Real Madrid will qualify comfortably for the last 16 ahead of Leipzig in second, but not before facing a tricky opener on Tuesday against in-form Celtic who can resign Shakhtar Donetsk to bottom spot, writes Rachel Roberts.Embed from Getty Images
Holders Madrid dramatically won their 14th European crown in a run where they overturned a deficit against PSG, held off a Chelsea comeback and beat Manchester City in extra time in an unforgettable 11-goal semi-final thriller. They then finished the job in Paris against Liverpool, with a sole Vinicius Junior’s goal splitting the sides in the final. Manager Carlo Ancelotti did the double last season, adding the La Liga title to their continental glory, and to his own personal haul. With four Champions Leagues to his name (to go with the two European Cups he won as a player with AC Milan), he is one of the game’s most decorated coaches.
Over the summer, the Italian boss has added Antonio Rudiger from Chelsea on a free transfer, a highly-regarded defender who can bring leadership and presence to the backline. He is joined by the sought-after midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni from Monaco, to replace the departed legendary figure of Casemiro to Manchester United. Tchouameni adds youth to an ageing midfield, as well as pace, power and quality. These signings join Ballon d’Or favourite Karim Benzema – who was the competition’s top scorer last season with 15 goals, and should help fire Madrid through to the next round with ease.Embed from Getty Images
Qualifying through their fourth place finish in the Bundesliga to accompany their DFB-Pokal victory, Leipzig will be hoping for a better Champions League campaign this season, after being knocked out in the group stages last year. The Red Bulls have had a sharp rise after only being promoted to Germany’s top tier in 2016, and reached the semi-finals of Europe’s premier competition four years later.
Last season they failed to make it out of their group that included Manchester City and PSG. After being demoted to the Europa League, they reached the semi-finals but were beaten by Rangers on the Scottish side’s way to the final, 3-2 on aggregate. In this summer’s window former star man Timo Werner has retuned to Leipzig after two years with Chelsea, and will be hopeful he can rekindle his previous form – he scored 95 goals in 159 games in his first spell at the club and is already up and running with four goals in four appearances this season. Werner’s partnership with Leipzig’s 2021/22 top scorer Christopher Nkunku (35 in all competitions) is the firepower they need to secure a spot in the round of 16.Embed from Getty Images
Ukranian league champions Shakhtar have been Champions League regulars this past decade, though have failed to progress past the group stages in their last four seasons. Strangely, the 2022/23 campaign will be the third year in a row that they share a group with Real Madrid; Shakhtar lost both games in 2021 but memorably beat the Spanish side twice in 2020, following a 2-0 win at home with a 3-2 victory at the Bernabeu.
This year their three home fixtures will be played in Poland, at Legia Warsaw’s Stadion Wojska Polskiego. The club announced that five per cent of proceeds will be donated to the Legia Foundation, which has been supporting Ukrainian refugees during the ongoing conflict. Shakhtar only scored two goals in last season’s group stage, both coming from centre forward Fernando, and their league top scorer Tete is now at Lyon. Therefore, their lack of goal threat could pose a real danger to their targeting of a Europa League place, as it seems they will struggle to win points and as a consequence, most likely finish bottom of the group.Embed from Getty Images
Celtic return to the Champions League group stage after a five-year absence, and entered Group F via the automatic spot awarded to Scottish league winners, following the country’s boost in the Uefa coefficient. Though their recent European campaigns have dwindled, the exploits of the Lisbon Lions and their famous 2-1 victory over Inter Milan in the 1966/67 final means their place in the competition’s history is undeniable, as the first British side to win the European Cup.
Their last outing at Europe’s elite level in 2017/18 ended in the group stages, where they competed with the likes of PSG and Bayern Munich. But boss Ange Postecoglou — the first Australian to manage in the Champions League groups — has further strengthened the Hoops’ attack with winger Sead Haksabanovic’s arrival from Rubin Kazan, and loan star Jota crucially secured on a permanent deal from Benfica. The Portuguese ace has scored four goals in five games already this season, including a world-class finish in their derby demolition of Europa League finalists Rangers. Although they’re now sweating on the fitness of top scorer Kyogo Furuhashi, who also hit 20 in all competitions last term, goal hero Liel Abada’s also in fantastic form and their blistering frontmen will be key to earning the points required to secure third place.
Must-watch game: Celtic v Real Madrid
With their first Champions League group game at Celtic Park in five years being against the European champions, this is going to be a massive match for the Hoops. Although the opponents could hardly be tougher, Real Madrid are prone to early slip-ups as their defeat by Sheriff proved last season and the glittering occasion will create an electric atmosphere for the home side to feed off. Their 4-0 thrashing of old rivals Rangers was the perfect boost ahead of the big showdown and they’ll go into the game with no fear. Real Madrid are expected to do the business as they start the campaign to retain their title, but for Celtic and the passionate 52,000 supporters cheering them on, it is set to be another memorable night – even more so if they can deliver a similar performance on Tuesday night.
Tuesday, September 6: Celtic v Real Madrid; Leipzig v Shakhtar Donetsk, both 8pm
Wednesday, September 14: Shakhtar Donetsk v Celtic, 5.45pm; Real Madrid v Leipzig, 8pm
Wednesday, October 5: Leipzig v Celtic, 5.45pm; Real Madrid v Shakhtar Donetsk, 8pm
Tuesday, October 11: Shakhtar Donetsk v Real Madrid; Celtic v Leipzig, both 8pm
Tuesday, October 25: Celtic v Shakhtar Donetsk; Leipzig v Real Madrid, both 8pm
Wednesday, November 2: Real Madrid v Celti; Shakhtar Donetsk v Leipzig, both 5.45pm
Dangerman: Karim Benzema
It is hard to look beyond Karim Benzema as the most dangerous player in the group, especially after his individual achievements last season. He was Champions League player of the tournament and top scorer, as well as scoring the most goals in La Liga (27), as part of his haul of 44 goals in 46 games throughout 2021/22. For all this, Benzema is a favourite to pick up the Ballon d’Or in November, and will relish the opportunity to continue this form throughout these Group F fixtures.
Finishing place predictions: 1. Real Madrid, 2. Leipzig, 3. Celtic, 4. Shakhtar Donetsk
Madrid should be comfortably qualifying for the round of 16 in the top spot, sure to joined by Leipzig who have the quality and experience in this competition to progress. Therefore, Shakhtar and Celtic are likely to be fighting for the Europa League spot. The Ukrainians have played more Champions League football in recent years, but the loss of key players leaves uncertainty as to where their goal threat, and consequently their points, will come from. On the other hand, Celtic lack no threat in front of goal and will feel they can push to win points off Leipzig, if not even Real Madrid. The fact that they are more consistently playing at Europa League level (albeit failing to make it past the round of 32) also means they should be able to have a fruitful European campaign even if they exit the Champions League early.
Follow Rachel on Twitter @rachellrobertts