It’s six months until Britain leaves the European Union, but thankfully the word Europe will have two meanings as the Champions League’s return provides us with a welcome distraction from matters of politicking.
It is said that the Germans and French dominate the European Union, but the Spanish have dominated the Champions League with Real Madrid taking the last three titles, and they now stand on the verge of emulating their great team of the 1950’s that won five Champions Leagues in a row and marked themselves in history as one of the sport’s greats.
Nobody would rule out another Triumph for Los Blancos, but all good things come to an end and this might be the end of their amazing winning streak. This competition has been dominated by an ever-smaller cadre of top teams in recent years, but the margins are not any less tight and this is Madrid’s dirt season without Christian Ronaldo, or perhaps more importantly, Zinedine Zidane.
His departure at the end of last season was a tad expected (although its always better to go out on top, as they say) and his replacement with Julen Lopetegui was predictably chaotic – two days before Spain’s first World Cup group match against Portugal when Rubiales found out he had agreed to succeed Zinedine Zidane as Madrid boss after the tournament, despite having signed a new contract less than a month earlier.
Lopetegui has made a good start to life with Real but he is filling huge shoes and Madrid’s encounters with Juventus (famous for the last-minute penalty that ended the tie at the Bernabeu) and Bayern Munich (when a horrendous mistake from Bayern goalkeeper Sven Ulreich cost Bayern victory in the second leg) prove that there’s precious little between many of the top teams.
They are a bigger price for having lost Zidane and Ronaldo especially, but the most profitable method of supporting them could be on a game-by-game basis, or in goalscorer markets, given that Ronaldo’s 15 goals from last season will be aptly replaced by Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, both of whom are very eye-catching contenders for the golden boot.
The record shows that Madrid beat Liverpool 3-1 in Kiev last season, but the two goals which decided the final were two big mistakes from Loris Karius and the game had generally been a more even contest than the pre-match, or ante-post odds, had suggested – not forgetting Sergio Ramos’ taken down of Mohamed Salah.
Liverpool now return to Europe a stronger side, with Karius replaced by Alisson in goal whilst Naby Keita has already made a strong start in midfield, proving more protection to a defence that, whilst being Liverpool’s weak line upon occasion, is much stronger than it was at this time last year. Fabinho is still yet to be put into Jurgen Klopp’s side but will provide more ballast and energy from the midfield too alongside James Milner, who has started brilliantly, and the very versatile Gini Wijnaldum.
This means that the incredible front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah, who scored 30 goals between them in last season’s competition, have more support than they did last year and whilst Firmino sustained an eye injury on Saturday, the effects are not said to be lasting.
Liverpool have won all five of their games so far in the Premier League this season, including a 2-1 win at Wembley over Tottenham when the score should have been far more flattering. A serious Premier League challenge is coming from Liverpool this season but with the depth they have, they’ll be able to launch a challenge on two fronts if they can navigate a group of death with PSG and Napoli.
It will be a challenge for them to do so, but their record against England’s elite opposition – they beat Manchester City twice last spring and have already beaten Tottenham in this – gives assurance that they can go head to head against the best and it would be no surprise if they could once again reach the final.
Having conquered the Premier League – and done so with an incredible 100-point tally was earned by scoring the most goals (106) conceding the fewest (27) and winning the most games (32) in Premier League history – the focus now turns to Europe, with Pep Guardiola’s men having kept their side virtually untouched for their assault in the Champions League. There’s very little not to like about their chances this season, and they make a lot more appeal than neighbours Manchester United, who have recovered form after a dodgy start to the season but who were exposed in a 3-0 loss against Spurs two weeks ago.
Jose Mourinho’s position looks more secure after good wins on the road at Burnley and previously unbeaten Watford, but they look very similar to the side deservedly nocked out by Valencia last season in the Last 16.
Tottenham made a blistering start to last season, dominating a group with eventual winners Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, but they let a fine position slip against Juventus in the Last 16 and the gap between them and Europe’s best can only have grown with no new additions. They will prove to be difficulty opponents for Barcelona, but they might have stood still and there were 23 points between them and Manchester City last season.
Barcelona have had to watch Real lift the trophy in three straight seasons, but Ernesto Valverde’s side have made some small but extremely significant changes that give them the look of a side that should be challenging for the title this season.
Lionel Messi appears to have taken his World Cup disappointment with a vengeance, scoring four goals and assisting twice as Barcelona have gone unbeaten in La Liga. He looks as good as he’s ever been whilst Ousmane Dembele is on the same number of goals. The Frenchman’s fitness gives Barcelona a crucial attacking threat whilst Luis Suarez has shaken off a poor World Cup with three goals (and a double on international duty), giving Barcelona their own fearsome front three.
In midfield, Philippe Coutinho is now fully settled in after his move from Liverpool and he’s looking lethal on this season’s early evidence whilst Ter Stergen has become a playmaker and goalkeeper whose shots having earned them three points against Sociedad.
Messi’s super form has seen their price cut and they look better prepared to avoid another collapse of the sort that befell them at Roma in the quarter-finals last season, with a big challenge sure to come from the Camp Nou.
Juventus looked sure to be eliminated when they were beaten 3-0 by Real Madrid in the first leg of last season’s quarter-finals but their response at the Bernabeu – to go 3-0 up in 60 minutes – was sensational and who knows what would have happened had Mehdi Benatia not brought down Lucas Vazquez in the box before Ronaldo’s penalty.
The Bianconeri reached two finals in three seasons, losing out only to Barcelona and Real on both occasions, and in that time, they have full conquered Italy, taking their seventh Scudetto in a row with a hard fought victory over Napoli last season.
The core of the same team that has won those seven titles is now joined by Christian Ronaldo, a signing that gives as much status power as it does attack power to a side that has always packed plenty of firepower.
Ronaldo has taken a while to get off the mark but his double against Saussolo was very welcome and the man who has topped the Champions Leauge charts for the last six years comes alive when needed. His presence should also occupy defences enough to allow precious space for Douglas Costa and Paulo Dybala, whilst Mario Mandzukic is a tremendous physical presence at close range.
Mehdi Benatia and Leonardo Bouncci are two of the finest centrebacks on the continent and with and there’s ballast in the midfield thanks to Emre Can, Bentancur, and Blaise Matuidi and Juventus have been knocking on the door for as long as Madrid had when they won La Decima.
Paris St-Germain’s three-pronged attack of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and teenage World Cup superstar Kylian Mbappe can take down any defence but the rest of the side isn’t as convincing, which has been their downfall in the past against elite opposition and there is a danger that could be the case once again.
Bayern Munich were arguably unlucky not to take Real to extra time and they will fancy their chances of going deep into the competition once again but it’s possible some of their key players are just slightly past their peak now and their German cadre’s poor World Cup is a worrying sign ahead of this season. It’s no surprise that Jupp Heynckes managed to get the best out of them last season when he took over from Thomas Tuchel and Niko Kovac might struggle in the same fashion.
Robert Lewandowski remains lethal upfront and despite their midfield strength, could prove to but the difference, but it must be asked if several key players have not seen their very best days and Niko Kovac has a big challenge coming up in the knockouts.
Atletico Madrid have come extremely close to landing this trophy twice, beaten by city rivals Real, and Diego Simeone’s men will be tremendously difficult opposition in the latter stages. Diego Simeone has had a fine transfer window, managing to bring in the extremely progressive Rodri and Thomas Lemar from Monaco to bolster their attacking options.
They are favourites to get through a tricky group with Monaco and Borussia Dortmund as key rivals, although they will need to find more attacking fluency – they have just four points in four La Liga games – if they are to avoid last season’s fate when Chelsea and Roma eliminated them and they might be a bet through the second half of the season.
Napoli have a European master in Carlo Ancelotti and lots of firepower in the shape of Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens and Arkadiusz Milik, but they have never gotten any further than the last 16 in their last five appearances and it will be a mammoth task for them to get results out of either PSG or Liverpool.
Roma made the semi-finals last year but have lost Radja Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman and world-class goalkeeper Alisson Becker in the transfer market whilst Inter have not hit the ground running in the same manner as last season and are vulnerable to elimination from Tottenham and Barcelona.
Porto have a wonderful Group with just Galatasaray, Lokomotiv Moscow and Schalke 04 between them and the last 16 but from then on the gap is enormous between them and the top on all evidence and it’s hard to imagine anyone else being involved in the shakeup.
2 pts Barcelona (13/2 Betfair, 6/1 general)
1 pt each/way Juventus (8/1 Black Type, 7/1 general)
1.5 pts each/way Liverpool (12/1 general)