Varane, Wolves & Bond villains

The Champions League returns!

- Words Mark White, Ed Mccambridg­e

After Chelsea’s unexpected success, the Champions League returns – with a few not- so- minor adjustment­s. Star signings and a major rivalry reignited make for another juicy campaign


In 1992- 93, Marseille lifted a nation on its shoulders by defeating Milan 1- 0 in the first Champions League final of a newly branded era. But France’s sole European Cup win was soon tainted: amid the sordid French football bribery scandal that came next, Marseille never defended their title.

It’s taken a while for France to scale those heights, but Paris Saint- Germain winning the Champions League might unite the country in a different way: as long ago as 2013, PSG were top of a L’équipe survey on the nation’s most despised club. They’re a natural Bond villain: extravagan­t, well- dressed and prone to a tantrum. Remember their Manchester City meltdowns? Or the time they mocked a teenage Erling Haaland’s yoga celebratio­n? Nobody likes them... and they don’t care.

Now, Les Parisiens are doubling down on the showiness and the sh** housery. The last time PSG didn’t win the league, they reacted by splashing € 400 million on Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. Lille’s Ligue 1 victory has led to more of the same... with added nibble.

Gianluigi Donnarumma has joined to rival Keylor Navas, giving PSG a second world- class goalkeeper. Gini Wijnaldum is the latest Premier League midfielder to defect to Parc des Princes, after Idrissa Gueye and Ander Herrera. In Sergio Ramos, the king of the Champions League, they’ve found a maniacal monarch to govern their backline, perfectly content to crush the dreams of his former employers. And then, of course, there’s Lionel Messi’s arrival. All four of them cost nothing in transfer fees – unlike superstar full- back Achraf Hakimi, responsibl­e for the biggest transfer outlay of any African player ( tipping € 100m) now, with a € 60m switch from Inter.

PSG’S time is nigh. Neymar will turn 30 in February, and his ambitions in French football are slipping away. Mbappe has critics for the first time, after his penalty miss at Euro 2020, although Marco Verratti returns in arguably the prime of his life. Following his strops against City earlier this year, PSG hope – pray, even – that the Italian is ready to become a double European champion.

PSG followed up their run to the 2020 final by reaching the last four in 2020- 21. They’ve continued to edge close to the holy grail; this season, though, could well be their best shot at winning the thing. Just don’t expect street parties across France if they pull it off.



“Maximum success” is the rather robotic ambition for Bayern Munich this season, as Nagelsmann put it at his June unveiling. As at PSG, league glory is considered par for the 34- time kings of Germany – performing well in the Champions League is what matters.

To make things trickier still, Nagelsmann has the unenviable task of following Hansi Flick. Replacing a winner in the Allianz Arena dugout is daunting – just ask Pep Guardiola, who was unable to steer Jupp Heynckes’ treble- winning side into another Champions League final – and Flick, the new manager of Germany, lifted five major trophies in just 19 months as Bayern boss, Ol’ Big Ears included. Yet it is widely felt that if anybody can take this team up another level, it’s Nagelsmann.

The 34- year- old – that’s right, he’s still only 34 – is lauded for his tactical flexibilit­y and developmen­t of young players: Timo Werner and Serge Gnabry greatly improved under his guidance at RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim respective­ly. His teams often shift systems, and at Leipzig he deployed an unorthodox yet effective 4- 2- 2- 2 in several European games. His players have spoken of his meticulous preparatio­n: Nagelsmann had enormous TV screens erected at both sides’ training pitches so that he could record sessions and stop play, to show his players exactly where they needed to improve positional­ly.

While Nagelsmann failed to mount a real title challenge in his two years with Leipzig, he did take them to the Champions League semi- finals in 2020. The Bavarian’s reputation as one of the brightest young managers in world football meant Bayern had to cough up serious cash to pinch him this summer: € 25m according to some reports, though the club dispute that figure.

This still resembles a period of vulnerable transition for

Bayern. There’s a new CEO, in club legend Oliver Kahn, and big changes at the back: Jerome Boateng, David Alaba and Javi Martinez, defensive stalwarts who together racked up more than 1,000 appearance­s in a glittering decade for the club, are gone. The 22- year- old Dayot Upamecano, signed from Leipzig for € 42.5m, has mighty boots to fill, as will Lewisham left- back Omar Richards – arriving from Reading with no top- flight experience – any time Alphonso Davies is out.

Preparing the new recruits, rewiring Leroy Sané into the free- spirited force he was at Manchester City, and continuing to fuel the sensationa­l frontline of Robert Lewandowsk­i and Thomas Muller are the cornerston­es to success in Nagelsmann’s debut campaign.

“Maximum success” doesn’t come easy.


FFT can’t decide what’s more notable: how good Unai Emery is at the Europa League, or how pants he is in the Champions League. The Spanish boss collected a fourth Europa League winners’ medal in May as Villarreal beat Manchester United on penalties – but in six attempts with four clubs, he’s never gone further than the last 16 in Europe’s premier competitio­n. At times it’s been downright humiliatin­g, not least PSG’S 6- 1 second- leg capitulati­on to Barcelona in 2017. A good run with Villarreal would do Emery no harm. Or he could just aim to finish third in the group, and so add another Europa gong to his stack...


Harry Maguire is an intelligen­t, unflinchin­g and not- unskilful centre- back, but, at 28, he’s still waiting for his first major honour as a profession­al footballer. His new defensive partner, Raphael Varane, is also 28 and has enough silverware to make a magpie woozy.

The four- time European champion might be the missing piece at Manchester United: long have they yearned for the Frenchman’s recovery pace, laser- passing and composure in the backline. Not only have they bought it, for just over £ 40m, but they have acquired one of elite football’s most experience­d defenders. Someone with Varane’s CV could help United to overcome their mental block in this competitio­n – not since 2011 have they made it further than the quarter- finals.


Among the handful of English academy products blooded by Frank Lampard in his reign as Chelsea gaffer, only Mason Mount and Reece James are still Blues regulars. But while some remain on the first- team fringes under Thomas Tuchel, others have departed Stamford Bridge – including Fikayo Tomori.

The defender shone on loan for Milan in the second part of last season, helping the Rossoneri to finish second in Serie A. They forked out € 28m to make Tomori’s move permanent; now the 23- year- old will be key to their European hopes this campaign. He’ll surely be adding to his solitary England cap.

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Below This year will be PSG’S year ( repeat until 2039)
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Below left Unai Emery, Europa League master
Below Is Varane United’s latest French saviour?
Above ‘ Servus’ can mean bye as well as hello, saving Bayern a future paint job and photoshoot Below left Unai Emery, Europa League master Below Is Varane United’s latest French saviour?

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