So here we go again. One-hundred and thirty-six games across the continent to be played over the next eight months, all in an attempt to find out which two of Barcelona, Juventus, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain will contest the final in late May.
In reality, though, it does feel a bit less predictable this year. Ronaldo’s move to Turin will be a leveller on this grand stage of the European elite. Just as the core of the Juventus squad seemed to be coming to the end of their lifespan as a team, the Portuguese superstar’s transfer across the Mediterranean could give ‘The Old Lady’ one more shot at their first European Cup in twenty-two years. It goes without saying that the departure of Cristiano will have the inverse effect at the Bernabeu. No longer will they have their talisman to turn to when their backs are firmly up against the wall, as has so often been the case in recent years.
I’m still convinced that Man City are never going to win the Champions League. Bookies have them as favourites. Why? I’ll never know. Like I said a few weeks ago, they just don’t get it. There’s so much more to football than just who has the best players, something that bookmakers and many casual supporters just don’t seem to understand. City’s fans boo the anthem, they couldn’t even fill up their ground on their own for the quarter-final versus Liverpool last year and they treated what should’ve been the biggest game in their history as ‘just another semi-final’ against the Galacticos in 2016. I genuinely think they’re more arsed about some of our lads throwing a few cans at their bus last season than they were about us actually knocking them out 5-1. No one is going to be intimidated by an atmosphere going into the Etihad, not least because it’s real title is the City of Manchester Stadium. Step one, get your ground a proper name, lads.
At times, it’s as if the only thing they’re really in it for is the chance to beat Manchester United. I mean you can’t blame them, it is good fun. Some would say euphoric, if not orgasmic.
Barcelona are second-favourites. They’ve weirdly slipped into a slight bit of obscurity on the European stage recently. Four quarter-final exits in the last five years despite winning multiple league titles suggests a fading of that once-burning desire to conquer the continent that existed under Guardiola. Somewhat forgivable and explainable given that the core of the squad is the definition of ‘been there, done that,’ both on the international and domestic stage. The conclusion of Iniesta and Xavi’s time at the club may help usher in the feeling of a new era at the Camp Nou, and bring back that hunger for a sixth European Cup. However, seven of Barca’s starting eleven vs SD Huesca earlier on this month started the last time they lifted Ol’ Big Ears in 2015, showing that it might be another few years before Ernesto Valverde’s side challenge for the biggest honour of them all. One man, who is yet to win a European Cup is Philippe Coutinho. He’ll need a big campaign if the Catalans are to reach the final next June.
The two Madrid clubs are funny ones. Real will inevitably, while annoyingly, find themselves in a semi-final one way or another. I’m fairly sure they’re cheating, to be honest. Eight of their starting eleven from the weekend played when they won ‘La Decima’ in 13/14 and Karim Benzema is somehow still only thirty-years-old. It’s as if they cloned all their players four years ago when they were at the peak of their careers, before cryogenically freezing their body double just to roll them out every year for the Champions League knockout stages. It’s going to be mad in 2025 when they’re still playing a midfield of Kroos, Modric and Isco.
Atletico’s squad looks a bit bare, even with the additions of Diego Costa and Thomas Lemar. They’ve already dropped points to Celta Vigo, Valencia and Eibar in La Liga, with their sole win coming at home to Rayo Vallecano. Then again, Simeone could inspire eleven Burkina Faso cocoa bean farmers to a Champions League final off just heart, grit and gamesmanship alone if he had to. The only other thing I’ll say about Atletico is that they have a great set of aways in their group. Dortmund, Brugge and Monaco. I really like the idea of a load of newly-wed men from Madrid having to convince their wives to let them go on all three.
One thing to be admired about both the Madrid outfits is the amount of Spanish/Latin Americans they have in their respective sides. It makes a nice change in this day and age, where Real, in particular, can often be seen as a mega-corporation that only exists to make money and sell shirts. Also, it shows how, in reality, that this ‘mega-corporation’ is PSG. The lads have about two French players. And one of them is my age. Although while I have 35 followers on the old Twitter, he has 1.98 Million. Still, absolute frauds them Parisians.
I always get a bit worried about Mourinho sides in the Champions League. It always seems that when the chips are down for him that he just targets a competition outside of the league and goes out and wins it, all in an effort to aid his endless PR campaign. He almost did it last season with the F.A. Cup. They are far, far, far from the best team in Europe. But if Mourinho can get them to a semi-final, he’ll find a way of dragging them over the line on pure Simeone-like needle. Topping the group will be huge for them. A Porto or a Lyon in the round-of-16, as opposed to one of the big guns, could be the biggest factor in United making most of my nights sleepless come April. Here’s hoping Ronaldo smashes eight past them at Old Trafford.
Spurs v Inter is maybe the most important tie of the first set of group stage fixtures. The extent to which it feels like it’s Barca and the winner of that game going through is unreal. May as well just stop playing after tonight. A semi-final wouldn’t be out of the question for Tottenham. In the opposite way to Barcelona, they’ve got loads of lads who feel like they have to prove themselves on the world stage. Alderweireld, Kane, Eriksen and Son have never really had their moment when all the planet have been watching them. They’ve also won very little in their respective careers. It’s easy to forget how close they were to beating Juventus last season. But y’know, it’s Tottenham. So a round-of-16 defeat to Bayern sounds about right.
Unfinished business ??⚽️@ChampionsLeague #AllezAllezAllez #enjoyed95percentofitlastyear pic.twitter.com/8AgGp54B2C
— James Milner (@JamesMilner) September 17, 2018
And finally the Reds. If Liverpool play their cards right, they’ll go very, very close to winning one of either the Premier League or the Champions League this season. While Gary Neville’s comments last week on the possible advantages of Liverpool tanking in Europe received widespread criticism from supporters of Klopp’s side, I can see where he’s coming from. Although I wouldn’t be recalling all the kids we sent up to Gerrard at Rangers and giving them a game against PSG tonight, Liverpool’s almost three-decade-long wait for a league title means that there will be a decision on priorities to be made at some stage down the road. As with so many teams, many of Liverpool’s hopes this season will rely on injuries being few and far between. If bodies become fatigued and points begin to be dropped, Liverpool can’t fall between two stools. I’m fine with us falling in between two stools every season for the next ten years, provided we win something first.
However, it’s hard to see how a team beats Liverpool over two legs. There’s every chance they can make it to a final again if their title challenge fades.
None of this will matter though when Red Star smash everyone in their path. The absolute dons of Eastern Europe, they are.
All the best.