Five things to watch out for in 2021-22 UEFA Champions League

Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, England, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (Rui Vieira/AP)

World soccer’s biggest and most prestigious club tournament returns to action when the 2021-22 UEFA Champions League kicks off this week with Matchday 1 of the group stage.

Thirty-two teams from across Europe will battle it out over the next nine months, all with an eye towards reaching the final on May 28 at Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Here are five things to watch out for in this season’s UEFA Champions League.

New adventures for Messi and Ronaldo

Once again, both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will be competing on club soccer’s grandest stage this season, but their surroundings will be much different.

After three years at Juventus, Ronaldo was sold to Manchester United this summer, marking his return to the club where he first shot to international fame. Ronaldo won the Champions League with Manchester in 2008, but the Red Devils haven’t scaled those same heights in Europe since his departure. United bowed out of the Champions League in the group stage a year ago, and the hope is that the Portuguese star can help them relive past glories and win a fourth European crown.

After spending his entire career at Barcelona, Messi is starting fresh at Paris-Saint Germain as part of a huge makeover by the French club that also saw them add Sergio Ramos, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Georginio Wijnaldum this summer. Despite PSG’s wealth and ambitious plans, it has never won the Champions League, falling just short two years ago when it lost to Bayern Munich in the final. Can Messi, a four-time winner with Barcelona, help the French side finally reach the promised land?

Chelsea looks to repeat

There has only been one repeat winner during the modern era of the UEFA Champions League: Real Madrid won three in a row from 2016-18. Chelsea will try to win back-to-back titles after upsetting Manchester City in last season’s all-English final.

Manager Thomas Tuchel took over a Chelsea side last January after Frank Lampard was fired and with the team languishing in ninth place. Tuchel quickly went to work and brought some much-needed defensive solidity to the London-based club, as the Blues finished the Premier League season in fourth place. The Blues also won the UEFA Champions League title for the second time, proving they made the right choice in Tuchel.

With the championship core still in place and the team strengthened by the off-season signing of Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku from Inter Milan, Tuchel’s side could join an elite group of teams to repeat as European club champions.

Canadian content

Canada will have a fair bit of representation in the group stage of this season’s Champions League, with four members of the Canadian men’s team set to participate in the competition.

After helping French club Lille OSC win its first league title in a decade last year, forward Jonathan David will make his Champions League debut. David, a 21-year-old from Ottawa, will be looking to build upon his previous Europa League experiences with Lille and Belgian club Gent in a first-round group featuring Sevilla, Red Bull Salzburg and VfL Wolfsburg.

Besiktas forward Cyle Larin, 26, is coming off a stellar campaign in which he finished second in scoring in the Turkish league with 19 goals and played a starring role in the Istanbul-based club winning the domestic title. He played in last season’s Champions league qualifying round, but this year marks his debut in the group stage of the tournament.

Besiktas teammate and fellow Brampton, Ont., native Atiba Huthchinson has plenty of Champions League experience during his time with the Turkish giants. At age 38, this could be his last go-around.

The Canadian contingent is rounded out by Alphonso Davies, the 20-year-old from Edmonton who is one of the best fullbacks/wingbacks in world soccer. Davies was a key figure for Bayern Munich when it won the Champions League in 2020, and he will be looking to help the Bavarians climb to the top of the mountain again after last season’s quarter-final elimination at the hands of PSG.

Atalanta: Possible surprise package

If you’re looking to place a bet on a dark horse team to win it all, you might want to put some money down on Atalanta.

Playing an attack-minded and fearless brand of soccer under manager Gian Piero Gasperini, the Nerazzurri have become one of the most fun and entertaining teams to watch over the last five years. They’ve grown from a modest provincial side to one of the strongest clubs in Italy, having finished third in each of the last three Serie A seasons.

With midfielder Matteo Pessina from Italy’s Euro 2020 winning side on their roster, in addition to talented internationals such as German Robin Gosens and Ruslan Malinovskyi of Ukraine, Atalanta is poised to improve upon its quarter-final and round of 16 runs in the last two Champions League seasons.

The Group of Death

Of the eight groups in the first round, Group B appears to be the most enticing and evenly balanced, as it features La Liga outfit Atletico Madrid, English powerhouse Liverpool, Portuguese heavyweights FC Porto, and Italian giants AC Milan.

Atletico are the reigning Spanish league champions, and manager Diego Simeone’s side has been knocking on the door in Europe ever since reaching the finals in 2014 and 2016. Liverpool is not that far removed from winning the Champions League in 2019, and will be looking to make amends after early exits in 2020 (round of 16) and 2021 (quarter-finals).

Porto is not a team to be taken lightly, especially after they knocked off mighty Juventus in the round of 16 last season before falling just short against eventual winners Chelsea in the next round.

AC Milan is back in the Champions League for the first time in seven years, and is eager to make up for lost time. With veterans Olivier Giroud and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in tow, not to mention stylish midfielder and Euro 2020 champion Sandro Tonali, the Rossoneri could make a lot of noise upon their return to the big time.

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. To check out TFC Republic, click here.

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