Alex Keble assesses the leading clubs in this year's Champions League, predicting that English teams will again dominate, with Liverpool or Chelsea the most likely winners...
"Liverpool have a renewed purpose, a genuine chance of hitting the heights of 2019/20, and with Anfield providing magical European nights it is rarely wise to bet against them."
The Champions League returns this week and we are on the precipice of a new period of supremacy for English clubs. Last season's all-English final was the second in three years, suggesting the Premier League's growing financial dominance over European football is translating to a new hegemony over Europe's biggest prize.
Prior to 2019's final between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, Spanish clubs had won seven of the last 10 Champions League titles. But as Real Madrid and Barcelona flounder that era is over. The Premier League, with its extraordinary TV deals and spending power, is magnetising the best players and coaches in the world. The disparity has only grown during the pandemic.
English clubs are somehow pandemic proof, it would seem, with a net spend of £1.8 billion since March 2020 - more than any other major league. Aside from Paris Saint-Germain's aggression in the transfer market, nobody can match the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Manchester United.
There is every chance, then, of another all-English final this year. Here's a look at the front-runners ahead of Tuesday's games.
Man City are 7/2 joint-favourites for fairly obvious reasons. Pep Guardiola has arguably the best squad in the competition and after last year's final appearance he is gradually getting closer to winning the one tournament that has eluded him at the Etihad. But after four unsuccessful attempts it seems likely Guardiola will once again get in his own way in the latter stages of the tournament.
A group with PSG and RB Leipzig is tricky and may mean City qualify in second place, creating potential problems early in the competition, and yet the real danger is how Guardiola copes with facing Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea or Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool over two legs. History would suggest both of these managers can get the better of Guardiola as he overthinks a high-pressure tie.
What's more, while the lack of a number nine isn't affecting City in the Premier League (so far), they may need a killer instinct in tight knock-out matches. Guardiola has always been much more effective in leagues than cups, and the slight imbalance of his current squad suggests another disappointing year in Europe.
Lionel Messi, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Sergio Ramos, Achraf Hakimi, and Georginio Wijnaldum; it's pretty clear PSG won the transfer window. It is less clear whether Messi's genius will fit in at PSG in terms of taking them closer to a Champions League trophy, but leaving aside the headline signing Mauricio Pochettino has strengthened in important areas.
Last season's weakness through midfield is solved by the assured possession and high energy of Wijnaldum, while Hakimi, Ramos, and Donnarumma greatly improve a defence that looked shaky in the semi-final against City. In Pochettino, PSG have the right manager to guide them carefully through the tournament.
Pochettino has continued Tuchel's model of sitting deep and counter-attacking in big European games, and Hakimi and Wijnaldum in particular should improve this system. Their defensive setup, complemented by quick breaks through Neymar and Messi, seems almost perfect for the Champions League, but PSG (priced at 7/2) are once again likely to suffer from a lack of serious competition domestically. Can they really match the energy and tactical cohesion of the English contingent?
The new Bayern Munich manager may well be the best of his generation but he is new to all this; not just the latter stages of the Champions League but managing an elite club and all the pressures that come with it. What's more, he is going to instill something of a tactical revolution at the club and it is likely he will need time to get it right.
Dayot Upamecano is certainly a good signing and Bayern did look very good in a 4-1 win at RB Leipzig last weekend, but for now Nagelsmann is wrestling with an ageing attack and presides over arguably the fifth best squad in the Champions League. Winning the biggest prize in European football in his first season feels a long shot, and there is little value to be found in their 7/1 odds.
The only reason Chelsea are as long as 15/2 is the statistical rarity of winning the Champions League in consecutive seasons. Real Madrid are the only team to have done so since AC Milan in 1990, but judging by the speed of progress under Tuchel, Chelsea may well become a team as iconic as those two. There is no squad in the tournament as deep, varied, and balanced as Chelsea's.
The addition of Romelu Lukaku takes them to another level, too, as the 3-0 victory over Aston Villa at the weekend showed; Chelsea were below their best but his ruthless finishing made the difference. Tuchel is a meticulous tactician and therefore the team will only improve with more time under his tutelage. Their brilliant run last season showed Chelsea can handle the pressure.
The main obstacle is juggling a Champions League run with a title challenge. Only three of the last eight Champions League winners won their domestic title in the same year. It hasn't been done in England since Manchester United in 2008.
Chelsea's 1-1 draw with Liverpool before the international break showed a new titanic battle developing between Tuchel and Klopp. It may become the dominant rivalry of the Premier League and Champions League over the next few years.
Liverpool look back to their best despite a lack of new signings. The return of the Anfield crowd has given them fresh energy and motivation following the difficult comedown of last season, while Naby Keita and Diogo Jota are like new signings for Klopp. What's more, Virgil van Dijk's return from injury has dramatically improved their defence and attack because it means Fabinho can move back into midfield.
Since Fabinho returned to his best position Liverpool have won 11 and drawn three of their last 14 games. This is a club with renewed purpose and a genuine chance of hitting the heights of 2019/20 again. With Anfield providing magical European nights, it is rarely wise to bet against them. At 9/1, Liverpool are very good value.
Man Utd and Atletico the best of the rest
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is pinning his hopes on individual star-power providing Manchester United (12/1) with winning moments that distract from some obvious tactical deficiencies through central midfield. This is unlikely to work against the best teams in the world, even with Cristiano Ronaldo in the team.
Real Madrid (14/1) and Barcelona (22/1) are in no fit shape to be contenders, and in fact face a catastrophic few years as Atletico Madrid (22/1) go from strength to strength. Diego Simeone's side have the quality, tactical sturdiness, and experience to surprise a lot of people in this year's Champions League.
Atleti are now the best team in Spain. If anyone outside of England is going to win it, it's them.
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