UEFA Champions League group stage kicks off with condensed schedule

Barcelona's Ansu Fati, right, is challenged by Bayern's Joshua Kimmich during the Champions League quarterfinal soccer match between Barcelona and Bayern Munich. (Rafael Marchante/Pool via AP)

The 2022-23 UEFA Champions League is set to begin, and should produce some tantalizing soccer ahead of this year’s FIFA World Cup. 

The group stage is scheduled from Sept. 6-7 to Nov. 1-2, with matches taking place in a condensed nine-week period to accommodate the World Cup in Qatar that kicks off on Nov. 20. The Champions League final will be held at Istanbul’s Ataturk Olympic Stadium on June 10, 2023. 

Thursday’s official draw in Istanbul divided the 32-team field into eight first-round groups, and produced the following results: 

Group A the toughest of the eight groups 

If not for the presence of Viktoria Plzeň, then Group C with Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and Inter Milan would have to be considered the toughest of the eight groups. Instead, that honour goes to Group A, with Dutch giants Ajax, last year’s finalist Liverpool, Italian club Napoli, and Scottish side Rangers all drawn together.   

It’s a well-balanced group, and even though Liverpool is considered the favourite, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of the four teams advance to the knockout stage. 

Liverpool has never faced Rangers in a competitive match, and trips to Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow are always tricky due to the intimidating crowds, so the first installment of this version of the “Battle of Britain” should be an interesting one. Ajax are the reigning Dutch champions and famously reached the semifinals of the Champions League three years ago. Napoli is one of Italy’s top outfits, and took four out of a possible six points from Liverpool in their two matches during the group stage in 2019-20. 

Canadians set to clash in Group B 

Group B will feature a trio of Canadian players who will be teammates at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar going up against each other in the opening round.  

Stephen Eustáquio has become a key player for Canada since making his international debut in 2019. At the same time, the stylish central midfielder has seen his stock rise at club level, moving from modest outfit Paços de Ferreira to Portuguese powerhouse FC Porto on a permanent basis in the off-season. Now the 25-year-old from Leamington, Ont., will take the next step in his budding career when he makes his Champions League debut. 

Eustáquio will go up against fellow Canadians Cyle Larin and Tajon Buchanan when Porto clashes with Club Brugge in the group stage. While Larin has valuable Champions League experience from his time at Turkish club Besiktas, Buchanan will get his first taste of world soccer’s most prestigious club competition this season with the reigning Belgian league champions. 

Bayern Munich, Barcelona together again 

For the third time in four years, FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich will lock horns in the UEFA Champions League, as they’ve been pooled together in Group C alongside Italian club Inter Milan and Viktoria Plzeň of the Czech Republic.  

Based on recent results, you’d have to think the Spaniards have grown sick of seeing their German counterparts by now. Bayern destroyed Barcelona 8-2 in the single-leg quarter-finals of the COVID-interrupted 2019-20 tournament, and then won 3-0 in both games when the two sides met in last season's group stage.  

Of course, fullback and Edmonton native Alphonso Davies will be looking forward to going up against Barcelona, using those pair of games and the rest of the group stage to prepare for playing for Canada at the World Cup in Qatar. 

Haaland, Lewandowski to face former clubs for first time

Group G will see Manchester City compete against Spanish side Sevilla, Danish club FC Copenhagen, and Borussia Dortmund of Germany. Norwegian striker Erling Haaland has been a goal-scoring machine for Dortmund over the previous two and a half seasons, scoring 85 goals in all competitions. But he made the move to Manchester City in the off-season, and is now poised to face his former club for the first time in the group stage. 

"Manchester City is naturally a force to be reckoned with in the Champions League. We're looking forward to it just as much as we are to the reunion with Erling Haaland," Dortmund winger Marco Reus said. 

Likewise, Robert Lewandowski scored 344 goals in 375 appearances for Bayern Munich from 2014 to 2022, and bagged a brace in the Germans’ 3-0 win over Barcelona in the Camp Nou in last season’s group stage. But following his summer transfer move, the Polish striker will line up for the Catalans against his old club this time around. 
Other notable reunions will see Angel Di Maria face Paris Saint-Germain with his new club Juventus in Group H, and AC Millan’s Olivier Giroud go hop against his former team Chelsea in Group E.

About the author: John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.  

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