The Champions League main tournament returns on Tuesday, 115 days after Gareth Bale’s double for Real Madrid helped them beat Liverpool in the 2017-18 final. The anthem, the global superstars, the evening football to base your working week around.
It starts with a bang, with several big matches in this week’s opening round. Here are the ones we’re most excited about watching. Two of European football’s great entertainers – and potential champions -meet, with arguably the best attacking players in world football.
Since the break-up of Real Madrid’s ‘BBC’ – Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo – and Barcelona’s ‘MSN’ – Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, the debate for the top Strikeforce is wide open. Neymar left Barcelona for PSG in the summer of 2017 for a world record £200m, joining £165.7m Kylian Mbappe and the club’s all-time top scorer Edinson Cavani in a fearsome front three.
But Liverpool’s is equally impressive, with Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah each scoring 10 Champions League goals last season – three of only four players to hit double figures in the tournament. “They are the two best front threes in world football right now,” said French football journalist Julien Laurens on the BBC Euro Leagues podcast.
And then there are the managers.
Paris St-Germain boss Thomas Tuchel’s two previous managerial roles have been identical to Reds boss Jurgen Klopp’s. He took over at Mainz in 2009, a year after Klopp resigned. And when Klopp left Dortmund in 2015, Tuchel was the man to replace him again. However, he slightly broke tradition this summer when he became PSG manager – a team Klopp has never worked for.
“There are so many narratives,” said Laurens. “Klopp against Tuchel – Tuchel facing his mentor really. I don’t think there’s anyone who knows Klopp as well as Tuchel. I don’t think anyone knows Tuchel as well as Klopp either. It’ll be fascinating to see how they set up tactically and play the game. The atmosphere will be amazing. I can’t wait for it.”
Laurens already knows how this years final will go. “This is PSG’s year,” he said. “This is Kylian Mbappe’s year, Neymar’s year and Gianluigi Buffon’s year.
“They will win the Champions League in Madrid against Juventus in the final, with Buffon winning his first and last – because I can see him retiring on that peak of his career, winning the only trophy he hasn’t won.
“Juventus couldn’t win it with him and yet they’ll beat them in the final. There’s no debate – this is what’s going to happen.”
A game which guarantees goals
Inter Milan v Tottenham Hotspur (Tuesday, 18 September 17:55 BST)
We all have the same first thought when we hear this game mentioned, right? Arguably the most famous hat-trick on a losing side ever, when Gareth Bale scored three as Spurs lost 4-3 at the San Siro in 2010. But another notable thing from previous meetings is how high-scoring they have all been. Their four meetings, all in the past decade, have produced 19 goals – and all been won by the home team.
Two weeks after that thrilling defeat in the Champions League group stages, Spurs beat Inter 3-1 at White Hart Lane. In 2013, they met in the Europa League last 16, with Spurs going through on away goals in extra time after a 3-0 win at home and a 4-1 reverse in Milan.
The pair have two of European football’s top goalscorers. Inter Milan striker Mauro Icardi – with 29 league strikes – was the joint top scorer in Serie A last season, as well as 2014-15.
Kane – who scored 30 league goals – was only denied a third consecutive Premier League golden boot by Salah. In the past four seasons, Icardi has scored an impressive 98 goals, but that is in the shadow of Kane’s 135 strikes.
Argentina international Icardi will be making his Champions League debut at the age of 25 – because he only joined in 2013 and Inter have not been in Europe’s top competition since 2011-12.
They qualified for the tournament after beating Lazio on the final day to overtake them into the fourth spot. Since then they have signed Belgian midfielder Radja Nainggolan from Roma, Netherlands centre-back Stefan de Vrij – who conceded a penalty in that game – from Lazio and Senegalese winger Keita Balde from Monaco.
Tottenham are the only team in their group to have not won the European Cup – with Barcelona having won five, Inter winning three times and PSV Eindhoven lifting the trophy in 1988.
Monaco v Atletico Madrid (Tuesday, 18 September 20:00 BST)
Atletico Madrid are looking to bounce back from last season’s disappointment and take on another team who have played in a Champions League final without ever lifting the trophy. Diego Simeone’s side were knocked out in last season’s group stages – below Chelsea and Roma. That ended a run of four years when their title dreams were crushed by city rivals Real Madrid – including in the 2014 and 2016 finals.
They are fancied to challenge this season because they have strengthened – with Thomas Lemar, Gelson Martins and Rodri joining – while Real Madrid and Barcelona lost key players without making any superstar replacements.
Beaten 2004 finalists Monaco have been stripped of many of their star players for the second summer running, with Fabinho joining Liverpool and France winger Lemar moving to opponents Atletico for an undisclosed fee which is thought to be more than £50m.
Last summer, Mbappe, Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva were among the players to exit the Stade Louis II. This is their first meeting in any competition. Euro Leagues podcast journalist Raphael Honigstein said: “This game has an amazing array of talent. They are always two teams who for different reasons are interesting to watch.
“Atletico are different from all top teams in European football. They’re so efficient and brutal at times in how they defend, but they can play as well – as we saw in the Uefa Super Cup when they destroyed a very poor Real Madrid.
“Monaco is always the place to go to see the next talent, to see who is coming through and will be sold for 70m euros in six months’ time. It will be an interesting game, but maybe not as free-flowing as PSG v Liverpool.”
A new era with Ronaldo
Valencia v Juventus (Wednesday, 19 September 20:00 BST)
A new era starts in the Champions League on Wednesday as the greatest goalscorer the competition has ever seen starts his bid to win a joint record sixth European Cup.
Ronaldo has scored 120 Champions League goals for Manchester United and Real Madrid, winning the competition with both. He has won the golden boot, or been joint top scorer, for the past six seasons. The Portuguese has won the cup five times, including the most recent three – one off Paco Gento’s record of six in the 1950s and 60s for Real.
But as he chases that record, he has left the competition’s most successful team for a club who have not conquered Europe since 1996.
Having got off the mark for his new side with both goals in a 2-1 Serie A win over Sassuolo on Sunday, he starts his European bid in the country he has just left – against a Valencia side who have not had the best start.
“Valencia haven’t started the season very well,” said Spanish journalist Guillem Balague on BBC Radio 5 live. “They had two draws against Atletico Madrid and Levante and lost to Espanyol with a dangerous lack of intensity, as if they were waiting for a bigger tie, perhaps the Champions League and Juventus and Manchester United.
“But it’s strange to see them play that way – Marcelino is an intense coach and they’ve got quality from the midfield onwards.”
Speaking about Juve, Balague added: “They’ve got Joao Cancelo and he was brilliant for Portugal against Italy, and Paulo Dybala at the moment is mostly on the bench. The manager is using Juan Cuadrado, Douglas Costa, Federico Bernardeschi and Mario Mandzukic – they have all those possibilities up front.
“This will be a crucial game if Valencia want to get out of this group.” This is their first competitive meeting, but five of Juventus’ past six defeats in the Champions League have been by Spanish teams – Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla.
Both Manchester clubs are kicking off at the same time on Wednesday (20:00 BST), with City at home to Lyon and United – who have won their past two Premier League games after losing two of their first three – at Swiss club Young Boys.
City are favourites to win the tournament this season, but Balague thinks that is “unfair pressure”. “They don’t have a big enough history in Europe to be considered ahead of many others,” he said.
“Unfair pressure? For 10 years they’ve spent how many hundreds of millions on the team trying to win the Champions League. I think they have a good chance,” countered Honigstein. “But I have a feeling Barcelona, who have had some strange games when they’ve been knocked out in the past few years, might have a big season.”
Barca, who have won three domestic doubles in the past four years but have lost in three consecutive Champions League quarter-finals, are at home to PSV Eindhoven.
Balague also fancies Barcelona to win the tournament for the first time since 2015. “Messi said he likes the squad – Arturo Vidal, Arthur, Clement Lenglet and Malcom have been added and it looks like they have the squad depth to win the Champions League,” he said.
They have won 24 of their past 26 home games in the Champions League, drawing the other two. Their last such defeat was in May 2013 against Bayern Munich, when they lost 3-0 in the semi-final second leg to exit 7-0 on aggregate.
Red Star Belgrade play their first Champions League group game since 1992 – the year after they beat Marseille on penalties in the final – when they welcome Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli to Serbia.
They will not be able to bring fans to their first two away games, including a trip to Liverpool, after being punished for a pitch invasion and fireworks in their win over RB Leipzig in the playoffs. Napoli is the eighth club managed by Ancelotti in the Champions League, a tournament record.
Real Madrid starts their first Champions League campaign without Ronaldo since 2008-09 as they host last season’s semi-finalists Roma.
Real also lost boss Zinedine Zidane in the summer after he led them to three consecutive Champions League titles. Under Julen Lopetegui, they are looking to become the first team to win four European Cups in a row since they won the first five tournaments between 1955-56 and 1959-60.
Bayern Munich visit Benfica – in a repeat of the 2015-16 quarter-final, which the German side won 3-2 on aggregate. Benfica – who have lost their last seven Champions League games – have never beaten Bayern Munich in eight meetings, losing five.
Source: BBC News