G) — The French champs have sold three starters, and could yet part with two or three more. If they do, the team that takes the field for next month’s Champions League opener could be almost unrecognizable. But then again, last year’s team was unrecognizable to the average fan 12 months ago as well … wasn’t it? Monaco’s summer business hasn’t been splashy, but it’s been shrewd. And although the replacement signings might not spur another title challenge, they should keep Monaco competitive in Europe.
13. Liverpool (E) — Klopp certainly has the European experience, and his Liverpool teams have been outstanding against the rest of England’s top six. How that will translate to the Reds’ 2017-18 Champions League campaign is unclear. The club hasn’t progressed past the competition’s group stage since 2008-09.
14. Tottenham (H) — Spurs are legitimately very good. But they haven’t done anything in the Champions League without Gareth Bale, and depth remains a serious concern. Plus, they were stuck in Pot 3, and are the third-favorites in their group, behind Madrid and Dortmund.
TIER 4: THE SEMIFINAL LONGSHOTS
15. Roma (C) — Roma compiled its best Serie A point total ever last season, but sold Mohamed Salah and Antonio Rudiger to England, and has primarily moved for less-heralded youngsters as their replacements. Roma should get out of its group, provided the draw isn’t overly cruel, but probably doesn’t have the top-end talent to go much further.
16. Sevilla (E) — Sevilla finally graduated from Europa League King status to the Champions League knockout round, but bowed out to Leicester City in the Round of 16. Then it lost manager Jorge Sampaoli after just one season. First, though, Sampaoli led los Sevillistas back into the La Liga top four for the first time since 2009-10, and thus back into the Champions League. It’s difficult to know how they’ll adjust to life under new boss Eduardo Berizzo.
17. Benfica (A) — Benfica has won the Portuguese league four years on the trot. It has also reached two Champions League quarterfinals and two Europa League finals since 2012. But the quarters, and nothing beyond them, seem like a realistic ceiling – especially with the club having sold 95 million euros worth of players this summer without really reinvesting the cash.
18. RB Leipzig (G) — It isn’t just Leipzig’s first Champions League campaign; it’s the club’s first appearance in any European competition. As a result, it came out of Pot 4 and into Group G, out of which any of the four teams could emerge.
19. Porto (G) — Porto has had intermittent success in Europe this decade, but has played a clear second fiddle to Benfica domestically. And overall, it is getting more and more difficult for the two Portuguese giants to compete with true giants from the big four or five leagues. Porto’s success of last decade is, unfortunately, a thing of the past.
TIER 5: THE BENEFICIARIES OF A FLAWED SYSTEM
20. Shakhtar Donetsk (F) and 21. Spartak Moscow (E) — Neither Shakhtar nor Spartak Moscow is anywhere close to being a top-eight team in Europe. But both were seeded in Pot 1 because UEFA’s outdated system hands those top eight precious spots to the winners of its eight highest-rated leagues. The Russian and Ukrainian Premier Leagues are currently seventh and eighth, respectively, so their champions sidled up to Thursday’s draw alongside the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. That, uh, doesn’t seem right.
There’s something to be said for rewarding league champions, but the system by which UEFA does that is flawed. That’s in part because its “UEFA coefficient” system is flawed in its own right. But it’s more so because it decides to reward league champions up until a somewhat arbitrary cut-off point, and then decides to completely disregard them. Case in point: Not much separates the Russian league from Belgium or Turkey, and not much separates Spartak Moscow from Anderlecht or Besiktas. But because Russia lands at No. 7 and Belgium and Turkey land at 9 and 10, Spartak went into Pot 1, while Anderlecht and Besiktas went into Pot 3. If the seeding went strictly by coefficient, Spartak would have been in Pot 4.
But alas, Spartak was in Pot 1. So was Shakhtar. Neither received an unobstructed path to the knockout stages, but neither received an obscenely treacherous one either.
TIER 6: THE GROUP STAGE PESTS
22. Sporting CP (D) — Commonly known as Sporting Lisbon, the third Portuguese side in this year’s competition has an exciting attack. Young Portuguese winger Gelson Martins is the one to watch.
23. CSKA Moscow (A) — CSKA hasn’t finished anywhere above the bottom of a Champions League group since 2011-12.
24. Besiktas (G) — A Turkish team hasn’t made the knockout round since Galatasaray in 2013-14. Besiktas will be looking to end the mini-drought.
25. Celtic (B) — Brendan Rodgers’ side stormed through the Scottish Premier League last season, amassing a ludicrous 106 points on 34 wins, four draws and zero losses. But Celtic is often overmatched in Europe these days.
26. FC Basel (A) — Basel ran away with the Swiss league last year, but this is not the same team that used to make knockout rounds every now and then.
27. Feyenoord (F) — There’s a decent chance the average fan hasn’t heard of a single one of Feyenoord’s players. But you’ve probably heard of manager Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, the former Dutch national team captain and scorer of one of the best long-range World Cup goals ever.
28. Olympiacos (D) — Winners of 19 of the past 21 Greek Super League titles. They’ve had moderate success in Europe too.
29. Anderlecht (B) — Champions League regulars, but haven’t been past the (first) group stage since 2000-01.
TIER 7: THE MINNOWS
30. APOEL Nicosia (H) — APOEL pulled off one of the last genuine Champions League upsets, over Lyon on penalties in the Round of 16 in 2011-12. The Cypriots then lost to Real Madrid 8-2 on aggregate, but scored twice at the Bernabeu!
31. NK Maribor (E) — The Slovenian side has qualified for the Champions League once before, in 2014. It didn’t win a game, but did draw three, including its home fixture against Chelsea.
32. Qarabag FK (C) — The first Azerbaijani team to ever qualify for the Champions League group stage.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.