Top five contenders for the Champions League ahead of Thursday's draw

Chris Bailey 28/08/2019
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You know what’s more exciting than the Champions League draw? The Champions League itself.

Events in Monaco on Thursday may whet appetites before the action gets back under way, but barring a group stage disaster, it’ll be the usual runners and riders contending in the knockouts.

As such we’ve picked out the five likeliest contenders, in order, who will be left clutching that coveted crown come May.

1. Manchester City

How can a team that has never reached a Champions League final, let alone won the thing, be classed as favourites? It’s quite simple really – just because something hasn’t happened before, doesn’t mean it won’t this time. And in the here and now, Pep Guardiola’s men are a clear cut above the rest.

It’s season four of the Pep Guardiola Experience and Raheem Sterling is playing lights out, Aviators-on football with five goals in three games while City have ripped off the physio room for ‘like-a-new-signing’ Kevin De Bruyne’s services.

City aren’t perfect. They can get rattled. See the Tanguy Ndombele show for Lyon last season and Tottenham exploiting them on the counter that led to last season’s demise. Losing Vincent Kompany – especially with John Stones taking a series of backwards lunges – has opened up a big hole next to Aymeric Laporte in defence.

Otherwise their first XI is exemplary and their bench depth is excellent. Surely only blind, dumb luck will stop them reaching the 2019/20 final.

2. Barcelona

BeFunky-collage - 2019-08-24T120948.856

You’ll disagree with this if you think Lionel Messi is the reason Barcelona haven’t won the Champions League in three years. Those of us of an even temperament believe that Messi would be the sole reason far inferior teams, never mind the Blaugrana, would stand a chance with the awesome Argentine in their team.

The 32-year-old scored 12 goals alone in the 2018/19 campaign and only nuclear-scale defensive bungling over the last two seasons cost them big shots at glory. The sole concern should be his durability, with his calf injury slow to heal.

Does the likely signing of Neymar alone take them over the top? It shouldn’t harm them, but one wonders how MSN+G works with Antoine Griezmann part of the 2019/20 reboot. The focus instead should be on whether veterans such as Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets – who feels Frenkie de Jong’s breath on his neck – hold up when the going inevitably gets tough.

3. Liverpool

Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Final

If you somehow haven’t bumped into a Liverpool fan sticking his or her fingers out over the summer, the Reds have indeed won it six times. No7 will be incredibly hard to win but that’s not necessarily a reflection on decreased chances – more the fact that before Real Madrid won three on the spin, UCL defences had been thwarted for a quarter of a century.

There are a few reasons to believe that Liverpool won’t return to the summit this season. The overriding motivation is to rip that Premier League millstone from around their necks and beat City domestically. Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Alisson may also pay for summers away on international duty when it comes to the thick of it. This then could bring squad depth into play, which was not severely tested last season. It is also a squad not significantly strengthened – unlike others – over the summer.

Yet they have a bedded-in philosophy. Superb chemistry. And a manager that they’d happily die for, matching the German chuckle for chuckle while doing it. Perhaps another digit will be added to those hand gestures come May.

4. Juventus

Maurizio Sarri and Cristiano Ronaldo

Just as the presence of Messi vaults any team into the top five, Cristiano Ronaldo creates opportunity. The problem this season may not necessarily be the men on the pitch, but the man in the dugout.

That is not to disparage Maurizio Sarri. In a terrible dose of misfortune upon his return to Italy, he has been struck down with pneumonia and has been forced to miss the start of the season.

It’s another wrinkle to what is already a multi-layered method of management. Many of Sarri’s players have professed that ‘Sarrismo’, or Sarri-ball, is an incredibly demanding philosophy that needs many hours of practice on the training pitch and seamless cohesion between players.

Was this the right appointment for a team quite clearly in win-now mode in Europe with a 34-year-old Ronaldo as the spearhead? With a huge pool of options, particularly in midfield, should they have plumped for a manager who loathes to rotate? There are many questions to be answered.

5. Atletico Madrid

JoaoFelixAtleticoMadrid (2)

Nope, don’t rub your eyes, it’s the workhorses from the Wanda instead of the boys from the Bernabeu who round out our top five.

If it’s a surprise to see them here, let’s dispel a few doubts. They suffered a Barca-style, Ronaldo-shaped aberration when a quarter-final berth was snatched from their fingertips by Juve last season. They’ve also reached two finals under Diego Simeone over the last five seasons, with no other team having done at least that apart from Juventus and Real.

The early signs are that Simeone’s side will remain pugnacious if short of pizzazz – despite their carousel of changes over the summer – following two gritty 1-0 victories in La Liga. It’s a style suited to those hostile away days in the Champions League, where so often nervelessness conquers all.

Losing Griezmann isn’t ideal but they’ve gained Joao Felix, the teenager who revels in pulling rabbits out of hats. Without the declining Diego Godin, Stefan Savic has stepped up. No Rodri, but Thomas Partey can now come to the fore. A blueprint is there – the same can’t be said for their neighbours.

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UEFA Champions League: Celtic, Dundalk advance to second qualifying round

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A comprehensive 5-2 aggregate win for Celtic FC.

Celtic breezed through to the second qualifying round of the Champions League after beating Sarajevo 2-1 in Glasgow to secure a 5-2 aggregate victory.

Ryan Christie and Callum McGregor scored for Celtic, who welcomed back Leigh Griffiths.

Striker Griffiths made his first competitive appearance since last December after taking time out to deal with personal issues.

Benjamin Tatar did level in the second half before McGregor’s winner and Celtic will face Nomme Kalju of Estonia next week.

Goalkeeper Gary Rogers was Dundalk’s hero as they beat Riga 5-4 on penalties to progress.

The 37-year-old saved two spot kicks in a nail-biting shootout in Latvia after the first-round qualifying tie had finished 0-0 on aggregate.

Stefan Panic and Armands Petersons were denied by the goalkeeper before Sean Hoare settled the shootout. Dundalk face Qarabag, who beat Partizani Tirana 2-0, in the second qualifying round.

Herdi Prenga was sent off in extra time for Riga after collecting a second yellow card before the match went to penalties.

Linfield were dumped out of the after a 6-0 aggregate defeat to Rosenborg.

McGregor scored the winner on the night for Celtic.

McGregor scored the winner on the night for Celtic.

The Norwegian side won 4-0 on Wednesday in Trondheim to easily progress.

Anders Konradsen struck twice before David Akintola and Pal Andre Helland scored as David Healy’s side failed to recover from their 2-0 first-leg loss.

Rosenborg will play BATE after their 3-2 aggregate win over Poland’s Piast following a 2-1 win.

Sweden’s AIK squeezed past Ararat-Armenia 4-3 on aggregate after a 3-1 win.

Former Birmingham and Sunderland midfielder Sebastian Larsson scored a crucial second-half penalty to send the hosts through to play Maribor.

They completed a convincing 5-0 aggregate win over Valur after their 2-0 victory at the Stadion Ljudski.

Ferencvaros beat Ludogorets 3-2 to progress 5-3 on aggregate and will face Valletta next.

Cluj beat Astana 3-1 to win 3-2 on aggregate and play Maccabi Tel-Aviv in the second round.

Montenegro’s Sutjeska Niksic advanced with a 3-2 penalty shootout win over Slovan Bratislava after a late goal earned a 1-1 draw on the night and 2-2 aggregate result.

Provided by Press Association Sports

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Champions League the target for Man City were Vincent Kompany's parting words

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Vincent Kompany told his Manchester City team-mates winning the Champions League was their next target as he announced he was leaving the club, it has been revealed.

The inspirational Kompany left City in May after helping them win the domestic treble last season.

The Belgium defender signed off after the FA Cup final and told his colleagues first in the Wembley dressing room.

His speech features in a documentary about the 2018/19 season, ‘Fight ’til the end’, which will be available on the club’s new streaming platform City for TV.

An emotional Kompany said: “I just want to say thank you, thank you for 11 years of experiences. Bad patches, good patches…everything I have experienced with the club that I love. I’m so grateful.

“It’s not going to be my best speech, because it’s the most emotional one I have ever given in my life.

Vincent Kompany has returned to his native Belgium where he has taken over at boyhood club Anderlecht.

Vincent Kompany has returned to his native Belgium where he has taken over at boyhood club Anderlecht.

“I’m glad that this was my last game. I wouldn’t have wanted it any different.

“You guys are the best group of people I could have finished my City career with. I have gained new family members.

“I think you’ll realise by the end, when you get to this point in your career, the people you remember are those who were there in special moments. Everyone here is now part of my family.

“The challenge for you boys is to be even better. It’s difficult to say, you have just won the English treble, but you haven’t won the Champions League yet. That’s your goal now.

“You’ve got such a group of players, that can achieve anything they want, don’t ever let it slip. Before you know it you will be doing a speech like me, crying, and then it’s the end of it. Trust me it goes that fast.

“So let’s have a party, a good celebration. Thank you.”

Kompany won 10 major honours during his distinguished career at the Etihad Stadium. He left City to take up a role of player-manager at boyhood club Anderlecht.

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