Mon | Oct 25, 2021

Big spenders threaten Champions League hierarchy

Published:Tuesday | September 14, 2021 | 12:08 AM
Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku (right) celebrates after scoring his side’s opening goal during the English Premier League match against Aston Villa at the Stamford Bridge Stadium in London on Saturday, September 11. Lukaku will be leading Chelsea’s charge a
Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku (right) celebrates after scoring his side’s opening goal during the English Premier League match against Aston Villa at the Stamford Bridge Stadium in London on Saturday, September 11. Lukaku will be leading Chelsea’s charge as they open their Champions League title defence today against Zenit St Petersburg.

BERLIN, Germany (AP):

The UEFA Champions League group stage starts today with a match between traditional heavyweights Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but big-spending upstarts elsewhere are the title favourites this season after a summer of eye-catching transfers.

Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) bolstered their ranks with the arrivals of superstar Lionel Messi from Barcelona, former Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, Italy’s European Championship-winning goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, Netherlands midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, and wing backs Achraf Hakimi and Nuno Mendes — the latter arguably the most exciting player in Portugal last season.

PSG, which has been backed by Qatar Sports Investment since 2011, reached the Champions League semi-finals last season and the final the year before that, but has never won the title.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the club’s spectacular recruitment campaign comes with a view to winning Europe’s premier club competition before Qatar hosts the World Cup next year.

PSG begin their bid tomorrow in Group A at Club Brugge, where Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé could play together for the first time, a fearsome attacking line-up for the Belgian champions to contend with. Messi warmed up for the game with a hat-trick for Argentina in World Cup qualifying.

PSG rejected an offer of about US$188 million from Real Madrid for Mbappé, despite knowing he can leave without a transfer fee when his contract expires next year.

SPLASHING THE CASH

Premier League clubs have been displaying a similar tendency towards recruitment. Last season’s Champions League finalists Chelsea and Manchester City spent club-record fees on marquee signings.

Attacking midfielder Jack Grealish joined City for US$139 million, a record fee for a British player, and striker Romelu Lukaku moved back to Chelsea from Inter Milan for US$135 million.

That strengthened already-deep squads at both clubs that helped them reach the final in Porto in May.

City host German club Leipzig in Group A tomorrow, a day after Chelsea welcome Zenit St Petersburg in Group H for their first game as defending champions.

Manchester United trumped their domestic rivals by signing England forward Jadon Sancho, France defender Raphael Varane, and Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo from Juventus for a combined cost in transfer fees of more than US$150 million.

Ronaldo’s first Champions League game for United since losing the 2009 final to Barcelona is at Swiss champions Young Boys today in Group F.

The big spenders have been bucking the recent trend across Europe, where the coronavirus pandemic has had an adverse effect on most clubs, including Juventus, who are struggling without Ronaldo before their visit to Malmö today in Group H.

NEW ERA AT BARCELONA

Six-time champions Bayern have a new coach, Julian Nagelsmann, but had a very quiet off season, giving young home-nurtured players such as Jamal Musiala and Josip Stanišić a chance to establish themselves in the team.

Barcelona endured a difficult summer, with the pandemic and years of big spending playing a role in the exits of Messi and Antoine Griezmann. Ansu Fati inherited Messi’s No. 10 jersey, and Barça supporters are also hoping another 18-year-old, Pedri, can help usher in a new successful era after his brilliant performances for Spain at the European Championship.

The Group E match at Camp Nou comes after Bayern trounced Barcelona 8-2 in their last meeting in the 2020 quarter-finals.

TOUGH TEST FOR MADRID

Inter Milan hosts 13-time champions Real Madrid in another intriguing opening-round game tomorrow in Group D. Although Mbappé did not move to Spain, Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti has succeeded in reviving an attack that had shown signs of stagnation in the final months of Zinedine Zidane’s tenure. Vinícius Júnior has found his scoring touch to add to the speed that creates more space for Karim Benzema.

Another big match sees six-time champions Liverpool host seven-time champions AC Milan tomorrow in Group B. Liverpool, which last won the competition in 2019, can call upon defensive stalwart Virgil van Dijk again after a serious knee injury.

Today’s games:

Group E

Barcelona v Bayern Münich 2 p.m.

Dynamo Kiev v Benfica 2 p.m.

Group F

Young Boys v Man United 11:45 a.m.

Villarreal v Atalanta 2 p.m.

Group G

Sevilla v Salzburg 11:45 a.m.

Lille v Wolfsburg 2 p.m.

Group H

Chelsea v Zenit 2 p.m.

Malmö v Juventus 2 p.m.