Pomp and ceremony will greet this week’s return of the Champions League’s group stages.
An alluring collection of the globe’s elite club sides. Goal-getters of historical hunger in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. That theme music.
What’s not to like? Well, the crushing predictability, for one, of the opening stanza.
Of the eight groups, only an enticing F jam-packed with Barca, Borussia Dortmund and resurgent Inter Milan truly inspires. There is also an argument that Kai Havertz’s Bayer Levkerkusen may bloody Juventus or Atletico Madrid in D.
Elsewhere, processions seem inevitable as football fans patiently await February’s commencement of the stirring knockouts.
For those searching out a shot of excitement, a prodigiously talented man-child from Scandinavia offers salvation.
Red Bull Salzburg’s Erling Braut Haaland boasts one of modern football’s rarest commodities – a sense of the unknown.
Sport’s saturated mainstream ensured a clamour grew around Messi before his 2004 breakout at Camp Nou. The subsequent proliferation of social media helped ensure widespread anticipation preceded Kylian Mbappe’s 2016/17 Champions League breakthrough at Monaco.
This is not the case for Haaland.
The Norway teenager is in possession of a supreme talent, on the verge of going supernova. Witnessing whether the centre forward begins realising this on the grandest stage, starting with Tuesday’s trip to Belgium top-flight holders Genk, or is shown up as a flat-track bully should rouse the curiosities of all supporters jaded by the same-old scorelines and goalscorers.
Of those familiar with his surname, many will only recollect father Alf-Inge’s exploits in England from 1993-2003 and that Roy Keane horror challenge.
Only a select group au fait with Scandinavian football can regale tales of his debut league goal for Molde off the substitutes bench aged 16. Or the four-goal haul in 21 minutes against previously unbeaten leaders Brann in July 2018 that caused then manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – who knows a thing or two about what makes a premium striker – to draw, now admittedly uncomfortable, comparisons to Romelu Lukaku.
‘Super-agent’ Mino Raiola’s involvement in January’s switch to Austria – reportedly eschewing advances from the likes of United in a pursuit of first-team football – speaks further of his ability.
The 19-year-old’s staggering nine-goal salvo against Honduras during the summer’s Under-20 World Cup was then enough to earn the Golden Boot. Back with employers Salzburg, a terrorising of defenders to make Didier Drogba proud has produced 14 goals in eight appearances.
Redolent of the Ivory Coast icon, Haaland possesses the rare marriage of raw physicality and delicate technique.
A searing burst of pace and propensity to work a yard of space saw him spark danger on the left during this month’s senior international bow against Malta.
Even at 196 centimetres tall and 87 kilograms in weight, the vast majority of his goals are deft strikes from a feathered left foot. Indeed, a win percentage for aerial duels of just 41.2 per cent in the 2019/20 Austrian Bundesliga necessitates improvement.
The weekend hat-trick versus Hartberg featured a pair of dead-eyed one-on-one finishes, plus imaginative back-heel from a prone position. Even when his frame puts him place to notch a header, August’s stylish body twist against St Polten makes them truly memorable.
Haaland has the pedigree to succeed. Just like contemporary Mbappe.
There are, however, no guarantees in football. Luuk de Jong’s inability to fire anywhere but the Netherlands is just one of many examples of when vast promise goes unfulfilled.
“On my debut in the Champions League, I will have goosebumps,” Haaland told en24.news on Sunday. “It is a dream that will come true, I will enjoy every minute.”
The prospect of the uninitiated feeling similarly enthused after his Genk run-out is one to grasp tight.
Holders Liverpool have been drawn to play Napoli, Salzburg and Genk in Group E of the Champions League.
The draw, made in Monaco, has pitted Jurgen Klopp’s side against the Italian club in the group stages for the second successive year – both matches finished as 1-0 home victories in 2018-19.
Manchester City will face Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk, Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb and Italian side Atalanta in Group C.
Both Klopp and City boss Pep Guardiola will have few complaints with their respective groups, although Tottenham and Chelsea appear to be facing tougher challenges.
Tottenham will take on five-time winners Bayern Munich, Olympiacos and Red Star Belgrade in Group B.
Chelsea, drawn in Group H, will play last season’s beaten semi-finalists Ajax, Valencia and French club Lille.
Real Madrid will face French giants Paris St Germain in Group A, which also includes Club Brugge and Galatasaray, while Barcelona have been drawn in Group F alongside Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan and Slavia Prague.
Italian champions Juventus take on Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and Lokomotiv Moscow in Group D and Group G is made up of Zenit St Petersburg, Benfica, Lyon and RB Leipzig.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.