For the first time since 2015, La Liga has five representatives in this season’s Champions League group stage: Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla and Villarreal.
Having won 12 of the last 20 Champions League and Europa League finals, Spanish sides have long ruled the roost when it comes to European club competition. However, with the current financial situation in La Liga and an exodus of star players including Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos, are the Spaniards up to the challenge this year? We’ve ranked each Spanish club from who has the kindest draw to who has the toughest.
Opponents: Inter Milan, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sheriff Tiraspol
Predicted finish: Top
There’s a rather familiar look to group D; faced both Inter Milan and Shakhtar in the group stage last season. Madrid lost both games against the Ukrainian side, but twice managed to see off Inter.
They have lost captain Sergio Ramos and his centre-back partner Raphaël Varane, but then Inter have suffered losses too. Financial struggles necessitated the sales of Romelu Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi and Matteo Politano, and to be frank, their replacements aren’t as good.
Shakhtar always seem to overperform in the Champions League, but despite getting the better of Madrid last season, Carlo Ancelotti’s side will be expected to set the record straight.
Sheriff Tiraspol are Champions League newcomers, having reached the group stage for the first time via the qualifiers. Going by UEFA’s coefficient rankings they are the weakest side in the competition, so Madrid should be looking to take six points off them.
Madrid have definitely been in better nick themselves, but from an attacking perspective at least, they have shown promising signs in their opening two La Liga games. Karim Benzema looks as sharp as ever, while the form of Vinícius Jr should make them less reliant on the Frenchman. With the likes of Gareth Bale and Isco brought in from the cold and back in the starting XI and with Ancelotti back in the dugout, the band from La Décima (Madrid’s 2014 Champions League triumph) is almost back together. Oh yeah, and some French kid called Kylian Mbappé looks set to sign…
Opponents: LOSC Lille, Red Bull Salzburg, Wolfsburg
Predicted finish: Top
Having won four of the last eight Europa Leagues, Sevilla are heavyweights in that second-tier competition. However, that kind of dominance has never really translated into the Champions League – the best that the Andalusian club has managed was the quarter-finals in 2018, where they narrowly lost out to Bayern Munich.
Sevilla ended up fourth seventh in La Liga last season, but right up until the final few matchdays Julen Lopetegui’s side looked capable of making an unexpected title charge. In the end they ran out of steam in the pivotal moments, so squad depth has been bolstered over the summer with the arrivals of Rafa Mir, Thomas Delaney, Ludwig Augustinsson, Gonzalo Montiel and Marko Dmitrovic. Sporting director Monchi’s punt on Erik Lamela seems to be working out as well, with the Argentine scoring three goals in his first three games for the club.
Sevilla will be disappointed with anything but a first-place finish in this group. Lille were crowned Ligue 1 champions in May, but have seen a host of key pieces, including coach Christophe Galtier, depart. Salzburg have finished in third place in both of the last two Champions League group stages, and look the prime candidates to qualify with Sevilla. Wolfsburg are back in the Champions League for the first time since 2015/16, where they were eliminated by Real Madrid in the quarter-finals.
Opponents: Manchester United, Atalanta, Young Boys
Predicted finish: Runners-up
The Europa League champions will face their beaten finalists rather sooner than they probably expected. After beating Manchester United in the final, Unai Emery’s side took Chelsea all the way to penalties in the UEFA Super Cup earlier this month, proving that they are more than capable of taking on Europe’s elite.
The Yellow Submarine look to have done some smart business this summer, having brought in attackers Arnaut Danjuma and Boulaye Dia to help ease the goalscoring burden on Gerard Moreno. The permanent signing of Juan Foyth was an easy decision to make, while centre-back Aissa Mandi adds depth in defence.
It is important to remember that United will likely be a better side this season than the one Villarreal faced in May. Jadon Sancho will give them another dimension in attack, while Varane will shore up what was a rather leaky defence, and of course, Cristiano Ronaldo will take that frontline to another level.
Atalanta have become famous in recent years for their free-scoring and entertaining style, but last season cracks started to appear. Things aren’t working quite as smoothly as they once did for Gian Piero Gasperini’s side, and in defence they don’t always convince.
Young Boys make up the group, but without much European pedigree, they are expected to finish fourth.
Opponents: Bayern Munich, Benfica, Dynamo Kyiv
Predicted finish: Runners-up
It’s fair to say that Barça’s preparations for this season have been far from ideal. They are in over a billion euros worth of debt, they have only just been able to register their new signings to play and they lost the greatest player of all time to a direct Champions League rival. Yes, Barça have struggled in Europe with Messi in their ranks, but things could get even worse without him. Yet there are reasons for optimism. Memphis Depay has looked sharp up front, while wonderkid Pedri promises to kick on and build on his astonishing breakout season. Ansu Fati’s recent return to training is promising, while Frenkie de Jong could use Messi’s departure to take on more responsibility on the pitch.
The draw, however, has not been kind. Memories of the 8-2 thrashing by Bayern Munich are all too recent, and with the German champions’ ever-increasing arsenal of attacking and defensive talent, topping this group will be a tall task.
Benfica and Dynamo Kyiv should not be underestimated either. Barça beat the Ukrainian side home and away last season, but Benfica could provide a tougher opponent. They dispatched PSV Eindhoven in the play-off round, no mean feat.
Opponents: Liverpool, Porto, AC Milan
Predicted finish: Top
Atlético Madrid find themselves in the most competitive group. Diego Simeone’s side very nearly threw away a healthy lead at the top of La Liga last season, but in typical fashion they endured plenty of suffering and scraped by on the final day.
In Europe, things didn’t work out so well. Two dreadful performances against Chelsea saw them eliminated in the round of 16, so improvement in the competition is needed. Having proven that he could win a second La Liga title, ‘Cholo’ will turn his attentions to the Champions League, where again he has unfinished business. Atleti lost the 2014 and 2016 finals, both to Real Madrid.
In terms of positive signs already, Ángel Correa has hit the ground running in La Liga with three goals in three games, while new signing Rodrigo de Paul seems to be settling in well and showing his class. But they’ll need more than those two to finish top of this group.
Liverpool will once again be able to count on their famous home crowd to create a raucous European night atmosphere, although that didn’t stop Atleti winning at Anfield in March 2020. Porto were the surprise package of 2020/21, knocking out Juventus in the round of 16, but Atleti should have enough quality to beat them. AC Milan are a good young side, but their current squad, with the exception of an ageing Zlatan Ibrahimović, lack European experience. Tough obstacles lie ahead, but toughing it out is something Atleti are more than used to.