Thursday, September 28

Istanbul is finally set to stage the Champions League final next May, after two years of having one of the sport’s biggest games moved from the Turkish capital.

The showpiece of European club football had been promised to the Atatürk Olympic Stadium in 2020 and then 2021 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The final is obviously still a long way off, as the Champions League group stage has only just begun.

As usual, all eyes will be on the mega-rich clubs. The wealthy owners of both Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain will be becoming anxious that the most glittering prize of all has eluded them so far. Could this be the season the wait finally ends for one of those two?

Manchester City look more likely to end their own personal ‘years of hurt’ as far as European glory goes. Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko have all left the Etihad Stadium for other Premier League sides but the arrival of Erling Braut Haaland has got everyone excited in the blue half of Manchester.

The Norwegian striker has hit the ground running in England and looks to give City an extra dimension up front. His power and goalscoring record helps the Premier League champions become the favourites to lift the famous trophy next June.

Real Madrid are the current holders, of course, after beating City in the semifinals last season and overcoming Liverpool to win the competition for a record extending 14th time.  The La Liga powerhouse seems to be somewhat overlooked to repeat that feat this season, but Carlo Ancelotti has had a particularly impressive summer, adding Aurélien Tchouaméni and Antonio Rüdiger to his squad. Both of those players will only improve a team that is already an excellent mix of experience and youthful talent.

But what of PSG? Mauricio Pochettino has made way for Christophe Galtier, but it is an addition behind the scenes that may have the biggest effect on the club. Luis Campos has come in as football advisor and has already used his Portuguese connections to bring in Nuno Mendes, Vitinha and Renato Sanches. The club has moved to a less flashy transfer policy and those players do support that new way of thinking in Paris. With Kylian Mbappé signing a contract extension and staying in the French capital for at least another season, PSG will believe that they can finally win the Champions League this season.

The Premier League will provide some of the sternest competition though, with Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham joining Man City in the chase. Jürgen Klopp’s side look to be the most likely to succeed out of that trio, with Darwin Núñez potentially adding even more firepower to the attacking unit at Anfield. The Uruguayan striker has come in from Benfica and already seems to have worked up a good relationship with Mohamed Salah. The Egypt international will have to make do without the contributions of Sadio Mané this season, after his move to Bayern Munich, but the Anfield club have made it to the Champions League final in three of the last five years and have to be considered as a potential winner once again.

Speaking of Bayern, the perennial German champions have lost talismanic striker Robert Lewandowski to Barcelona. Even with the addition of Mané, that has to be considered a blow – even though Julian Nagelsmann still has a squad packed with exciting talent. He has also been able to lure Ryan Gravenberch and Matthijs de Ligt to the Allianz Arena in an attempt to add another Champions League victory to the honours list after the somewhat surprising triumph in 2020.

Barcelona – now with Lewandowski – should probably also get a mention here but it still feels as though Xavi is still at the beginning of a restoration period at the Camp Nou. There are still big financial questions for the La Liga club and they will be considered an outsider for Champions League glory this season.

Europa League
It is always difficult to predict the winner of the Europa League at this stage of the season, as eight Champions League teams will drop down into the competition after the completion of the group stage. That being said, the last three seasons have seen teams starting off in the Europa League winning the trophy – and beating a Champions League dropdown side in the final.

The Spanish domination of the tournament ended last year with Eintracht Frankfurt beating Rangers in the final. At this point in time, there will be Real Sociedad and Real Betis representing La Liga in the group stage – but there are some other big teams to look out for too.

Italy and England would seem to have the best hopes of success, with two very experienced clubs set to challenge for the Europa League this season. Roma and Manchester United have had recent success in Europe (although not in the biggest competition of all) and Arsenal and Lazio will also look to add to their trophy cabinets.

Jose Mourinho showed last year that he still has that magic touch when he led the Giallorossi to the Europa Conference League title – and there have been some interesting arrivals at the Stadio Olimpico this summer that could boost their chances in this competition. Both Paulo Dybala and Georginio Wijnaldum will improve the Roma side and they could have a chance of winning back-to-back European trophies.

Man United and Arsenal are both looking to recapture better days – with decidedly mixed results. A new manager at Old Trafford in Erik ten Haag may take a while to settle into the role, while Mikel Arteta shows glimpses of learning at the feet of Pep Guardiola but has yet to convince the fans that he will be anywhere as good as Arsène Wenger in the Arsenal hot seat. Lazio have disappointed in Europe in recent years, losing to FC Porto in the knockout playoff round of the Europa League last season. Maurizio Sarri has enjoyed a busy, if unspectacular, close season and will look to the goals of club legend and captain Ciro Immobile as the main hope of progressing to the later rounds of the competition this season.

Without knowing the identities of some of the clubs that will play in the later rounds of the Europa League, the competition does look like a battle between the English and Italian sides. But there are others from Germany, France and the Netherlands that all have good continental experience and the Europa League is set for another hugely entertaining and enthralling season.

Europa Conference League

The third and final European competition is designed to bring some of the less heralded clubs from the continent onto a bigger stage – and last year’s inaugural tournament was undoubtedly a huge success. Roma eventually won the final, beating Feyenoord in the final and the latter rounds were full of more well-known European clubs. The smaller nation leagues were well represented in the earlier stages but by the time the quarterfinals came around the likes of Marseille, Leicester City and PSV Eindhoven were gunning for glory.

The Europa Conference League also accepts dropdowns from a higher tier of competition after the group stage. But there are already some big names in the mix. Villarreal made it all the way to the Champions League semi-final last season but will begin in the group stage here, as will Fiorentina, West Ham United, and Nice. The French side, in particular, could do well. The club has promised much since being taken over by new, wealthy owners a few seasons ago and both Aaron Ramsey and Kasper Schmeichel have made the move to the south of France this summer.

With so much money in some of the top leagues in Europe now, even the Europa Conference League will have some highly rated players challenging for honours. The competition doesn’t always get the best coverage from some of the bigger nations but Roma’s victory last year showed how much it means to the clubs and players involved at the end – and that it isn’t just a competition for the minor leagues in Europe.

None of the teams that came down from the Europa League after the group stage last year did anything of note in the knockout stages. There is definitely less of a shake up than with the same situation coming down from the Champions League, so one of the big clubs already booked in at the group stage should look at this as an excellent chance to claim some European silverware.

The Success of the Europa Conference League

When UEFA announced at the end of 2018 that there was to be a third club competition kicking off in the 2021-22 season the news was met largely with indifference from the fans. Traditionalists remembering the old Cup Winners’ Cup may have shown some interest, but the rest of the football community saw it as just another way for Europe’s governing body to make some more money.

When the competition was then given the complicated Europa Conference League moniker, there were further grumblings of discontent. But the success of the new tournament can be seen in the delight of the inaugural winners, as well as the way it has met UEFA’s main priority of bringing smaller leagues and clubs into continental play.

Jose Mourinho leading Roma to glory over Feyenoord in the first ever cup final last season showed that experienced and already successful European giants would take the Europa Conference League seriously. The fact that Bodø/Glimt destroyed the Giallorossi 6-1 during the group stage also showed that there would be a decent level of competition.

There will probably always be some fans of the biggest clubs in Europe looking down their noses at this third-tier competition, but giving the smallest leagues on the continent a serious chance of playing on a major stage seems more important than ever. Less heralded footballing nations also get the chance to host finals, as with Albania in 2022. In that sense, the Europa Conference League has been an absolute success – and this season promises to be another very interesting competition.

Goals, Goals, Goals

Karim Benzema excited just about everyone – outside of Barcelona – last season as he repeatedly scored late goals to help Real Madrid to the final of the Champions League. In the end, the France international scored 15 goals in the competition and was the top goalscorer. It was the first time that he had won that honour and he continued a changing of the guard at the top of the game.

Barcelona and Real Madrid didn’t win every Champions League of the 2000s and 2010s, but Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo certainly did their best for that to happen. From 2007 to 2019 one of those two incredibly talented footballers topped the goal charts in Europe’s most prestigious club competition. The only other name on the list is Neymar, who shared the adulation with both Ronaldo and Messi in 2015.

But the last three seasons have seen some new strikers coming to the fore. It is not as though Ronaldo and Messi have not been playing in the competition. But Robert Lewandowski, Erling Braut Haaland and most recently Karim Benzema have been the goal kings in the Champions League.

Obviously a long run in the competition is vital to have any chance of being the number one striker. But a relatively easy group stage can also help boost the goal tally early on.

The same names may well be in contention this year but Haaland’s move to Manchester City must improve his chances. He was able to take the title while playing for a side that only made it to the quarterfinals in 2021. City will be expected to go all the way this season – and the Norwegian striker will probably be the main reason if that comes true.

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