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Will Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea seize their Champions League chance?

Last season's Champions League ended in bitter disappointment for the Premier League's representatives.

Holders Liverpool crashed out in the round of 16, their fate sealed in a wild defeat to Atletico Madrid at Anfield. Tottenham, the previous year's runners-up, were outclassed by RB Leipzig at the same juncture, while Chelsea suffered a similar fate against Bayern Munich.

Manchester City went one round better, beating Real Madrid to reach the quarter-finals, but their hopes of European glory disappeared during a chastening 3-1 loss to Lyon. A year on from an all-English final, there were no Premier League sides in the last four.

Bayern went on to lift the trophy, dispatching Paris Saint-Germain 1-0 in the final, and the Bavarian club are now favourites to go on and win it again. Elsewhere across Europe, however, the usual contenders are perhaps not as strong as in previous years.

Real Madrid remain in a state of transition post-Cristiano Ronaldo while Barcelona still seem to be teetering on the brink of full-blown crisis following a tumultuous summer in which a disillusioned Lionel Messi tried to engineer his departure.

The two Spanish teams, normally leading Champions League candidates, are rated by the bookmakers as 12/1 and 14/1 outsiders to lift the crown. There is uncertainty around Italian heavyweights Juventus, too, after the appointment of Andrea Pirlo as head coach this summer.

Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea are not without problems of their own, of course. There are other names in the frame too. But the Premier League quartet head into this year's competition knowing it's open. Will they seize their chance?

Liverpool face test of depth

The group-stage draw was relatively kind to Liverpool. Ajax and Atalanta are not to be underestimated, of course, but their opponents are not as fearsome as they might have been.

Liverpool would be expected to progress without any problem in usual circumstances but the opening weeks of the Premier League campaign have been far from straightforward. Jurgen Klopp's side, imperious for so much of last season, have already suffered a 7-2 thrashing by Aston Villa. On Saturday, they stumbled again against Everton at Goodison Park.

More worrying than the result, however, was the injury which has ruled out Virgil van Dijk for most of the season. The Netherlands defender has been practically ever-present for Liverpool since January 2018. His impact on their defence has been transformative. But they must now learn to cope without him.

Liverpool's Group D opponents

  • Ajax
  • Atalanta
  • FC Midtjylland

It is a daunting prospect. Not just because of the lack of depth at centre-back - Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and midfielder Fabinho are their only other senior options in the position - but because of the schedule that lies ahead. This season's fixture list is even more packed than usual given the delays caused by the coronavirus shutdown earlier this year.

Klopp knows just how draining the Champions League can be having reached the final in consecutive years in 2018 and 2019.

This year, his resources look stretched before the first ball has even been kicked. Without Van Dijk and with even less recovery time than usual, it will take a Herculean effort to go the distance for a third time in four years.

Man City their own worst enemy?

Manchester City's 3-1 loss to Lyon in last season's quarter-finals left fans with a sense of deja-vu. Once again, against less-fancied opponents, Pep Guardiola appeared to overthink his tactics and his City side were punished. "Different year, same stuff," surmised Kevin De Bruyne.

The feeling remains Guardiola's City are their own worst enemy when it comes to the Champions League. Before last year's exit against Lyon, there was Tottenham. Before that, there was Monaco. All three were sides City were expected to beat, and yet all of them progressed at their expense.

Man City's Group C opponents

  • Porto
  • Marseille
  • Olympiakos

Guardiola's approach has come under scrutiny but there is also the broader problem of what appears to be a psychological block on the European stage. Manchester City, domestically dominant for much of Guardiola's reign, often appear inhibited in the Champions League.

This year, following their reprieve from a European ban, the challenge is to finally throw off those shackles. The opening weeks of the Premier League campaign have included a 5-2 reverse against Leicester, but their passage to the knockout stages does not look overly difficult having been drawn in a group with Porto, Marseille and Olympiakos.

City have also taken action to address the defensive frailties on show against Lyon last season. Ruben Dias is not the first centre-back to be brought to the club at great expense during Guardiola's reign, but the hope is he will live up to his potential in the same way as Aymeric Laporte.

If that pairing proves as solid as hoped, and if Guardiola and his players learn the lessons of their past mistakes, then perhaps this might finally be their year. When it comes to quality, few sides can match them.

Man Utd face tough task in group stage

Manchester United's 4-1 win over Newcastle on Saturday eased the pressure on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer following their 6-1 thrashing by Tottenham before the international break. But he will be judged by what happens in the weeks ahead.

In between Premier League fixtures against Chelsea, Arsenal and high-flying Everton, Manchester United begin their Champions League campaign against Paris Saint-Germain, RB Leipzig and Istanbul Basaksehir. The group-stage draw was not kind to them.

Group H opponents

  • Paris Saint-Germain
  • RB Leipzig
  • Istanbul Besakeshir

The trip to the Parc des Princes on Tuesday evokes memories of their last visit, in March 2019, when they upset the odds with a thrilling 3-1 win to book their place in the quarter-finals. The result convinced the club's hierarchy to hand Solskjaer the manager's job on a permanent basis.

They will need to summon the same spirit this time around, but their start to the season has been fraught, with their defeats to Crystal Palace and Spurs following a difficult summer in the transfer market, and PSG look a different beast having reached their first Champions League final last season.

RB Leipzig are a formidable opponent too. That much was apparent in the way they dismantled Tottenham last season. A trip to Istanbul is not an easy proposition either - even if the absence of fans will deprive the hosts of the atmosphere that often works to their advantage.

New-look Chelsea target lift-off

Chelsea spent over £200m on new recruits after their transfer ban was lifted this summer, with Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Thiago Silva, Edouard Mendy and Ben Chilwell providing an injection of quality and transforming the look of the side.

The intention was to turn Chelsea from top-four contenders into title challengers and the Premier League is not the only competition in their sights.

Last year, Chelsea's Champions League involvement ended with a 7-1 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich which underlined just how far behind the elite they had fallen. This year, however, they hope to bridge that gap.

Chelsea's Group E opponents

  • Sevilla
  • Rennes
  • Krasnodar

Saturday's 3-3 draw with Southampton was a reminder their defensive flaws will not be fixed overnight, but the squad certainly looks well equipped to compete on multiple fronts this season and, while Sevilla possess undoubted European pedigree, Chelsea's Champions League group has not thrown up any major obstacles.

Lampard will aim to take advantage and, when it comes to resolving the side's defensive issues, he will hope Thiago Silva, a man with a wealth of experience at Champions League level, will carry his form from PSG's run to last season's final into this year's competition.

Source: Sky Sports / Nick Wright

 

 

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