The anticipation is over, tonight the Champions League finally returns to our screens.
The greatest club competition in the world always fails and this season’s episode promises to be another fascinating and compelling battle for glory.
Here, Sports post columnist DANNY MURPHY picks his contenders, names his dream Champions League XI and answers all the important questions in his dedicated guide to the tournament.
Chelsea will kick off defending their Champions League crown when it returns tonight
WILL PREMIER LEAGUE DOMINATION REMAIN?
We’ve had two all-English finals in three years and all our clubs Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United will do their utmost. It will be difficult as PSG and Bayern Munich in particular look strong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we had three semi-finalists.
It’s a big shift because a few years ago we wondered why clubs in the Premier League didn’t do better. But football is cyclical and now the Spanish giants are struggling financially and Italian teams are struggling.
The Premier League teams are still the strongest in Europe and Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea will be strong contenders to win the Champions League
WHO WILL BE MORE SUCCESSFUL IN THIS COMPETITION WITH NEW CLUBS, MESSI OR RONALDO
I agree with the majority who would go for Messi, because PSG have invested a lot in winning the Champions League. They’ve already come close and now they’ve brought in Donnarumma, Sergio Ramos and the world’s best player to cross the line.
If United want to surpass PSG, it means a fantastic season. Ronaldo will think he can do it, but I’m not so sure. United haven’t been around since Fergie’s time.
Lionel Messi goes beyond Cristiano Ronaldo in this season’s Champions League
ARE BARCELONA AND REAL MADRID STILL THE GLAMOR TEAMS
Unfortunately, they are a long way from what they were and that affects how they are perceived regardless of history. Not only have Barcelona lost Messi and Griezmann, they have also admitted good young players to clubs like Spurs and Leeds to raise money. Real Madrid is not in that great shape either.
Some of the glamor is gone for now. You will see fewer kids wearing Barça shirts and people like me are less likely to turn on the television to watch them play. By contrast, money is no object for PSG, Manchester City have signed Jack Grealish for £100 million, Liverpool and Atletico Madrid have better players. The turnaround has been extreme and don’t expect Barca or Real to find themselves in the latter stages.
WHICH NO 9 WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY WITH: LUKAKU, RONALDO, LEWANDOWSKI, BENZEMA OR HAALAND?
To tell the grandchildren about Ronaldo. From my football perspective, Karim Benzema. I’m not saying he’s better than the others on the list, but for a midfielder it’s nice to have an attacker with the awareness to drop deep, link play and exchange passes. I loved playing with Litmanen, Gudjohnsen and Robbie Keane who had eyes in the back of their minds.
You would choose Ronaldo for several reasons. He will go down in history as one of the greatest ever and there would be great bragging rights to say you knew him and played with him.
As good as Ronaldo is, Karim Benzema is a midfielder’s dream and I would have loved to play with him
HOW WILL HARRY KANE VIEW WHEN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE BEGINS
He will say the right things and I’m sure he is mentally strong enough to focus on the Europe Conference, but personally I think it will be the hardest thing not to get his move to Manchester City. My advice would be not to turn on the television as it hurts. The frustration will be enormous.
I had a hard time when I left Liverpool in 2004 and watched them win the Champions League. I did watch the games because I supported the club and had a buddy in the team, but there was a clear feeling of “I should be there”. It will be a hundred times worse for Kane because he knows he has the ability to play for any side of the world.
Watching the Champions League will hurt Harry Kane and if I were him I wouldn’t turn on the TV
PREMIER LEAGUE OF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE, WHICH WOULD THE MANAGERS BEHIND BOTH CHOOSE TO WIN?
It’s easy for Thomas Tuchel. He just won the Champions League so he would love the Premier League right now, it’s human nature to try to get what you haven’t achieved. Likewise for Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, he will crave the Champions League, having not yet been able to get his hands on it in England.
It’s harder for Jurgen Klopp and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. I don’t think Klopp will differentiate in choosing his teams but it’s a tradition at Liverpool to make winning the domestic league your priority and they’ve still only won it once in 30 years so I think that he would prefer the Eredivisie in a turn of events. For Solskjaer, every one of them! He desperately needs a trophy and any of these would put him in a phenomenally strong position to move forward.
Some managers will prioritize certain trophies but for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer he will take them all – and the Champions League would put him in a strong position to move forward
HOW DO YOU FIND ABOUT THE ROAD GOAL RULE BEING DELETED?
I’m happy about it. It is inherently unfair to push one team through and take out another when they have scored the same number of goals. In any case, in a penalty shoot-out, a team has to put the ball in the net more often than the opponent, which is the essence of football.
The away goals rule was introduced to prevent teams from being over-defensive, but I don’t think the spectacle will hurt its elimination. Most successful teams now play on the front foot. And if away teams have less incentive to score, it’s offset by home teams who don’t have the same fear of conceding, so they can really go for it!
IS LIVERPOOL’S SQUAD BIG ENOUGH TO FIGHT ON TWO FRONTS?
I think so, provided they are not too unlucky with injuries. Ideally, you would want one or two more options up front, but the squad is probably stronger now than they were in 2019 when they won the Champions League and were in the title race until the end.
Diogo Jota is another option for Mane, Salah and Firmino and Origi and Minamino are at the club, with Curtis Jones and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ready to take on more responsibility from Klopp. They look good in the back with four central defenders on top.
Liverpool have great backup options to go for the Premier League and Champions League this season, with players like Diogo Jota and Curtis Jones (pictured) being used alternately
HOW MANY OF THE 32 CLUBS WOULD YOU SAY ARE POTENTIAL WINNERS?
Personally, I think the winners will come from one of six: Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and PSG, with Atletico being an outsider as Diego Simeone has match winners in Luis Suarez and Griezmann in addition to the remarkable team spirit he has nurtured.
But if you ask the managers themselves, I would think Manchester United, Real Madrid and even Juventus would give themselves a chance. Juventus have Euro 2020 winners like Giorgio Chiellini by their side so you can see why they would think they are competitive, but that Italian national team also had Veratti, Jorghino and Donnarumma to help.
With Luiz Suarez and Antoine Griezmann on the attack, Atletico Madrid are my dark horses
WHAT TIE WOULD YOU PAY TO WATCH THIS WEEK?
Barcelona-Bayern and Inter Milan-Real Madrid are attractive matches, but I think Liverpool-AC Milan stand out as it signals the return of those magical European nights at Anfield after such a long wait. You can imagine the buzz before kick-off as the teams walk out.
It also has to be a top match. Olivier Giroud has already been one of the goalscorers in Serie A and as a former Chelsea man he can expect a raucous welcome from The Kop.
CALL YOUR CHAMPIONS LEAGUE 2021/22 XI
Manuel Neuer (Bayern): Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Ruben Dias (Man City), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Alphonso Davies (Bayern); Joshua Kimmich (Bayern), N’Golo Kante (Chelsea), Kevin De Bruyne (Man City); Neymar (PSG), Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund), Lionel Messi (PSG)
Erling Haaland (left) joins my Champions League dream team alongside Neymar (right), but there’s no room for his PSG team-mate Kylian Mbappe