The Champions League returns this week, with Real Madrid looking to continue their run of continental dominance by winning Europe’s premier club competition for an unprecedented fourth consecutive year. Here, theScore runs down all 32 sides in the tournament, ranking their chances of hoisting the coveted trophy on June 1 in Madrid.
Related: Breaking down each Champions League group
32. Viktoria Plzen
Little is expected of the reigning Czech champions, but at least the club’s fan base will get the opportunity to welcome Real Madrid to the Doosan Arena. That has to count for something, right?
31. Lokomotiv Moscow
The summer signings of experienced internationals Benedikt Howedes and Grzegorz Krychowiak add some steel and tactical nous to the squad, but it’s difficult to get overly excited about a team that is still offering Portuguese striker Eder playing time in 2018. Group D is wide open, though, so it’s not inconceivable that the Russian champions could reach the last 16.
30. AEK Athens
We’ll find out very quickly if AEK Athens has any chance of squeezing into the knockout stages. A visit to Ajax and a date with Benfica are followed by consecutive
losses meetings with Bayern Munich, so if the Greek club doesn’t get anything out of the opening two matches, you can kiss the round of 16 goodbye almost immediately.
29. Young Boys
Just reaching the group stage of the Champions League was a massive accomplishment for the Swiss champions, who are set to make their tournament debut after falling short at the qualifying hurdle on five prior attempts. Young Boys are simply expected to make up the numbers in Group H, but high-profile matchups against Juventus and Manchester United will be embraced by supporters.
28. Red Star Belgrade
UEFA isn’t great at handing out gifts. After Red Star Belgrade used a thrilling playoff comeback to reach the group stage for the first time in 26 years, they were rewarded with arguably the cruelest possible draw; the Serbian side will tangle with Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool, and Napoli. If nothing else, the trip to Red Star’s intimidating Rajko Mitic Stadium will be a massive test for those three clubs.
27. CSKA Moscow
Being drawn in Group G alongside Real Madrid and Roma means CSKA Moscow will need to spring a surprise if they are to avoid dropping into the Europa League this season. Hosting matches in the depths of the Russian winter could play a vital role in helping Viktor Goncharenko’s side get out of the group for the first time since 2012.
26. Club Brugge
Just about anything would be an improvement on the Belgian club’s last appearance in the Champions League – Club Brugge lost all six of their group stage matches in 2016-17. Alongside Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, and Monaco, though, it’s hard to envision things playing out much differently this time around.
It’s Manchester City and everyone else in Group F, but Hoffenheim will be hoping prodigious young bench boss Julian Nagelsmann can make one final splash with the club before departing for RB Leipzig next summer. “Everyone knows that I will give my all for Hoffenheim to the last second to achieve our ambitious goals,” the 31-year-old said when his impending switch was officially announced in June.
24. Shakhtar Donetsk
Shakhtar Donetsk actually dealt City their first loss of the season last year when they claimed a 2-1 victory in this same competition, though the Premier League side did rest a number of regular starters for that encounter. They will battle for second place with both Hoffenheim and Lyon.
The familiar face of Fatih Terim will once again be at the helm as Galatasaray look to emerge from the most open-ended quartet in the tournament. Group D, which is completed by Lokomotiv Moscow, Porto, and Schalke, is there for the taking. Henry Onyekuru, on loan from Everton, will need to shine if the Istanbul club is to advance past the opening round.
22. AS Monaco
The youth movement is in full swing in the principality. The free-scoring, ultra-attacking Monaco team that made a run to the semifinals of this tournament two seasons ago has been largely dismantled, replaced by youngsters either promoted from the academy or, like 17-year-old phenom Pietro Pellegri, brought in from elsewhere during the transfer window.
Schalke boast some talented youngsters who will almost definitely make waves – before inevitably earning moves to bigger clubs down the line – but the most intriguing element of the squad may actually be the manager. Tactical whiz Domenico Tedesco, 33, has seen his stock skyrocket, and despite recently signing a contract extension with the Gelsenkirchen lot until 2022, he’s garnering plenty of interest across Europe.
20. PSV Eindhoven
Welcome to the Hirving Lozano show. The dynamic Mexican winger, known affectionately as “Chucky,” has been linked with a collection of Europe’s top clubs, and he’ll get the chance to showcase his skills against some heavy hitters; PSV has the unenviable task of escaping a group that includes Barcelona, Tottenham, and Inter Milan.
Ruben Dias is going to have his hands full in Group E. The Portuguese defender, 21, has been tipped by many as the future of the Selecao backline, and will be asked to shut down the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Arjen Robben, Hakim Ziyech, and Dusan Tadic in the opening phase of the tournament. He’ll need to rise to the occasion if Benfica wants to get a taste of the knockout stages.
Get ready to be dazzled by emerging midfield superstar Houssem Aouar. Amid a squad loaded with young talent – as always seems to be the case with Les Gones – the 20-year-old dribbling wizard has the type of eye-catching skill set that is already making some of Europe’s heavyweights swoon. With Aouar in support, the likes of Nabil Fekir, Memphis Depay, and Bertrand Traore should fancy their chances of firing Lyon into the knockout stages.
17. FC Porto
Porto will have every reason to believe they can reach the knockout stages for the third consecutive season. In fact, the Portuguese club, who returns many of the familiar faces that fell to Liverpool in last year’s one-sided round of 16 encounter, would likely be disappointed by not topping a wide-open Group D.
Ajax will likely battle with Benfica for second place in E, but there’s no reason why the Dutch giants, back in the Champions League for the first time in four years, shouldn’t fancy their chances to make a swift return to the knockout stages. Make sure you tune in to see the likes of Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt now, because they’ll be wearing different kits in the very near future.
15. AS Roma
On the heels of last year’s epic comeback win over Barcelona – and subsequent run to the semifinals – Roma will be relying on plenty of new faces to try and pull off a similar feat this time around. Justin Kluivert, signed from Ajax in the summer for just €17.25 million, is the one to keep your eye on; in support of Edin Dzeko, the 19-year-old Dutch winger has looked dangerous every time he steps onto the pitch for the Italian side.
Off to a rough start in league play – Valencia are winless after four matches, mustering just three draws – things don’t get any easier when Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus roll into town on Wednesday. There’s plenty of exciting talent in the squad – the permanent signing of Goncalo Guedes and the loan move for Michy Batshuayi further bolstered a group that already includes Spanish international Rodrigo – but things haven’t clicked just yet.
13. Borussia Dortmund
How far can the kids carry Borussia Dortmund? Explosive youngsters like Christian Pulisic and Jadon Sancho make the German side one of the most intriguing in Europe, while Marco Reus, finally fit again – hopefully for good, this time – offers an experienced presence that should help Lucien Favre’s side return to the knockout stages after last season’s miserable group stage exit.
12. Inter Milan
Much like their city rivals AC Milan did last season, Inter have struggled mightily out of the gate after an excellent transfer window had supporters expecting a legitimate Serie A title challenge. That could still materialize – Inter are eight points adrift of Juventus after four matches – but Luciano Spalletti better figure things out quickly; Group B opponents Barcelona and Tottenham aren’t going to wait around while the Nerazzurri work out the kinks.
11. Manchester United
Your guess is as good as ours. On paper, Manchester United should absolutely be challenging for both domestic and European honors. On the pitch, though, the Red Devils are often laborious, and Jose Mourinho’s tiring antics – along with his continued inability to get the best out of Paul Pogba – mean there are serious questions about who will be managing the storied club come the business end of this tournament.
No Maurizio Sarri, no problem? In Europe, maybe. With the chain-smoking tactician taking his slick attacking philosophy to Chelsea, Napoli have turned to Champions League expert Carlo Ancelotti. The calm, collected Italian manager sits alongside Bob Paisley and Zinedine Zidane as the only men to win Europe’s most prestigious club competition three times. It’s probably a stretch to expect him to add to that tally this season, but Napoli have shown early in the campaign that they are still a force to be reckoned with.
It’s overly simplistic, perhaps, but unless Harry Kane regains the form of recent seasons, Tottenham are going to struggle in this competition. The England captain has looked sluggish and, frankly, exhausted since returning from injury last season, and while he has some electric attacking options around him – Lucas Moura, Heung-Min Son, and Erik Lamela can all pick up the scoring slack, not to mention both Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen in support – Kane needs to be firing on all cylinders for Spurs to make a significant run.
8. Atletico Madrid
A brutal start to the campaign has seen Atletico pick up a measly five points from four domestic matches, putting an early damper on what many expected to be a strong season after the Rojiblancos added some nice pieces in the summer transfer window. It’s still (very) early, but Antoine Griezmann and Co. need to figure things out if they have any hope of eventually contesting the Champions League final at their home stadium come June.
7. Paris Saint-Germain
Striking the right midfield balance remains the main obstacle for new bench boss Thomas Tuchel, but that otherworldly attacking trio can more than compensate for deficiencies elsewhere. Being drawn alongside both Liverpool and Napoli will force Paris Saint-Germain to be on alert early in the tournament, which could actually prove beneficial down the road.
After coming agonizingly close last season, Liverpool addressed their obvious areas of weakness in the summer window (read: they got rid of Loris Karius) and now have the balance and depth to complement their attacking firepower. The competition around them also improved, of course, but there’s no reason why the Reds shouldn’t be confident in their ability to make a swift return to the Champions League final.
Juventus have doubled down on their aspirations to win an elusive third Champions League title. Having fallen short in five finals since last capturing the trophy in 1996, Juve are desperately hoping serial winner Cristiano Ronaldo will push them over the top. For a club that has lost a record seven European Cup finals, including two of the last four, it’s a risk worth taking.
4. Bayern Munich
The last non-Spanish side to win the Champions League – they topped fellow Bundesliga behemoth Borussia Dortmund in 2013 – Bayern Munich have been thwarted in this competition by a La Liga club in each of the last five seasons. With Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico still among the favorites, the Bavarian giants will likely need to end that hoodoo to get back to the summit.
3. Real Madrid
Can they do it without Ronaldo – and Zinedine Zidane, for that matter? Real Madrid, the undisputed Champions League kings, are looking to win the competition for a fourth straight season. More so than in previous years, where Ronaldo’s goals could always be counted on to bail them out of any sticky situations, Los Blancos will need a collective effort to retain their title. With Gareth Bale assuming the marquee role, it’s working just fine so far.
When you have Lionel Messi, anything is possible. Barcelona, off to a perfect start in La Liga this season, has endured a surprisingly disappointing run in the Champions League of late; the Blaugrana have been bounced from the tournament at the quarterfinal stage in each of the last three seasons. After reloading this summer, nothing less than a sixth continental title is expected from the Camp Nou faithful.
1. Manchester City
It’s time for Manchester City to take the next step. Pep Guardiola has fine-tuned his machine since arriving in England, turning his side into arguably the most frightening attacking outfit in world football. The ease with which they sliced through the Premier League last season was astonishing, and Guardiola – along with the City brass – are no doubt hoping for similar results here.