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Champions League: The Fab Four English teams (and PSG) lead the race this year

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The final defense of this title didn’t go well for Chelsea at all.

“A very bad experience, quite painful,” Cesar Azpilicueta cringed on Monday as he recalled what happened nine years ago.

One defeat in Donetsk, another in Turin, Roberto di Matteo was abolished and they sang protest songs at Stamford Bridge and rioted against interim boss Rafa Benitez before Christmas.

Chelsea remain the only team to leave the group stage as holders since the Champions League introduced one.

Cesar Azpilicueta will captain Chelsea this year in their Champions League title defense

The Spaniard was part of the Blues side who crashed into the groups as champions in 2012

The Spaniard was part of the Blues side who crashed into the groups as champions in 2012

“I will try with all my experience to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Azpilicueta, captain and the lone survivor in the dressing room.

It’s hard to imagine a repeat, though, and not just because Thomas Tuchel’s squad have started in such an irresistible mood, with a record £97.5million money Romelu Lukaku quickly dug into the goal.

Go back in the summer of 2012 and Di Matteo’s squad started with 10 points from four games, bolstered by creative stars Eden Hazard and Oscar, as well as Azpilicueta.

This year, however, Premier League clubs are entering Europe from a strong position as rivals – with the dizzying exception of Paris Saint-Germain – suffer the financial fallout from the global pandemic.

The Blues are now trying to defend the title they won in Porto in the final against Man City

The Blues are now trying to defend the title they won in Porto in the final against Man City

In Italy champion Inter Milan held a fire sale. Boss Antonio Conte left with bleak prospects when they cashed in on top scorer Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi.

Juventus, who are level with Chelsea in Group H, have taken just one point from three games in the new Serie A campaign and have parted ways with Cristiano Ronaldo.

In Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona, ​​combined winners of 10 of this century’s 22 Champions League titles, are on the move as Barca go through a financial crisis without Lionel Messi and Real returning to a revamped Bernabeu without the defensive base of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane.

No one will write off these famous old clubs. Who can tell what could happen, even if this has been a chastisement to the traditional forces of European football, living in such fear of the future that they conspired to break with UEFA and form a Super League.

Real Madrid and Barcelona are no longer the heavyweights they once were after difficult summers

Real Madrid and Barcelona are no longer the heavyweights they once were after difficult summers

But the Premier League teams have survived relatively unscathed. They don’t face such harsh realities and still spend as if there is no tomorrow.

Manchester United take on the Young Boys in Switzerland with the winning mentality of Ronaldo and Varane in the roster of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

With Jadon Sancho on board and Edinson Cavani extending his stay, United can expect to outperform last season when they were knocked out by PSG and RB Leipzig in the group stage.

“The goal is to go all the way,” said Solskjaer from Bern.

“We know it’s going to be difficult. It always is. But we have added some quality, experience and youth to the squad and hopefully we are better prepared for what is to come.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's (left) Man United begin their Champions League bid in Switzerland

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s (left) Man United begin their Champions League bid in Switzerland

Bayern Munich will, as always, lead the German attack, having raided Leipzig for boss Julian Nagelsmann, center half Dayot Upamecano and midfielder Marcel Sabitzer.

Atlético Madrid, champions of Spain, and a resurgent AC Milan, second in Serie A, add brilliance to Liverpool’s group.

And then there’s PSG… phew, PSG: Funded by Qatar’s boundless wealth as UEFA’s control of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play evaporates, PSG have assembled a star-studded cast as they hunt for the trophy for the first time.

Messi, Ramos, Hakimi, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Gigi Wijnaldum have all signed since last season when the French club reached the semi-finals where they lost to Manchester City.

Paris Saint-Germain and Lionel Messi are the biggest threats to England's teams this season

Paris Saint-Germain and Lionel Messi are the biggest threats to England’s teams this season

Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Angel di Maria and Co will stay. And all Mauricio Pochettino has to do is get them in shape, keep everyone in tune and win the Champions League. If not this season, when?

Manchester City are in Group A with PSG and Leipzig, the new clubs responsible for United’s demise last season.

“There are so many teams that can win it,” said Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel before Group H’s opening game against Zenit St Petersburg at Stamford Bridge.

No one, he rightly pointed out, predicted last season’s winners at the start of the competition. To be fair, few got it right on the morning of the final against City.

Manchester City hopes to make up for the mistakes of Porto's final in May

Manchester City hopes to make up for the mistakes of Porto’s final in May

“We came out of the shadows a bit,” said Tuchel, who took PSG to their first final in 2020, losing to Bayern.

“You need a bit of luck, a momentum, a good group, but there are so many teams with a good group, a strong club, good players and good coaches.

“This is a very open competition. Everything is possible if you believe, if you have momentum and luck. This is what we had.

“It wasn’t like we didn’t deserve to win. We may have been a bit of a surprise in the end, but it wasn’t undeserved.’

Perception is everything. Twelve months later, and most would agree that Tuchel’s Chelsea is looking at potential winners.

However, Chelsea has the stamp of champions after a blistering start to the competition season

However, Chelsea has the stamp of champions after a blistering start to the competition season

They evolve, improve, and young players like Mason Mount and Kai Havertz mature. Lukaku has added an important dimension to it. They also have the experience and authority of champions.

“In the end, nothing is more fun than winning,” Tuchel said. “I was lucky enough to reach the final with my team the previous season and I felt like it was a big achievement, but not to take the last step is a huge difference and you realize what it means when you do it .

‘The experience from outside; the joy, the experience, the confidence your team gains from achieving it. When you take the last step, nothing compares to it. Then it really changes something for everyone. But the main thing is not to look back. The important thing is to keep the feeling, because that feeds the hunger for more; it’s addicting.

“This is what I feel and what I demand of myself and of everyone. We’ll have this experience together forever and we can bond and build confidence out of it, but it’s about looking ahead and meeting challenges that come.”

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