Neymar and Kylian Mbappe headline free-spending Paris Saint-Germain’s quest to knock Real Madrid off their perch as the Champions League group stages begin on Tuesday under the shadow of infighting at the top of the European game.
La Liga president Javier Tebas has lambasted PSG’s 222 million euro ($267 million) capture of Neymar from Barcelona as « financial doping » with the French giants also set to splash another 180 million on 18-year-old Mbappe next summer to make his loan move from Monaco permanent.
Spanish clubs have dominated the competition in recent seasons. Madrid have lifted the trophy in three of the last four years with that run only interrupted by Barcelona’s success in 2015.
However, that dominance has been put under threat by the riches of not only PSG, but a Premier League resurgence with England boasting five teams in the group stage for the first time.
PSG will be assured a red hot atmosphere to begin their European campaign at Celtic with the Scottish champions looking to spring an almighty upset.
However, it is German champions Bayern Munich, who start at home to Anderlecht, who will provide an early test of PSG’s title credentials in the battle to top Group B.
Neymar’s departure provoked a summer of institutional chaos at Barcelona with a public split between the club’s beleaguered board and leading figures in the dressing room.
Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu has claimed the Catalans will have a « more competitive » side this season than last despite losing Neymar after splashing out a fee that could rise to 145 million euros on 20-year-old French winger Ousmane Dembele to replace the Brazilian.
Dembele impressed in a cameo appearance as a substitute on his debut with an assist for Luis Suarez as Barca thrashed Espanyol 5-0 on Saturday.
However, Bartomeu’s theory will be put under the spotlight straight away with the visit of Juventus, who dumped Barca out at the quarter-final stage 3-0 on aggregate last season.
Real shouldn’t be troubled as they begin their defence of the competition at home to Cypriots APOEL Nicosia on Wednesday.
– English Renaissance –
Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool have the toughest tasks of England’s five-strong contingent looking to reassert the cash-rich Premier League on the European stage after several years of disappointing results in the Champions League.
Spurs are looking to end their Wembley hoodoo against Borussia Dortmund in a clash that will go a long way to deciding who will be Real’s closest challengers in Group H.
Mauricio Pochettino’s men have won just one of their last 11 outings at their temporary home before moving into a new stadium next season.
Dortmund, though, have bitter memories of Wembley themselves having lost the Champions League final in 2013 there to rivals Bayern.
Fresh from a 5-0 hammering at the hands of Manchester City, Liverpool are seeking revenge for their defeat to Sevilla in the 2016 Europa League final when Champions League football returns to Anfield for the first time in three years.
Jose Mourinho also leads Manchester United back into European football’s premier club competition at home to Basel.
City travel to Feyenoord for the Dutch champions’ return to the Champions League for the first time since 2001, whilst Chelsea host Azerbaijani newcomers Qarabag.
Chelsea face stiff competition to make the knockout stages with Atletico Madrid and Roma making up Group C.
Atletico travel to the Italian capital on Tuesday to begin their latest attempt at finally landing the Champions League having fallen to cross city rivals Real in the final stages of each of the past four seasons.
Two of the revelations of European football last season go head-to-head in Group G as Leipzig welcome Monaco on their Champions League debut.
Backed by energy drinks giant Red Bull, Leipzig emerged as Bayern’s closest challengers in Germany.
Unlike Monaco, who have raked in over 300 million euros in transfer fees for Mbappe, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva, Leipzig have maintained their young core in Liverpool-bound Naby Keita, Emil Forsberg and Timo Werner.
Premier League : Guardiola mulls Kompany return for Man City
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola is considering calling on captain Vincent Kompany to solve his centre-back problems at Leicester City on Saturday.
Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany has not played since picking up a calf injury during his country’s 9-0 win over Gibraltar in August 2017
The Belgium international, 31, has not played since picking up a calf injury during his country’s 9-0 win over Gibraltar in August.
Since then, John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi have impressed in defence for City, but the Argentinian is suspended after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season against Arsenal.
« I have something in my mind to replace him, » Guardiola said on Friday.
« We have Manga (Eliaquim Mangala), maybe Kompany can come back. We will see.
« We have other options, of course. Kyle (Walker) can play in central defence, Fernandinho can play in that position.
« It’s not a natural position for Kyle and Dinho, but we have options. »
Kompany has struggled to keep himself fit for the majority of the last three seasons and it had looked like he was beginning to recover in August.
The defender turned out for City regularly at the end of last season and helped to settle a shaky back-line down.
But he has now missed another two and a half months following a recurrence of a calf problem and in his absence City have kept eight clean sheets and won all 14 games.
Guardiola may have to field a makeshift defence at Leicester, with concerns also surrounding the fitness of auxiliary left-back Fabian Delph, who missed England’s 0-0 friendly draws with Germany and Brazil.
« I don’t know if he will be able (to play), » Guardiola told a press conference at the City Football Academy.
« In four training sessions, he trained two and he couldn’t train in the other two.
« Hopefully we can recover him because he’s been so important for us in that position because (Benjamin) Mendy is out for six months. »
City’s last visit to Leicester’s King Power Stadium was a traumatic one for Guardiola, whose side came in for heavy criticism after a 4-2 defeat there last December.
« It was not easy, » he said. « After three minutes we were 2-0 down and Leicester are a complicated team because of the way they play.
« They played the way they did when they were champions with Claudio Ranieri. It’s always complicated with teams like us when we defend high and leave space in the back.
« That’s why we have to play intelligently. It’s one of the toughest games we have. »
Raheem Sterling is available despite having withdrawn from the England squad with a back problem.
« He played the last two games with a lot of pain in his back and he made a huge effort to play in Napoli and against Arsenal, » said Guardiola, whose side are eight points clear at the Premier League summit.
« He’s training. He rested a little bit in this period and the last two games he played he was in trouble, but now it’s much, much better than before. »
Concerns over Sergio Aguero’s fitness have also been eased, with the striker available after he experienced a dizzy spell while on international duty with Argentina.
The forward was taken to hospital as a precaution after being taken ill at half-time of his country’s 4-2 loss to Nigeria in Russia on Tuesday.
Guardiola said: « He arrived two days ago and he was seen by the doctor. There’s nothing to be worried about. »
Mertens hails Sarri’s tactics
Napoli star Dries Mertens has described Maurizio Sarri’s tactical obsession as a 12th man for the Serie A leaders.
The San Paolo club are in pole position in a tightly contested Scudetto race after winning 10 of their opening 12 league games this season.
Napoli’s only defeats have come in the Champions League, but Sarri has made clear that domestic glory is at the forefront of the club’s ambitions this season.
One of Sarri’s many great innovations at Napoli has been the transformation of Mertens from tricky winger to devastating finisher – the Belgium international has 42 goals in 53 games since being converted last October.
« Sarri taught me football, » Mertens told Corriere dello Sport. « He is a coach I really like, well-prepared and even scientific in the way he analyses games.
« The thing I love the most about his style of football is the way he organises the phases when we are off the ball and structures the pressure we put on opponents when they’ve got the ball at their feet.
« It feels like he has already played the game out in his head and on the field you have an extra man. »
Napoli come out of the international break with a home fixture against an AC Milan side that many had tipped for Scudetto success after a lavish off-season of spending.
However, Sarri’s side have emerged from the pack to be early frontrunners and Mertens believes that could stand them in good stead, despite the loss of two key players to long-term knee injuries.
Forza frero! pic.twitter.com/5rWs1Jr8b1
— Dries Mertens (@dries_mertens14) 3 de novembro de 2017
« We hope so. It’s true we’ve been unlucky with Arek Milik’s injury and now Faouzi Ghoulam, » he added.
« We know that we don’t have 30 men to count on, but we want to do well and are still ahead of the other teams.
« Believe me, that is already a huge advantage in a campaign that will be hard-fought. »
Premier League : Ibrahimovic, Pogba back for Man Utd – Mourinho
Paul Pogba and long-term injury victim Zlatan Ibrahimovic will make their Manchester United returns against Newcastle United on Saturday, manager Jose Mourinho announced on Friday.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 28 times in 46 appearances in his first season with Manchester United
France midfielder Pogba has been out since September with a hamstring injury, while former Sweden striker Ibrahimovic has not played since damaging knee ligaments against Anderlecht in April.
Argentinian defender Marcos Rojo is also set to return, having suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury in the same Europa League game as Ibrahimovic.
« Zlatan, last season we played with him every minute almost until he was injured, » Mourinho told his weekly press conference at United’s training base west of Manchester.
« This season we learn how to play without him, but he’s a very important player for us.
« So welcome back and of course he is an incredible personality to fight such an important injury. We were all saying in 2017 he will be back, but one thing is December 31, 2017 and another thing is mid-November.
« He was, as an injured player, the same super professional he is when he’s fit. So fantastic work, same as Marcos.
« He had an important injury too, a big surgery. He played with the young boys (United’s Under-23s) on Wednesday and is fine. He is confident, is also ready.
« Paul is obviously not the same dimension of injury. It was not a surgical situation, but it was also bad and all three are back. »
News of the trio’s availability is a welcome fillip for Mourinho, who has seen his team fall eight points below Manchester City in the Premier League title race.
Ibrahimovic, 36, made a stunning impact on English football last season, top-scoring for United with 28 goals in 46 games before succumbing to his career-threatening injury.
Pogba, 24, was less conspicuously successful following his return to the club from Juventus in a then world-record £89.3 million ($117.7 million, 99.8 million euros) transfer.
But he made a strong start to the current campaign, with two goals and two assists in his first six appearances, and United have struggled for form in his absence.
« With Paul you can clearly see Manchester United this season before Paul’s injury and after Paul’s injury, » Mourinho said.
« There are qualities in our football that influence our approach in matches, with Pogba and without Pogba. That’s as simple as that. »
Ibrahimovic left United when his contract expired at the end of last season, but signed a new one-year deal in August.
« He made a full recovery, » said Mourinho. « Now you cannot expect him to play 90 minutes or consecutive matches like he did all his career.
« Now he needs time to be back for his level, his fitness, his confidence, everything, his sharpness, but by the clinical point of view, it is fantastic to be ready. »
Ibrahimovic’s return raises the intriguing possibility of Mourinho selecting him alongside Romelu Lukaku, who has gone off the boil of late, going seven games without a goal.
Ibrahimovic talked up the prospect earlier this week and with Mourinho having occasionally used a two-striker configuration this season, he said he was open to deploying the pair in tandem.
« It is easy, » said Mourinho. « Good players can play together. It’s easy to play together. »
Mourinho paid tribute to Lukaku after the 24-year-old became Belgium’s all-time leading scorer, although three of his 31 goals were scored in a game that FIFA does not recognise as official.
« The record was Paul Van Himst’s, an iconic player for his country, and for Romelu to be so young and beating the record is fantastic, » said Mourinho.
« I know that in previous generations there were not so many friendlies and the players found it difficult to score.
« But Romelu is very young, he has 10 more years to play for his country and I can imagine the number of goals can be amazing. »
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