Cue the music – the Champions League is back!
Europe’s biggest and best clubs are primed and ready to go for the start of the group stages after a historic summer transfer window.
Chelsea are the defending champions, but there are arguably more contenders this time around than in any previous iteration of the competition.
So who are the favourites, and which teams will be sent on their way before Christmas?
Newszetu’s Champions League Power Rankings are here to lay it all out…
#32 Sheriff Tiraspol
The undoubted minnows of this season’s competition, Sheriff had to come through four rounds of qualifying just to reach the group stages for the first time in their history.
The Moldovan champions’ reward for all that was being pooled alongside Real Madrid, Inter and Shakhtar Donetsk, meaning their first trip to the Champions League’s main draw is unlikely to make it past Christmas.
#31 Club Brugge
After being drawn into the group containing Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig, it seems that Club Brugge will, for the fourth season running, be out of the competition before we reach the knockouts.
They have won three of their four league games so far this season, but a 6-1 defeat against Gent suggests they are not in great shape to take down some of Europe’s most expensive squads.
Another team who went through four rounds of qualifying, Malmo have it all to do if they are to emerge from a group containing Chelsea and Juventus, as well as Zenit St Petersburg.
A run of just one win in five league games suggests that they have been saving their best performances for continental competition, but the step up in class should now be too wide to bridge.
#29 Young Boys
Young Boys made it through three rounds of qualification to reach the group stages for the first time since 2018-19.
The Swiss champions will take on Manchester United, Atalanta and Villarreal in a group that, while not daunting, is likely to prove difficult for new manager David Wagner to overcome.
#28 Dynamo Kyiv
Having regained the Ukrainian title for the first time since 2016, Dynamo Kyiv face the daunting task of trying to finish above at least two of Bayern Munich, Barcelona or Benfica to reach the last 16.
That looks unlikely, though their good young squad are in decent form, having won six of their first seven league games of the season, conceding just two goals in the process.
Porto reached the quarter-finals of last season’s competition, knocking out Juventus on the way, and therefore should not be underestimated heading into this season’s tournament.
That said, of the three Portuguese sides who qualified this time around, they undoubtedly got the toughest draw, with Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and a resurgent AC Milan standing between them and the knockout stages.
Besiktas may have only edged the Turkish title race on goal difference last season, but Sergen Yalcin’s side could cause a surprise if they can get some early momentum in the competition.
A group of Borussia Dortmund, Ajax and Sporting C.P. is difficult but not unmanageable, and with Michy Batshuayi and Miralem Pjanic having arrived on loan with points to prove, a place in the knockout rounds is not totally beyond them despite being underdogs.
Zenit last made it into the Champions League knockout stages in 2015-16, and the odds of ending that run are against them with Chelsea and Juventus also in Group H.
The likes of Malcom, Claudinho, Sardar Azmoun and Artem Dzyuba do give them plenty of firepower while Dejan Lovren is a recognisable face at the back, but a third-placed finish and fall into the Europa League seems the most likely outcome.
Lille stunned French football last season after they beat Paris Saint-Germain to the Ligue 1 title, but the start of their defence suggests that a similar run in the Champions League this term is unlikely.
They have won just one of their five games to start the new campaign, and the only saving grace for Les Dogues is that they are in the most open group of the draw, facing Sevilla, Wolfsburg and Red Bull Salzburg in the coming weeks.
The impressive way in which Benfica held off PSV with 10 men away from home to qualify for the group stages suggests that they are beginning to find their feet under Jorge Jesus after a difficult campaign in 2020-21.
Finishing above Bayern Munich still looks difficult, but a Barcelona in full rebuild mode could be vulnerable as the Portuguese outfit aim to make it out of the groups for the first time since 2016-17.
#22 Shakhtar Donetsk
Perennial qualifiers Shakhtar are back, and having shaken off Manchester City as their usual group-stage foes, they now face reunions with two of the sides they met in last season’s competition in Real Madrid and Inter.
Despite the size of those clubs, they should not be daunting opposition for the Ukrainian outfit after they beat Madrid twice and drew both games against the Nerazzurri, though that was not enough to secure a place in the knockout stages.
It is difficult not to think it was an opportunity missed and one that might be difficult to replicate this time around.
#21 Sporting C.P.
Sporting came agonisingly close to an unbeaten season as they won Liga NOS last season for the first time in 19 years, and Ruben Amorim’s young team will certainly fight for a place in the knockout stages.
A group containing Borussia Dortmund, Ajax and Besiktas should be fairly open with plenty of exciting, emerging talents on display, and a top-two finish is not beyond any of the teams involved.
#20 Red Bull Salzburg
Salzburg continue to develop some of the best young talents in European football, but as yet that has not helped them emerge as a European force.
That could change in 2021-22, though, after the Austrian champions received a favourable draw that will have teenage forward duo Karim Adeyemi and Benjamin Sesko licking their lips.
They may be the least heralded of the four Bundesliga sides in this year’s competition, but Wolfsburg could be a team to keep an eye on through the group stages.
Mark van Bommel’s side have won all four of their league games so far this season after their mean defence helped lead them to a top-four finish last term, and with their group more resembling one from the Europa League than the Champions League, there is confidence that they will earn a place in the knockout rounds.
Having earned qualification by winning the Europa League, Villarreal have been handed a reunion with beaten finalists Manchester United in Europe’s premier club competition.
Unai Emery’s side will also face Atalanta and Young Boys, but after drawing each of their opening three matches of the Liga season, they do not come into the competition in the greatest of form.
The 2019 semi-finalists may have been picked apart since that run to the final four, but they continue to churn out talented youngsters while picking up decent value signings from elsewhere.
The Dutch champions have a decent shot of qualifying from their group this time around after missing out on the knockout stages in the last two seasons, with Dortmund, Sporting C.P. and Besiktas their opponents.
#16 RB Leipzig
It has been all change at Leipzig over the summer, with Julian Nagelsmann, Dayot Upamecano and Marcel Sabitzer all having left for Bayern Munich.
New boss Jesse Marsch has struggled to replicate his successor so far, with his new team having lost three of their opening four Bundesliga games, and they will face an uphill task to knock out either Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain in the groups if that form continues.
Atalanta have defied all expectations to reach the Champions League knockout stages in each of the last two seasons, and they will certainly fancy their chances of making it three in a row given how manageable their group is.
There are some concerning signs, with Gian Piero Gasperini’s side having won just one of their first three Serie A games of the season, but if they can return to their free-scoring best, then they can trouble pretty much every team in the draw.
#14 AC Milan
Back in the Champions League for the first time since 2014, AC Milan are out to make up for lost time after their resurgence in recent years.
They could not have asked for a tougher group, with Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Porto their opposition, but with Zlatan Ibrahimovic continuing to roll back the years and a good, largely young support cast around him, the Rossoneri cannot be counted out of contention.
Sevilla remain in that zone between being too good for the Europa League and not quite good enough to make a major impression on the Champions League, but Julen Lopetegui’s side are at least moving in the right direction.
They have a real chance of topping their group this time too, which could help them as they aim to progress into the latter stages.
While Antonio Conte brought domestic success back to Inter during his time in charge, his struggles in Europe continued, and as such the Nerazzurri will hope the Italian coach’s Champions League curse has left San Siro this season.
After finishing bottom of a group containing Real Madrid and Shakhtar Donetsk last season, the Serie A champions should perform much better when faced with the same opponents, alongside Sheriff Tiraspol, this term.
In years gone by, it would have been unthinkable to imagine Barcelona starting a season outside the top 10 favourites to win the Champions League, but that is how far they have fallen in recent times.
Ronald Koeman faces the unenviable task of rebuilding the Blaugrana in the wake of Lionel Messi’s exit, and a group containing a powerhouse like Bayern Munich and tricky customers Benfica and Dynamo Kyiv is not what he would have wanted.
Barca should still make it through the group, but going any further seems unlikely right now.
Massimiliano Allegri’s return to the Juventus dugout was meant to bring to an end the Bianconeri’s struggles from last year, but after picking up just one point from their opening three Serie A games, these are concerning times at the Allianz Stadium.
Despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s exit, Juve do still possess a squad capable of going far in the tournament if they can rediscover their best form, though they will likely have to do it as an unseeded team in the last 16 after drawing defending champions Chelsea in the group stages.
#9 Borussia Dortmund
Borussia Dortmund may flatter to deceive more times than their fans would like, but any team with Erling Haaland up front has a more than decent chance of Champions League success.
The Norway international will lead a BVB outfit that has performed encouragingly under new manager Marco Rose, and having secured a favourable group-stage draw, there is a real chance they enter the knockout stages as a seeded team.
From there, they will need Haaland to continue delivering if they are improve on their quarter-final exit of 2020-21.
#8 Manchester United
You need only ask Juventus whether signing Cristiano Ronaldo guarantees Champions League success, but there is no doubt that Manchester United are in a stronger position to challenge for the trophy with the Portugal star back in their ranks.
Ronaldo’s presence should help them top a group that contains a couple of potential banana skins in Villarreal and Atalanta, while fellow new arrival Raphael Varane may need to come into his own during the knockout stages if the Red Devils are to reach the latter rounds.
#7 Atletico Madrid
Arguably the favourites to win La Liga again this season, Diego Simeone seems to have got his mojo back in recent years, even if Atletico Madrid dropped out of the Champions League in disappointing fashion last term.
A group containing Liverpool, AC Milan and Porto is all that is holding them back from being further up these rankings after a summer in which they made some key additions in forward areas, including the returning Antoine Griezmann.
#6 Real Madrid
The Real Madrid team that won four Champions League titles in five years may have been further broken up over the summer, but they remain a formidable foe for any side in European competition.
The signings of David Alaba and Eduardo Camavinga, meanwhile, should help freshen up what remains an ageing squad.
With fans back, the Anfield factor cannot be understated when it comes to Liverpool in the Champions League, even if their fortress is not impregnable.
Jurgen Klopp’s knows how to reach the final and win this competition, and though they have been handed the toughest of all eight groups, their form to start the season suggests they are getting back to their form of a couple of years ago.
#4 Bayern Munich
The 2020 champions have boosted their squad over the summer with the arrivals of Dayot Upamecano and Marcel Sabitzer, and with Julian Nagelsmann seemingly getting his ideas across after a shaky pre-season, Bayern Munich must be considered one of the favourites to reign over Europe once more.
Drawing Barcelona in the groups should not faze them, and there are only a handful of teams anywhere in the world that could realistically fancy their chances of beating Bayern in the knockout rounds.
Thomas Tuchel’s defending champions have been in ominous form to start the season, with Romelu Lukaku seemingly the piece they were missing from the jigsaw to mount a Premier League title challenge.
Playing Juventus in the first round will offer them a test while not being so daunting that they will be concerned about failing to top their group, and no team will then want to play one of the most organised teams in Europe in knockout football.
#2 Manchester City
Is this the year City finally make it over the hump?
Pep Guardiola’s side fell at the final hurdle last season, but they have at least proven to themselves that they can make it to the showpiece event, which for so long seemed destined never to happen.
A rare tough group draw may also help harden them for the knockout stages, and though they failed to land an out-and-out goalscorer over the summer, they still possess one of the most talented groups of attacking midfielders anywhere in the world.
#1 Paris Saint-Germain
Yes there are questions over their balance, and yes they might not even win their group, but right now it is difficult to bet against a team with a forward line of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar winning the Champions League.
No team had a better summer than Paris Saint-Germain in terms of the calibre of their signings, and if they do not win the biggest competition of them all this season, then serious questions will be asked of Mauricio Pochettino.
They will probably not have it all their own way as the competitions wears on, but they are the team to beat heading into matchday one.