The road to Istanbul is competitive as ever

Jose Moreno, Writer

The UEFA Champions League, Europe’s elite club soccer competition, starts on Sept. 17. 32 teams will battle it out to reach the final match taking place at the historical Atatürk Stadium in Istanbul, Turkey on May 30, 2020. There are a number of teams who are favorites to take home the illustrious Champions League trophy. Mainstays of the competition such as Real Madrid and Juventus F.C. will want to reclaim their place as legitimate title contenders as both left a lot to be desired during the 2018-2019 season. Ligue 1 champions, Paris Saint-Germain F.C., will be wanting to capitalize on their dominance of the French league to claim European glory this upcoming season. The unpredictable landscape of this season’s UEFA Champions League makes for an enthralling watch. 

The 2018-2019 season was one to forget for Real Madrid. They finished third in La Liga, being 19 points adrift from first place as their rival Barcelona won the league. In the European front, the Madrid side got eliminated early on in the Round of 16 against Dutch underdogs AFC Ajax. Eager to make a comeback, Zinedine Zidane was reappointed as the new manager after the troubled managerial stints of Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari. Under his management, Real Madrid won three straight Champions League titles from 2016 to 2019. Zidane, a Real Madrid legend himself, cemented his legend status by being just as successful when managing. The post-Cristiano Ronaldo era has been arduous for the Spanish team because they have not been able to replace him. To resolve that, they have signed superstar forward Eden Hazard. The Belgian winger scored 16 goals and assisted 15 to help Chelsea finish third in the Premier League and return to the Champions League last season. 

Madrid furthered their summer recruitment by signing players Luka Jović, Éder Militão, and Ferland Mendy. There is no doubt hoping these players will give them the winning edge when they play Paris Saint- Germain F.C., Galatasaray S.K., and Club Brugge KV in the group stage. The return of Zidane and fresh talent make Real Madrid a viable candidate to reach top status in Europe. 

Many pinned Juventus to become Champions League winners when they signed Cristiano Ronaldo. The Italian giants have won eight straight Serie A titles but the trophy that has evaded them is the Champions League. Last season, they crashed out of the competition in the quarterfinal stage after losing to Ajax. Juventus signed Ronaldo for the main purpose of becoming European champions, but that dream faded as they were outclassed offensively by such an inferior team such as Ajax. To correct errors made before, La Vecchia Signora fired then-manager Massimiliano Allegri and brought in an attack-minded manager in Maurizio Sarri. Sarri previously coached at Chelsea in the Premier League. He guided them in finishing third in their league as well as winning the UEFA Europa League, Europe’s second-tier competition. To strengthen their defense, Juventus signed 19-year-old Dutch center back Matthijs De Ligt, a promising defender and former team captain from Eredivisie championship-winning team Ajax. De Ligt is one of the world’s best young players and he proved to be a driving force toward victory in last season’s competition with Ajax, helping them reach the semifinals. Juventus contains a menacing offense with the likes of Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuaín, Douglas Costa and Miralem Pjanić. Despite the impressive lineup, Juventus must cope with the loss of 35-year-old captain Giorgio Chiellini after he injured his right anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) during training, putting him out of commission for 6 months. The absence of the defensive stalwart in the center of defense will be critical because of the leadership he brought to the locker room and the defense he ran on the field. Juventus will face Atlético Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and F.C. Lokomotiv Moscow in the group stage. If Juventus does not triumph in the Champions League this season, then their season will be a failure.

Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) is in a similar position as Juventus, in the sense that they dominate their league (PSG has won six of the past seven titles in Ligue 1) but have disappointed fans in Europe as they could not move past the quarterfinals. Their famous comeback in the 2016-2017 season comes to mind when it comes to disappointment. PSG beat Barcelona 4-0 at home in the Parc des Princes in the first leg match. PSG then travelled to the Camp Nou to face Barcelona in the second leg match where they ended up losing 6-1 and getting eliminated by the aggregate score of 6-5. 

It happened again as recently as last season when they faced off against English side Manchester United. This time PSG played the first leg away from home when they visited Old Trafford. PSG won 2-0 while playing aggressively and not letting Manchester United build up significant attacking opportunities. The stage was set for PSG to advance to the next round while playing at home against an out-of-sorts Manchester United. PSG lost the game 3-1. The aggregate score was 3-3 and PSG bounced themselves right out of the competition due to the away goals rule. 

To improve their attacking options, PSG signed controversial striker Mauro Icardi on a season-long loan from Inter Milan. Icardi has an extensive history of disciplinary issues while at Inter. With the addition of Icardi, PSG hopes to launch a menacing attack team comprised of Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, Edinson Cavani and Ángel Di María. It remains to be seen if PSG can put the ghosts of past disappointments behind them to propel themselves to the pinnacle of European football.