The Champions League is back and looks more competitive than ever so read Mark O'Haire's guide to every team from holders Chelsea and favourites PSG to newcomers Sheriff Tiraspol...
"Chelsea strengthened their squad with Romelu Lukaku and Saul Niguez and now arguably boast the most complete roster on the planet. With a passable pool to contend with, recent course and distance form, plus Tuchel's track record of downing illustrious opposition coaches, Chelsea look the best bet from the leading candidates."
Best Champions League performance: Runners-Up (2020)
PSG have been parachuted into Champions League favouritism following an audacious summer in the transfer window. Picking up mesmeric Lionel Messi, as well as Sergio Ramos, Achraf Hakimi and Gianluigi Donnarumma undoubtedly improves Les Parisiens, whilst keeping hold of Kylian Mbappe gives Mauricio Pochettino a glut of options across the board. However, finding the right balance in a top-heavy team will be key PSG's prospects of conquering the continent, as well as progressing from a potentially tricky pool.
Best Champions League performance: Runners-Up (2021)
Beaten finalists in June, Pep Guardiola's group will look to go one better this time around. The Citizens have tended to breeze through the group-stages but proven to be their own worst enemies once reaching the business end of the competition as their Catalan coach overthinks a major tie. The addition of Jack Grealish gives City a new dimension in the final-third and the Blue Moon deserve their place towards the top end of the betting. But more appealing punting options can be found elsewhere.
Best Champions League performance: Winners (2012, 2021)
Chelsea's turnaround in fortunes under Thomas Tuchel's tutorship marks the Blues out as major contenders in their quest for back-to-back Champions League glories. The capital club strengthened their squad with the captures of standout Romelu Lukaku and Saul Niguez and now arguably boast the most complete roster on the planet. With a passable pool to contend with, recent course and distance form, plus Tuchel's track record of downing illustrious opposition coaches, Chelsea look the best bet from the leading candidates.
Best Champions League performance: Winners (2001, 2013, 2020)
Julian Nagelsmann takes over the reigns at Bayern Munich this season and the 34-year-old former Leipzig boss has been joined in Bavaria by former colleagues Dayot Upamecano and Marcel Sabitzer. The duo will cover the departures of David Alaba and Javi Martinez, although the German champions' squad still looks a little short beyond their exceptional first XI. Injuries to key components, such as Robert Lewandowski or Joshua Kimmich, could therefore have a major effect on Bayern's chances in the latter stages, whilst Nagelsmann is yet to completely convince on the European stage.
Best Champions League performance: Winners (2005, 2019)
After a forgettable Premier League title defence last season Liverpool have reloaded and appear well set for another assault on European silverware. The Reds welcome talisman Virgil van Dijk back from long-term injury and his influence, coupled with Fabinho's return to midfield should provide the foundations for the Merseysiders to flourish. In an awkward pool, Jurgen Klopp's charges have the firepower to seal a knockout berth, and from there the Anfield factor could play a crucial role in Liverpool's quest for outright glory.
Best Champions League performance: Winners (1999, 2008)
Manchester United suffered an early Champions League elimination last term and eventually went on to suffer Europa League final defeat to Villarreal. The Spaniards join United in a tricky group-stage draw along with the lively Atalanta, but a summer of splurge that's seen Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho join Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford suggests a significant improvement in Europe's premier club competition is anticipated from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's group. Regardless of their star-studded and top-heavy squad, ultimately United's head coach could prove to be their undoing.
Best Champions League performance: Winners (1998, 2000, 2002, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018)
Real Madrid are joined by Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk in the group-stage for the second successive season and Los Blancos' are reasonably expected to find their way through to the knockout stage for the 26th occasion. From there, Carlo Ancelotti's charges possess the potential to find a performance to evoke memories of previous days of glory, but an ageing squad is increasingly inconsistent. The Spaniards lack the mobility and physicality to trouble the might of Europe's elite and an early exit is therefore expected.
Best Champions League performance: Runners-Up (2014, 2016)
Atletico Madrid capitalised on the chaos at Barcelona and Real Madrid to secure the La Liga title last term and Los Colchoneros command maximum respect again domestically following the arrivals of Antonine Griezmann and Rodrigo De Paul. The capital club appear stronger on paper coming into the current campaign and Diego Simeone's side could benefit from the abolition of the away goals rule with their gruelling defensive-first football often proving troublesome during the knockout stage. Worthy each-way contenders.
Best Champions League performance: Winners (2006, 2009, 2011, 2015)
For the first time since 2003, Barcelona will begin a Champions League campaign without Lionel Mess and the Catalan club appear easily opposable in their current guise. Years of off-field mismanagement have caught up with Los Blaugranes and it's difficult to see Ronald Koeman engineering a major assault on top honours this term. Reacquainting themselves with Bayern Munich will cause concern but Barca still boast the ability to overcome both Benfica and Dynamo Kiev to reach the last-16.
Best Champions League performance: Winners (1996)
Juventus' failed experiments with Maurizio Sarri and Andrea Pirlo, plus the expensive signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, look to have put the Bianconeri back a few years on their continental rivals. The Old Lady have since opted to bring back Massimiliano Allegri to the Turin dugout and the experienced coach will be looking to go one better after steering the club to silver-placed finishes in this competition in 2015 and 2017. However, a place on the podium is probably beyond Juve's reach in what's been described as a transition year.
Best Champions League performance: Winners (1997)
Dortmund are the market leaders in an open Group C. Die Schwarzgelben possess the tools to better Sporting, Ajax and Besiktas, but question marks remain over Marco Rose's ability to engineer a major title challenge with the tools at his disposal. Jadon Sancho's departure weakens BVB's frontline and doubts persist over the Germans' defensive fragility when up against the continent's strongest suits. A full Westfalenstadion will give Dortmund a major boost but outright glory appears a step too far for Erling Haaland and co.
Best Champions League performance: Quarter-Finals (2018)
Europa League specialists Sevilla have never been beyond the last-eight of the Champions League in its current guise. Nevertheless, Los Nervionenses could prove obdurate opponents should they progress from a passable Group G under canny head coach Julen Lopetegui. Savvy signings have supplemented a functional rather than flashy squad that possesses enough final-third ingenuity and defensive grit to ensure a rough ride for any visitor to the atmospheric Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
Best Champions League performance: Winners (2010)
It's been all change at Inter Milan this summer after the Nerazzurri secured a memorable Scudetto under the watch of Antonio Conte. Financial issues have led to the departure of Conte, star striker Romelu Lukaku and flying wing-back Achraf Hakimi amongst others with highly-rated Simone Inzaghi taking control of proceedings. The Italians failed to fire in last season's competition but still boast the ability to secure a knockout place, although top honours still appear beyond the San Siro outfit.
Best Champions League performance: Quarter-Finals (2020)
Atalanta should feel at home on Europe's biggest stage after two impressive campaigns in this competition. Gian Piero Gasperini's troops arguably deserved more in last term's last-16 exit against Real Madrid, and La Dea pushed PSG close in the quarter-finals before their previous elimination. The high-pressing Bergamo boys boast consistency, continuity and have arguably upgraded their squad this summer without flashing the cash. The Nerazzurri should not be dismissed at nice each-way prices.
Best Champions League performance: Winners (1995)
Ajax's recent (and relevant) Champions League success has brought the Amsterdam outfit a major financial advantage over their Eredivisie rivals and De Godenzonen were able to clinch domestic honours by 16 points last time out. Unlike previous campaigns, the Dutch giants have largely been able to keep their squad together, including in-demand head coach Erik ten Haag. Progression from an open pool should be Ajax's first goal but any assault on the latter stages looks beyond the current crop.
Best Champions League performance: Winners (1994, 2003, 2007)
Milan are back at European football's top table for the first time since 2014. However, the Rossoneri have been pitted in a devilishly difficult pool alongside Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Porto, making potential progress for Stefano Pioli's posse unlikely. Gianluigi Donnarumma was a major departure, although Mike Maigan promises plenty between the sticks, whilst Olivier Giroud has the ability to unsettle defences. Ultimately, AC lack the star quality to usurp their more superior group rivals.
Best Champions League performance: Semi-Finals (2020)
RB Leipzig impressed en-route to a semi-final exit in 2020 and Die Rotten Bullen caught the imagination again last term when ousting Manchester United from an imposing group alongside PSG. Julian Nagelsmann has since left the Saxony side with key components Marcel Sabitzer, Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahim Konate also exiting this summer. Now under the watch of American boss Jesse Marsch, Leipzig are again posed with a formidable group with mega-rich petro-clubs PSG and Man City expected to leave RB battling it out for Europa League football post-Christmas.
Red Bull Salzburg
Best Champions League performance: Group-Stage (2020, 2021)
Group G is the weakest Champions League pool on paper with top seeds Lille joined by Sevilla, Wolfsburg and Red Bull Salzburg. The Austrians will welcome the downgrade in standards having been housed in two difficult groups in their most recent campaigns and appear lively outsiders to reach the knockout phase. Matthias Jaissle oversees proceedings following Jesse March's exit, and whilst highly-rated Zambians, Patson Daka and Enock Mwepu, have moved on, Salzburg's top-level recruitment should ensure they're competitive.
Best Champions League performance: Winners (2004)
Porto were unable to keep pace with Sporting in the domestic title race last term but Sergio Conceicao's side impressed in continental action, eliminating Juventus, as well as beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge despite exiting at the last-eight stage. With a rare summer without major upheaval, the Dragoes can expect to be competitive in a mightily-tough pool alongside Liverpool and Atletico Madrid. The Portuguese giants are likely to be battling it out with Milan for Europa League football.
Best Champions League performance: Quarter-Finals (2006)
Benfica splashed the cash ahead of 2020/21 with the Lisbon side looking to eager to wrestle back their domestic crown and make an overdue impression on the European stage. As Aguias brought Jorge Jesus back from a successful stint in Brazil to oversee the project but few foresaw Os Encarnados' floundering. Portugal's most decorated club finished outside of the top-two and failed to impress in the Europa League, suggesting a huge improvement is required to progress from Group E.
Best Champions League performance: Semi-Finals (2006)
Villarreal secured their first-ever major trophy by taking Europa League honours last term and El Submarino Amarillo should enter this term's Champions League with little to fear considering beaten finalists Manchester United join them, Atalanta and Young Boys in an intriguing Group F. Unai Emery relishes masterminding European success, and should ensure the Spaniards are competitive but hopes of repeating their run to the final-four from 2006 appear farfetched.
Best Champions League performance: Group-Stage (2010, 2016)
Wolfsburg upset the odds to finish fourth in the Bundesliga last season with head coach Oliver Glasner receiving plenty of plaudits. Die Wolfe's exploits were enough for Eintracht Frankfurt to poach Glasner with Mark van Bommel the surprise choice to take over the reigns. The Dutch boss has retained similar principles to his predecessor and managed to keep hold of key personnel such as Wout Weghorst and Maxence Lacroix. Housed in the weakest pool, Wolfsburg have every chance to progress but will likely meet their match thereafter.
Best Champions League performance: Last-16 (2009)
Sporting Lisbon ended a 19-year wait for domestic title glory earlier this year, capping a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the capital club. The Leoes were seemingly poles apart from traditional big-hitting rivals Benfica and Porto before Ruben Amorim arrived in the hot-seat. The expensive recruit from Braga had an instant effect on Sporting and has given the group the belief required to compete on the continental stage. Drawn in an open-looking Group C, Amorim will be eyeing-up a first Champions League knockout place for the Leoes since 2009.
Best Champions League performance: Quarter-Finals (2011)
Shakhtar Donetsk endured a strange 2020/21. The Hirnyky beat Real Madrid home and away in the Champions League group-stage yet still failed to reach the last-16, whilst domestically their run of four straight Ukrainian titles was ended by old rivals Dynamo Kiev. The club - still based in their adopted home in the country's capital - reacted by appointing exciting Italian coach Roberto De Zerbi following his successful stint with Sassuolo. Lassina Traore and Marlon have also arrived although ousting Madrid and Inter Milan could prove a tall order in Group D.
Best Champions League performance: Last-16 (2007)
French clubs - outside of PSG - have found the Champions League going a little too tough in recent seasons and top seeds Lille should be opposed in a pool alongside Sevilla, Salzburg and Wolfsburg. Financial constraints led to miracle man Christophe Galtier moving on after their shock Ligue 1 title success and fellow stars Mike Maignon and Boubakary Soumare have also departed. Jocelyn Gourvennec faces an arduous task with Les Dogues' squad likely to struggle with the duel rigours of domestic and European matters.
Zenit St Petersburg
Best Champions League performance: Last-16 (2012, 2016)
Zenit were beaten on only three occasions as they claimed a third successive Premier League title triumph under Sergei Semak, However, translating dominant domestic form across to the continental circuit has proven a tall order for Sine-Belo-Golubye. In fact, Russian clubs have tended to fall flat in Champions League action and the St Petersburg club don't appear equipped to down either Chelsea or Juventus in Group H.
Best Champions League performance: Group-Stage (2015, 2016)
Malmo are managed by former Newcastle striker Jon Dahl Tomasson and the Swedish champions deserve their place in Group H after overcoming four rounds of preliminaries to reach the group-stage of the competition for only the third time. The Himmelsblatt have wobbled in the Allsvenskan of late with their road record coming under particular attention. Even so, Tomasson's troops will relish their underdog role and will look to make the most of matches at their Eleda Stadion base.
Best Champions League performance: Group-Stage (2019)
Young Boys monopolised the Swiss Super League over the past four seasons with Gerardo Seoane leading the Bern outfit to the title by 31 points last time out, losing just twice. Seoane has since been picked up by Bayer Leverkusen with former Huddersfield supremo David Wagner given the gig. YB have endured a tricky opening stanza domestically but showed plenty of intent in progressing through three qualifying rounds to reach this stage.
Best Champions League performance: Last-16 (2018)
Turkish champions Besiktas are dining at European football's top table for the first time in four years and the Istanbul giants have bolstered their squad with the loan signing of Michy Batshuayi from Chelsea. Club legend Sergen Yalcın guided the group to double success last season and will be keen to put on a promising show following severe underperformances from the Turkish contingent in recent seasons. Even so, the Kara Kartallar are the weakest from an open Group C section.
Best Champions League performance: Semi-Finals (1999)
The 1998/99 Dynamo Kiev vintage feel like a world away but veteran Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu gave the capital club plenty to cheer about last season after breaking Shakhtar Donetsk's domestic dominance. It was Dynamo's fist championship in five years with the Kiev side suffering a solitary defeat en-route to top honours. The Ukrainians have been handed a tough draw alongside Barcelona and Bayern Munich so Lucescu's main aim might be to secure qualification for the Europa League ahead of Benfica.
Best Champions League performance: Group-Stage (1993, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2017, 2019, 2020)
Club Brugge have never made it beyond the Champions League group-stage in seven previous attempts and the Belgian's prospects of knockout football appear bleak having been drawn alongside outright favourites PSG and Manchester City. Philippe Clement's charges have battled commendably against more illustrious opposition during their past two campaigns at this level Blauw-Zwart are likely to prop up Group A.
Best Champions League performance: Debutants
Sheriff Tiraspol defied all odds and expectations to became the first Moldovan side to reach the group stage of the Champions League by seeing off Dinamo Zagreb in the play-offs. Yuriy Vernydub produced a tactical masterclass to oust the Croatian giants having already knocked out Red Star Belgrade. The club - based in Moldova's breakaway region of Transnistria - is owned by controversial businessman Viktor Gushan - and features only a handful of homegrown players. An early exit looms.
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