The Champions League makes a welcome return on Tuesday night as Europe’s heavyweight clubs begin the group stage.
Many of the continent’s leading clubs will actually face one another this week with mouth-watering ties including Barcelona vs Bayern Munich, Inter Milan vs Real Madrid and Liverpool vs AC Milan.
We saw an all-English finale to the competition last season as Chelsea defeated Manchester City and there’s a good case for this Premier League dominance to continue.
Chelsea won last season’s Champions League – but who will claim the glory this time around?
The giants from Spain and Italy appear diminished while Bayern Munich are starting again under a new manager, leaving Paris Saint-Germain looking the most likely to take on the English clubs.
So how do the traditional giants from around Europe measure up ahead of the new Champions League campaign? We take a health check on them.
Last Champions League win: 2015
Drawn in Group E with Bayern Munich, Benfica and Dynamo Kiev
There’s absolutely no question one of the dominant forces of the modern era in the Champions League have been diminished.
The departure of Lionel Messi, who joined PSG, has dealt Barcelona a body blow and it remains to be seen how they cope without the Argentine maestro who scored 120 Champions League goals for them.
Barca have been in recession for a little while now in truth – there have been shocking exits to Roma, Liverpool and Bayern in recent years – and it’s going to be a long and painful rebuild.
Barcelona will turn to Memphis Depay for some spark now Lionel Messi has left the club
President Joan Laporta revealed eye-watering debts of £1.15billion, meaning they simply couldn’t afford to renew Messi’s contract, and summer buys have been frugal to live within their means.
Laporta tried to find a replacement for coach Ronald Koeman but failed, eventually backing the Dutchman but with plenty of strings attached.
They have a competitive side, led by summer arrival Memphis Depay and the brilliant youngster Pedri, but few are expecting Barcelona to go all the way.
Drawing Bayern, the side who destroyed them 8-2 just over a year ago, isn’t exactly ideal but they should make it through their group. Beyond that it will prove more difficult.
Barcelona appear to be a diminished force amid financial strife and off-field uncertainty
Last Champions League win: 2018
Drawn in Group D with Inter Milan, Shakhtar Donetsk and Sheriff Tiraspol
Real have also been weakened by the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, though not as severely as Barcelona.
It was nonetheless telling that the summer passed by without the Bernabeu club making a marquee signing as their rivals in England spent big on the likes of Jadon Sancho, Romelu Lukaku and Jack Grealish.
Their reputation has also been bruised by the toxic fall-out from the attempted European Super League breakaway and all these factors combined mean few are tipping Real for Champions League glory this time.
Luka Modric and Karim Benzema (right) remain integral to Real Madrid’s chances of success
They have seen two experienced defenders in Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane depart also but they have signed the two-time Champions League winner David Alaba and highly-rated France midfielder Eduardo Camavinga.
They’ll need the best scoring form from Karim Benzema, a last hurrah from 36-year-old Luka Modric and anything at all from Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale to even get to the business end of the competition.
In their favour is the wisdom of three-time Champions League winning manager Carlo Ancelotti. But this Real Madrid vintage looks a far cry from the side that lifted the trophy under the Italian back in 2014.
The arrival of Eduardo Camavinga is a sign Real Madrid still retain their old pulling power
Last Champions League win: N/A
Drawn in Group A with Manchester City, RB Leipzig and Club Brugge
PSG have been installed as the favourites to finally win the Champions League and it isn’t difficult to understand why.
A team already boasting Neymar and Kylian Mbappe that was starting to make inroads to the latter stages of the Champions League now has the additional threat of Messi and the nous of Ramos.
PSG, who certainly don’t seem short of a few quid post-pandemic, also signed Achraf Hakimi, Georginio Wijnaldum, Danilo Pereira and Gianluigi Donnarumma.
These are exciting times for PSG as Lionel Messi (right) joins a star-studded forward line
Mauricio Pochettino arguably has the strongest squad in Europe at his disposal but with that comes additional pressure and expectation. There are no excuses not to win it now.
The Parisians will face an immediate test of their credentials after being paired with Manchester City and RB Leipzig in the group.
If everything clicks together as Pochettino hopes it will and the dressing room remains harmonious then PSG should have everything required to take on the English clubs.
With so much talent at his disposal, there’s no excuses for PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino
Last Champions League win: 2020
Drawn in Group E with Barcelona, Benfica and Dynamo Kiev
Beaten at the quarter-final stage by PSG last season, Bayern return to the Champions League in good shape under new manager Julian Nagelsmann.
The players are adapting to his ways and Bayern have started the season strongly at home, having also raided Nagelsmann’s old club Leipzig for two key players in Dayot Upamecano and Marcel Sabitzer.
Just to rub things in, they went to Leipzig on Saturday and thrashed them 4-1, the scoreline no doubt sending a chill through their title rivals as they chase a 10th-straight Bundesliga title.
Bayern Munich have started strongly and can be considered among the favourites to win
Europe will prove a tougher nut to crack but they should top their group and are clearly stronger than Barcelona.
But Nagelsmann guided Leipzig to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019-20 and he certainly has the talent to go even further with a better-equipped Bayern side.
We can expect the 2020 winners to stay the course and take on the Premier League sides and PSG to win the whole thing.
Bayern memorably thrashed Barcelona 8-2 last year and they meet once again on Tuesday
Last Champions League win: 1996
Drawn in Group H with Chelsea, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Malmo
It’s been far from a happy start to the season at Juventus, where Cristiano Ronaldo has departed and those left behind have become error-strewn and off the pace.
Just one point from their first three Serie A matches was far from what returning manager Massimiliano Allegri would have wanted or expected.
Now they’re thrust into a Champions League group containing reigning champions Chelsea as well as less daunting opponents in Zenit and Malmo.
Juventus players react with dismay after losing late on against Napoli last Saturday
But urgent improvements are needed, especially from keeper Wojciech Szczesny, who has made a series of damaging errors, defender Matthijs de Ligt and midfielder Adrien Rabiot.
And absolutely nobody is going to envy forwards Paulo Dybala, Moise Kean and Alvaro Morata in compensating for the 30 goals per season lost by Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United.
Juventus should make it through their group but few fans will be putting their money on them to go much further now their Portuguese talisman has departed.
Cristiano Ronaldo has now left the club and Juventus look very diminished as a consequence
Last Champions League win: N/A
Drawn in Group B with Liverpool, Porto and AC Milan
The champions of Spain should, in theory, be as strong or potentially even stronger this time around as they embark on another quest for a first Champions League crown.
Striker Antoine Griezmann has returned on loan from Barcelona, while there’s even more of a South American flavour at the club after Argentine Rodrigo De Paul and Brazilian Matheus Cunha were signed.
They have lost classy midfielder Saul Niguez to Chelsea but Diego Simeone’s side have started the season well enough in LaLiga.
They’ve been placed in a tantalising group along with 2019 champions Liverpool, Italian giants Milan and Porto but should have the quality to finish in the top two.
For the first time probably ever, the bookmakers have Atletico on shorter odds to go all the way than Barcelona. So can the shifting balance of power in Spain translate into Europe?
Spanish champions Atletico Madrid celebrate scoring in their recent win over Espanyol
Last Champions League win: 1997
Drawn in Group C with Sporting Lisbon, Ajax and Besiktas
Dortmund may have lost Sancho to Man United but they made it through the summer window with Erling Haaland still in situ and his devastating goalscoring ability makes them a serious threat.
The talented Dutch winger Donyell Malen has come in as Sancho’s replacement and they’ve started the season well enough with Haaland banging in the goals and new manager Marco Rose creating a positive impression.
A group also containing Portuguese champions Sporting Lisbon, Dutch champions Ajax and the Turkish champions Besiktas should be pretty open but you’d expect Dortmund to top it.
Haaland scored 10 times in the competition last season and it’s obvious they’ll rely on him again though talent flows throughout a team also containing the likes of Jude Bellingham, Giovanni Reyna and Marco Reus.
Erling Haaland will be expected to supply the goals for Borussia Dortmund in Europe again
Last Champions League win: 2010
Drawn in Group D with Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk and Sheriff Tiraspol
Inter may have ended their long wait for a Scudetto last season – and broken the decade-long stranglehold of Juventus – but they have been weakened by the sales of Lukaku and Hakimi.
The Belgian scored 30 times across all competitions in 2020-21 and those goals will take a lot of replacing. We also don’t know whether Christian Eriksen can return to action.
So much will depend on the forward pairing of Lautaro Martinez and 35-year-old Edin Dzeko finding form if Simeone Inzaghi’s team are to make a dent on the Champions League.
They should be able to hold their own against Real Madrid in Group D and will be desperate to avoid any slip-ups against Shakhtar and group stage debutants Sheriff Tiraspol from Moldova.
Lautaro Martinez celebrates scoring for Inter Milan in their match at Sampdoria last weekend
Last Champions League win: 2007
Drawn in Group B with Atletico Madrid, Liverpool and Porto
Across the city, AC Milan return to Europe’s leading competition for the first time since the 2013-14 season.
It represents a step in the right direction but absolutely nobody is expecting this to be the year Zlatan Ibrahimovic finally wins the Champions League at the age of 40.
His Dad’s Army front line partnership with Olivier Giroud, 34, will certainly have to go some to even get through a group also containing Atletico and Liverpool.
Perhaps Fikayo Tomori, the young Englishman now signed permanently from Chelsea, can inspire a revival of Milan’s Maldini-era defensive might?
It really would be remarkable if AC Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic finally won the Champions League at the age of 40