Today, the UEFA Champions League begins in earnest. Europe’s biggest names will compete for the football’s most lucrative prize. This season’s champions might just be the upstarts from Paris.
By their typical standards, Real Madrid have had a quiet summer. Several big-money departures from the Santiago Bernabéu, and none in the opposite direction, suggest that the club were holding out for a marquee signing – most likely Kylian Mbappé. Nothing, however, was forthcoming, and Real Madrid have started the season in much the same shape as they finished the last. Having secured the La Liga trophy and a record 12th UEFA Champions League title, this is certainly no bad thing.
Real will be buoyed by the somewhat strange summer endured by arch-rivals Barcelona. Although they managed to complete a late – and disproportionately expensive – move for Ousmane Dembélé, the Catalans have emerged as a noticeably weaker side than last season. And with a new manager in the mix, it looks as if Barcelona will be unable to mount too great a threat to Real Madrid at home or in Europe. While retaining the league title seems inevitable, Real will find winning a third consecutive Champions League more of a challenge. Standing in their way are the main beneficiaries of Barcelona’s transfer woes: Paris Saint Germain, whose €220 million capture of Neymar has been transformative.
Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatari owners have made no secret of their desire to win the Champions League and dine at football’s top table. Even reaching the final would provide the club, hitherto considered upstarts, much needed cachet and credibility. More importantly, it would also be almost ludicrously lucrative. In 2014-15, Juventus earned an astonishing €89.1 million through prize money and television revenue, despite having lost the final to Barcelona. PSG, already the sixth most valuable club in the world (Deloitte Football Money League 2017), need to match their enormous wealth with success on a continental scale.
To that end, the club have been spending enormous amounts of money to assemble one of the very best teams in world football. Their firepower in particular is formidable, with Neymar, Edinson Cavani, and now Kylian Mbappé (will he be Real Madrid’s ‘one who got away’?) forming the most commanding triumvirate since 33 BC; Ángel Di María, Julian Draxler, Dani Alves and Marco Verratti are among the talented players filling out the rest of the squad. Their manager, too, offers great promise. Unai Emery, despite a shaky first season in charge of the club, is a proven force in European competition: winning back-to-back Europa Leagues with Sevilla is no mean feat.
To use a well-worn footballing cliché, the stars have aligned for PSG.
So far, things are looking good at the Parc des Princes. Paris Saint-Germain have a spotless record, having won all five of their opening league matches, scoring 19 and conceding only 3 in the process. Neymar has already found his Midas touch, scoring four and creating many others, while Kylian Mbappé managed a goal on his debut this weekend. Edinson Cavani, meanwhile, is the league’s top scorer. If they can continue this fine form against Celtic in their opening European fixture, it will surely cement their title prospects. To use a well-worn footballing cliché, the stars have aligned for PSG.
They will be joined in the highest reaches of the Champions League by Bayern Munich, who have been flying quietly under the radar after a relatively disappointing European season. Carlo Ancelotti will be keen to prove his credentials this time around, but his team isn’t necessarily noticeably stronger. The real unknown quantities are the English teams, in particular the Manchester clubs, both of which have strengthened considerably. Chelsea, too, ought to mount a challenge, although there are question marks around their squad depth. Despite this, none of the Premier League teams look as robust as their continental rivals, so it’s more than likely to be another disappointing season for English football abroad.
Juventus and Atlético Madrid are still heavyweights, but the best days of their current squads are behind them; Monaco and Borussia Dortmund, meanwhile, lack the star quality to go the distance. Beyond this small cluster, there is no club that could hope to challenge: the gulf in class is simply too great – and it’s widening. Even the once-mighty Eredivisie clubs would count themselves lucky to escape the group stage. It is an unfortunate fact that power is concentrated among a privileged few, so the European Cup will continue to be won by the usual suspects. This is why the emergence of PSG as a financial, as well as footballing power is important.
Despite the dubious ethics of their Qatari owners, it would be refreshing to see a new name etched into the venerable trophy. Although PSG are definitely among the favourites, overcoming Real Madrid will be a difficult hurdle to leap. The best hope for the Parisians is that Real’s unchanged squad is not enough to sustain them, particularly with some of their key players now into their thirties. This will be tested as early as the group stage, where strong opponents in Tottenham and Dortmund await them. Still, Paris Saint-Germain are more than a match for Real, and remain Letterhole’s tip for the title. Above all, however, it is imperative that Real Madrid are stopped, if only to prevent that ghastly term ‘threepeat’ from entering the British English vernacular.