New stats abound as Europe’s elite chase Champions League glory
After a summer of eye-catching moves across Europe, the continent’s top clubs begin the long road to Champions League glory this week as fans return after a 2020-21 competition held largely behind closed doors.
A flurry of transfer activity, headlined by Lionel Messi ending his long association with Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo returning to Manchester United, guarantees plenty of fresh intrigue.
The opening round of group stage fixtures does not disappoint either, with Barcelona taking on Bayern Munich for the first time since a humiliating 8-2 defeat two years ago.
Liverpool and AC Milan, clubs with a combined 13 European Cups between them, square off at Anfield in just their third competitive meeting after the 2005 “Miracle of Istanbul” and Milan’s revenge in the 2007 final.
Holders Chelsea bolstered their squad by re-signing striker Romelu Lukaku, prised away from cost-cutting Italian champions Inter Milan where he was voted Serie A player of the season last term.
That deal was indicative of Premier League clubs again exerting their financial power over the rest of Europe, topping £1 billion ($1.4 billion) in spending for the sixth straight summer despite a dip in revenues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Chelsea and last season’s runners-up Manchester City will be among the favourites to go all the way, but 2020 finalists Paris Saint-Germain added Messi with the express aim of getting their hands on the Champions League for the first time.
“I have said many times my dream is to win another Champions League and I think I’m in the ideal place to have that chance and to do it,” said Messi.
Rested at the weekend after a long trip back from a World Cup qualifier in Bolivia, Messi could finally make his first start for PSG against Club Brugge.
The Belgian champions will be viewed as makeweights in a group that features City, PSG and RB Leipzig, surprise semi-finalists in 2020 and runners-up to Bayern in last season’s Bundesliga.
City eliminated PSG in the semi-finals last May, while Leipzig were already in a group with the French giants last season, the two sides qualifying for the last 16 ahead of Manchester United.
Ronaldo’s last match in his first spell at Old Trafford was the 2009 Champions League final loss to Barca, the second of three finals the club reached in the space of four years.
Since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, only twice have United reached the last eight.
“We have a fantastic team, a young team, with a fantastic coach,” said Ronaldo, who scored twice Saturday against Newcastle on his return to United.
“I belong to Manchester. I arrived here at 18 and they treated me unbelievably.
This is why I’ve come back.
I’m so proud to be here and I want to win.”
Ronaldo is the Champions League’s record scorer with 134 goals, 14 clear of long-time rival Messi. United start Group F against Switzerland’s Young Boys. -AFP