Liverpool’s thrilling run to the final last season was a glimpse of what is possible. But, frankly, it is high time a Premier League team won the Champions League.
By the time the final is played in Madrid next May, it will have been seven years since Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea lifted the trophy affectionately known as “big ears”. And that is long enough.
Certainly long enough for clubs as well resourced and powerful as the big guns in the Premier League.
When Jose Mourinho’s Porto team beat Monaco in 2004 final, that signaled the last time a club from outside the big four leagues of England, Spain, Italy or Germany contested a final.
Yet, apart from Liverpool’s campaign and a semi-final appearance by Manchester City in 2016, the Premier League has been significantly under-represented in recent years at the business end of the competition.
It is not good enough. Big European clubs do not have an expectation of winning the Champions League, but they do expect to be in the last eight or, more importantly, the last four.
This season also represents the Premier League’s best chance since 2012. Not only do the four English teams have managers – Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino and Mourinho – who could easily be in charge of any of the European giants, but no one knows quite what to expect from those rivals. There is more uncertainty than ever before.
Real Madrid is aiming for four in a row, a feat that has not been achieved since the 1950s, and have the added incentive of the final being in their home city – albeit at the stadium of their rivals, Atletico, which may make it all the sweeter.
But this is a post-Cristiano Ronaldo Real and while the signs are encouraging under new coach Julen Lopetegui that his side will be more of a team and that this is, above all, a huge opportunity for Gareth Bale, there is far more of the unknown, without the guarantee that Ronaldo brought.
It is also a post-Zinedine Zidane Madrid and, as a coach, he almost had ownership of the competition.
It is four years since Real even indulged in a Galactico signing, as they have concentrated their efforts on keeping what they have – until they let Ronaldo go to Juventus this summer.
The Italian club has made it clear the 33-year-old has been acquired for one purpose (beyond helping them grow hugely commercially) and that is to help them finally win the Champions League (which will help their business even more). But he is new to Juventus.
In Manchester United’s group, Juventus will definitely be contenders, as will Paris St-Germain, who kick off against Liverpool at Anfield on Wednesday morning (AEST) in the most mouthwatering tie of the opening week.
PSG’s purpose is as clear as Juventus given the re-established dominance of their domestic league, while in Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani they have the only front three in world football arguably more formidable than Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane
But PSG is also far from invulnerable, especially with a midfield that appears to lack strength in depth – they did not buy a holding player – and with a new coach in Thomas Tuchel who has been hailed by club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi as the best in the world, but has yet to prove it.
Like PSG, Bayern Munich did not invest heavily in the summer beyond the kind of move that reconfirmed their dominance of the Bundesliga as they plucked Leon Goretzka from Schalke on a free transfer. Again, they are also under new and, at this level, relatively untested management with Niko Kovac in charge.
The fifth European blue blood would appear, at present, to be the most formidable. Barcelona has the continuity of Ernesto Valverde being their coach, of a focused Lionel Messi declaring it is about time they reclaimed Europe’s biggest prize, and of depth being added to their squad, with Malcolm, Arturo Vidal, Clement Lenglet and Philippe Coutinho being eligible.
It would be foolish to rule out Atletico, who have also strengthened after a period of consolidation, even though they have made a poor start to the domestic season.
But what has the Premier League to fear? Only fear itself. Or some kind of inferiority complex that has been allowed to develop since England’s era of dominance a decade ago borne of the excuse that the Premier League is too competitive and takes too much out of them. But there really is no excuse.
None of the groups involving the English teams are straight-forward. They have some of the best match-ups at this stage of the competition, which makes the introduction of staggered kick-offs all the more timely.
But all four should progress to the last 16. From there, who knows?
Attention will largely focus on City’s challenge. They would appear to have the least testing group and are England’s strongest candidates, just as they were last season before deservedly losing to Liverpool.
But United and Tottenham Hotspur should also look at this as a great opportunity, especially if they are not going to be in the title race.