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Champions League: The key questions as 2019-20 campaign gets under way

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By Emlyn Begley
BBC Sport
Will an side win the Champions League again? What shape are the La Liga rivals in? Could Ajax replicate the heroics of last season?
European football competition returns this week with a few fixtures worthy of these knockout stages.
On Tuesday, holders Liverpool go to Napoli, Chelsea welcome Valencia and Borussia Dortmund sponsor Barcelona, while on Wednesday, Juventus travel to Atletico Madrid and Paris St-Germain sponsor Real Madrid.
BBC Radio 5 Live will have commentary of Napoli v Liverpool, subsequently Olympiakos v Tottenham along with Shakhtar Donestk v Manchester City on Wednesday.
Two of those three championships to win this year’s tournament are English – holders Liverpool and Premier League champions Manchester City.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are expecting to do what only one team have managed because the contest was rebranded as the Champions League at 1992 – retain the trophy.
Real Madrid’s’three-peat’ – when they gained in 2016, 2017 and 2018 – was the first time a team had won European Cups since AC Milan in 1990 and 1989.
Consistency could be the key. Real named 13 starters throughout their finals. Premier League leaders Liverpool still have 10 of their starting XI in the 2018 final defeat by Real, using only goalkeeper Loris Karius having departed, and may conceivably name last year’s closing line-up on a regular basis this season.
Manchester City are the bookmakers’ favourites.
They seem in excellent shape (albeit maybe slightly less after Saturday’s shock defeat by Norwich – only their second loss since January). Pep Guardiola’s side won the brush of English trophies last season, also have picked up 198 points in their past two complete Premier League seasons.
They’ve added to their group, with Rodri and Joao Cancelo, while star midfielder Kevin de Bruyne has returned after an injury-hit year old.
Add to that the fact Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero are scoring a goal a match or even more this year and they have a big prospect of lifting the trophy in Istanbul on 30 May 2020.
“When you speak to top Spanish clubs, leading Italian clubs, top French clubs, they are all pretty unanimous that English clubs will be the ones to fear from the Champions League,” soccer journalist James Horncastle said on a week’s BBC Radio 5 Live Football Daily.
Tottenham will be hoping to go one better than last season, when they lost to Liverpool.
They reached that stage despite having signed up a player all season and losing striker Harry Kane to injury for key games.
Spurs have strengthened since then, however they’ve experienced an up-and-down start with two wins from five Premier League games, to this campaign.
Frank Lampard will be a Champions League director for the first time as a youthful Chelsea yield to Europe’s top table after a year off, during which time they won the Europa League.
Lampard, a 2012 European champion as a Blues player, substituted Maurizio Sarri this summer and, even together with the club under a transfer embargo, has looked to childhood. All 11 of their Premier League goals this season were scored by English youngsters who were on loan at the Championship last year – Tammy Abraham, that had been Aston Villa, along with Mason Mount along with Fikayo Tomori, that had been with Lampard in Derby.
Barcelona are the favourites to win the tournament, however also the champions’ two European titles had been 2011 and 2015.
Both of Ernesto Valverde’s seasons accountable have ended using a Champions League implosion after a three-goal win against Roma from the 2018 quarter-finals and then against Liverpool at the semi-finals earlier this year.
He’s freshened things up, with the arrival of forwards Antoine Griezmann out of Atletico Madrid and midfielder Frenkie de Jong from Ajax, as well as the emergence of wonderkid Ansu Fati. Superstar Lionel Messi is yet to play this season but he’s in the squad for their opening game against Borussia Dortmund.
“He’s 32 and for the very first time ever I have started hearing stories of people close to Messi saying:’How about when he has only got two more years at Barcelona,'” Spanish author Guillem Balague explained. “I went into panic… just two years of Messi?
“We have not seen the very top of Barcelona however this season. It has been a bad start but there is still time to get that corrected.”
Barcelona’s eternal rivals Real Madrid don’t seem in the best of shape up to now. Zinedine Zidane is seeking to win the Champions League for a fourth period as Real manager – he stepped down after three in a row but came back in Marchand after their European departure.
But, his reconstruct of the club has so far not materialised as planned. They spent over #200m on five gamers this summer, however Zidane had hoped for more – including midfielder Paul Pogba by Manchester United – and he was not able to move on some players he didn’t want, including forward Gareth Bale.
In reality, none of the new signings began in Saturday’s 3-2 win over Levante, though Eden Hazard arrived off the bench for his debut.
“It has to be a must-win month,” said Balague. “If things do not go nicely in September we might be seeing a new trainer, certainly by Christmas.
“It is not just about results. Things have not worked as Zidane anticipated, and things are not functioning the way [president] Florentino Perez expected.
“There was definitely going to be a revolution, Zidane reported that himself last season. We have observed the players. Out of all the new ones, only Eden Hazard will proceed into the line-up. Everyone else will be on the bench.”
Lots of observers are interested to understand how the new-look Atletico Madrid get with this year.
Diego Simeone spent 200m this summer and recouped even more in charges. Among the players to come in have been Benfica ahead Joao Felix (more on him later), Tottenham right-back Kieran Trippier, Real Madrid midfielder Marcos Llorente and Espanyol defender Mario Hermoso.
Three of the renowned back four abandoned free transfers – Diego Godin, Filipe Luis and Juanfran – also Griezmann into Barca, Rodri to Manchester City and also Lucas Hernandez to Bayern Munich.
It is a decade as Atletico, who have never won the Champions League, have been eliminated in the knockout stages to a team not such as Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s in this season’s group stages with them. City rivals Real beat against them in four consecutive years, including two finals. And Ronaldo saw a hat-trick since Juventus chased a 2-0 deficit . That was a large moment.
Balague explained:”It had a stance on the future and current of Atletico. For Simeone, that was proof that the team needed to eliminate players such as Godin and Juanfran. Now he has an exciting, quite versatile group.”
Valencia, who play with Chelsea in the opening match, seem to be going via a now-traditional self-destruction. Just as things were looking great, they sacked the director who got them to the Champions League and led them to the Copa del Rey last season – replacing Marcelino with Albert Celades last week.
There are 3 other groups expected to compete for the prize, all continuing champions of the nations – Juventus (eight Italian titles in a row), Bayern Munich (seven consecutive German titles) and Paris St-Germain (half the past seven French championships ).
Juventus – whose last Champions League title came in 1996 – have additional youth and dynamism to their group, together with #67.5m Netherlands centre-back Matthijs de Ligt the very notable recruit. That signing was especially important, after the loss of captain Giorgio Chiellini to a long-term knee accident.
Three free transfers arrived in – Arsenal and Wales midfielder Aaron Ramsey, Paris St-Germain and France midfielder Adrien Rabiot and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, a Juventus legend who just left a year ago to PSG. And obviously that they have the Champions League goalscorer at Ronaldo.
Their group is so big that midfielder Emre May and forward Mario Mandzukic have been left out of their 22-man Champions League choice.
Horncastle said:”Sarri said the group was too large in the summer. He explained:’We have got six players and we must sell players’ They were unable to. This is on the club – not Sarri. They moved bullish and could not promote Paulo Dybala or even Mandzukic. It has been a genuine problems for them.”
Bayern Munich, who sponsor Red Star Belgrade on Wednesday, go into a year without Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery on the wings (or at the treatment area ) for the first time in a decade. For a while it looked as if they would not sign replacements, however Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic have fostered their alternatives.
French World Cup-winning full-backs Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard were their other two big-money signings, but the anticipated overhaul did not quite materialise.
Where to start with Paris St-Germain? Is this the season they get their act together in Europe? That is what people have been wondering for approximately seven years.
The French giants look no nearer to attaining their owners’ purpose of becoming crowned European champions and also appear to be moving backwards. They have gone out at the last 16 for the past three decades, having attained four successive quarter-finals prior to that.
They are without Neymar, that failed to find a go to Barcelona this summer, for half of the group phase because of a ban following his response to last year’s collapse against Manchester United. He was booed on his return.
But they have added forwards Mauro Icardi for their frontline this summer, as well as finally investing in holding midfielders – Ander Herrera and Idrissa Gueye.
The two leading scorers in Champions League history, Juventus ahead Cristiano Ronaldo (126) and Barcelona captain Lionel Messi (112), proceed without mentioning every year at the listing of potential stars. The group have won, or shared, that the Golden Boot in every one of the previous 12 seasons.
Elsewhere, this may be a significant season for Atletico Madrid’s new signing Joao Felix. They signed the 19-year-old out of Benfica for #113m and he has shown some real touches of quality in pre-season along with the opening weeks.
The Portuguese only made his pro debut last August, became the most popular hat-trick scorer at the Europa League and play with 15 league goals since Benfica won the domestic title.
He was efficiently Atletico’s substitute for Griezmann, despite signing ahead of the Frenchman left Barcelona.
Neymar needs his reputation to be boosted by a big time from the Champions League and possibly win the PSG supporters back. Both of the previous seasons in Paris have finished early through injury, if he does not have it and he’s in danger of becoming a flat-track bully standing in France.
PSG team-mate and perennial Real Madrid target Kylian Mbappe might have a huge season ahead of him. It might be the final season at his hometown team of the French World Cup winner if press reports are to be considered. Even the 20-year-old scored 33 goals in 29 Ligue 1 matches last season, but has managed only one Champions League match goal for the club within two seasons.
Elsewhere, Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling’s form this year makes him look a real candidate to be among the top players in this year’s tournament. Boss Guardiola says that he is capable of reaching Ronaldo or Messi level.
Ajax’s tragic defeat by Tottenham felt as the ending of an age. Contrary to Barcelona or PSG’s highs it never seemed like that side went to have a chance to go again the next season.
Similar to the Ligue 1 title-winning team in 2017 of Monaco, Ajax’s staff was destined to be gutted by Europe elite.
De Jong’s go have been announced, and ruler De Ligt – that ended up connecting Juventus – was very likely to depart every rich club curious.
Those two were key to Ajax’s success. However there was not the exodus people together with Denmark forwards Kasper Dolberg’s movement to Nice the other sale of longer or # 10m.
Winger Hakim Ziyech appeared set to leave, but has rather extended his contract, and midfielder Donny van de Beek a Real Madrid target, has remained with the club. Dusan Tadic – an unlikely star of last year’s surprise run – has also stayed put.
The Dutch champions, who had to come through qualifying rounds seem as though they might have functioned with Sevilla winger Quincy Promes their main move.
They’re unbeaten in Champions League qualifiers and nine Eredivisie this season, and sponsor Lille on Tuesday.
Group G seems a origin if there was a surprise package this season. RB Benfica, Leipzig, Lyon and Zenit St Petersburg, who signed Barcelona winger Malcom this summer, all have exciting players in their squad.
Since an energy drinks firm only formed in 2009 them are not likely to appeal to the romantics like Ajax. But they have an adequate chance of a fantastic run this season.
They have among the world’s most exciting young managers in Julian Nagelsmann, who already has three and a half years of managerial expertise with Hoffenheim despite just being 32.
Leipzig have future France centre-back Dayot Upamecano in defence, and possible superstar Timo Werner up front. And they signed two British players – lasting target Ademola Lookman on a deal from Everton and Ethan Ampadu on loan from Chelsea. They went to Roma for forward Patrik Schick and also brought in midfielder Christopher Nkunku out of PSG.
They are the Bundesliga leaders after drawing 1-1 with winners Bayern in the weekend.
Benfica have recruited after losing Felix into Atletico, using striker Raul de Tomas linking from Real Madrid following two successful seasons on loan at Rayo Vallecano.
Lyon could be poorer together with Tanguy Ndombele linking Spurs Mendy going to ruler Nabil Fekir and Real Madrid leaving for Betis.
Elsewhere, Atalanta – in a group together with Manchester City, the competitions Dinamo Zagreb of Wednesday and Shakhtar Donetsk, might be a group to keep a watch out for.
Since this really is their Champions League debut, they are seeded underside, however they ended third in Serie A last year – over AC Milan Inter Milan and Roma.
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