It’s the most exciting time of the year. It’s the start of the footballing season, and the elite competition of club football. The theme music plays, sending shivers down your spine and giving you goosebumps. It’s the UEFA Champions League! 32 teams – most of which aren’t actually domestic champions – will face off for the most coveted of rewards; the sweet, sweet prize money (I hear there’s a trophy for the winners, too). But what can we expect this year?
Could Madrid miss Ronaldo’s experience at the most vital moment?
The winners of the last three Champions League competitions are inevitably the first team to consider. Zidane’s Real Madrid team have made history over the last few years, firstly by winning it consecutively and then winning three times in a row. Zidane’s resignation and Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure have set a timer for the end of this era. Julen Lopetegui was hired to begin reconstruction, and thus far has weathered the storm despite an unimpressive CV. Bale has taken the unenviable task of replacing Ronaldo with gusto, as the front three of Asensio, Benzema and Bale interchange constantly to wreak havoc and give Madrid a fluidity that some felt they’d lacked recently. But could Madrid miss Ronaldo’s experience at the most vital moment? And will Real Madrid finally lose their hunger?
On the other side of Spain, Barcelona are in the opposite situation, where their domestic dominance has come at the cost of faltering European campaigns. As the last remnants of Barcelona’s iconic team of this decade (Messi, Pique, Busquets) are inching towards retirement, they’ll be motivated to put at least one more mark on the trophy. But the club isn’t reliant on the talents of old, having brought in Coutinho, Vidal and the Xavi-like Arthur to improve their midfield, as well as having young stars like Dembele and Umtiti for support. Such talent makes them one of the favourites, but Valverde’s more defensive approach sets up an interesting scenario; on the one hand it could be the perfect counterweight to balance their attacking prowess, but could it lead to their downfall just like in Rome last year?
Jurgen Klopp has built on his finalists’ side and they look more impressive
As the continent has been swept by Guardiola fever during the last decade, one club that has stood tall against this tide is Juventus. With the likes of Barzagli, Chiellini, and Bonucci, the club were proud defenders of an Italian tradition of low defensive blocks and devastating counterattacking. But their attacking talent of Pjanic, Costa, Dybala and now Ronaldo makes them more than this stereotype. Investing in Ronaldo and Bonucci is a serious statement of intent to win now, motivated by their near misses under Allegri.
In this competition 10 years ago when both finalists were English, I doubt anyone would have predicted the wilting fortunes of England in Europe. Are there any teams that can bring the trophy to England for the first time in 7 years? Manchester City have one of the most balanced squads in Europe, and the manager of the decade in Pep Guardiola. A blemish on his career has been the failure to win the Champions League outside Barcelona, sometimes due to tactical mistakes and other times due to the quality of the opposition, which has been highlighted as much as his domestic success. But the club have a richer talent pool than last year, as Bernardo Silva and Laporte have improved and Pep has Mahrez and Mendy at his disposal. Perhaps the newfound flexibility will be the edge Pep needs for European conquest? Alternatively, Pep’s kryptonite Jurgen Klopp has built on his finalists’ side and they look more impressive. However, as they challenge for the Premier League, one must question whether they have the depth to sustain a title charge in England and Europe. What happens if Van Dijk gets injured, or if Liverpool are missing two of their front three in a key game? Klopp’s European medal collection is all silver and Liverpool aren’t the established European powerhouse they have been in the past.
PSG are an intriguing proposition – the new sugar daddy superpower that’s still experiencing the growing pains of its adolescence in the elite of Europe. With the Ligue 1 title being an expectation, the club have so far buckled under the pressure of performing in Europe, most famously blowing a 4-0 lead against Barcelona two years ago. Poetically, the burgeoning elite club has turned to a burgeoning elite manager in Thomas Tuchel. Despite only winning one trophy, his scintillating style and innovative tactical approaches have made him one of Europe’s most renowned managerial prodigies. But a disappointing transfer window, combined with the transition period to Tuchel’s style, means the club may have to wait a bit longer for European spoils.