UEFA Champions League group stage already upon us

This photograph taken on August 25, 2022, shows a screen displaying the fixtures for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League football cup after the draw for the 2022/2023 UEFA Champions League football tournament in Istanbul. (Photo by OZAN KOSE / AFP) (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)
This photograph taken on August 25, 2022, shows a screen displaying the fixtures for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League football cup after the draw for the 2022/2023 UEFA Champions League football tournament in Istanbul. (Photo by OZAN KOSE / AFP) (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images) /
Champions League 2022-23
Who will succeed Real Madrid as UEFA Champions League winners? The group stage kicks off this week and we’ll have an answer in eight months. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images) /

31st season of Champions League era gets underway Tuesday

Just a few months following Real Madrid’s 14th triumph in the competition, the Champions League proper is back.

After nine weeks of qualifying action involving over 50 teams, half a dozen sides made it to the group stage the hard way, with the draw for the group stage recently taking place.

With a new format coming to the European club competitions in 2024, here is a preview of the first matchday of the penultimate group stage as we’ve come to know it.


Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund part of early kickoffs

The first eight games commence on Tuesday, with two games happening at 18:45 CET. Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb hosts Chelsea while FC København’s fifth appearance in this tournament proper will start at Borussia Dortmund.

The Blues will be Dinamo’s ninth different English opponent in Europe. Interestingly, three of their four wins against English sides came against a London-based club, including a 1-0 victory at West Ham in the Europa League nine months ago. This will be Chelsea’s first ever meeting with a Croatian team in Europe.

Danish champions København took out Trabzonspor in the playoff round in late August and will face Borussia Dortmund to start off the competition. The two sides met in the third round of the 2001-02 UEFA Cup, the Germans prevailing 1-0 both home and away.

Dortmund failed to get past the group stage a year ago and will aim to avoid the same feat (or worse) for the second year running.

Real Madrid kicks off title defense

Los Blancos will get their Champions League title defense going in one of the six 21:00 matches as they face 1966-67 champions Celtic away. The Glaswegians are back in the big time for the first time since 2017-18, where they finished third in that group.

As for Real, this is their 26th straight season in this competition and 27th overall, the latter stat matching rivals Barcelona. Celtic and Real Madrid met in the Champions League’s precursor – the European Cup – in a 1979-80 quarterfinal, the Spanish club winning 3-2 on aggregate.

The match on Tuesday night that will likely overshadow Real’s showdown will take place in the French capital between Paris St. Germain and Juventus. PSG has never defeated the Old Lady in eight prior meetings on the continental front, avoiding defeat just twice. Juve’s Angel di Maria will return to the Parc des Princes after spending seven years with the Parisians.

The Austrian and Italian champions will meet in Salzburg as RB Salzburg hosts Milan. This is the maiden battle between these two. This is Salzburg’s fourth consecutive Champions League main tournament appearance, a 19th overall for their opponents.

The other Red Bull-owned team, Leipzig, will welcome Shakhtar Donetsk. In their only previous meetings with Ukrainian opposition, Leipzig knocked out Zorya Luhansk 4-2 in the 2018-19 Europa League playoffs. Shakhtar will face an 11th different German club this Tuesday, owning a record of 8-7-9 against the other 10.

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City will head to Seville to start their Champions League quest as Sevilla awaits their arrival. The Cityzens defeated the Rojiblancos in both of their 2015-16 group stage matches in this competition. Semifinalists last May, City still are pushing for their second European trophy to go with their Cup Winners Cup success in 1969-70.

The other Tuesday tie comes from Lisbon as Benfica hosts Maccabi Haifa. This is a third Champions League showing for the Israelis, 13 years after the last one. Maccabi Haifa holds a 0-1-1 record in their previous European matches with Portuguese opposition, while Benfica is 2-0-2 versus Israeli clubs.


Europa League holders Eintracht Frankfurt make Champions League bow

The only debutants in this competition this season, Europa League title holders Eintracht Frankfurt will host Sporting CP. One of two early kickoffs on Wednesday, The Germans have a 2-2-2 record against Portuguese opponents in what should be an interesting tie.

The other early game on Wednesday brings together Ajax and Rangers. Two historically huge teams go at it in Amsterdam. The Scottish runners-up have not featured in the main rounds of the Champions League since 2007-08, having knocked out Union St. Gilloise and Ajax’s big rival PSV Eindhoven in qualifying. Ajax won all four previous meetings between the two clubs.

Inter and Bayern kick off group of death

Across the six late games, no other match will be as fascinating as the repeat of the 2009-10 Champions League final between Inter and Bayern.

While both sides have three wins apiece across seven other head-to-heads, it was Inter’s success in the aforementioned final that is the most remembered. The Nerazzurri also knocked out Die Roten the following season in the Round of 16 on away goals. As this is the curtain-raiser for this group of death that also features Barcelona and Viktoria Plzen, a win will be crucial to get things going the right way.

To that point, the other game in the group will pit Barça and Plzen for the second time, the Catalans winning both of their matches in the 2011-12 group stage, Plzen’s first season in the Champions League proper. The Czech winners got past HJK Helsinki, Sheriff Tiraspol and Qarabag to enjoy a fourth appearance in this competition’s main round.

Elsewhere, Napoli will welcome last season’s finalists Liverpool to the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. In six previous meetings between the clubs, both sides have two wins each. This is Napoli’s third successive Champions League group stage where they will face the Reds. With Ajax and Rangers being the other two clubs in this section, a win here will go a long way.

Spurs host 1992-93 winners Marseille in what many consider to be the Europa League group in the Champions League (Sporting CP and Frankfurt are the other two teams in the group). With Antonio Conte’s underwhelming Champions League track record, the French club has more than enough reason to play a part in the spoils.

Atlético de Madrid welcomes Porto to the Spanish capital as the sides reunite for the second season running. Diego Simeone’s men got the all-important win on Matchday 6 last December, progressing in this competition at Porto’s expense. Overall, Atléti holds a 3-1-2 record in their favour against Porto.

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Finally, Club Brugge will take on Bayer Leverkusen at Janbreydelstadion. The only meeting between the sides produced a 1-1 stalemate back in the 2006-07 UEFA Cup, the Europa League’s predecessor. Leverkusen is in the Champions League for the 13th time, while the Belgian champions enjoy a 10th showing.