For the second season running, the UEFA Women's Champions League is employing a group stage to whittle the final 16 teams down to eight quarterfinalists, and just like in the inaugural season, the draw has thrown some familiar foes together.
While there are questions to be asked about the new format UEFA have brought in -- 55 teams get knocked out of the competition at the "qualification" stage before the Champions League properly starts -- we're shaping up for an entertaining tournament from here. The four groups themselves consist of 12 teams that have been forged in the somewhat complicated qualification rounds, as well as the top-four ranked sides, who were given a bye. Though as we saw last season, the groups can yet throw up a touch of spice.
Group A: Chelsea (ENG), Paris Saint-Germain (FRA), Real Madrid (ESP), Vllaznia (ALB)
How they got here:
- Chelsea: automatically qualified for group stage as 2021-22 WSL champions
- PSG: defeated BK Hacken in Round 2 (League Path)
- Real Madrid: defeated Sturm Graz and Man City in Round 1, Rosenborg in Round 2 (League Path)
- Vllaznia: defeated Spartak Myjava in Round 1, Vorslka Poltava in Round 2 (Champions Path)
In group A, lowly Vllaznia will at least provide Chelsea, Paris-Saint Germain and Real Madrid a complicated trip to the northern city of Shkoder, though that might be of little comfort to the Albanian champions. The business end of the group will be about the other three teams as Real Madrid will likely pose a far greater question this season than last when they were also drawn into a group with PSG, although the French runners-up were far more settled a year ago.
PSG will also be clashing with a team they've met in the competition before in Chelsea, the English champions expected to progress but as we've seen with WSL sides -- including the Blues themselves who failed to navigate the group stage last season -- the big European nights can be too much for English teams. The first round of games will see Chelsea travel to Paris this week, which could be an early litmus test for both former finalists.
Group B: VfL Wolfsburg (GER), Slavia Prague (CZE), St. Pölten (AUT), Roma (ITA)
How they got here:
- VfL Wolfsburg: automatically qualified for group stage as 2021-22 Frauen Bundesliga champions
- Slavia Prague: defeated Valur in Round 2 (Champions Path)
- St. Polten: defeated Ljuboten and Dinamo-BGU Minsk in Round 1, KuPS in Round 2 (Champions Path)
- AS Roma: defeated Glasgow City and Paris FC in Round 1, Sparta Prague in Round 2 (League Path)
In group B, two-time European champions Wolfsburg are the team to set the pace against two group-stage debutantes, St. Pölten and Roma, as well as Slavia Prague, a team that's familiar with the latter stages of the competition -- since 2014-15, they've reached the knockout rounds seven times, making it to the quarterfinals on three of those occasions.
Each of the three non-German teams will feel they have a fair shot at progressing as group runners-up, meaning any dropped points against each other could be potentially fatal. With Roma hosting Slavia in the first round of games, the Serie A runners up will need to get over their nerves early if they are to have a fighting chance of seeing off the Czech champions.
Group C: Olympique Lyonnais (FRA), Arsenal (ENG), Juventus (ITA), FC Zürich (AUT)
How they got here:
- Lyon: automatically qualified for group stage as 2021-22 Division 1 Femenine champions, also defending WUCL champions
- Arsenal: defeated Ajax in Round 2 (League Path)
- Juventus: defeated Union FC and Kiryat Gat in Round 1, HB Koge in Round 2 (Champions Path)
- FC Zurich: defeated KI and Apollon Limassol in Round 1, SFK 2000 in Round 2 (Champions Path)
Home to eight-time Champions League winners, Lyon, group C could just be the most difficult group this season as it holds another of the tournament's four former winners in Arsenal, though the Gunners and Champions League itself are much changed since Arsenal lofted the title in 2007. Yet Arsenal are not a shoe-in to go through as they will be up against their former coach, Joe Montemurro, who took Juventus to an unexpected quarterfinal last season.
FC Zürich round out the quartet although like Vllaznia, they are unlikely to impact the group with the fireworks more likely to take place in Turin.
Group D: Barcelona (ESP), Bayern Munich (GER), Rosengard (NOR), Benfica (POR)
How they got here:
- Barcelona: automatically qualified for group stage as 2021-22 Primera Division champions
- Bayern Munich: defeated Real Sociedad in Round 2 (League Path)
- Rosengard: defeated SK Brann in Round 2 (Champions Path)
- Benfica: defeated EP-COM Hajvalia and Twente in Round 1, Rangers in Round 2 (Champions Path)
With the Swedish league fading when it comes to the best European leagues, Rosengard's experience and quality hasn't stopped them sinking to being the weakest team in the group, with the emergence of the Portuguese league and notably, Benfica. Having clashed with Bayern Munich in the group stage last season, the Bavarians aren't likely to take Benfica lightly this time around and although the Portuguese champions will have to pull off a shock to get through to the knock-outs, the group stage should serve as a good gauge as to where they are in the pecking order.
With Bayern still finding their feet under new coach, Alexander Straus, squaring off against Barcelona later in the group stage is a bonus for a team that have all the pieces to go far even if they end up playing second fiddle to the Catalans during this particular round.
With a group stage that will twist and turn through the cold winter nights and wrap up three days before Christmas, there are bound to be a few surprises along the way.
In Group A, I can see Real Madrid managing to squeeze through with Chelsea as the Blues should have the measure of PSG too and the French side have been on the rocks of late. Group B is a little more straightforward: Wolfsburg should make it through unscathed, but while there could be a slog for second place, I think Roma will nick it.
In Group C, I think Arsenal could be in trouble and might slip to third behind Lyon and Juventus, though the Italian champions have been a little bumpy as of late in league play. Although there could be some hard-fought matches, Group D should be quite cut and dry, with Barcelona and Bayern Munich going through in first and second respectively.