The Champions League returns with fans back in most UEFA Nations and the promise of many thrilling nights of action over the course of the season as the autumn draws in and Europe’s elite set their eyes on glory in Russia next May.
2021-22 UEFA Champions League
14 September 2021 – 28 May 2022
Final: Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Past Golden Boot winners:
PSG are the 3/1 favourites after an incredible transfer window that sees them with the most star-studded squad in Europe. The arrival of Lionel Messi – a fever dream for the club’s Qatari based owners in seasons past, but reality now – is the icing on the cake after picking up Sergio Ramos, Achraf Hakimi, Gianluigi Donnarumma, and Georginio Wijnaldum earlier in the window whilst Nuno Mender was captured on loan from Sporting too.
Kylian Mbappe stays after being hotly linked with Real Madrid, and that gives Mauricio Pochettino options few could dream of considering the quality he already had at his disposal, so it’s understandable that PSG, runners up and semi-finalists in the last two seasons, are now favourites to finally lift the trophy.
However, the Champions League is an incredibly difficult trophy to win – just ask PSG themselves – and even glittering stardom is no guarantee of success. Messi won the European Cup four times with Barcelona but there were plenty of agonising and unlucky defeats during that time too at short prices, and it will be crucial that Pochettino finds the right balance for his starting XI given the need to have Mbappe, Neymar and Messi as the front three. They are the team to beat on paper, but at 3/1 they can be avoided – at least until their group stage clashes with Manchester City, which should be hugely informative.
City, runners up last season, have an obvious chance again as Pep Guardiola seeks to add the one trophy he doesn’t have with the club. Brilliant in the semi-finals against PSG after beating Borussia Dortmund in the quarters there’s a feeling in some quarters that Guardiola’s tactical changes before last season’s final against Chelsea, with Ilkay Gundogan playing a holding midfield role, both Fernandinho and Rodri left on the bench, Joao Cancelo left out of the starting XI, and Kevin de Bryune starting as the striker.
That’s not the first time that tactical tweaks have hampered City in the late stages of the Champions League and for all their obvious talents – The addition of Jack Grealish gives them another dimension and they now look a far more defensively solid team than they used to be – they are possibly short enough, especially considering the fact they failed in their pursuit of Harry Kane, leaving them with only one senior recognised striker in Gabriel Jesus, who appears not to be favoured by Guardiola.
Chelsea provided an excellent example of how Champions League winners can be transformed mid-season, and they could be a rare example of a team that’s improved going into a Champions League defence.
Thomas Tuchel’s mid-season arrival turned a side that was failing to make the most of an expensive and talented squad on its head, as they went from struggling to make the top four to beating Atletico Madrid, Porto, and Real Madrid in the knockouts before a thoroughly deserved victory in the final over Manchester City.
That run came off the back of a fantastically re-organised defence, with Thiago Silva, Cesar Azpilicueta, and Antonio Rudiger mainly used as the back three in front of Edouard Mendy, who has quickly grown into his role at Chelsea. Full-backs Reece James, Ben Chilwell and Marcos Alonso provided solidity and width whilst N’Golo Kante and Jorginho made for a fantastic engine room.
Chelsea’s forwards had a difficult time of things through last season – their organisation and defensive solidity provided the basis for their win – but this season we could be dealing with a side that carries a much greater forward threat as the likes of Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz kick on in their second season at the club, whilst the addition of Romelu Lukaku as striker gives them a world class focal point upfront.
Injuries to Lukaku or N’Golo Kante would be a major worry, but Chelsea look in a better attacking shape than they were a year ago and the loan capture of Saul Niguez was a masterful piece of transfer business.
There’s an argument for saying that Chelsea will arguably be a better team this time around compared to last season – and Tuchel’s big game record at Stamford Bridge is already extremely impressive, along with a fine record against elite managers, having beaten Simeone, Ancelotti, and Guardiola in last season’s winning run.
The return of crowds – god willing – will make away days harder for Chelsea than they were last year, but they did well to hold off Liverpool despite playing a man down for 45 minutes and 15/2 – more than double the price of Manchester City – seems like a massive price on all the available evidence. Defending the Champions League is an exceptionally hard task, but it’s not impossible, as Real Madrid have proven recently, and the Blues can make a bold bid to retain their title.
Liverpool have impressed in the Premier League so far, and if Jurgen Klopp’s men can take a first choice XI into the latter stages then they’ll be a major threat – especially in front of a full Anfield if circumstances allow. However, their squad depth is a worry compared to others, especially if something was to happen to one of their key players in spring.
Manchester United’s transfer business has been very sharp – the addition of Raphael Varane in particular looks to be a great addition, and enough has been written about Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo’s addition has certainly lifted the mood around Manchester United.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has plenty of firepower to go to war with but maintaining the balance of his side will be vital – especially in midfield, with Scott McTominay’s presence absolutely vital to their chances – and they won only four of their 12 games against the rest of the top eight last season in the Premier League, whilst they also failed to escape the group.
Bayern Munich are the other big runners at 7/1. They were eliminated by PSG last year when the pace of Kylian Mbappe amongst others took them apart, but they dominated large parts of that tie across the two legs, winning the shot count 45-16 across both games. Bayern won the InfoGol xG count 5.89 to 3.18 then – a very unlucky defeat by anyone’s standards – and they come back this season with 34-year-old head coach Julian Nagelsmann replacing Hansi Flick, who has taken over the German national team. Nagelsmann brings Dayot Upamecano and Marcel Sabitzer to cover the departures of David Alaba and Javi Martinez, whilst the induvial quality of players such as Joshua Kimmich and the returning Alphonso Davies will always give them a chance.
If there’s a weakness, it’s that for all their star quality, their challenge is inherently linked to the fitness of Robert Lewandowski, but a big challenge can be expected and they look prime contenders, especially at a bigger price than.
Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid are paying for years of overspending, and both were eliminated fair and square by PSG and Chelsea last season. Barcelona’s financial problems are incredibly well documented, and their prospects look bleak as they a Champions League campaign without Lionel Messi for the first time since 2003, whilst Antoine Griezmann’s departure to Atlético Madrid is another blow.
Real Madrid’s huge amount of experience will always prove to be an asset – in Luka Modric, Modric, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale they’ve got the core of the side that won three titles in four seasons, along with Carlo Ancelotti, who won this in 2013 with Madrid.
However, the loss of centre-backs Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane is a major blow, as is the failure to add Kylian Mbappe into the mix, and other contenders appeal more despite the clever additions of David Alaba and highly-rated Rennes midfielder Eduardo Camavinga.
Atletico Madrid could be more interesting contenders from Spain. Diego Simeone’s side could benefit hugely from the dropping of the away goals rule in the knockout stages whilst the return of Antonine Griezmann and the arrival of Rodrigo De Paul (who managed nine assists and nine goals for struggling Udinese last season) give them two potential match winners to turn tight games around. La Liga winners last season, they will be obdurate opponents for all who face them and if they make it through Group B, which looks likely, then 25/1 could look big especially considering the defensive quality they have.
Juventus have had a tortured relationship with the Champions League, suffering frustrating knockouts time after time including defeats in the final in the 2015 and 2017. After failed experiments with Maurizio Sarri and Andrea Pirlo, a return to Turin for Massimiliano Allegri looks to be the right call but Juventus look in transition and a big revival will be needed from Paulo Dybala upfront as Juventus have struggled with parts of their attacking play in recent seasons.
Inter couldn’t make it out of the group despite winning Serie A last season and the losses of Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi to Chelsea and PSG is a hammer blow. There are some positives; Lautro Martinez has stayed, whilst Edin Dzeko, Hakan Calhanoglu and wing-back Denzel Dumfries are all smart additions but Inter must prove they can make the step upto this level and don’t appeal.
Borussia Dortmund have made the quarter-finals three times since reaching the final in 2012-13 and have a wide array of firepower despite the exit of Jadon Sancho, but they could be vulnerable defensively when it comes to the knockout stages.
Of other contenders with the potential to go deep into the tournament, Atalanta need to be seriously respected after reaching the quarter-finals two years ago and then going out to Real Madrid last season. Sevilla will be tricky opponents but they haven’t made it past the last eight of the modern Champions League, Ajax have kept much of their squad together but must bounce back from a dire showing last season, and Sporting Lisbon have been transformed by the arrival of Ruben Amorim, although they face a big step up again after a first title in 19 years.
We have seen more high scoring games in the knockout stages of this competition in recent seasons, but this title has often been won in the group stages with the five of the last six top scorers netting at least half of their goals in the groups.
Many of the market leaders are from clubs who can be expected to go deep into the competition, but high scorers in the group games could provide a touch of value if putting a decent early run together.
Karim Benzema bucked the above trend last season, scoring three goals in the groups and then a further three in the knockouts to take a share of the place money, and the Frenchman has made a fast start to this campaign too, scoring five goals in La Liga courtesy of a brace against Alaves and a hat-trick against Celta Vigo. A record of 71 goals in the Champions League says it all about his skill at this level and he should get chances in the group as Madrid face Inter, Shakhtar and Sheriff Moldova in the group stages.
Madrid put five past a stronger Inter side on paper last season and would fancy their chances of scoring this time around against Shakhtar Donetsk, whilst this is a big step up for Sheriff Moldova, and 12/1 makes appeal about a player who is the focal point of Ancelotti’s attack, especially with Madrid failing to land Kylian Mbappe.
The two obvious favourites at the head of the market are Erling Haaland and Robert Lewandowski, both of whom will be massive players assuming injury doesn’t intervene.
Haaland’s goalscoring record is frightening. He’s averaged pretty much a goal a game since arriving at Dortmund and he’s scored 20 Champions League goals in just 16 appearances, including 10 last season in just 705 minutes of football. The loss of Jadon Sancho is a blow to his prospects but this season he’s scored six goals in five appearances for Dortmund in all competitions and then bagged five on International duty with Norway.
A group with Besiktas, Sporting and Ajax will surely give him chances to add to that tally and Dortmund can be considered realistic quarter-final contenders, so with a clear run it would be a disappointment if he wasn’t to be in the top four scorers at least. An each/way wager at 9/2 with Star’s terms will only be a loser if he isn’t placed, essentially giving a free hit at the win, and there appears to be very little downside.
The same case can be made for Robert Lewandowski, who scored 41 goals last season but missed out in the Champions League thanks to injury – he scored 5 goals in 514 minutes of play. He may well have scored in the quarter-finals if he hadn’t missed out with a knee injury given the ridiculous amount of chances Bayern created, and he’s already hit the ground running this season with seven goals in all competitions.
In his last nine Champions League campaigns, he has netted at least five goals every time (and at least eight in five of those seasons) and Bayern, no strangers to smashing goals past Europe’s better sides, can make hay early against Dynamo Kyiv, Benfica and even Barcelona; there’s a strong case for backing the pair each/way even with Benzema in the portfolio, to give yourself an 11/8 chance of finding the winner with the security net of four each/way places and ties. It was hard to leave out Romelu Lukaku, who looks a massive runner.
Lionel Messi is an understandable contender for PSG, but he, Neymar and Mbappe could easily end up sharing the goals around so none make huge appeal. Cristiano Ronaldo will have plenty of his backers at 9/1 for Manchester United, but it’s possible that goals are shared around there too with plenty of forwards and their group is not a soft touch by any means.
Liverpool have three contenders in Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota but Liverpool could find the going very tough against Atletico Madrid and neither Porto nor AC Milan look like soft touches for plenty of goals. Salah would be the most likely to make a big run but goals could also be shared around between those three too.
A number of the group stages are trappy betting contests on paper, like Group A’s matchup between PSG and Manchester City, or Group B, where Liverpool, Atletico, AC Milan and Porto go head to head. Indeed Group G is an incredibly open contest with Sevilla, Wolfsburg, Lille and Salzburg going head to head whilst Manchester United could be given a run for their money by Atalanta, Villarreal and Young Boys.
Keep it simple and back Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in a double which pays 11/10. Madrid may have lost both their centre-backs but they’ve retained more of their side than Inter have and Carlo Ancelotti’s men beat Inter 3-0 and 2-0 last season. If they can find a way past Shakhtar then they should top the section and they’ll surely expect no trouble from Sheriff Tiraspol.
Bayern Munich’s section looks a straight fight against a Barcelona side that’s deal with massive off field issues with Benfica and Kiev looking overmatched on paper.
Adding Chelsea into this mix gives us a treble that would be between 9/4 and 5/2, which looks fair.
BACK Chelsea 4 pts each/way CLICK PRICE TO BET with starsports.bet
BACK Bayern Munich 1.5 pts each/way at CLICK PRICE TO BET with starsports.bet
BACK Atletico Madrid 1 pt each/way at CLICK PRICE TO BET with starsports.bet
BACK Erling Haaland 1.5 pts each/way at CLICK PRICE TO BET with starsports.bet
BACK Robert Lewandowski 1.5 pts each/way at CLICK PRICE TO BET with starsports.bet
BACK Karim Benzema 1.5 pts each/way at CLICK PRICE TO BET with starsports.bet
BACK Real Madrid to win Group D (1/3) and Bayern Munich to win Group E (4/7) 5 pts double with starsports.bet
BACK Real Madrid to win Group D (1/3) Bayern Munich to win Group E (4/7), and Chelsea to win Group H 2 pts treble with starsports.bet
⚠️ Stakes advised on a scale of 0-10 points depending on confidence from our preview team
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