Chelsea open Champions League defence. Can Europe’s clubs compete with the English?

By Samindra Kunti

September 14 – Chelsea open their defence of the Champions League tonight at home to Zenit St Petersburg, kicking off the European club season in earnest. The question in Europe is whether Chelsea and their English counterparts will also be kickstarting an age of Premier League dominance in the European Cup?

Spanish clubs have dominated the past decade with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona sharing the Champions League trophy between 2013 and 2018, but years of irresponsible financial largesse and the global health pandemic have weakened the Spanish giants. Lionel Messi exited Camp Nou because the club couldn’t afford register its talisman. At Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti is overseeing an aging group of stars.

Supremacies come and go. In the 90’s, Serie A ruled the roost, but the Italian league never capitalized, failing to both produce a true TV spectacular and upgrade infrastructure. And so it seems the Premier League clubs – the defending champions, Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City – will be in pole position this season to conquer Europe. Their finances remain robust, backed by the Premier League’s sound broadcast revenues.

This summer Premier League clubs spent £1.1 billion in the transfer window, a figure that dwarfed any of the spending in the other major European leagues and another illustration of the growing gap between the English top flight and the continental competitions.

Even so, the Champions League is arguably – the Copa Libertadores a close second – the hardest competition in club football to win. Just ask Manchester City, whose star coach Pep Guardiola tends to overthink at key moments. In last season’s final against the Blues, the Spaniard decided to play without a recognized defensive midfielder, a tactical gambit that backfired completely.

In Group A, Man City will have to navigate their way past Club Brugge, RB Leipzig, and Paris Saint-Germain. The Parisians, like City, want nothing more than the Champions League. The Qatari-owned club acquired Lionel Messi from Barcelona this summer and for now French star Kylian Mbappe remains in the French capital. On the flip side, Mauricio Pochettino’s team might be top-heavy.

Bayern Munich will likely be another challenger. They open their campaign against FC Barcelona, their first meeting since that infamous 8-2 hammering in the quarter-finals of the 2019-2020 season. Bayern’s intelligent financial management has allowed the Bavarians to remain at the top for decades. They were one of the few elite clubs to not participate in the failed breakaway European Super League project.

Last season, they exited in the last eight against PSG, but that was in part due to the absence of Robert Lewandowski. The Polish striker remains an inexorable force in front of goal and with the acquisitions of both Marcel Sabitzer and Dayot Upamecano Bayern has strengthened elsewhere. They might just go on and win the Champions League again – at the expense of the English.

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