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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Champions League talking points: Can Real Madrid make it three in a row and have PSG spent enough to win the European Cup for a first time?

Ahead of Round 1 of this season's group stages, Ian Hawkey looks at some of the talking points of the 2017/18 Uefa Champions League

Real Madrid's players during a celebration after their victory against Juventus after the Uefa Champions League final in June. Curto De La Torre / AFP
Real Madrid's players during a celebration after their victory against Juventus after the Uefa Champions League final in June. Curto De La Torre / AFP

Can Real Madrid make it three in a row?

Real Madrid cracked a stubborn opponent in June when they became the first club to win successive finals in the quarter of a century since the European Cup became the Uefa Champions League. Follow up those triumphs with another, and they become the first back-to-back-to-back champions of the continent since Bayern Munich in 1976.

A hat-trick to come? Why not? With the emergence of young talents such as Marco Asensio, and the maturing of the likes of Mateo Kovacic, Zinedine Zidane’s squad has an enviable depth and a manager sensitive to how to rotate key players like Cristiano Ronaldo over a long, demanding season.

Mind you, he probably doesn’t advise his senior players to pick up restful red-card suspensions quite as readily as Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo have already this term.

Brazilian forward Neymar, left, and French forward Kylian Mbappe, centre, joined an already expensively assembled front line at PSG this summer, including Edinson Cavani, right. Jean-Christophe Verhaegen / AFP
Brazilian forward Neymar, left, and French forward Kylian Mbappe, centre, joined an already expensively assembled front line at PSG this summer, including Edinson Cavani, right. Jean-Christophe Verhaegen / AFP

Have PSG spent their way through their glass ceiling?

Paris Saint-Germain knew Uefa, European football’s governing body, would open an investigation once they splashed out a whopping €220 million (Dh968m) to meet Neymar’s Barcelona buyout clause.

They knew the terms of that probe would broaden once they committed a further €180m on Kylian Mbappe, signed for a year on loan from Monaco in a deal that will make him a permanent employee next summer.

PSG will counter claims they have vastly exceeded the income-to-outgoings ratio proscribed by Uefa’s Financial Fair Play guidelines by pointing to the increased earnings these stars will bring in. From sponsors, yes. And, potentially, in increased prize-money for winning the European Cup.

Clearly, PSG are impatient to put their name on the Champions League trophy for the first time, and they have the strikers for it. A big early test awaits with Bayern Munich in their group, while Neymar, who has a history of confrontation with Celtic players, can expect to hear very loudly how much megabucks PSG are resented when their campaign kicks off in Glasgow.

Manchester United Romelu Lukaku striker is set to have his first taste of Uefa Champions League football this season. Carl Recine / Reuters
Manchester United Romelu Lukaku striker is set to have his first taste of Uefa Champions League football this season. Carl Recine / Reuters

Time for the self-styled ‘Best League in the World’ to show up

Ten seasons ago, the Premier League provided both finalists in the Champions League. There was an English club in every final for five years on the trot until 2010. And since? No Premier League presence in any of the past five finals.

It’s a startling shortcoming from a league watched globally more than other domestic competition, which spends more, collectively, on players and salaries than any other league in Europe and has concentrated at its leading clubs the game’s most feted managers.

High time, then, for the Premier League to match its swagger with some prestige silverware. It has the maximum five clubs in contention.

Manchester United, there via the Europa League, have a kind group and an expert in Jose Mourinho. Manchester City carry – quite rightly – big expectations – and Liverpool should join those two in the knockouts. Chelsea face tough early hurdles in Roma and Atletico Madrid, while Tottenham Hotspur have a very slender margin for error, with Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund on their autumn agenda.

Tottenham Hotspur will play their home matches at Wembley Stadium this season while White Hart Lane is redeveloped. Matthew Childs / Reuters
Tottenham Hotspur will play their home matches at Wembley Stadium this season while White Hart Lane is redeveloped. Matthew Childs / Reuters

New homes, new challenges

On the subject of Spurs, they have, notoriously, an issue with Wembley, where they will play all their "home" games. It was their home for European matches last season and not a happy one, lacking the intense atmosphere and tight pitch of their much-loved White Hart Lane, a site now being redeveloped. The fear is that foreign clubs, are stimulated by trips to the so-called "Home of Football" and up their game.

Atletico Madrid, protectors of a fine home record at their old, raucous Vicente Calderon arena – just one defeat in their past 23 home games in Europe – have also moved, and it remains to be seen if Atletico, Champions League finalists twice in the past three years, can make the modern, airy Metropolitano as intimidating to guests.

As for Shakhtar Donetsk, they embark because of Ukraine’s political situation, on another campaign displaced, with "home" games in faraway Kharkiv. Shakhtar can clutch at a dream, though, of something resembling home advantage should they make an unlikely journey all the way to the final. It will be staged in Kiev, capital of Ukraine.

Fans of Azerbaijan club Qarabag will see their team play Uefa Champions League football for the first time. Alberto Lingria / Reuters
Fans of Azerbaijan club Qarabag will see their team play Uefa Champions League football for the first time. Alberto Lingria / Reuters

Beware the rise of the East

There’s a pair of newcomers on the Champions League schedule. Azerbaijan has never had a club in the group stage. Qarabag will hope the long trip to Baku feels helpfully alienating to the likes of the Chelsea, Roma and Atletico.

Meanwhile, the nation known until 1990 as East Germany has a flag-bearer. RB Leipzig, in Germany’s second tier until last year, then runners-up in the Bundesliga, bring momentum, some high-class footballers, and the potential to spring surprises deep into the new year.

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