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Your 2021 Champions League Guide


Christian Pulisic (r.)

Christian Pulisic (r.)
Photo: Getty Images

Despite the attempt to kill it from Europe’s leading clubs last spring (and UEFA’s eventual success in doing so in the coming years), the Champions League returns today in its usual form. While it has become the nexus point in all that’s wrong with soccer and has certainly widened the gap between the haves and have-nots, there probably still isn’t a higher level of the sport than this, and that includes the European Championships and World Cups. It’s why the best players end up in the most exclusive cabal of clubs. To play and win “Ol’ Big Ears.” Winning the Champions League still gives a club a unique aura. Only 22 teams in all of Europe have done so in its 65-year history. For comparison’s sake, 20 teams have won a Super Bowl from a decidedly smaller pool of 32 teams.

So what do you need to know about this year’s edition? Let’s get in up to the elbow.

So who can win this thing?

It’s the usual suspects, but this year perhaps more than any other is just a referendum on whether or not a human rights-ignoring oil state can buy the trophy. That’s because PSG’s quest to be granted entrance into the most exclusive VIP room has led them to go completely overboard and add the greatest player of all-time, Lionel Messi, to their already obscene collection of talent. It has a feel of Mr. Burns bribing every Oscars voter possible and then losing to a film with someone else getting hit with a football in the groin anyway, but that will be hilarious for everyone who isn’t a PSG supporter.

Can they? Sure. Will they? Harder to say. A lot of their campaigns have been derailed by injuries to Neymar or Kylian Mbappe. Or just a lack of nerve over two legs as they’ve spit up promising positions to Man City or Barcelona in recent years. PSG are the rare team that don’t face a test at home, or when they do face a test don’t seem to notice and end up losing the French title to a Lille or Monaco. Having to turn it on during the midweek in the spring and then off again at the weekend has been a bridge too far for them in the past.

Their hope this time is to outscore their issues and to not have to worry about any injuries to their galactic front three by at least having two of them available at all times. But Messi couldn’t always drag Barcelona home, even when they had more set teams than PSG does now. There’s still a belief that any of the other big guns could counterattack PSG to death through what is something of a light midfield. There’s definitely a “if not now when?” feel about this attempt from the Parisians.

Man City may enjoy not being the uncrowned headliner this time around, as Pep Guardiola is always going to be judged on whether he can win the European Cup without Messi. He’s had a habit of overthinking it every time it gets to brass tacks, with last year’s mad-scientist-not-playing-any-defensive midfielders doing him and City in against Chelsea. There is no more talented team than City, and for the most part they’ve been together for years now. It’s hard to find a hole, and the question will be whether Guardiola insists on finding it himself or creating one once again. On paper, these are your winners.

Other than that, you can basically fill out the contenders list with the three other English teams and Bayern Munich. Chelsea might be the best team in Europe already with the addition of Romelu Lukaku, and their defense is so watertight when needed that they look like the exact type of team that will leave Neymar screaming at the ground when it counts, as is his way. Liverpool and Manchester United feel like they need a little luck with injuries and/or draws, but that’s hardly unheard of.

Munich have changed managers to Julian Nagelsmann, Robert Lewandowski is scoring bucketloads, and they could consider themselves unlucky to have not beaten PSG last year. Not a lot has to break their way for them to hoist the trophy for the second time in three years. The Bavarian machine rolls on.

Are there any dark horses?

People seem really bullish on Ajax again, who had a +72 goal difference in the Eredivisie last season and are once again loaded with young talent. They made a run just two seasons ago and were a minute away from the final before Lucas Moura completed his ascension into the Silver Surfer for one half. Their group is eminently winnable, with only Dortmund looking a stiff challenge.

Sevilla is another team to watch, perhaps tired of always winning the Europa League. La Liga is unquestionably down this season, and they could win that as well. They also have a winnable group, and only need one good draw to be in with a puncher’s chance. They won’t win it, but they could make some noise. (though at the time of writing, they’ve given away three penalties to Salzburg in the first half. The Motherfuck works quickly)

Don’t Madrid always make noise in this even when it looks like they shouldn’t?

Sadly, yes. And Karim Benzema apparently doesn’t age (perhaps allegedly blackmailing a teammate keeps you young). Last season, Zinedine Zidane was able to construct a defensively stout team that wormed its way to the semifinals. But the aging midfield was completely exposed by Chelsea, and most of that midfield is still playing.

And Zidane is gone, replaced by Carlo Ancelotti, who might be the biggest empty vessel in top tier management. Ancelotti’s trophy case is certainly full, but it’s been shown that whatever level team you give him, that’s what he’ll get out of it. Give him the best team in the league or Europe, and he’ll win that league or the Champions League. Give him a second-tier roster like Everton last year, and he’ll keep them in the second tier. This Madrid team needs to play above its head, and Ancelotti has never really proven he can get a team to do that.

Are there cool Americans playing?

They’re everywhere! For the 12 minutes Christian Pulisic is healthy and playing at Chelsea he’ll once again get to go deep into this tournament. As this goes live, Brendan Aaronson is starting for RB Salzburg. Jordan Pefok will at least get to experience the group stage with Young Boys (make all the jokes you want).

Is Weston McKennie still cool? Look, if you’re 23 and one of the fittest athletes in the world and just so happen to be stationed in the biggest bachelorette party city in the world, how many of us would resist the temptation to see what you can find? Then again, none of us are critical midfielders for the national team. Anyway, he’ll feature for Juventus, whether you still think he’s cool or not.

John Brooks has a decent shot at getting out of the group with Wolfsburg, assuming he can resist the deluded cowboy ways that he exhibited with the USMNT during the last qualifying window. Gio Reyna has been moved into the center midfield for Dortmund, again when healthy, and Dortmund’s matches might be the most entertaining to watch as their defending could best be described as “final scene of Blazing Saddles” while their attacking array is usually enough to get out of those problems. Tyler Adams will be one of RB Leipzig’s most responsible for keeping the roof caving in on them against PSG and Man City. Jesse Marsch is the manager there, which seemed like a great promotion until he discovered they’d sold most of their defense out from under him.

Enjoy slacking off of work, everyone!



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