2018-19 Champions League: Looking at the big storylines and the title contendors

The 2018-19 season is underway and is really starting to kick in after the international break. Tonight ushers in the return of the biggest tournament in club football – the UEFA Champions League. Over the years, the level of competition within the group stages has decreased with the upper echelon teams racing ahead of their contemporaries who struggle to even make it this far. That being said, the group stages still has value as it serves as a tease to what teams are capable when the level of competition increases. Liverpool vs Paris-Saint Germain on the first day of play is a matchup of two of Europe’s best-attacking trios. Ronaldo returns to Old Trafford later in the group stages though this time around he will don the colors of Juventus. The biggest teams in the continent have stocked piled their arsenals to become better than ever. This could very well be one of the most competitive tournaments in recent memory with the margins being minimal among the best teams. This creates four major storylines that have to be answered before addressing the handful of teams that have separated themselves from the pack and truly have a chance to take the cup home.

Major Storylines of the 2018-19 Champions League

How will Real Madrid and Ronaldo do after being together for nearly a decade?

Ever since the tournament was renamed and reformatted before the 1992-93 season, no team had ever won back-to-back titles. The closest team to defend their European crown came in the form of Manchester United who won the crown (against their Premier League rivals Chelsea to win the 2007-08 Champions League) before losing to Pep’s Barcelona in the final the following year. Real Madrid have since won the four of the past five Champions League competitions including three in a row under the stewardship of club legend Zinedine Zidane. The defending champions had the luxury of having one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Cristiano Ronaldo has by far been their best player in their dominant run in Europe. While he was criticized for much of the past season, he still ended up as the tournament’s top scorer with 15 goals. He achieved this feat for the sixth time in a row.

Everything changed for Real this summer. Shortly after completing their hattrick, Zizou resigned. While this was a shock to many, he was able to leave the club on a high and on his own terms. It is next to impossible to find another manager in the past two decades who coached The Meringues who left the club on his own accord. Julen Lopetegui was announced as their next manager which came as shock for multiple reasons that have been debated to no end. Along with a new manager, Real Madrid had to find a new talisman this summer. Cristiano Ronaldo was surprisingly closed to Juventus. How will one fair without the other? Domestically, Real Madrid are yet to skip a beat. They comfortably won their first three La Liga games before coming from behind to take a point from the San Mamés Stadium. They have scored 11 goals in the process with Benzema and Bale stepping up to fill the void left by Cristiano.

The transition into Serie A was never going to be easy for Cristiano Ronaldo. The top flight of Italian club football is notorious for organized defences and pragmatic play. There was going to be a run of games before Ronaldo settled into his new squad. He has started all of Juventus’ games thus far and he struggled to find the back of the net in his first three games. He broke this barren run with a brace against Sassuolo to leave them with a 100% winning record. His start to his Juventus tenure is identical to his first four games last season. It took Ronaldo four games and 28 shots before finding the back of the net in each of his past two seasons. The Champions League is normally where he comes to life and Juventus is facing a team that the Madeira native is familiar with – Valencia. After breaking his bleak run to the season, this is the perfect tune-up game for Ronaldo to get back to his best.

Real Madrid are tied with PSG as the fifth most favorite side to win the title (at +700) while Juventus are joined by Manchester City as the favorites to win the Champions League (at +550). Real have had a relatively easy start to the season and are yet to be given a run for their money. Roma is a sturdy team to open their campaign with. While they are ridiculously unlikely to replicate their dream Champions League run from last season, they are still a respectable side that. We will see Real Madrid’s true colors without Ronaldo as they look to defend their crown with their opening game coming at home. Ronaldo also starts his Champions League season at home against a Valencia side that is finally gained some stability. How will he fare without Benzema and the other Real Madrid teammates that helped him win four titles in five seasons? Do Real Madrid have a genuine chance of making it to the promise land without having a top-five player in the world? Both are major questions that will be answered over the duration of the season with the first glimpses of an answer coming to us during the opening games of the Champions League.

Who will be this year’s dark horse to make a dream run?

The Champions League has always been known for its matchups between the goliaths of the European football. Despite the number of stellar teams who are always contending for the European crown, there is always a team or two that appears from the fringes that surprises everyone. Be it making a deep run into the competition or beating one of the favorites of the game; they are always fun to watch and to root for. Two such teams were there last season. Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool made it to the final after playing some of the best pressing and attacking football. Roma made it to the semifinals after making the unlikeliest of comebacks against Barcelona in the quarterfinals. Two seasons ago, a young Monaco side lead by Kylian Mbappe and Thomas Lemar took this eventual Ligue I winner to the last four where they put up a competent effort against Juventus.

Which team will step up and take the challenge of breaking the dominance of the top tier teams? Liverpool are nobody’s dark horse after adding players to their squad that can allow them to challenge for the Premier League title and can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Juventus and PSG. The additions of Keita, Alisson, Fabinho among others has made them a much stronger and more balanced side. Their front three have a whole season of excellence together and can only get better from here. Their title odds (of +1000) are indicative of that. The amount of money and their performances from last season have elevated them from a dark horse to fringe favorites to take the crown. Monaco have managed to hold on to their manager – Leonardo Jardim – though the rest of their historic 2016-17 squad has moved to bigger clubs. They still have Falcao who is capable of magical moments though the likelihood that they can get past the Round of 16 is slim.

Tottenham have shown the promise to upset the biggest European teams. They took four out of a possible six points against Real Madrid. Against Juventus, they dominated the Old Lady for 150 of the 180 minutes of their tie. The other 30 mins were the difference between the two clubs as the North London club did not make the most of their chances while the more experience Juventus were clutch when it counted the most. They have managed to hold onto all their players and Mauricio Pochettino though the fact that they did not add any new players is concerning. As is their inconsistent start to the season where World Cup fatigue is starting to affect Harry Kane. Lyon is another team that plays an exciting brand football that can translate well onto the European stage. Nabil Fekir remains a member of their team after a deal with Liverpool appeared to be imminent. Moussa Dembele and Bertrand Traore are also exciting players to watch and always play on 5th gear. Memphis Depay was excellent in his first full season with the French club as he scored 19 goals in the league and 22 for the season. He is their biggest x-factor and should be able to build off the previous season, he can be the missing piece that will help Lyon eclipse their season.

Predicting a dark horse is hard as normally it is an unsuspected team that will rise from nowhere. As always, the excitement of seeing a young and hungry team that can take the best of the best to task is something to take delight in.

Is this PSG’s year?

PSG are synonymous with exorbitant spending. The takeover by Oryx Qatar Sport Investments towards the end of 2011 ushered in a new era for club football. No longer are the best teams known for the development of young talent. Now, the best teams are ones that are known for spending big on the right players. David Luiz, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Neymar Jr. (the current holder of the World record transfer), and Kylian Mbappe are just a few players that the Parisian club have brought in my breaking the bank. They have also had some high profile managers – the most decorated of which was Carlo Ancelotti. Despite winning Ligue I five times in the past six years, they have never been able to take their domestic form and translate it European success. Forget making finals, PSG are yet to make it past the quarterfinals since the takeover. Their last two campaigns have ended in the first stages of the knockout rounds.

Will this all change this year? Kylian Mbappe is riding the momentum of France’s World Cup victory. Neymar Jr. has a chip on this shoulder and is still trying to prove that he can win a European title as the best player on a contending squad. Ownership decided not to renew Emery’s contract and hired the well-touted Thomas Tuchel. He has shown that he can get the best from a limited Borussia Dortmund squad that season after season lost their key players. This will by far be the most talented group of player that he will be working with. One can only hope that these two forces can combine to push PSG over the hump. The main summer signing came in the form of Gianluigi Buffon. While he may no longer be in his prime as a 40-year-old goalkeeper, he is still regarded as one of the best between the sticks. He provides PSG with the veteran leadership that they have been missing for the past few years. And he can be the player that they can rally around and play for. This may be his last season with the gloves. Despite making the Champions League Final on a number of occasions, he has never had the chance to lift and kiss the trophy. Paris Saint Germain has to play for Buffon so the legendary goalkeeper can ride into the sunset having won a European title.

The club still maintains a blend of youth and experience among their defenders. Thiago Silva, Dani Alves, Marquinhos, and Presnel Kimpembe are all tremendous midfielders. The likes of Angel di Maria and Julian Draxler are some of the most versatile attacking players in the world and they would start on almost any other team. Both wingers are on the bench because Tuchel has one of the most potent attacking trios in the world; Neymar Jr., Kylian Mbappe, and Edinson Cavani. On paper, they appear to have no weak areas whatsoever. And yet, the different pieces of this dynamic team have never fully clicked.

Will we see something different this year? Was Tuchel the missing piece to put Les Parisiens over the top? This team is not popular among the purists of the game who denounce their transfer spending. But then again, every football fan in the world will want to see Gigi Buffon lift the one trophy that is evaded him. Their campaign makes for one hell of a viewing.

Can Premier League clubs once again dominant in Europe?

A decade ago, Manchester United won the Premier League. They were riding a wave of the then Premier League Big Four (United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal) that dominated Europe and were the most successful of the lot. The Champions League Final from 2005-2009 featured at least one team from the Premier League. 2008 may have been the peak of the lot. The final was a showdown between United and Chelsea while Liverpool were knocked out by the Blues in the semifinals. Since then, the tides of turned to the two biggest clubs in Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona. They have won 7 of the past ten titles including the past five. Real Madrid are now looking to win their fourth in a row and fifth in the past six years. In this span, Chelsea are the only team to win by beating Bayern Munich in the 2012 final. Manchester United made the finals twice in 2009 and 2011 but were bested by Barcelona on each occasion. That being said, last season may have been the start of the resurgence of the English clubs in Europe.

Liverpool had a dream run to the finals though they were no match for Real Madrid. Manchester City started their previous campaign as one of the favorites to take the title home. Both teams have strengthened their squads and once again are set to take the fight to the other European giants. Tottenham are a dark horse to upset one of the top tier teams after attaining four out of a possible six point from Real Madrid in the group stages and by giving Juventus a run for their money in the Round of 16. Manchester United cannot be discounted because well, they’re Manchester United.

Sports is cyclical and the different spokes on the wheel take turns for being on top. The wheel keeps spinning and a team that is dominant for one period could fall off a cliff in the next. Maybe it is time for the Premier League to get back on top retain the status of the “Best European League” from La Liga. They boast some of the best managers and players in the world. And most importantly, for this era of football, their clubs have the most money to spend on players. After the events of this year’s competition, we will find out if the Premier League is back.

The favorites to take the title home

Manchester City (Title Odds: 9/2)

There is one reason for why they are at the top of the list and have the best odds to take the title home. Pep Guardiola. It is just that simple. He is one of the best managers of his generation and is on the trajectory to be the greatest club manager of all time. The Spaniard was the mastermind of Barcelona’s golden generation that twice won the Champions League. The 2010-11 Barça side may be the greatest club team to ever grace the pitch. Manchester City tore apart the Premier League last season as they shattered every possible record that existed. They were one of the favorites last year though they were trumped by a determined Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool. City did not need to add much to their squad though their addition of Riyad Mahrez certainly strengthens their squad. Benjamin Mendy is like a new signing after he missed all but eight games with an ACL tear. Their starting XI is as good as anyone’s in Europe. The likes of Sane, Sterling, and Bernardo Silva blend seamlessly on the pith with the older City players likes Kompany, Aguero, and David Silva. Let’s not forget Kevin De Bruyne. He is one of the most intelligent players in the world and the best (when healthy) in the Premier League. While he will miss the group stages with injury, he will have a significant impact in the knockout stages. Guardiola’s City could very well make the final in the Wanda Metropolitano and make history in the club seasons biggest game.

FC Barcelona (Title Odds: 6/1)

It must be hard to see your El Clasico rivals win three straight Champions League titles. The Champions League final is always held on the last day of the European season and it must leave a bitter taste in the mouths of the Blaugrana faithful to see their rivals celebrates year in and year out on the day the season comes to a close. They have been successful on the domestic level though the last time they were able to make it past the quarterfinals, the Champions League was the third and final piece that they added to win the European treble. Club legends Xavi and Iniesta have since retired and their current midfield is not renowned as a superpower anymore. Nevertheless, the Catalan giants have been excellent in the transfer market to attempt to bring their midfield back to their glory days. Rakitic was brought in as the replacement for Xavi. Philippe Coutinho was brought in during the January transfer window as the heir to Iniesta and will play a similar role to that of the diminutive Spaniard. Arthur Melo can have a similar impact in the middle of the park and control the midfield like Xavi. Though, the young Brazilian is so much more explosive. Malcom and Dembele are some of the fastest wingers in the game and Suarez is still one of the best strikers in the world at the age of 31. Forget the chip on the shoulder that Neymar Jr. is playing with, Messi has one that dwarfs that of his former teammates. He is one of the best to ever do it. Period. And yet, he was ousted from the finalists of the Ballon d’Or. He will be looking to take Barcelona to the promise land and prove to everyone that he still is at his best. Leading Barcelona to another European crown could restore the notion that he is the best in the world.

Juventus (Title Odds: 13/2)

The Old Lady is one the most successful teams in European club history though they have endured heartbreak in their recent attempts to be crowned as the best in the continent. They made the final in 2015 and 2017 though they were bested by Barcelona and then Real Madrid respectively. After crashing out in the quarterfinals last season, they added the player that single-handedly knocked them out; Cristiano Ronaldo. From a veteran team that lacked a killer edge, they signed the one player that can put that can put them over the top. For years, they were missing a player who can create a chance or score a goal from absolutely nothing. Ronaldo may be the best to ever for this task. They are a formidable squad on the drawing board and Allegri has the talent to defeat any of the super-clubs in Europe. Ronaldo could be the focal point to get the best out the creative abilities of Paulo Dybala and Bernardeschi. The return of Bonucci reunites him with a group of players that helps creates a virtually impregnable defence. The experience of Khedira, Matuidi, and Pjanic in the middle third provides the team with a level of stability and poise that few can ask for. Mandzukic is a tireless worker and can be the Robin to Ronaldo’s Batman (like Benzema was to the reigning Ballon d’Or holder). This could be their year should injury and age not get the best of this compelling squad.

Real Madrid (Title Odds: 8/1)

At some point, somebody is going to have to beat the defending champions – and the three-time defending champions at that. They are the most successful club in European competitions, having won 13 titles. The tournament was reformatted and rebranded in the early 90’s and for many years it looked as though the Champions League was too competitive of a tournament for win consecutive titles. Real Madrid are on the precipice of winning four straight (and five in six years). The departure of their talisman, and arguably their greatest player ever, in Cristiano Ronaldo, has taken the shine out of Madrid and the notion that they are a viable contender. They changed managers with club legend Zizou being replaced by a stalwart in Lopetegui. Even without Cristiano, Real Madrid appear to still be an excellent team. In fact, the cohesion between the XI on the pitch appears to be better than ever. Gareth Bale finally has the freedom to showcase his best and plays in a free role that made him one of the best young talents to watch when he was with Tottenham. Isco and Asensio will finally step into the limelight after being touted as the future of Real Madrid. They are blessed with two of the best midfielders in the World with Modric and Kroos. They have the luxury to play extensively in the final third as Casemiro is an absolute wall that protects the backline. The purchase of Courtois is honestly just ridiculous given that they already possess an outstanding man between the sticks in Keylor Navas. But still, the addition of the towering Belgian just adds to their depth and talent. The star-studded side can make it four in a row. The only thing stopping them is if the pack and replace the goals that Cristiano Ronaldo gave for them. So far so good in La Liga though they will be truly tested in Europe.

Paris Saint-Germain (Title Odds: 8/1)

Mbappe, Cavani, and Neymar Jr. That may just be the most deadly attacking trio in the world. The dominance of PSG was not the result of a miracle or the development of a group of generational players. Their Qatari based owners only speak one language: $$$. They have used their near limitless wealth to buy one of the best squads in the world. The addition of Thomas Tuchel is the spark to get the best out of a squad that only places one style of football – attack, attack, attack. The showed he could get something from nothing with a depleted Borussia Dortmund squad. With his ingenious tactics, one can only imagine what he can do with a genuinely talented squad. A team with Neymar Jr. already puts this on a level of their own. Mbappe is the best player under the age of 21 and he is riding the wave of France’s World Cup win. The predatory instincts of Edinson Cavani make him one of the world’s biggest threats in the box. PSG also boast the likes of Draxler, Verratti, Di Maria, and Rabiot that will terrorize any opposition side. Buffon is the veteran presence that they were missing. He provides a stable presence between the sticks and is a vocal leader who can sure up PSG’s back four. Chemistry and ego is the one thing that currently holds this team back. If they can find one and let go of the other, there is no stopping Paris Saint-Germain.

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Young players to watch for the 2018-19 Champions League