6 Games in 9 Weeks – European Group Stage Preview

Camp Nou Champions League

European football is back with seven Spanish clubs involved in the group stages of the three main UEFA competitions which commence this week. For the record, it’s the same seven as last year, but things will soon feel quite different once a uniquely congested European schedule kicks off with all the groups to be concluded by the first week in November as a result of a winter World Cup.

To some extent, this will be something of a test-run for seasons to come with a reformed Champions League from 2024 onwards meaning more fixtures and an increasingly packed calendar for Europe’s top clubs. With five substitutes also well established now, squad depth is becoming an increasingly important factor in elite level football and we will most likely see fresh evidence of that over this hectic period which will see LaLiga’s European participants all play two games per week between now and the World Cup pause, with the exception of an international break later this month.


Champions League Group Stage

Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla are the four LaLiga sides in the Champions League for the third season running. The draw brought mixed fortunes and served up some exciting ties (and a few less exciting ones!).

Atletico Madrid (Group B)

Matchday 1Porto (H)
Matchday 2Bayer Leverkusen (A)
Matchday 3Club Brugge (A)
Matchday 4Club Brugge (H)
Matchday 5Bayer Leverkusen (H)
Matchday 6Porto (A)

Atletico Madrid were dealt a good draw, managing to avoid the European giants and on paper it’s a group that Diego Simeone’s side ought to fancy their chances of topping. However, Atleti fans certainly won’t be taking anything for granted and it has often been the lesser sides that have caused them problems in Europe in recent years while they’ve invariably managed to at least perform well against the top sides. Indeed the last time Atletico Madrid failed to progress from the Champions League group stage, it was largely the result of two bitterly disappointing draws against Azerbaijani outfit Qarabağ in 2017/18.

As for this season’s opponents, they have experience of facing all three in the UCL group stage in the last four years so there will be a degree of familiarity to it all. Indeed it was only 12 months ago that Atleti went to Porto and won 3-1 on matchday six to seal progress into the knockout stage of last season’s competition. It’s likely that the Portuguese champions and Bayer Leverkusen will prove to be their strongest opponents with Club Brugge having never previously progressed from a Champions League group.

In short, Atleti should progress, but don’t be surprised if they make hard work of it.

Porto stadium Dragao
For the second season running, Atleti’s final UCL group game is at the Estádio do Dragão against Porto (Tuesday 1st November).

Barcelona (Group C)

Matchday 1Viktoria Plzen (H)
Matchday 2Bayern Munich (A)
Matchday 3Inter (A)
Matchday 4Inter (H)
Matchday 5Bayern Munich (H)
Matchday 6Viktoria Plzen (A)

Barcelona have landed in a tough group with another reunion with old foes Bayern Munich the headline act. While they may have preferred an easier ride, the two games against Bayern in particular will be a really good test of just how much progress has been made under Xavi following a summer of significant expenditure. Barça lost both games against the Bavarian giants 3-0 in last season’s group stage as they dropped out into the Europa League but will expect to be much more competitive this time around, not least because Robert Lewandowski will be playing for, rather than against, them.

It’s essential Barcelona start with a win this week against rank outsiders Viktoria Plzen but you sense it may be the double-header against Inter in October which will determine how things pan out in this group for the Catalans. Runners-up in Serie A last season, Inter are obviously a big name but their recent record in this competition is not good. They’ve not made it past the round of 16 since 2010/11 and have been eliminated in the group stage in three of the last four seasons.

The good news for Barcelona is that their squad looks as well equipped as anyone’s to cope with this busy period. The early signs in LaLiga are promising and a successful Champions League group stage campaign, particularly in the games against Bayern, would send out a message to the rest of Europe that Barça truly are back.

Bayern Munich vs Barcelona
Barcelona will be aiming to make amends for recent defeats against Bayern when they visit the Allianz Arena on Tuesday 13th September.

Real Madrid (Group F)

Matchday 1Celtic (A)
Matchday 2RB Leipzig (H)
Matchday 3Shakhtar Donetsk (H)
Matchday 4Shakhtar Donetsk (A)
Matchday 5RB Leipzig (A)
Matchday 6Celtic (H)

Real Madrid’s Champions League defence will begin in what is sure to be a cauldron of noise at Celtic Park on Tuesday night. It’s a fixture and a group that the European champions should win but every game will pose its own unique challenges and Madridistas won’t need reminding that their only defeat in last season’s group stage came at home to minnows Sheriff Tiraspol.

The group will see Madrid face RB Leipzig in European competition for the first time and the Bundesliga outfit are on paper their strongest competitors with the likes of Spain international Dani Olmo and returning striker Timo Werner amongst their ranks. However, given what Real Madrid achieved last season in Europe, they’ve certainly no reason to fear the German side.

Their final opponents are Shakhtar Donetsk for the third season running in the UCL group stage. The Ukrainian outfit did the double over Los Blancos in 2020/21 but Madrid gained revenge last term with a 5-0 win in the away fixture highlighting their superiority. Shakhtar have been playing away from their home city for a number of years now and will be at even greater disadvantage this term as they will need to play their European home games in Poland, due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Celtic Park
Real Madrid’s title defence begins at Celtic Park on Tuesday 6th September. Picture via Zhi Yong Lee, CC BY 2.0

Sevilla (Group G)

Matchday 1Manchester City (H)
Matchday 2Copenhagen (A)
Matchday 3Borussia Dortmund (H)
Matchday 4Borussia Dortmund (A)
Matchday 5Copenhagen (H)
Matchday 6Manchester City (A)

Last season, Sevilla put together a strong domestic campaign but were really poor in Europe, limping out of a weak group in 3rd place before falling at the second hurdle in the Europa League against West Ham. After a dreadful start to LaLiga 2022/23 with just 1 point from 4 games so far, they will be hoping that something of a reverse effect will take place this term. European football could potentially free them from the shackles of their domestic woes and prove a useful distraction, perhaps even an opportunity to lay some much needed foundations for the campaign ahead.

However, things could also get worse and with Manchester City visiting the Sanchez-Pizjuan this week, you’d have to say that’s a distinct possibility. The Premier League side should top this group and with Copenhagen relatively unfancied, it does feel like it will most likely be between Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund for 2nd. The good news for Sevilla fans, is that there is still a month to go before the crucial double-header against Edin Terzić’s side. By which time, Sevilla should be a bit more settled and their new signings ought to have found their feet to some extent.

On current form though, you wouldn’t even feel too confident about their chances of picking up three points in Denmark next week which may also have a big impact on their qualification prospects. 3rd and a familiar drop into the Europa League looks the most likely outcome unless there are significant improvements in the coming weeks.

Sevilla vs Borussia Dortmund predictions
Sevilla host Dortmund in a key game on Wednesday October 5th.

Europa League Group Stage

Real Betis and Real Sociedad are back for another crack at the Europa League. Both sides managed to make it through their groups last season as runners-up before failing to make much impact in the knockout stage. An unlikely Rangers-Eintracht Frankfurt Final in 2022 suggests there is no reason why Betis or La Real can’t enjoy a long run in this competition. 

Real Betis (Group C)

Matchday 1HJK Helsinki (A)
Matchday 2Ludogorets (H)
Matchday 3Roma (A)
Matchday 4Roma (H)
Matchday 5Ludogorets (A)
Matchday 6HJK Helsinki (H)

Betis have every reason to fancy their chances of progress from this group with Ludogorets of Bulgaria and HJK of Finland, two of the weaker teams they could have drawn. Ludogorets have only taken 2 points from their 12 last Europa League group fixtures while HJK were knocked out in the Conference League group stage last season, conceding 15 goals across their 6 fixtures.

As such, this does feel like a straight shootout between Betis and Conference League holders Roma for top spot. As was the case last season, there is a significant advantage for finishing 1st as it allows teams to bypass the potentially tricky play-off round.

Manuel Pellegrini must decide just how much rotation he thinks he can get away with in the other games but you’d expect him to go strong for the double-header with Roma. Jose Mourinho’s side visit the Benito Villamarin on matchday four for a game which may determine the group winner.

Real Betis vs Roma
Betis welcome Jose Mourinho’s Roma to the Benito Villamarin on Thursday October 13th.

Real Sociedad (Group E)

Matchday 1Manchester United (A)
Matchday 2Omonia Nicosia (H)
Matchday 3Sheriff (A)
Matchday 4Sheriff (H)
Matchday 5Omonia Nicosia (A)
Matchday 6Manchester United (H)

It’s a third straight Europa League group stage campaign for Real Sociedad and their chances of improving on two 2nd place finishes haven’t been helped by the draw with Manchester United who are among the favourites to win the competition. La Real were knocked out by the English side behind closed doors in the first knockout stage in 2020/21 but followers of the Basque club will be able to properly enjoy these games and plenty will travel to Manchester this week.

With Erik ten Hag’s side having just hit form, the trip to Old Trafford feels like something of a free hit for La Real. Even if they lose it, Imanol’s men should have what it takes to put sufficient points on the board in their next four games against unfancied Omonia Nicosia and Sheriff Tiraspol to secure qualification.

Were they to win all those games, they could set up a final day showdown with United in Donostia for top spot in the group which could potentially be a special night at the Reale Arena.

Real Sociedad stadium
La Real’s group stage concludes with a potentially decisive home game against Manchester United.

Conference League Group Stage

For the first time, there is Spanish participation in the UEFA Europa Conference League this season. Truth be told it will feel like a bit of a come-down for Villarreal after all the success they’ve had in the bigger competitions in the past two years, but those feelings may change if and when the latter stages come around.

Villarreal (Group C)

Matchday 1Lech Poznan (H)
Matchday 2Hapoel Be’er Sheva (A)
Matchday 3Austria Vienna (H)
Matchday 4Austria Vienna (A)
Matchday 5Hapoel Be’er Sheva (H)
Matchday 6Lech Poznan (A)

Villarreal have had to negotiate a play-off tie against Hajduk Split to reach this stage, winning 6-2 on aggregate against the Croatian side. There is nothing in their group that should truly concern Unai Emery or his side and they will be firmly expected to take top spot.

Emery has already signalled his intent to rotate in this competition and we should see plenty of the likes of Pepe Reina, Jorge Cuenca, Aissa Mandi, Samuel Chukwueze and Jose Luis Morales, who are all on the periphery of the league team at the moment. There is sufficient strength in depth that should make it possible for Villarreal rest key players whilst still making smooth progress into the knockout stage of a competition they start as the outright favourites to win.

Levante match action
Levante’s Estadi Ciutat de València plays host to Villarreal’s three Conference League home group games.

We will have match previews for every Champions League game involving Spanish sides as well as selected fixtures from the other competitions.

Spanish football writer
About Mark Sochon 1611 Articles
Mark is a freelance writer based in Madrid. He has also lived in Seville and Barcelona and has written extensively about Spanish football. His work has been published by the likes of Guardian Sport & World Soccer.