Champions League returns with a mouthwatering first week of appetising fixtures

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They say the initial phase of the Champions League is becoming boring, predictable. That due to the vast riches and ever-expanding gap in financial might between the haves and the have-nots, the group stages are concessions rather than contests for the teams at the top table.

And then the first round of the 2019/20 competition rolls around and offers up a smorgasbord of sumptuous showdowns, games that would be befitting of the final itself.

As club football’s greatest and most glamorous competition returns, we look at four fizzing fixtures taking place this week.

NAPOLI v LIVERPOOL

Venue: Stadio San Paolo I KO: Tuesday, 11pm UAE

Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Final

A sense of déjà vu greets both sides, who also met in the group stages a year ago. And while a pair of 1-0 wins for each home side doesn’t sound enthralling, the game in Naples was an absorbing contest – won by Lorenzo Insigne’s dramatic 90th minute strike. Alisson had been on song for the visitors prior to that with a couple of fine stops, while Dries Mertens hammered one effort off the crossbar.

Carlo Ancelotti’s Partenopei will be hoping to spoil the party for the holders who will be in celebratory mood on their return to the competition following winning their sixth European Cup against Tottenham four months ago.

The hosts head into the game in raucous goalscoring form having netted nine in three Serie A games so far – including a 2-0 win over Sampdoria on Saturday.

Concession of a ruinous 90th minute Kalidou Koulibaly own goal in a 4-3 defeat to champions Juventus is the only blight on their season.

The Reds, meanwhile, go into the game following a come-from-behind 3-1 win over Newcastle on the weekend. They are the only Premier League side with a perfect record from five games, with their fearsome forwards in fine form too.

BORUSSIA DORTMUND v BARCELONA

Venue: Westfalenstadion I KO: Tuesday, 11pm UAE

Missing? Messi is yet to feature this season for Barca.

Missing? Messi is yet to feature this season for Barca.

Lionel Messi is set to make his long-awaited first appearance of the season in Westphalia, but even devoid of the little magician sprinkling some stardust on it, this game should be special.

Curiously, these two behemoths have only once met previously, which was two decades ago in the 1997 UEFA Super Cup final. Technically it was twice as the showpiece was played over two legs back then.

Barca won 3-1 on aggregate, thanks to first-leg goals from Luis Enrique and Rivaldo, while Giovanni extended that advantage in the return leg in Germany; Jorg Heinrich’s goal no more than a consolation for Dortmund.

Both sides exited at the hands of English opposition last season – in fact they both lost to the two sides that made the final. Barca embarrassingly ceded a 3-0 first-leg semi-final advantage to crash out 4-0 in the Anfield return, while BVB were beaten like an old rug, losing 4-0 on aggregate to Spurs in the last 16.

The Blaugrana got their domestic campaign up and running with a 5-2 vanquishing of Valencia on Saturday. Dortmund also come into the game on the back of a big win, blitzing Bayer Leverkusen 4-0, to sit second in the Bundesliga.

PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN v REAL MADRID

Venue: Parc des Princes I KO: Wednesday, 11pm UAE

KarimBenzemaRealMadridLevante (1)

These two giants cast a mighty shadow over Europe, but something that will undoubtedly pour cold water on what should be the powderkeg fixture in Paris is the home side’s absentees.

Neymar belatedly returned to the fold for the French champions this weekend, incessantly booed before scoring a dramatic late winner to beat Strasbourg 1-0 in stoppage time, and extend PSG’s lead at the top of Ligue 1.

It should have served as the caveat to set up a scintillating match with a team considered his potential suitors, Madrid, before former employers Barca became the frontrunners for the Brazilian’s signature this summer.

Instead, excitement has been quelled by Neymar’s niggling absence through suspension, earned after a stunning social media rant following the Parisiens’ last 16 exit to Manchester United last season.

Meanwhile, the other two parts of the PSG attacking triumvirate – Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani – are out with respective hamstring and hip injuries.

While PSG predictably top the pile domestically, Real have failed to illuminate La Liga yet this season. Real Valladolid snatching a late draw and then their own rescue act courtesy of Gareth Bale’s brace against Villarreal, before he was sent off, followed an opening day 3-1 win over Celta Vigo. They just about held on for a 3-2 victory against Levante on Saturday, although they had led 3-0 at half-time.

ATLETICO MADRID v JUVENTUS

Venue: Wanda Metropolitano I KO: Wednesday, 11pm UAE

Ronaldo's hat-trick sent Juve through against Atletico last season.

Ronaldo’s hat-trick sent Juve through against Atletico last season.

A rematch of last season’s last 16 clash awaits us at the Wanda. Juve looked finished in February when Diego Simeone’s side had put one foot into the last eight following a 2-0 first-leg defeat of Cristiano Ronaldo and Co in Madrid.

But the old man, 34, put the Old Lady into the quarter-finals with a virtuoso display in the return leg as the Bianconeri turned the tables in Turin with a 3-0 win – Ronaldo’s 86th minute penalty proving the difference.

The two sides twice took it in turns to be losing finalists in a four-year span from 2014-17 – Atleti defeated by city rivals Real on both occasions while Juve also felt Spain pain as they were beaten by Barcelona and then Real.

The duo have started their domestic campaigns relatively well although both will head into the continental clash on the back of underwhelming results.

Simeone’s home side lost for the first time following three wins, going down 2-0 to Real Sociedad – for whom Real loanee Martin Odegaard opened the scoring. The Italian champions also dropped points for the first time this term following a 0-0 draw at Fiorentina.

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Man United target Erling Braut Haaland provides excitement for jaded Champions League groups

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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.

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Champions League draw: Holders Liverpool land Napoli again in group stages

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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.

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