The five Champions League favourites all have their own questions to answer this season, even the holders. writesCould that open the door for the longer odds contenders?
Manchester City: Does the Premier League hamper Champions League success?
Manchester City supporters have never been truly captivated by the lure of the Champions League following the club’s disagreements with Uefa, and most would prefer Premier League glory every time.
But Sheikh Mansour is not content merely with domestic dominance, and Pep Guardiola knows he was appointed to lead City to continental success. His challenge is to rule at home and abroad, not either/or.
But was last season not Manchester City’s best chance?
The Premier League is likely to be far more competitive in 2018/19, with Liverpool and Chelsea both starting quicker even than City. Having had their season dented by Champions League exit to Liverpool and failed to purchase the central midfielder that Guardiola desired, there is clearly a chance that being pushed further at home causes City problems in Europe. Such is the media pressure placed upon Guardiola, Premier League title and Champions League semi-final elimination would be viewed as failure in some quarters.
City have at least been handed a gentle group stage draw. All of Lyon, Shakhtar, and Hoffenheim will harbour hopes of qualification for the last 16, but none will expect it to come at the hands of City.
Record two early victories before mid-October and Guardiola will have one foot in the knockout stages. That will allow him the rotation required to keep players fresh for a full-tilt Premier League title challenge. As the favourites to lift both competitions, Guardiola will feel the heat.
Barcelona: Can they end recent European underachievement?
It is the anomaly that nobody at Barcelona can quite work out. Despite possessing the best player in the world and a stellar supporting cast tasked with maximising Lionel Messi’s impact, the Blaugrana are on their longest run without a Champions League semi-final since 2005.
Then, a three-year absence was ended by final victory. Ernesto Valverde will be planning the same party.
With Real Madrid in a state of flux following the loss of their talismanic star and manager and Atletico Madrid already seven points off the pace, all is in place for Barcelona to dominate in La Liga this season. That may allow for greater focus on the Champions League.
There is no secret to Barcelona’s European underperformance. They have been undone by three shambolic quarter-final away legs, losing 3-0 against Juventus and Roma and 2-0 against Atletico Madrid in the last three years. None of those sides went on to win the trophy; Barcelona should have been better.
But with Messi desperate to lift the European Cup at least once more, and with reasons to doubt many of their peers, this really could be Barcelona’s season of destiny and Valverde’s opportunity to create a legacy.
Juventus: Is Cristiano Ronaldo the difference?
Ronaldo’s Champions League statistics are verging on the comical. The fourth highest goalscorer in the history of the competition has 56 goals; Ronaldo has 70 in his last five seasons alone. He has scored more knockout goals (60) than all but two players have scored overall, and has scored 26 times in his last 26 knockout games. Add Ronaldo into a team that has reached the Champions League final in two of the last four years, and surely you have a champion?
Perhaps. Juventus are certainly shorter odds to win the competition thanks to Ronaldo’s unlikely arrival in Turin, and which team wouldn’t benefit from a player who effectively gives you a one-goal headstart in every knockout match?
Add in Juve’s likely serene Serie A canter this season having been pushed all the way by Napoli in 2017/18, and there are reasons to believe in a first Champions League triumph since 1996.
But Ronaldo creates a question as well as answering many others.
Massimo Allegri repeatedly talked up the togetherness and self-sacrifice within his team as key ingredients of their runs to two finals. Watching Ronaldo take shot after shot in search of his hat-trick against Sassuolo at the weekend, it was hard to see him fit seamlessly into that system of self-sacrifice.
If Juventus are to finally go one stage further, they will do it a different way: Ronaldo’s performance in the clutch moments of clutch games will determine their fate. You would be brave to doubt him.
Paris Saint-Germain: Is Thomas Tuchel an elite manager?
It is the great anomaly of the Paris Saint-Germain project, a club forcibly dipped in gold. For a club that has signed the two most expensive players in the history of the game (and have them both in the same team), PSG are still to tempt a truly elite manager to oversee their glittering project. Unai Emery, Laurent Blanc, Carlo Ancelotti and Thomas Tuchel all have strong CVs, but none could reasonably be considered among the top five managers in world football.
Given PSG’s wealth, it’s a surprising gap and one that has undermined their ambitions of European success. They have been outfought or out-thought in six successive seasons before the semi-final stage by other elite teams. The list of teams to eliminate PSG coaches since 2012: Barcelona, Chelsea, Barcelona, Barcelona, Manchester City, Real Madrid. Against these clubs a manager truly earns his corn.
This is Tuchel’s chance to win over the doubters who witnessed his eventual decline at Borussia Dortmund and wondered quite how that has ended in promotion. Winning Ligue 1 is an expectation, not an ambition, for Tuchel. Only a semi-final place or better will convince supporters that PSG haven’t taken another managerial sideways step.
Real Madrid: Have they taken a season off?
In the last three years, when Champions League dominance appeared most to be European football’s Herculean task, Real became the first team since Milan in 1990 to retain the European Cup and the first since Bayern Munich in 1976 to win it three times in succession.
You would therefore forgive Real Madrid for taking a moment to enjoy the view.
But modern football does not allow that.
Harder, better, faster, stronger; every trophy win must lay foundations for the next. To please ever impatient owners and supporters, success must only breed more success.
And so it’s hard to understand why Real have taken such a gamble this season. President Florentino Perez spoke last week of a club with €330m to spend and the intention to buy Kylian Mbappe and Neymar to herald a new Galactico dawn, but transfer window actions speak louder than words.
Having lost Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus, Thibaut Courtois is the only first-team arrival that truly makes a statement.
Instead, Real Madrid appear to be investing in their future rather than present. Their three most expensive summer signings were aged 18, 22 and 26 (Vinicius Jr, Alvaro Odrizola, and Courtois), their two permanent signings last season were aged 19 and 20 (Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos) and their only major signing in 2016/17 was the return of 23-year-old striker Alvaro Morata — now at Chelsea.
While Zinedine Zidane was able to rely on Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Marcelo, and Sergio Ramos before their twilight years — probably the four highest-performing players of his tenure — new head coach Julen Lopetegui does not get the same privilege.
Ronaldo has gone, Ramos is 32 and Modric is 33 and came close to leaving for Inter.
Replacing that quartet while keeping Real at the top of their game is Perez’s task for the next three years, but it is hard to be confident of Lopetegui’s ability to continue Zidane’s reign of majesty. Anyone who watched Real in La Liga last season may conclude that Zidane timed his exit perfectly.