Who will be the continent’s top performing stars in the Group Stage of Europe’s premier club competition in 2021/22?
Although Chelsea progressed through the Group Stage serenely enough, few had them down as favourites for the Champions League trophy this time last season.
Not only were results in league play leaving a lot to be desired, but there was also the acknowledgement that Frank Lampard’s lack of tactical rigour would not cut it when the water level rose to a sufficiently high mark.
The dynamic quickly shifted upon the appointment of Thomas Tuchel, with the German installing a solid, disciplined shape and imbuing a group assembled at great cost with the nous to make a deep run.
In the end, the Blues were worthy winners, beating Manchester City in the Final to make an important point: even in the era of player power, organization and strategy still remains the biggest factor for triumph on the biggest stage.
With Romelu Lukaku added to the mix, Chelsea look an even more fearsome proposition, and it is easy to envisage the team getting stronger the more time Tuchel has to work his magic.
That would afford more chances to impress for silky playmaker Hakim Ziyech, whose performances to this point have been mostly decorative, and goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, who was a key man in the Blues’ European success.
The pair are the sole African representatives at a club that has, over the years, had its fair share of top performers from the continent.
Who though are the realistic African challengers to Ziyech and Mendy’s Chelsea setting up a European dynasty?
Having finally broken their quarter-final hoodoo two seasons ago, French giants Paris Saint-Germain have steadily built themselves up to contender status in the Champions League.
The sacking of Tuchel did not impair them to a significant degree in Europe, as they avenged their 2019/20 Final defeat to Bayern Munich en route to semi-final elimination at the hands of Manchester City.
Idrissa Gueye, despite concerns over his aptitude and performances against the bigger teams in the latter stages of the competition, remains a vital cog in the machine at Parc des Princes, and has actually begun the season in fine form.
The versatility of Senegal’s Abdou Diallo has compensated somewhat for the absence of Juan Bernat and the inconsistency of Layvin Kurzawa, and could also be key if PSG are to make deep progress in the competition.
If the signing of Lionel Messi elevates them to the status of favourites, then the impact that Cristiano Ronaldo could have at Manchester United cannot be overlooked.
The former Real Madrid and Juventus man is almost synonymous with the competition, and could not only provide the blockbuster attacking output the Red Devils have so craved, but also mentor Ivoirian youngster Amad Diallo. Eric Bailly, while essentially bumped down to fourth choice on account of the signing of Raphael Varane, could also be a factor in any success United have in the competition.
Bayern Munich have a new manager at the helm in Julian Nagelsmann, and will need to get to grips quickly with his methods. Much of their success will however continue to ride on Robert Lewandowski’s goals, but if the Pole is indisposed, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting displayed his aptitude as a replacement at points during last season’s competition, and should be able to do so again.
There is of course the Liverpool factor, with Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Joel Matip and Naby Keita flying the flag for Africa.
For all the apparent dissatisfaction over the level of investment in the first team squad, the Reds have reached two finals in the last five years, and on their day have the firepower and defensive strength to hold their own against any opponent.
Last season, Edouard Mendy produced a number of solid displays in goal for Chelsea, challenging the stereotype around African goalkeepers with assurance.
He will again be crucial in marshalling a parsimonious rearguard if Tuchel’s men make a proper fist of defending their title.
However, it is about time Sevilla had a real run in the Champions League.
Their modus operandi of simply using the competition as a means to bypass the Europa League Group Stage has grown a little old, and they genuinely have the quality and depth – as well as a kind enough draw – to win their group comfortably.
Look then for Youssef En-Nesyri to continue to build on last season’s performances. The Moroccan is probably just a notch below world-class, but he is improving all the time (he saw off competition from Luuk de Jong, who has now joined Barcelona) and is now established as Sevilla’s undisputed number 9. In a group with Lille, Salzburg and Wolfsburg, he may well fill his boots.
African tie of the Group Stage
Liverpool vs Porto
This is a meeting chock full of African interests, and which raises a number of questions.
Last season, Chancel Mbemba led a terrific rearguard action to shut out Manchester City in the Group Stage. Will they be able to repeat the trick?
Will left-back Zaidu Sanusi regain his place in the starting eleven in order to face up to Mohamed Salah?
Did Porto make the right choice letting Moussa Marega leave, and will they be able to pose the same level of threat without him as they did last season against the likes of Juventus and Chelsea?
Will the efforts of Wilson Manafa or Guinea-Bissau defender Nanu be enough to keep Sadio Mane in check?
Young Stars to Watch
In truth, Noussair Mazraoui is hardly an unknown quantity. In fact, since Ajax’s improbable run to the semi-final stage four years ago, the Moroccan has arguably stalled in his development. However, on the basis of his form so far this season, the 23-year-old seems to have rediscovered his spark, and looks set to explode once more in the Champions League this season.
In a forgiving group featuring Borussia Dortmund and Sporting Club, two teams particularly susceptible to wide attacks based on their tactical shape, Mazraoui could hold the key to Ajax’s progress.
RB Leipzig’s signing of Ilaix Moriba rescued the Guinean from contract hell at Barcelona.
It is an investment that could reap immediate rewards: the 18-year-old midfielder was impressive in his breakthrough season at Camp Nou, and remains one of the brightest prospects in world football in his position.
With a manager in Jesse Marsch who has earned a reputation for bringing through young stars, and within an environment that supports a technical, high-pressing brand of football, Moriba could flourish in the Champions League Group Stage.