After what seemed like an interminable summer, the UEFA Champions League resumes this week with the kickoff of the group stage.
Here’s what you need to know ahead of Matchday 1…
THE BIG MATCH
FC Barcelona vs. Juventus: A visit by last season’s runners-up to the Camp Nou is the marquee match of the first round, as it’s a contest that pits two of the world’s best sides against one another in a rematch of last season’s quarter-final round.
Barcelona enter Tuesday’s tilt riding a 21-game unbeaten run (with 19 wins) at home in the competition, a streak that dates back to a loss to Bayern Munich in the second leg of the semifinals on May 1, 2013. What’s more, Barca is coming off an impressive 5-0 win over Espanyol in the Catalan derby over the weekend.
Juventus also won its Serie A fixture on Saturday, but they’ll be missing a handful of key players. Defender Giorgio Chiellini, midfielders Claudio Marchisio and Sami Khedira, and forward Mario Mandzukic are injured. Newly-acquired defender Benedikt Howedes isn’t match fit, while Juan Cuadrado is suspended.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Kylian Mbappe, Paris Saint-Germain: Fresh off scoring in his Ligue 1 debut for PSG over the weekend, the French teenager will get his first taste of European soccer with his new club when they visit Celtic on Tuesday evening. Mbappe enjoyed a magnificent Champions League campaign in 2016-17, scoring six goals and playing a pivotal role in helping AS Monaco reach the semifinals. Celtic Park can be an intimidating place for visiting teams, but look for the Mbappe to run rampant against the Scottish champions.
COUTINHO SET TO RETURN FOR LIVERPOOL
Philippe Coutinho has yet to play for Liverpool this season – he missed the Reds’ first four games of the Premier League season due to a back problem, although the real reason is believed to because he tried to engineer a summer transfer move to Barcelona. However, manager Jurgen Klopp confirmed that he is ready to call on the Brazilian on Wednesday when the Reds host Sevilla at Anfield.
AS ROMA MOVES ON WITHOUT TOTTI
How strange will it be to see AS Roma host Atletico Madrid on Tuesday without Francesco Totti in the starting 11 or on the bench? Pretty strange. The Italian’s retirement at the end of the last Serie A campaign means the Giallorossi will begin a European season without their iconic captain for the first time in over 20 years.
CAN REAL MADRID MAKE IT 3 IN A ROW?
Los blancos begin their quest to win three consecutive European titles on Wednesday at the Santiago Bernabeu, and really, they couldn’t have asked for a much easier assignment than Apoel Nicosia. The Spanish giants have met this Cypriot club before, in the quarter-finals of the 2011-12 competitions when they won 8-2 on aggregate. Real stuttered to a 2-2 draw to visitors Levante, and Karim Benzema is expected to miss this match due to injury. Still, manager Zinedine Zidane can still call upon stars like Marco Asensio, who has to be one of the most in-form players in world soccer at the moment. The champions of Cyprus are in a for a long night in the Spanish capital.
WELCOME BACK, MANCHESTER UNITED
Top level European soccer returns to Old Trafford for the first time in two years when Manchester United host Swiss club FC Basel. Winning last season’s Europa League final ensured a return to the Champions League for Manchester United, who finished sixth in the Premier League in 2016-17, and missed out on automatic qualification. Defenders Eric Bailly and Phil Jones are serving suspensions and will be replaced by Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof at the centre of United’s defence, while midfielder Marouane Fellaini is a doubt as he recovers from a calf injury.
Tottenham better keep close tabs on Mario Gotze when they host Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday, as the German international has been in fine form through the first three weeks of the Bundesliga season:
HE SAID IT
“We have to know where we come from. We have come from the Europa League, we won it and it is very important and it is a very good title but it is the Europa League. We were sixth in the Premier League [last season] so we have to respect every team we face because they deserve to be in the Champions League.” – Ander Herrera, Manchester United midfielder