After a summer of eye-catching moves across Europe, the continent’s top clubs begin the long road to Champions League glory on Tuesday as fans return after a 2020-21 competition held largely behind closed doors.
A flurry of transfer activity, headlined by Lionel Messi ending his long association with Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo returning to Manchester United, guarantees plenty of fresh intrigue.
Premier League dominance?
Holders Chelsea bolstered their squad by re-signing striker Romelu Lukaku, prised away from cost-cutting Italian champions Inter Milan where he was voted Serie A player of the season last term.
That deal was indicative of Premier League clubs again exerting their financial power over the rest of Europe, topping £1 billion ($1.4 billion) in spending for the sixth straight summer despite a dip in revenues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Chelsea and last season’s runners-up Manchester City will be among the favourites to go all the way. 2019 winners Liverpool have also looked very strong in the Premier League and after an indifferent campaign in 2020-’21, the Reds could make a real push for European glory.
With Ronaldo in their ranks, United who last won the title in 2008 would also dare to dream big. Since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, only twice have United reached the last eight but Ronaldo would love to change that.
“We have a fantastic team, a young team, with a fantastic coach,” said Ronaldo, who scored twice Saturday against Newcastle on his return to United.
“I belong to Manchester. I arrived here at 18 and they treated me unbelievably. This is why I’ve come back. I’m so proud to be here and I want to win.”
Ronaldo is the Champions League’s record scorer with 134 goals, 14 clear of long-time rival Messi.
Their toughest competitors for the European crown could come closer to home and probably within their own city.
Guardiola’s City who had underachieved in the Champions League reached the final last season and after the loss in Porto will be desperate to end their wait for a first Champions League title.
Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea, who surprised everyone by winning the Champions League last season, are stronger not just thanks to additions made to the squad but also due to the experience that some of the youngsters in the team would have gained last year.
“The most important thing is not to look back but to keep the hunger because that feeling creates a hunger for more and more,” Tuchel said ahead of Chelsea’s Champions League opener against Zenit.
“It’s addictive. This game is about winning because winning changes your feeling, it changes your work atmosphere in the building and gives you natural confidence,” he added.
Tuchel has established himself as one of the best coaches in world football and with the Blues showing all the traits of a champion team in the Premier League so far, Chelsea will be a force to be reckoned with.
Can PSG break the jinx?
2020 finalists Paris Saint-Germain added Messi to their already ultra-talented squad with the express aim of getting their hands on the Champions League for the first time.
The Parisians have suffered a series of heartbreaking exits from Europe’s elite competition over the last decade and
Since making the Champions League in 2012-13 season, PSG have come close but haven’t quite made the crucial steps.
PSG in the Champions League
|2016–17||Round of 16|
|2017–18||Round of 16|
|2018–19||Round of 16|
PSG will hope signing arguably the best player in the world could help them break the jinx.
“I have said many times my dream is to win another Champions League and I think I’m in the ideal place to have that chance and to do it,” said Messi.
Rested at the weekend after a long trip back from a World Cup qualifier in Bolivia, Messi could finally make his first start for PSG against Club Brugge.
The Belgian champions will be viewed as makeweights in a group that features City, PSG and RB Leipzig, surprise semi-finalists in 2020 and runners-up to Bayern in last season’s Bundesliga.
City eliminated PSG in the semi-finals last May, while Leipzig were already in a group with the French giants last season, the two sides qualifying for the last 16 ahead of Manchester United.
Bayern Munich start their Champions League campaign Tuesday with a mouth-watering clash at Barcelona as the Bavarian giants confidently head into Europe having plundered reinforcements from Bundesliga rivals RB Leipzig.
While Paris Saint-Germain snapped up stars like Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos and Manchester United finally signed Jadon Sancho, Bundesliga champions Bayern raided last season’s German runners-up RB Leipzig for talent.
Bayern head into Europe buoyed by results, with 10 points from their first four league games, and confident in their current squad despite no big-name signing this summer.
“We are very, very well positioned - we have possibilities and options. We are definitely competitive,” Bayern CEO Oliver Kahn insisted last week.
Will the old powerhouses rise again?
After winning the Champions League three years in a row, Real Madrid have gone three years without getting close, the task now belonging to Carlo Ancelotti to put the club back where they believe they belong.
With the spine of that successful team now departed, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane all gone. Zinedine Zidane, the coach, left too at the end of last season.
His replacement, Ancelotti faces a formidable task of regaining Champions League glory as rival clubs across Europe have spent far more than the 13-time European champions.
Madrid, meanwhile, made a profit of around 20 million euros, deals for Eduardo Camavinga and David Alaba more than offset by the sales of Varane and Martin Odegaard.
The odds are stacked against Ancelotti, as the base of power - in terms of wealth, talent and tactics - shifts decisively away from Spain, in the direction of Manchester and Paris.
Massimiliano Allegri is the man who has taken Juventus closest to their dream of Champions League glory in recent years, but he begins this season’s European campaign in the midst of a dreadful start which has put their domestic credentials under the spotlight.
Never a coach short of confidence, Allegri said “life goes on” as he played down the exit of Ronaldo who couldn’t deliver the elusive Champions League title for The Old Lady.
Without him and a squad in bit of trouble, Juventus have an even harder task of ending their long wait for the European crown.
“You can’t compare the situation today to when we were last here,” said Allegri on Monday.
“We need to win in order to give ourselves the right base from which to tackle the group as best as possible,” he added.
Seven-time champions AC Milan make their long-awaited return to the Champions League this week on Wednesday and they will get a taste of the elite competition as they face Liverpool at Anfield.
Milan are in confident mood after a fast start to the new Serie A season which has earned them a perfect nine points from their opening three matches.
Stefano Pioli, who has never won a major honour as a coach, has a promising team on his hands with the progress made since his arrival in 2019 crystalised by Sunday’s 2-0 stroll against much-fancied Lazio at the San Siro.
However, Milan will find it hard to replicate that success in the Champions League as they were beaten by Manchester United in the Europa League Round of 16 last season.
Barcelona, the team to beat for a good part of last decade appear a pale shadow of their former self. Under Ronaldo Koeman, some Barcelona youngsters have shown promise but the void left by Messi is too big for them to fill.
With departure of Antoine Griezmann to Atletico Madrid, Barcelona will pin hopes on new signings Memphis Depay and Sergio Aguero, the latter who is yet to be fit this season.
“Despite losing the world’s best player in Leo Messi, players being out with injuries, or the financial issues, you simply have to get on with it,” Koeman told Spanish media.
“I turn it into a challenge, which motivates me even more.”
The other storylines
The last team to lift the European Cup that did not play in England, Germany, Spain or Italy was Jose Mourinho’s Porto in 2004.
The Portuguese side have their work cut out to advance from a brutal section including Spanish champions Atletico Madrid, Liverpool and Milan – back in the competition for the first time since 2013/14 after coming second in Serie A last season.
Other famous names among the 32 hopefuls are Ajax and Benfica, while Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova are the only debutants.
Their reward for making it through four qualifying ties, where they knocked out Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb, is a group with Real Madrid and Inter.
Erling Haaland’s Borussia Dortmund will fancy their chances in Group C, where Portuguese champions Sporting, Ajax and Besiktas await.
(With AFP inputs)
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