Giants of football set out on long road to glory

Giants of football set out on long road to glory
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is thrown in the air by his players after their Champions League final victory over Spurs last June. They are hoping to do it all over again this season. Picture: Laurence Griffiths/Getty

Six questions to ask as the Champions League kicks off...

Have Liverpool got what it takes to make it two in a row?

Since Liverpool won back-to-back European Cups in 1977 and 1978, and Nottingham Forest followed suit for the next two seasons, defending the title of European champions has got tougher and tougher.

Milan did it in 1989 and 1990, but no-one had succeeded in following suit in the Champions League era until Real Madrid won three in a row between 2016 and 2018.

That gives you a feeling for the size of the task facing Jurgen Klopp’s side, who, like Real, are aiming for three finals in a row having lost to the Spanish giants in the 2018 final and beaten Tottenham a year later.

There doesn’t look too much to fear in Group E, where Genk, Red Bull Salzburg, and Napoli are expected to battle for second place.

But Klopp knows the desperate search for Premier League success, and a first title since 1990, places unique emotional and physical pressures on his side which are not shared by any major rival.

Liverpool start with the most difficult task, a trip to Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli tonight, and victory could open up a very comfortable qualification for the knockout stages.

After that, Liverpool are capable of beating anyone on their day. But can they realistically balance top-of-the-table expectation at home whilst maintaining the same hunger in Europe? It’s a big ask.

Will Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City legacy be affected if he doesn’t win the Champions League?

Europe’s greatest competition may not inspire City fans in the same way as other clubs — their continued booing of the Champions League anthem confirms that.

But it means an awful lot to City’s owners in terms of making an impression putting down a marker in the global market — one that announces: ‘This club has truly arrived’.

European glory has been the goal from the start for Sheikh Mansour has been, and there’s little doubt that Guardiola, who won the trophy twice at Barcelona, was brought in specifically to achieve that ambition.

So, why has it proved so difficult to grasp?

Barcelona midfielder Sergi Busquets, who played under Guardiola, insists the City manager shouldn’t be judged only on whether his team lift the famous big-eared trophy.

“Pep is a great coach, but that is never enough on its own to win a tournament like the Champions League. You can have one bad game, like happened us last season, and you are out.

“But City has a great squad, good enough to reach the final, and for me, with Guardiola there, they are always one of the favourites.”

That will be comforting for City fans, and the draw, for a change, has been relatively kind. Group C includes Dinamo Zagreb, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Atalanta, and while it makes for some arduous away trips during a busy season, it should hold no fears.

City start their campaign in Shakhtar tomorrow. Bookmakers have them as tournament favourites.

Is this the last chance for Paris St Germain to win the Champions League — before Neymar leaves?

If there’s one club in Europe that can relate towhich understands Manchester City’s battle to win the Champions League, and realises how difficult it is, then it’s surely PSG.

Huge amounts of money — over €1bn — has been pumped into the club since Qatar Sports Investments took over in 2011, but the return in Europe has been minimal.

The club has not reached a single semi-final in all that time, and, even more disappointingly, has endured shock exits in the first knockout stage for the last three years in a row. That includes losing to Manchester United last year and a 6-1 defeat by Barcelona before that (having beaten the Catalan giants 4-0 in the home leg).

For anyone who thinks it could be PSG’s year this time (the bookmakers have them as fourth favourites for the title), there could be more disappointment in store.

Placed in a ‘group of death’ with Real Madrid, Galatasaray, and Club Brugge, they also have to contend with the growing fan discontent over star striker Neymar, who tried every trick in the book to instigate a move ‘home’ to Barca this summer — but failed.

Expect him to be booed by his own fans, but also to respond with goals. Could there be one last hurrah before he leaves? It’s the only possible way that his legacy in France can ever be seen in a positive light.

Are Barcelona losing their Champions League shine(especially on the road)?

Every year, they are named as one of the favourites — but it’s been four years since Barcelona were crowned European champions and, in fact, they have only made it past the quarter-finals once since lifting the trophy in 2015.

Early-season defeats to both Bilbao and Osasuna have seen them make it a shaky start in La Liga this season here has been trouble in La Liga too— both were away from home, and that’s significant. Increasingly Barca have been relying on their ability to score big at the Camp Nou whilst struggling to create the same number of chances on the road.

A goalless stalemate in Lyon last year, a 1-1 draw at Inter, and that famous 4-0 defeat at Anfield are examples — and there were along with four domestic away defeats last season, too, in league and cup.

Not significant for this year’s campaign? Maybe not.

But Barca start with a tough away fixture at Borussia Dortmund in Germany and they must also visit Inter and Slavia Prague in their quest to reach the last 16.

Will the Ronaldo factor be enough for Juve?

Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 61 group-stage goals in the Champions League during his career.

So, despite being drawn against Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, and Lokomotiv Moscow in Group D, you suspect that will be enough to send Juve into the last 16.

Bear in mind that he scored 11 times in one group stage in 2015-16 for Real Madrid and has won the trophy five times.

Astonishingly, it has been 23 years since Juventus have done likewise but Ronaldo, with his trademark bravado, expects it to happen soon.

“Juve will win the Champions League. I don’t know if it’ll be this year or the next, but it’s coming,” he insisted ahead of the new campaign.

Will Maurizio Sarri’s legacy be grasped by Frank Lampard?

While Maurizio Sarri gets on with the task of trying to win the Champions League for Juventus, his parting gift for Chelsea cannot be underestimated.

Against the odds, in a season in after which he was fired, Sarri took Chelsea to Europa League victory and into the Champions League, after three years in the doldrums for the Blues.

Now club legend Lampard is the man who needs to take that gift and make the most of it. His young team face Ajax, Lille, and Valencia and that will be a big test.

On the face of it, last year’s Chelsea manager looks like he has a far better chance of victory than the current one.

But stranger things have happened — especially in 2012 when an under-performing Chelsea were still crowned European champions.

Meanwhile, Tottenham hope to follow in Liverpool’s footsteps and make it back-to-back finals.

On the face of it, they have plenty of positives to consider. New stadium, new belief, and a bigger squad, having finally spent some money.

The group stage of Bayern, Olympiakos (where they start their campaign tomorrow), and Red Star Belgrade looks pretty navigable for Mauricio Pochettino’s side.

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