Tuesday marks the start of the group stage of the UEFA Champions League and this year, it appears to be a wide-open race with plenty of compelling matches and drama to follow.
Here are the best storylines to follow this season.
Can Barcelona hold onto a first-leg lead?
Barcelona is a perennial threat to win the tournament, led by Lionel Messi, and with Antoine Griezmann joining a loaded attack, there’s little reason to count them out. However, Barcelona has been its own worst enemy the past two seasons, flaming out in spectacular fashion after holding hefty first-leg leads in the knockout stage.
To recap: Barcelona held a 4-1 lead over Roma in the 2017-18 quarterfinals, but Roma won the second leg 3-0 and ousted the Catalan giant on away goals. Last season, history repeated itself as Barcelona won 3-0 against Liverpool in the first leg of its semifinal, then were thumped 4-0 on the return match.
Barcelona is one of the sport’s dominant powers and is always a threat to win it all, especially with Messi in top form. Can it get out of its own way?
Is this finally the year for Manchester City or PSG?
By now, it’s no secret that Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have spent exorbitantly in order to win club football’s most prestigious trophy. This may finally be the year for both City and PSG, with Real Madrid looking more vulnerable than it has in years.
Since City entered the Champions League in 2012-13, it has been a slow crescendo and after a few years of incremental progress, the back-to-back Premier League champions have stalled, flailing out at the quarterfinals in consecutive years. They are arguably the deepest team in the world, and though it’ll have to weather the loss of Leroy Sane and Aymeric Laporte early in the competition due to injuries, it can take advantage of a relatively easy group. A victory this year could also cement Pep Guardiola’s status as the greatest manager of his generation.
Qatar Sports Investments purchased PSG in 2011, with the clear, operative goal of winning the Champions League. Although they aren’t as deep as City, their three-headed monster featuring Neymar — who is looking for a way out — 20-year-old phenom Kylian Mbappe and the ever-reliable Edinson Cavani are as talented as they come.
It is a loaded starting lineup, and with Mauro Icardi joining PSG on loan from Inter Milan, it sure feels this has to be their year, or else ownership will certainly have decisions to make regarding the makeup of this club.
Who emerges from the Group of Death?
Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund have genuine aspirations of winning this tournament every year, Inter Milan won in 2010, leaving Slavia Prague looking like a relative minnow. It’s tough luck, but there’s a reason why the draw often makes it impossible for smaller clubs to emerge against European giants.
Let’s start with Barcelona. As mentioned above, the group stage is almost inconsequential for them. Holding onto a lead in the latter stages is imperative, and the club went out and purchased Griezmann, along with 22-year-old standout Frenkie De Jong, a world-class distributor who can play every midfield position. Simply, Barcelona has no discernible weakness other than itself.
So then, really, this debate boils down to Dortmund or Inter. Dortmund is armed with veteran stability in Marco Reus, Mario Gotze, Axel Witsel and Mats Hummels, but it could be argued strongly that their new additions make them a threat to win the vaunted Group F.
If you haven’t heard of 19-year-old Jaden Sancho, write his name down now, as the England international is already making heads turn and could be the breakout star of the tournament, while Paco Alcacer is in top form after a wasted year at Barcelona with the opportunity to exact revenge.
As for Inter? The club made a series of calculated spendings this summer, banking on Romelu Lukaku to return to the form that saw him finish second in Premier League scoring in 2017-18, while Alexis Sanchez was loaned after a disappointing stint with Manchester United. Diego Godin is still going strong and it’s somewhat unbelievable he was available on a free transfer. The core of the team is still intact, while 22-year-old Argentina international midfielder Lautaro Martinez is a breakout candidate as well.
So, who emerges? Dortmund gets the edge here due to their greater depth and continuity, but none of the games will be easy.
Who is this year’s surprise team?
Who can forget the Monaco club led by Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Thomas Lemar and a handful of other future stars that went to the 2016-17 semifinals only to be dismantled by the fervour of the transfer market? Or last year’s Ajax club that introduced De Jong and Matthijs de Ligt (now at Juventus) to the world? It seems like there’s a club that isn’t afraid of taking down giants every year, so who will it be in 2019-20?
It could be Zenit St. Petersburg. The Russian champions added 22-year-old Malcom who fell out of favour at Barcelona but is immensely talented. They have enough attacking power from midfielder Yuri Zhirkov and Russian international captain Artem Dzyuba to knock off a giant on an off day. Playing in the most balanced group in the tournament, they could be a good bet to advance.
Or maybe it’s Lille. Nineteen-year-old Tim Weah draws headlines, but between the defensive leadership group of Jose Fonte and Adama Soumaoro, they could be a tough out for Chelsea, Valencia and Ajax. Betting on Euro 2016 hero Renato Sanches can be a fool’s errand but if he can regain top form, it could be a tough year.
Predicting chaos in a tournament that thrives on it can be a difficult task, but these are our bets to surprise at the end of the year.
How will Liverpool’s title defense hold up?
Liverpool finally lifted a major trophy for the first time this decade and are among the favourites to win it all again. It certainly won’t be easy. So how does a top-heavy club like Liverpool hold up with everyone gunning for them?
As it stands, Liverpool is breezing through the opening stages of the Premier League, but it ought to be careful how it staggers minutes for Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, and most of all, defensive mastermind Virgil Van Djik. The Reds certainly don’t lack depth, but it’s clear that its core four are central to the title defense, and it will be playing in more games than usual — such is the territory of being champions. The drop-off between their preferred forward trio and Divock Origi is staggering, considering how maddeningly inconsistent the Belgian can be.
It’s going to be a long year and Jurgen Klopp, quite easily one of the best managers in the world, will have to stagger his minutes for his top guns throughout the year. We wouldn’t be surprised if Liverpool is back contending for a trophy, but you’re always walking alone when everyone is coming for your title.
More coverage from Yahoo Sports