Who can grab chance to gate­crash Euro­pean elite?

The time to cause an up­set is now, be­fore new seed­ing sys­tem re­wards the big­gest clubs, writes Jonathan Liew

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Premier League -

So, here we go again. “Again” be­ing the op­er­a­tive word: as an­other Cham­pi­ons League sea­son winches men­ac­ingly into mo­tion – a rum­ble of tanks on the lawn, a splash of freshly poured Gazprom – the over­whelm­ing sen­sa­tion is not one of nov­elty, but fa­mil­iar­ity. A great many twists and turns lie on the road to Kiev next May, but rarely has the start of a new cam­paign felt more like pre­am­ble, over­ture, a peremp­tory clear­ing of the throat.

As the group stage un­folds over the next few weeks, you may get the gnaw­ing sus­pi­cion of hav­ing seen all this be­fore. This is be­cause you prob­a­bly have. Nine­teen of the 32 teams also con­tested last year’s group stage.

Barcelona and Ju­ven­tus will meet twice more, mak­ing it five games in 29 months. Real Madrid v Borus­sia Dort­mund seems to come around more fre­quently than the com­mon cold.

In­creas­ingly, the Cham­pi­ons League feels like a tele­vi­sion re­peat, the same char­ac­ters repris­ing the same sto­ry­lines in largely reprised con­fig­u­ra­tions.

Madrid’s stran­gle­hold has also been a fac­tor. Af­ter an omi­nously quiet sum­mer, Real jus­ti­fi­ably be­gin as warm favourites to win their fourth crown in five sea­sons, a dominance not glimpsed since the great Ajax and Bayern Mu­nich sides of the 1970s.

In the toss and churn of elite foot­ball, Real’s suc­cess has been built on that rarest of gifts: sta­bil­ity. Ten of the play­ers who took the field against Ju­ven­tus in June’s fi­nal also played against Atletico Madrid in Lis­bon in 2014. Alas, con­ti­nu­ity is a lux­ury af­forded only the very rich­est. For most clubs, suc­cess sim­ply at­tracts the vul­tures: wit­ness the won­der­ful Monaco team of last sea­son, picked apart like car­rion. And im­me­di­ately be­neath the seren­ity of the Real supremacy, a cu­ri­ous flux reigns. Bayern Mu­nich have re­cruited shrewdly. Last sea­son’s run­ners-up Ju­ven­tus have strength­ened. Atletico have set­tled per­son­nel, but a new sta­dium to con­tend with. And it re­mains to be seen how Barcelona, un­der new man­ager Ernesto Valverde, will man­age the in­dig­nity of see­ing a star player ripped from their grasp.

For the first time in a few years, it feels like there is an op­por­tu­nity to gate­crash the elite. And no club has tried harder or more brazenly to do so than Paris St-Ger­main, for whom the sign­ings of Ney­mar and Kylian Mbappe con­sti­tute ei­ther a fright­en­ing state­ment of in­tent or a des­per­ate at­tempt to im­mo­late Qatar’s in­creas­ing in­ter­na­tional iso­la­tion and the trauma of last March’s 6-1 de­feat to Barcelona in an in­ferno of re­tail ther­apy.

One thing is clear: there can be no more ex­cuses. Los­ing the French ti­tle to Monaco was but a mi­nor inconvenience when set against their spec­tac­u­lar im­plo­sion at the Nou Camp in March, and for club pres­i­dent Nasser Al-Khe­laifi, the Cham­pi­ons League re­mains “our dream, our ob­jec­tive”. It is why he set aside £365mil­lion to sign the world’s two best young at­tack­ers. “We have done ev­ery­thing to win this Cham­pi­ons League,” Al-Khe­laifi said af­ter the draw, which pits them against Bayern, An­der­lecht and Celtic. “We are still not with the big, big clubs. But we are do­ing ev­ery­thing to get there.” Well, al­most. A world-class goal­keeper, some cover at cen­tre-half and a deeply­ing mid­fielder would make them a gen­uinely feared prospect.

Of the other sec­ond-tier clubs, Borus­sia Dort­mund, Sevilla and Napoli are also ca­pa­ble of going deep. And what of the five English clubs? Manch­ester City look best po­si­tioned, and kind draws have put Manch­ester United and Liver­pool in the frame. Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur have a shock­ing group to ne­go­ti­ate but will be im­mensely stronger for the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Then we have Chelsea, who in many ways are the most in­trigu­ing of the lot.

An­to­nio Conte, their man­ager, has a cu­ri­ously undis­tin­guished record in the com­pe­ti­tion: just a sin­gle quar­ter­fi­nal, in 2012. And there re­mains a sus­pi­cion that Conte’s breath­less, ex­haus­tive style of man­age­ment is bet­ter suited to the weekly tread­mill of a league cam­paign than the se­lec­tive fo­cus of cup foot­ball. A tough group, con­tain­ing Atletico and Roma, may ac­tu­ally work to their ad­van­tage.

What about a con­tender from left­field? Debu­tants RB Leipzig, fu­elled by con­tro­ver­sial en­ergy-drink money, have put a few noses out of joint in Ger­many, and will have no com­punc­tion about do­ing so again. Keep an eye out, too, for Feyeno­ord: a team of few house­hold names but a strong work ethic, a well-grooved style and one of Europe’s most promis­ing young man­agers in Gio­vanni van Bron­ck­horst.

At this hazy out­set, then, all is pos­si­bil­ity. En­joy it while it lasts.

From next sea­son, the draw­bridge is be­ing pulled up still fur­ther, with even more places – and even more money – re­served for the top clubs from the top leagues. A new seed­ing sys­tem based partly on “his­tor­i­cal suc­cess” will re­ward the big­gest clubs for be­ing big.

The sport­ing caprice of cup foot­ball will con­cede fur­ther ground to the commercial cer­tain­ties of the closed shop. Con­ti­nu­ity, af­ter all, is a lux­ury af­forded only the very rich­est.

Con­ti­nu­ity: Real Madrid have won three of the past four ti­tles with the same play­ers

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