The world’s premier club competition returns this week with the Champions League back with a bang with a full slate of games featuring the very best 32 teams Europe has to offer.
Liverpool begin the defence of their crown against Napoli, with a potential final in Istanbul sure to get the romantics and nostalgics excited. But will Jurgen Klopp’s side be able to best Barcelona and Manchester City, two excellent sides who will this year seemingly covet this competition more than any other.
The Champions League is an increasingly open competition and this year’s edition may well be shaped by the marksmen each side possesses. It is a fine time for striking, and it could be a hotly contested battle for top scorer bragging rights.
Last year was the year of Ajax, a year that saw Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek rise, but also, perhaps, of Lyon’s plucky young outsiders. The Champions League offers a great platform for young players and newly-constructed teams – who could emerge as this year’s breakout stars and surprise packages?
The Independent‘s team of football writers have answered all of these intriguing queries and questions below:
Miguel Delaney: Barcelona. They’ve had the worst possible eliminations the last two years, when they’ve arguably been the best team. They still have by far the best player, in Leo Messi, and I think that will eventually tell as it all comes together.
Jonathan Liew: “The Champions League: that’s your goal now,” Vincent Kompany told his Manchester City team-mates on leaving the club over the summer. And with the caveat that this is a cup competition and therefore liable to extremely strange occurrences, City remain the best bet, by virtue of being the best and most complete team.
Mark Critchley: Manchester City. The best team in Europe over the last two years, if far from the best in European competition. Pep Guardiola will publicly play down any suggestion that the Champions League is the be-all and end-all for City, but don’t listen. He knows he needs to win it.
Ben Burrows: Barcelona. I can’t imagine Lionel Messi not winning at least one more before he’s done and with Frenkie De Jong and Antoine Griezmann now on board let’s say he gets it this year.
Jack Rathborn: Juventus. Cristiano Ronaldo appears as relentless as ever and despite a summer of upheaval and failing to find the right combination yet, all the pieces are there and Maurizio Sarri’s European success last year shows he’ll do what’s required to capitalise once they arrive in the final stages.
Harry Latham-Coyle: Barcelona. The additions of Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong can push Barcelona on to another level and Lionel Messi’s furious pursuit of another Champions League will finally bear fruit.
Luke Bosher: Manchester City. City should coast through their group and Laporte’s return should coincide with the knockout rounds. Their attacking squad depth beats out everyone else.
MD: Leo Messi – this kind of depends on who goes furthest, and well...
JL: Mohamed Salah. The knockout stages are where you make your name, but the group stages are where you fill your boots, and Salah could well get enough goals in four games against Salzburg and Genk to end this contest by Christmas.
MC: Lionel Messi. Double figures is usually enough. Ronaldo’s waned a little at club level this calendar year, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero will be prone to rotation in the group stages, while Liverpool’s attack share the goals around. Messi’s yet to play for Barcelona due to injury but it is still hard to look past him.
BB: Lionel Messi. If I believe Barca are finally going to get over the hump then it’s a fair bet the little genius will have plenty to do with it.
JR: Raheem Sterling – he’s added a lethal aspect to his game now and City have an enticing group.
HLC: Sergio Aguero. Manchester City are in a weak group, with Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb and Atalanta all eminently beatable, and, more pertinently, extremely capable of shipping a few goals. Aguero will profit.
LB: Robert Lewandowski. He loves goals and has a relatively easy group. Lewandowski could score six or seven against Olympiacos and Red Star Belgrade alone.
MD: Carel Eiting – everybody will again be looking to see what Ajax’s produce, and they may have already produced Frenkie De Jong’s successor in midfield.
JL: Joao Felix. One of those players who’s actually good enough to justify the hype.
MC: Erling Braut Haland. Son of Alf-Inge, you may remember him scoring nine goals in one game at the Under-20 World Cup in May. He has 14 in eight for RB Salzburg, who are the dark horses in Liverpool’s group.
BB: Ansu Fati. He’s already exploded on to the scene domestically but there’s no reason to believe he can’t impress equally on the European stage.
JR: Stefano Sensi – Perhaps Italy’s next great midfielder capable of running a game, will be fundamental to Inter’s hopes of escaping a tough group.
HLC: Lisandro Martinez. Ajax fans are (quite rightly) rather excited about their versatile young Argentine, who has the skillset to replace either Frenkie de Jong or Matthijs de Ligt and replicate their break through campaigns from last season.
LB: Fabian Ruiz. Fabian was outstanding at the U21 Euros and won player of the tournament. The creative Spaniard has bags of talent and should help Napoli to progress through their group.
Furthest English club
MD: Manchester City. They should really win it this season, and they will get close.
JL: Manchester City.
MC: Manchester City, by dent of winning it. Liverpool’s focus is on the league but they will reach at least the quarter-finals, as will Tottenham. Chelsea to fall in the last-16.
BB: Manchester City. Pep Guardiola is desperate to crown his legacy in England with another European crown and his focus on the competition this year should see them the last ones standing.
JR: Manchester City.
HLC: Manchester City.
LB: Manchester City.
MD: Atalanta – play the sort of inventive football that will see Pep Guardiola talk them up before their meeting, and it could see them rip a few teams up.
JL: I’m going to go for plucky minnows Bayern Munich. A lot of big names out of the door over the summer, but paradoxically this feels like a tighter, more balanced squad as a result, full of players with a point to prove.
MC: RB Leipzig. Currently leading the Bundesliga under new manager Julian Nagelsmann and find themselves in the evenly-balanced Group G. Could easily take top spot and get a favourable knockout tie, though an Ajax-like run may be a stretch.
BB: Inter Milan. They’ve been dormant for too long but with a motivated Antonio Conte and a fit and firing Romelu Lukaku in tandem one of Europe’s sleeping giants should give Barca and Dortmund a run for their money in Group F. If they can get into the last 16, watch out.
JR: Atalanta – Retained the core of last season’s squad, one of Italy’s most entertaining sides can defy logic again to win the battle to join Man City in the last 16.
HLC: Borussia Dortmund or RB Leipzig, with the former to go deeper than most expect and the latter to tear Group G apart with venom and verve under extremely exciting new manager Julian Nagelsmann.
LB: Inter Milan. Antonio Conte is a fantastic manager and Inter signed very well in the summer. They have a tough group but I think they could surprise a few.
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