The Champions League is back, with City the unlikely favourites
If a first domestic title since 1990 is a possibility for Liverpool, then European priorities might have to be revised
Cristiano Ronaldo scoring for Juventus. Any unstoppable free kicks or sumptuous volleys will this season be delivered for the Italian team. Photograph: Getty Images
The Champions League is back this coming week, and easily the most striking aspect of the competition before the group stages commence is that Manchester City are the favourites to win it.
With all respect to Pep Guardiola’s expensively assembled side, this seems odd. City have yet to even reach a Champions League final, yet bookmakers give them a better chance of carrying off the spoils this season than Real Madrid, who just happen to have won the last three finals and are looking to extend their record to four.
Perhaps there are reasons for this lack of confidence in the standout European performers of recent seasons, the team who have shown they can win in any number of ways from the inspired to the intimidatory. Cristiano Ronaldo, a one-man winning machine if ever there was one, has departed, and any unstoppable free kicks or sumptuous volleys will this season be delivered on behalf of Juventus.
Zinedine Zidane has gone too, with an impeccable record in one particular competition that leaves posterity to ponder how much of his input went into three successive Champions League triumphs and how much was down to a supremely talented and streetwise set of players. That is something the next few months should reveal.
And while it is possible Real Madrid may prove to be somewhere between transition and turmoil under Julen Lopetegui, City are not quite as well placed to step into the gap as they would like to be while Kevin De Bruyne remains sidelined through injury.
With the Belgian operating at his peak a case might just be made for Guardiola’s side as the strongest around despite an overall lack of experience of the later stages of European competitions. Without him there are question marks over creativity since City at their expressive best have tended to channel everything through him.
On the plus side, the group in which City have been drawn is not the most daunting, and De Bruyne should be back before the knockout stage. Yet even if they find Lyon, Hoffenheim and Shakhtar Donetsk plain sailing, what still needs to be factored into the equation is the comparative ease with which a fit De Bruyne and his teammates were brushed aside by Liverpool in last season’s quarter-finals.
Guardiola will be hoping to avoid another trip to Merseyside, where players in red grow a couple of inches on European nights and Jürgen Klopp appears to have City worked out, though for Liverpool to repeat last season’s run to the final they will have to emerge from a much more demanding group. Red Star Belgrade must be the side most in fear of an early exit, but Liverpool, Napoli or Paris Saint-Germain will have to accompany them.
Should Liverpool qualify from that group they would quickly come to be regarded, as happened last season, as the team to avoid in the knockout rounds, yet this time there may be an extra complication. Liverpool were never convincingly in the hunt for the league title last season so they were free to concentrate on Europe, whereas at the moment there is a feeling that a wait of almost three decades may soon be over.
No one does European nights better than Liverpool, no one in Britain has won the major prize as often or has a greater appetite for more. Yet if a first domestic title since 1990 is a possibility then priorities might have to be revised. That may amount to a thorny problem for Klopp and his players in the end, for Liverpool are unlikely to be able to do themselves full justice on both fronts.
The same theory – that only Liverpool are equipped to stand in Manchester City’s way in the Premier League this season – should mean Tottenham and Manchester United can concentrate more of their resources on Europe, yet for various reasons it may not turn out that way.
Spurs find themselves with perhaps the toughest task facing any of the English clubs, that of prevailing in a group that includes Barcelona and Internazionale, at a time when a little of the momentum in their story of continual improvement under Mauricio Pochettino seems to have been lost.
This is not to suggest Spurs have peaked, or even that failure to strengthen in the summer might have been a mistake, but fresh evidence is required before the excitement and promise generated when topping an equally difficult group last year can be revisited. Four of the five English teams managed to top their groups last season, though in the end Spurs finishing above Real Madrid did not prove to have any lasting significance.
Manchester United winning the Europa League in José Mourinho’s first season did not herald a new European dawn either, which is something for Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery to think about as Chelsea and Arsenal begin the long, unforgiving Thursday night slog.
No sooner were they back in the Champions League than United began to look as if they might be better suited to the lesser competition after all. Mourinho’s side started the Premier League badly by losing two of their first three matches and if progress is to be made in Europe there will need to be a major rethink over the cautious approach that so disappointed last time.
Benefit of the doubt
Quite a lot of United fans who were prepared to give Mourinho the benefit of the doubt were left cold by the manner of the exit against Sevilla in March: a woefully passive display that offended the traditions of the club and invited questions over the motivation of its manager.
Mourinho was hired as a winner – he keeps reminding people of the fact lest they forget – yet meek and unmemorable capitulation to middling opponents is precisely why the matter remains up for debate.
United’s fate in Group H will probably be decided by their results against Valencia rather than Juventus, though naturally Ronaldo meeting his former club and manager will hog the headlines. This will be the most friendly of reunions for by now the player’s reputation is complete and unassailable, practically set in stone.
Any chipping noise discernible in the background is likely to be stonemasons making late alterations to the epitaph of the manager.