Atlético Madrid, Juventus, Olympiakos, Malmo
Verdict Features two champions of major European leagues, alongside arguably the weakest side from pots three and four, which means qualification should be a formality for Juventus and Atlético Madrid. Juventus are still reeling from the departure of Antonio Conte, who has taken the Italy job, and the former Milan coach Max Allegri does not guarantee the same authority or tactical acumen. Last year’s finalists Atlético, meanwhile, have regrouped well after losing Thibaut Courtois, Diego Costa and Filipe Luis to Chelsea and should sail through. Olympiakos reached the knockout stage last year but Malmo will be lucky to record a victory.
Likely top two Atlético and Juventus
Real Madrid, Basel, Liverpool, Ludogorets
Verdict Liverpool should be delighted with their draw, as Basel and Ludogorets were among the weakest sides in their respective pots. Basel caused Chelsea problems last year but should be beatable, while the Bulgarian champions Ludogorets may be the neutral’s favourite, having qualified in extraordinary circumstances, on penalties, thanks to two saves from the defender Cosmin Moti, after the goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov was dismissed. Real Madrid are the defending champions and have strengthened with the signings of James Rodríguez and Toni Kroos but the departures of Ángel di María and Xabi Alonso make it more difficult for Carlo Ancelotti to find balance.
Likely top two Real Madrid and Liverpool Danger man Colombia’s World Cup Golden Boot winner Rodríguez is a world-class attacking midfielder, likely to play as Real’s No10
Benfica, Zenit St Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen, Monaco
Verdict The most evenly balanced group, where all four sides could progress. Benfica have finished runners-up in the Europa League for the past two seasons, but usually find the Champions League difficult. André Villas-Boas’s Zenit can call upon the Brazilian forward Hulk and the superb Portuguese playmaker Danny, and will be a real threat. However, arguably the favourites are Leverkusen, who have started the season superbly under their new coach, Roger Schmidt, playing a high-energy brand of football that defeated Dortmund 2-0 on the Bundesliga’s opening weekend. Newly rich Monaco have started 2014-15 poorly but should improve and cause problems for opponents.
Likely top two Leverkusen and Zenit
Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray, Anderlecht
Verdict Arsenal and Dortmund must be sick of one another – drawn together for the third time in four seasons, Arsenal have won two, drawn one and lost one against the Bundesliga runners-up, who are still adjusting to the loss of Robert Lewandowski to Bayern. The games have usually been enjoyable, high-tempo battles, however. Galatasaray have progressed to the knockout stage for the past two seasons, and Cesare Prandelli’s tactical battles with Arsène Wenger and Jürgen Klopp should be fascinating. Anderlecht, meanwhile, are a familiar name in the group phase but their record is dreadful, failing to qualify in their past seven attempts.
Likely top two Dortmund and Arsenal
Danger man Dortmund’s Marco Reus, who missed the World Cup through injury, is a superb counterattacker capable of scoring and creating
Bayern Munich, Man City, CSKA Moscow, Roma
Verdict The strongest group. Bayern Munich are a terrifyingly complete side under Pep Guardiola, despite being embarrassed in last season’s semi-final by Real Madrid. This will be the third time in four seasons Bayern have been drawn against Manchester City at this stage, as it is for Arsenal and Dortmund. City have strengthened and will be confident of getting past CSKA, the Russian champions who combine an exciting attack with a rather immobile defence. However, Manuel Pellegrini will be worried by the threat of Roma and particularly their impressive midfield trio of Daniele De Rossi, Kevin Strootman and Miralem Pjanic – with Francesco Totti still playing up front.
Likely top two Bayern Munich and Man City
Danger man Lewandowski brings another dimension to Bayern’s attack – tall and offering excellent link-up play, he’s a superb all-round striker
Barcelona, Paris St-Germain, Ajax, Apoel Nicosia
Verdict: The PSG striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic returns to two previous clubs – Barcelona, where he had an unhappy season, and Ajax, where he made his name. Barcelona have undergone a mini-revolution under Luis Enrique, discarding Victor Valdés, Cesc Fábregas and Alexis Sánchez, and without the former captain Carles Puyol, and it remains to be seen whether Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suárez fit into the Barcelona style. PSG have changed little, other than splashing the cash on David Luiz to reprise his Brazil partnership with Thiago Silva. Ajax are cohesive but lack standout names, while Cyprus’s Apoel shocked Europe by reaching the quarter-finals in 2011-12 but now have a weaker squad.
Likely top two Barcelona and PSG
Chelsea, Schalke 04, Sporting, Maribor
Verdict Schalke represent the biggest obstacle to Chelsea’s progression – but José Mourinho’s side beat the German team 3-0 home and away in last season’s competition and he should have few worries about reaching the knockout phase. Mourinho will hope to have qualified by matchday four. Sporting Lisbon are back in the group stage for the first time since 2008-09 and have a number of attacking talents, including the returning Nani, but their new coach, Marco Silva, lacks experience at this level. They should battle it out with Schalke for second spot in the group, as the Slovenian champions Maribor are likely to be also-rans.
Likely top two Chelsea and Schalke
Danger man World Cup winner Julian Draxler is Schalke’s biggest threat and his mazy dribbling from midfield will cause Chelsea’s backline problems
Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Athletic Bilbao, BATE
Verdict An exciting group featuring three technical, attack-minded sides. Porto looked excellent in their two-leg win over Lille and continue to replace departing superstars with the next generation of talented South Americans. Shakhtar Donestk, on an incredible streak of five consecutive domestic titles, are always sensational on the counterattack. Athletic Bilbao played very well in their play-off victory over Napoli, and their magnificent new San Mamés stadium, will provide a tough test for opponents. The Belarusian champions BATE have qualified for the fourth time in seven seasons and, althoughyet to progress, they shocked the eventual winners Bayern 3-1 in 2012-13.
Likely top two Porto and Shakhtar