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
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
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
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
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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