LONDON: The Champions League group stage starts on Tuesday with a match between traditional heavyweights Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but big-spending upstarts elsewhere are the title favourites this season after a summer of eye-catching transfers.
Paris St Germain bolstered their ranks with the arrivals of superstar Lionel Messi from Barcelona, former Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, Italy’s European Championship-winning goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, Netherlands midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, and wing backs Achraf Hakimi and Nuno Mendes the latter arguably the most exciting player in Portugal last season.
PSG, backed by Qatar Sports Investment since 2011, reached the Champions League semi-finals last season and the final the year before that, but have never won the title.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the clubs spectacular recruitment campaign comes with a view to winning Europe’s premier club competition before Qatar hosts the World Cup next year.
PSG begins their bid on Wednesday in Group ‘A’ at Club Brugge, where Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe could play together for the first time, a fearsome attacking lineup for the Belgian champions to contend with.
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 Brugge.
PSG rejected an offer of about $188 million from Real Madrid for Mbappe, despite knowing he can leave without a transfer fee when his contract expires next year.
Premier League clubs have been displaying a similar tendency toward recruitment. Last season’s Champions League finalists Chelsea and Manchester City spent club-record fees on marquee signings.
Attacking midfielder Jack Grealish joined City for $139 million, a record fee for a British player, and striker Romelu Lukaku moved back to Chelsea from Inter Milan for $135 million.
That strengthened already-deep squads at both clubs that helped them reach the final in Porto in May.
City host German club RB Leipzig in Group ‘A’ on Wednesday, a day after Chelsea welcome Zenit St. Petersburg in Group ‘H’ for their first game as defending champions.
Manchester United trumped their domestic rivals by signing England forward Jadon Sancho, France defender Raphael Varane and Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo from Juventus for a combined cost in transfer fees of more than $150 million.
Ronaldo’s first Champions League game for United since losing the 2009 final to Barcelona is at Swiss champions Young Boys on Tuesday in Group ‘F’.
Since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, only twice have United reached the last eight.
“We have a fantastic team, a young team, with a fantastic coach,” said Ronaldo, who scored twice on Saturday against Newcastle United on his return. “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.”
The big spenders have been bucking the recent trend across Europe, where the coronavirus pandemic has had an adverse effect on most clubs, including Juventus, who are struggling without Ronaldo before their visit to Malmo on Tuesday in Group ‘H’.
Six-time champions Bayern have a new coach, Julian Nagelsmann, but had a very quiet offseason, giving young home-nurtured players such as Jamal Musiala and Josip Stanisic a chance to establish themselves in the team.
Barca endured a difficult summer, with the pandemic and years of big spending playing a role in the exits of Messi and Antoine Griezmann. Ansu Fati inherited Messi’s No. 10 jersey, and Barca supporters are also hoping another 18-year-old, Pedri, can help usher in a new successful era after his brilliant performances for Spain at the European Championship.
The Group ‘E’ match at Camp Nou comes after Bayern trounced Barcelona 8-2 in their last meeting in the 2020 quarter-finals.
Inter Milan host 13-time champions Real Madrid in another intriguing opening-round game on Wednesday in Group ‘D’.
Although Mbappe did not move to Spain, Real coach Carlo Ancelotti has succeeded in reviving an attack that had shown signs of stagnation in the final months of Zinedine Zidane’s tenure. Vincius Junior has found his scoring touch to add to the speed that creates more space for Karim Benzema.
Another big match sees Liverpool and AC Milan, clubs with a combined 13 European Cups between them, square off at Anfield on Wednesday in Group ‘B’ in just their third competitive meeting — after the 2005 “Miracle of Istanbul” and Milan’s revenge in the 2007 final.
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, Inter and Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine.
Erling Haaland’s Borussia Dortmund will fancy their chances in Group ‘C’, where Portuguese champions Sporting, Ajax and Besiktas await.
Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2021