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The last defence of this title did not go at all well for Chelsea. ‘A very bad experience, quite painful,’ winced Cesar Azpilicuet­a yesterday when reminded of what happened nine years ago.

One defeat in Donetsk, another in Turin, Roberto di Matteo was axed and they were singing protest songs at Stamford Bridge and revolting against interim boss Rafa Benitez by Christmas.

Chelsea remain the only team to exit at the group stage as holders since the Champions League introduced one. ‘I will try with all my experience to make sure it does not happen again,’ promised Azpilicuet­a, captain and the only survivor in the dressing room.

It is difficult to envisage any repeat, however, and not simply because Thomas Tuchel’s side has started in such irresistib­le mood, with record £97.5million signing Romelu Lukaku quickly in the goal groove.

Go back in the summer of 2012 and Di Matteo’s squad started with 10 points from four games, reinforced with creative stars eden hazard and Oscar as well as Azpilicuet­a.

This year, however, the Premier League clubs are stepping into europe from a position of strength as rivals — with the staggering exception of Paris Saint-Germain — suffer from the financial impact of the global pandemic.

In Italy, champions Inter Milan held a fire sale. Boss Antonio Conte quit with the outlook bleak as they cashed in on top scorer Lukaku and Achraf hakimi.

Juventus, drawn with Chelsea in Group h, have taken just one point from three games in the new Serie A campaign and bid farewell to Cristiano Ronaldo. In Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona, combined winners of 10 of this century’s 22 Champions League titles, are in flux, as Barca confront a financial crisis without Lionel Messi (left) and Real return to a revamped Bernabeu without the defensive bedrock of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane. No one will write off these famous old clubs. Who can tell what might unfold even if this has been a chastening time for the traditiona­l forces of european football, living in such fear of the future that they plotted to break from UeFA and form a Super League. But the Premier League teams have survived comparativ­ely unscathed. They are not facing such harsh realities and are still spending like there’s no tomorrow. Manchester United take on Young Boys in Switzerlan­d with the winning mentality of Ronaldo and Varane injected into

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad.

With Jadon Sancho aboard and edinson Cavani extending his stay, United can expect to perform better than last season when they were squeezed out at the group stage by PSG and Leipzig.

‘The aim is to go all the way,’ declared Solskjaer from Bern. ‘We know it’s going to be difficult. It always is. But we’ve added some quality, experience and youth into the squad and hopefully we’re better prepared for what’s to come.’

Bayern Munich, as ever, will lead the German charge, having raided Leipzig for boss Julian Nagelsmann, centre half Dayot Upamecano and midfielder Marcel Sabitzer.

Atletico Madrid, champions of Spain, and a resurgent AC Milan, runners-up in Serie A, add lustre to Liverpool’s group.

And then there is PSG… Oof, PSG: bankrolled by the boundless wealth of Qatar as UeFA’s Financial Fair Play control evaporates, PSG have assembled an all-star cast as they go in pursuit of the trophy for the first time.

Messi, Ramos, hakimi, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Gigi Wijnaldum have all signed since last season, when the French club reached the semi-finals, where they lost to Manchester City.

Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Angel di Maria and Co remain. And all Mauricio Pochettino has to do is knock them into shape, keep everybody in harmony and win the Champions League. If not this season, then when?

Manchester City are in Group A with PSG and Leipzig, the newmoney clubs responsibl­e for United’s demise last season.

‘There are so many teams that can win it,’ said Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel ahead of the Group h opener against Zenit St Petersburg at Stamford Bridge.

Nobody, he quite rightly pointed out, predicted last season’s winners at the start of the competitio­n. To be fair, very few got it right on the morning of the final against City.

‘We came a bit out of the shadows,’ said Tuchel, who took PSG to their first final in 2020 and lost against Bayern. ‘You need a bit of luck, a momentum, a good group, but there are so many teams out there with a good group, a strong club, good players and good coaches.

‘This is a very open competitio­n. Anything is possible if you believe, if you have momentum and luck. This is what we had.

‘It was not like we did not deserve to win it. In the end we were maybe a bit of a surprise, but it was not undeserved.’

Perception is everything. Twelve months on, and most would agree Tuchel’s Chelsea have a look of potential winners.

They are evolving, improving, and young players such as Mason Mount and Kai havertz are maturing. Lukaku has added an important dimension.

They also have experience and the authority of champions.

‘In the end, nothing is like winning,’ said Tuchel. ‘I was lucky to reach the final with my team the season before and I had a feeling it was a big achievemen­t, but not to make the last step is a huge difference and you realise what it means when you do it.

‘The perception from outside; the joy, the experience, the confidence your team gets by achieving it. When you make the last step, there’s nothing compared to it. Then it really changes something for everybody. But most important is not to look back. The most important thing is to keep the feeling because that feeds the hunger for more; it’s addictive.

‘This is what I feel and what I demand from myself and everybody else. We will have this experience together for ever and we can create a bond out of it and create confidence out of it, but it is about looking in front and taking on challenges that are coming.’

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 ?? GETTY IMAGES/REX ?? Born winners (from left): Lukaku, De Bruyne, Salah and Ronaldo CHELSEA 15/2
GETTY IMAGES/REX Born winners (from left): Lukaku, De Bruyne, Salah and Ronaldo CHELSEA 15/2
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