Danny Murphy’s guide to the Champions League: Chelsea, Liverpool and City ARE genuine contenders, Lionel Messi will out-perform Cristiano Ronaldo and if I was Harry Kane I wouldn't turn on the TV!
The anticipation is over, this evening the Champions League finally returns to our screens.
The greatest club competition in the world never fails to deliver and this season's instalment promises to be another fascinating and compelling battle for glory.
Here, Sportsmail columnist DANNY MURPHY picks out his contenders, names his dream Champions League XI and answers all the key questions in his special guide to the tournament.
IS PREMIER LEAGUE DOMINATION SET TO CONTINUE?
We've had two all-English finals in three years and all our clubs Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United will fancy themselves to go all the way. It'll be tough because PSG and Bayern Munich in particular look strong but it wouldn't surprise me if we had three semi-finalists.
It's a big shift because a few years ago we were asking why Premier League clubs weren't doing better. But football is cyclical and now the Spanish giants are suffering financially and Italian teams are struggling.
WHO IS GOING TO BE MORE SUCCESSFUL IN THIS COMPETITION WITH NEW CLUBS, MESSI OR RONALDO
I'd agree with the majority who'd go for Messi because PSG have invested massively in winning the Champions League. They've already come close and now they've brought in Donnarumma, Sergio Ramos and the world's best player to get over the line.
If United are to surpass PSG, it'll mean a fantastic season. Ronaldo will think he can do it but I'm not so sure. United have been nowhere near it since Fergie's day.
ARE BARCELONA AND REAL MADRID STILL THE GLAMOUR TEAMS
Unfortunately, they are a long way away from what they were and that has an effect on how they are perceived, irrespective of history. Barcelon have not only lost Messi and Griezmann, they have let good young players join clubs like Spurs and Leeds to raise money. Real Madrid aren't in that great shape either.
Some of the glamour has gone for now. You'll see fewer kids wearing Barca shirts and people like me are less likely to flick on the television to watch them play. In contrast, money is no object for PSG, Manchester City have signed Jack Grealish for £100million, Liverpool and Atletico Madrid have better players. The turnaround has been extreme and don't expect Barca or Real to be in the latter stages.
WHICH NO 9 WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE PLAYED WITH: LUKAKU, RONALDO, LEWANDOWSKI, BENZEMA OR HAALAND?
To tell the grandchildren about, Ronaldo. From my footballing perspective, Karim Benzema. I'm not saying he's better than the others on the list but for a midfielder it's enjoyable to have a forward with the awareness to drop deep, link play and exchange passes. I loved playing with Litmanen, Gudjohnsen and Robbie Keane who had eyes in the back of their head.
You'd choose Ronaldo for different reasons. He’ll go down in history as one of the greatest ever and there would be big bragging rights to say you knew him, and played with him.
HOW WILL HARRY KANE BE FEELING WHEN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE BEGINS
He’ll say the right things and I am sure he is mentally strong enough to focus on Europa Conference but privately I think this will be the toughest part of not getting his move to Manchester City. My advice would be to not turn the telly on because it will hurt. The frustration will be immense.
I struggled when I left Liverpool in 2004 and watched their run to win the Champions League. I did follow the games because I supported the club and had mate in the team but there was a definite feeling of “I should be there”. For Kane, it will be a hundred times worse because he knows he has the ability to play for any side in the world.
PREMIER LEAGUE OR CHAMPIONS LEAGUE, WHICH ONE WOULD THE MANAGERS CHASING BOTH PREFER TO WIN?
It’s an easy one for Thomas Tuchel. He’s just won the Champions League so he’d love the Premier League now, it is human nature to try and get what you’ve not achieved. Likewise for Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, he’ll crave the Champions League having been unable to get his hands on it yet in England.
It’s a harder one for Jurgen Klopp and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. I don’t think Klopp will differentiate in picking his teams but it’s a tradition at Liverpool to make winning the domestic league as your priority and they’ve still only won it once in 30 years so I think at a twist he’d prefer the Premier League. For Solskjaer, any of them! He badly needs a trophy and either of these would put him in a phenomenally strong position moving forward.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE AWAY GOAL RULE BEING SCRAPPED?
I’m glad. It's inherently unfair to put one team through and another one out if they’ve scored the same amount of goals. At least in a penalty shoot-out a team has to put the ball in the net more times than the opposition, the essence of football.
The away goals rule was introduced to stop teams being over-defensive but I don't think scrapping it will hurt the spectacle. Most successful teams now play on the front foot. And if away teams have less incentive to score, it's offset by home teams not having the same fear of conceding, so they can really go for it!
IS LIVERPOOL’S SQUAD BIG ENOUGH TO FIGHT ON TWO FRONTS?
I think so, providing they aren’t too unlucky with injuries. Ideally, you’d want one or two more options up front but the squad now is probably stronger than it was in 2019 when they won the Champions League and were in the title race until the end.
Diogo Jota is another option to Mane, Salah and Firmino and Origi and Minamino are at the club, in addition Curtis Jones and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are ready to be given more responsibility by Klopp. They look in good shape at the back with four top centre-backs.
HOW MANY OF THE 32 CLUBS WOULD YOU SAY ARE POTENTIAL WINNERS?
I personally think the winners will come from one of six – Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and PSG, with Atletico as an outsider because Diego Simeone has matchwinners in Luis Suarez and Griezmann in addition to the remarkable team spirit he’s fostered.
But if you ask the managers themselves, I would think Manchester United, Real Madrid and even Juventus would give themselves a chance. Juventus have Euro 2020 winners like Giorgio Chiellini in their side so you can see why they’d believe they are competitive but that Italian national team also had Veratti, Jorghino and Donnarumma to help out.
WHICH TIE WOULD YOU PAY TO WATCH THIS WEEK?
Barcelona-Bayern and Inter Milan-Real Madrid are attractive fixtures but I think the stand-out is Liverpool-AC Milan because it signals the return of those magical European nights to Anfield after such a long wait. You can imagine the buzz before kick off when the teams walk out.
It should be a top match as well. Olivier Giroud has already been among the goals in Serie A and as a former Chelsea man, he can expect a raucous welcome from The Kop.
NAME YOUR 2021/22 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE XI
Manuel Neuer (Bayern): Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Ruben Dias (Man City), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Alphonso Davies (Bayern); Joshua Kimmich (Bayern), N’Golo Kante (Chelsea), Kevin De Bruyne (Man City); Neymar (PSG), Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund), Lionel Messi (PSG)