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UEFA Champions League

Europe's finest get back in the saddle

(FIFA.com)
 Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid celebrates with The UEFA Champions League trophy
© Getty Images
  • UEFA Champions League group stage kicks off on Tuesday
  • Ronaldo-less, Lopetegui-led Real Madrid out to make it four in a row
  • 2010 champions Inter Milan return after seven-year absence

While UEFA Champions League holders Real Madrid may have their trip to United Arab Emirates and the FIFA Club World Cup in December at the back of their minds, beginning their third-successive title defence is very much at the forefront.

Europe’s premier club competition returns on Tuesday 18 September with the continent’s top 32 sides gearing up on the path to reach Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium on 1 June 2019.

Ahead of the action, we look over the standout narratives, the players who could make a difference and some of the records on the line this season.

What to watch out for

Inter re-enter

Seven years since the 2010 winners last set foot in the Champions League – and five since any Milan team featured – Inter Milan return with a feeling of them being back where they belong. Snatching their spot on the final day of the Italian season, beating Lazio to dramatically pip them to fourth, it will give captain Mauro Icardi a long-awaited taste of Europe’s top tier.

Re-United with Ronaldo

While it’s nine years since Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United, he has only returned to Old Trafford once, back in the Round of 16 in 2013. He ultimately scored the goal that sent Real Madrid through, having also struck at the Bernabeu. With Juventus paired with Manchester United, he’ll be warmly welcomed in November, but will his input be as pivotal as five years ago?

No Zizou, no problem?

Julen Lopetegui’s task is a thankless one in the Champions League this season. Win? The team which has swept to glory for the last three years will likely garner most of the plaudits. Fall short? The former Spain boss will likely foot much of the blame for not continuing Zinedine Zidane’s astonishing record. How Lopetegui’s side approach their title defence – without star forward Ronaldo – will be intriguing to see.

Parisian progress?

While domestic dominance has been near-unwavering – winning 16 of the last 17 trophies on offer – European success has evaded Paris Saint-Germain. A convincing defeat by Real in the last 16 in March put their hopes on hold for another year. With Thomas Tuchel now at the reins, Kylian Mbappe’s star continuing to rise and Neymar intent on reminding the world of his class, could they finally climb to the top of the continental tree?

Players in the spotlight

An intriguing new signing. A young star set to step up. An established understudy looking to take the helm. The leading underdog figure who could inflict an upset. We give you one player from each side who is worth keeping your eyes on, potentially set to provide something fresh and interesting this season in Europe.

Awaiting records and fresh faces

6

With five titles now to his name, Cristiano Ronaldo stands one behind Francisco Gento’s tally of six, but should he triumph this season, he will also equal another record. Having won titles with both Manchester United and Real, glory with Juventus would see him match Clarence Seedorf (Ajax, Real Madrid, AC Milan) as the only men to win it with three different sides. 

4

No side has won four successive European titles since Real Madrid’s dominance of the late 1950s. Johan Cruyff’s Ajax and Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich could only manage three in a row, but will Sergio Ramos’s Real eclipse them both? With Spanish sides having clinched the last five trophies, another would also match England’s run – from 1977-82 – as the most successive wins by any one nation.

1

Three sides are taking their debut bows in the Champions League group stage. While Julian Nagelsmann has taken Hoffenheim to new heights, Young Boys ended a 32-year wait to lift the Swiss title. Red Star Belgrade of course won the European Cup in 1991, but the Serbian champions are set for their first taste of the group stage format.

Groups in full

Group A Group B Group C Group D
Atletico Madrid Barcelona Liverpool Galatasaray
Borussia Dortmund Inter Milan Napoli Lokomotiv Moscow
Club Brugge PSV Eindhoven Paris Saint-Germain Porto
Monaco Tottenham Hotspur Red Star Belgrade Schalke 04
Group E Group F Group G Group H
AEK Athens Hoffenheim AS Roma Juventus
Ajax Manchester City CSKA Moscow Manchester United
Bayern Munich Olympique Lyonnais Real Madrid Valencia
Benfica Shakhtar Donetsk Viktoria Plzen Young Boys

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