Real begin title defence in unusual Champions League season

Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti (centre) and players during a training session at Celtic Park, Glasgow. 

Holders Real Madrid will launch their title defence in Glasgow when this unusual Champions League season, which has been split into a sprint and a marathon due to the World Cup in Qatar, gets under way on Tuesday evening.

Carlo Ancelotti’s men face Scottish champions Celtic in their opening Group ‘F’ fixture while on the same night Paris St Germain and Manchester City set out on their latest quest to lift European club football’s biggest prize for the first time.

Real’s 14th European Cup title brought into ever sharper focus the ongoing wait for glory at both City and PSG. Both clubs have invested heavily in their pursuit of the biggest prize of all, but despite their respective domestic dominance and one final appearance each, the yearning remains unrequited.

Real, in contrast, have won five of the last nine editions and will set out with the aim of winning a 15th European Cup in Istanbul next June, with the group stage unlikely to overly trouble Carlo Ancelotti’s side.

They will also face RB Leipzig and Shakhtar Donetsk in Group ‘F’, fully aware that even a home defeat to Sheriff Tiraspol last year ultimately proved inconsequential.

“Last year the easiest game was supposedly against Sheriff at the Bernabeu and we lost it, so we need to respect these teams,” Ancelotti told Spanish media.

He was also quick to point out another factor which could come into play this season.

Usually the group stage finishes in December, but UEFA has been forced to squeeze all six Champions League matchdays into eight full weeks, with the last group matches on Nov 2, due to the shutdown of top-tier European football during a World Cup being played from Nov. 20-Dec. 18 in Qatar’s cooler months.

In a normal season, teams never play Champions League games in consecutive weeks and the group stage would run into mid-December.

This time, Champions League games come thick and fast in three separate sets of back-to-back midweeks to get the groups done before many players are called to national-team duty.

“We will have to be ready not just for the quality of the opposition but also for the different demands and rhythms,” said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, whose team begin at Napoli on Wednesday as they look to put their defeat against Real in the final last May behind them.

It could be that the real impact of that is only felt when the knockout rounds start in February, when many players at Europe’s biggest clubs will have had to come through the draining experience of a mid-season World Cup. Nevertheless, the idea that someone from outside a narrow band of elite clubs might win the Champions League is fanciful.

Real will not start as favourites up against City and a reinforced PSG in particular.

“The Champions League brings the best out of players, fans and teams. It would be very reductive to say that PSG are favourites,” insisted PSG coach Christophe Galtier.

City currently look a juggernaut, fuelled by new signing Erling Haaland’s 10 goals in his first six Premier League games, and are favoured by many for a first Champions League title.

Liverpool and Bayern Munich are also contenders, but the jury is out on Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur or Barcelona.

This time, most fascination lies in Group ‘C’, where Bayern, Barca and Inter Milan — with 14 European Cups between them — are together alongside Czech champions Viktoria Plzen. It is quite possible that Barca, after a close season spent selling off assets to be able to strengthen their squad despite enormous debts, could be knocked out in the group stage for a second straight year.

“We got a very difficult group. Possibly the hardest of the last 20 years,” warned Barca coach Xavi Hernandez.

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