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Champions League Preview: Liverpool ready to defend their crown, Zidane seeks redemption as Messi and Ronaldo are DESPERATE to get back on top

Three months after Liverpool lifted the Champions League trophy in Madrid, Europe’s greatest club competition is once again back to make mid-weeks that little bit more entertaining.

Here Sportsmail looks at all 32 challengers this season identifying their key men, strengths, weaknesses and their chances of triumphing above all in the Istanbul final next May.

Group A

Real Madrid

Champions League best: Winners x13 (1955–56, 1956–57, 1957–58, 1958–59, 1959–60, 1965–66, 1997–98, 1999–2000, 2001–02, 2013–14, 2015–16, 2016–17, 2017–18)

Key man: Eden Hazard

Manager: Zinedine Zidane

Strengths: European pedigree. There are no steps into the unknown for Real, whether it is trips to Anfield or the Nou Camp they are unlikely to be intimidated anywhere. Even for the younger stars breaking into to the squad, dressing room influences like Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and the newly signed Eden Hazard will be huge.

Weaknesses: The post-Cristiano Ronaldo slump. Replacing arguably the world’s best player was never an easy task, if at all possible, but the Portuguese’s departure has taken a fear factor out of Madrid, as evidenced by the way Ajax waltzed into the Bernabeu last term and dumped the holders out with a 4-1 win.

Odds to win: 10/1

Paris Saint-Germain

Champions League best: Semi-finals (1994-95)

Key man: Kylian Mbappe Manager: Thomas Tuchel

Strengths: The front line. There is an embarrassing amount of riches in it. Mbappe is part of a devastating attack that could include Neymar (if he can take away his focus from fleeing Paris), Edinson Cavani, Mauro Icardi and Eric Choupo-Moting (don’t laugh, Stoke fans!) who has scored three times in his first two games this term.

Weaknesses: The front line. A good example of how a strength can also be a weakness. No doubt the talent is there but good luck trying to construct a team with it. Neymar and Mbappe’s relationship has been fragile, especially with the former desperate to leave. Meanwhile new signing Icardi joins from Inter Milan, who couldn’t get him off their books quick enough. It’s a negative dynamic that could spread in a dressing room.

Odds to win: 11/1

Galatasaray

Champions League best: Semi-finals (1988-89)

Key man: Ryan Babel

Manager: Fatih Terim

Strengths: Home support will be massive for Galatasaray. There are not many more intimidating places to go if the locals get behind the team, and many sides have come unstuck on their trips to Istanbul. Remember this is the same team whose supporters once greeted Manchester United with a ‘Welcome to hell’ banner. The Turk Telecom Stadium can look like it especially with the enormous amount of red flares that get lit.

Weaknesses: It is another year of transition for the Turkish champions who for the third season in a row have lost their main goalscoring threat following the departures of Lukas Podolski, Bafetimbi Gomis, and Henry Onyekuru. It’s hardly ideal preparation for a team hoping to make the knock-out stages for the first time since 2014.

Odds to win: 600/1

Club Brugges

Champions League best: Runners-up (1977-78)

Key man: Hans Vanaken

Manager: Philippe Clement

Strengths: When you are placed in a group along with giants like PSG and Real Madrid there is not much else you have in your pocket aside from hope. But the lack of expectation for Bruges to progress also means they can play without fear and that can raise performance levels of the likes of attacking midfielder Vanaken.

Weaknesses: No fear, plenty of hope and care-free football can only get you so far. On paper they are the weakest team in the group and the overall ability of the squad means they could be in for a tough few months. Simon Mignolet is going to have a busy six evenings or so in goal.

Odds to win: 1000/1

Group B

Bayern Munich

Champions League best: Winners x5 (1973–74, 1974–75, 1975–76, 2000–01, 2012–13)

Key man: Philippe Coutinho

Manager: Niko Kovac

Strengths: Fresh legs have come in at Bayern and the arrival of Coutinho adds excitement to a team that was growing stale. It’s got stronger at the back too with Lucas Hernandez a high profile £72million signing from Atletico Madrid to bolster what had started to look like a creaking defence.

Weaknesses: The fresh legs are in but it comes at the sacrifice of experience. ‘Been there, done that’ stars such as Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben left the club after a combined 22 years of service and it remains to be seen how that will affect them on European nights.

Odds to win: 12/1

Tottenham Hotspur

Champions League best: Runners-up (2018-19)

Key man: Harry Kane

Manager: Mauricio Pochettino

Strengths: They have more comebacks than a comedian. There were four separate occasions last term when Spurs’ Champions League exit looked just a few minutes away from as early as the group stage (twice). Yet late goals (and a VAR call) rescued them on more than one occasion to keep them scraping through. Never write them off.

Weaknesses: They have more jokes than a comedian. Pochettino’s five years at Tottenham has resulted in zero trophies and they’ve had plenty of chances to win one. Somehow, someway, Spurs capitulate when the chips are down whether it’s choking in a title fight, choking in a domestic cup semi-final or choking inside the first minute of a Champions League final. In a word, it’s simply known as ‘Spursy.’

Odds to win: 33/1

Red Star Belgrade

Champions League best: Winners x1 (1990-91)

Key man: Marko Marin

Manager: Vladan Milojevic

Strengths: The Rajko Mitic Stadium, or the Marakana as it is also known in reference to the famous ground in Brazil, will prove crucial for Red Star. Belgrade can be an intimidating place for a visiting side, with even Liverpool coming unstuck there last season as they slumped to defeat. If Red Star bag plenty of home points they have a good shot of making the knock-out stages. Weaknesses: Playing outside of Belgrade. Their trips away from home last term resulted in three matches ending in a 13-2 aggregate defeat. Granted they were against big sides in Liverpool, PSG and Napoli but it will have to improve if they wish to progress in the competition.

Odds to win: 1500/1

Olympiacos

Champions League best: Quarter-finals (1998-99)

Key man: Kostas Fortounis

Manager: Pedro Martins

Strengths: They are well into the European groove now. Entering the Champions League in the second qualifying round they have been competing since July and have knocked out Viktoria Plzen, Istanbul Basaksehir and Krasnodar with a combined aggregate score of 13-1.

Weaknesses: On paper, or maybe more of a betting slip, they are ranked as the weakest team in the competition. Progressing beyond the groups is not unknown territory, they did it in 2014, but then they were also dumped out by David Moyes’ Manchester United…

Odds to win: 2000/1

Group C

Manchester City

Champions League best: Semi-finals (2015-16)

Key man: Raheem Sterling

Manager: Pep Guardiola

Strengths: Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Gabriel Jesus, Riyad Mahrez. It’s an incredible collection of attacking players at the Etihad Stadium. Scoring goals is not going to be a problem for a team bookies think are favourites to win the competition this term.

Weaknesses: Even with his injury record, the exit of club captain Vincent Kompany is sure to have an impact on the defence. The additional loss of Aymeric Laporte through injury for the group stage at least raises even more question marks over the back line. They also seem to have rather bad luck involving VAR calls going against them.

Odds to win: 7/2 (Fav)

Atalanta

Champions League best: N/A

Key man: Duvan Zapata

Manager: Gian Piero Gasperini

Strengths: There are no recognised stars in the team, but the sum of the parts has made them a difficult outfit to play against. Despite their inexperience they have a highly motivated side that has enough in them to trouble any side in the group. You don’t finish above both Milan clubs over a course of a year without having something about you.

Weaknesses: Speaking of Milan, that’s where the Champions League new boys will be playing their home games this term in Europe due to renovation work at the Gewiss Stadium. It will be a step into the unknown at the San Siro and teams like Tottenham and Arsenal have shown how leaving home for much bigger surroundings (i.e Wembley) does not always work out.

Odds to win: 200/1

Shakhtar Donetsk

Champions League best: Quarter-finals (2010-11)

Key man: Junior Moraes Manager: Luis Castro

Strengths: There is some promising attacking talent in the Shakhtar ranks outside of goal machine Moraes, including Yevhen Konoplyanka. The one-time Liverpool and Tottenham target has been one of European football’s biggest enigmas of the decade but he is back on the biggest stage and at 29-year-old is still a major threat.

Weaknesses: They have not played a home game for five years. Shakhtar are forced to play their home games in Kharkiv due to their ground, the Donbass Arena, being caught up in conflict involving Ukraine and Russia.

Odds to win: 500/1

Dinamo Zagreb

Champions League best: First round/Group stage (1982-83, 1993-94, 1998-99, 1999-00, 2011-12, 2012-13, 2015-16, 2016-17)

Key man: Dani Olmo

Manager: Nenad Bjelica

Strengths: They know how to develop a player in Zagreb. Some handy stars have come out the academy in recent times including Ballon D’or winner Luka Modric. Former Arsenal striker Eduardo and AC Milan great Zvonimir Boban have also come out the production line, so there is potential for a few unknown gems in their ranks.

Weaknesses: History. Their Champions League record has been nothing short of shambolic. They have won just one game in 24 group stage matches since the turn of the century (albeit against Arsenal) drawing another and losing the rest.

Odds to win: 1000/1

Group D

Juventus

Champions League best: Winners x2 (1984-85, 1995-96)

Key man: Cristiano Ronaldo

Manager: Maurizio Sarri

Strengths: Juventus are not just a one-man team in Ronaldo. Juventus are a one-man team in Ronaldo. There is class throughout a squad bolstered by summer signings including the £68million arrival of defender Matthijs de Ligt from Ajax as well as the free transfer of Aaron Ramsey from Arsenal. Wise old heads including Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and the returning Gianluigi Buffon ensure there is a range of healthy experience in the ranks. Weaknesses: Massimiliano Allegri had installed his own methods across five years at the Allianz Stadium but his summer exit means Juve will have a change of playing style to a slightly more possession based manner under Sarri. It could take a while for the players to get used to – and maybe even the manager too who has to deploy Sarri-ball without having a Jorginho to play in it.

Odds to win: 12/1

Atletico Madrid

Champions League best: Runners-up (1973–74, 2013–14, 2015–16)

Key man: Joao Felix

Manager: Diego Simeone

Strengths: Seeing out a game. Some teams struggle trying to defend a lead but Simeone’s side have made it an art form over the years. There is arguably no better team in the world at killing a game and shutting down an opposition’s attack than Atletico.

Weaknesses: Are there enough goals in the side if on a rare day the defence does creak? Diego Costa and Alvaro Morata are good strikers, and Felix is one of Europe’s most exciting youngsters. But their record is only as good as the service provided. Atletico simply had no answer when Cristiano Ronaldo danced through them last term and dumped them out in the last-16 with a hat-trick.

Odds to win: 20/1

Bayer Leverkusen

Champions League best: Runners-up (2001-02)

Key man: Kai Havertz

Manager: Peter Bosz

Strengths: Even with the loss of key creative star Julian Brandt in the summer there are lots of players still at the club capable of unlocking a defence including Havertz (tracked by just about every top club in Europe,)Kevin Volland, Leon Bailey and Karim Bellarabi.

Weaknesses: Since winning the German equivalent of the FA Cup in the early 1990s they have fallen just short of winning multiple Bundesliga titles and lost a Champions League final in that time span too… What’s German for ‘Spursy’?

Odds to win: 750/1

Lokomotiv Moscow

Champions League best: Last-16 (2002-03, 2003-04)

Key man: Grzegorz Krychowiak

Manager: Yuri Semin

Strengths: There is good experience within the squad including German international defender Benedikt Howedes, Euro 2016 star Krychowiak (honestly West Brom fans, he is a talent) former Tottenham star Vedran Corluka, Champions League regular Jefferson Farfan and even the match winner in a European Championship final in the form of Portugal’s Eder.

Weaknesses: Experience can only get you so far though and while there are decent players among the Lokomotiv ranks their squad overall seems to lack the ability and world class players compared to all their group rivals. Unfortunate to be pitted in a difficult group and it could prove a tough few months in the competition.

Odds to win: 1000/1

Group E

Liverpool Champions League best: Winners x6 (1976–77, 1977–78, 1980–81, 1983–84, 2004–05, 2018–19)

Key man: Virgil van Dijk

Manager: Jurgen Klopp

Strengths: Fortress Anfield. They have not lost at home in the league for over two years, and European nights on the red side of Merseyside have proven too much for even the biggest sides in Europe, with Barcelona famously wilting under the pressure of a 3-0 aggregate lead in last year’s semi-finals.

Weaknesses: The Premier League title race. Should Liverpool be involved in another battle for European and domestic glory then it could be Europe taking a back seat. Reds supporters are desperate for the club to end a 30-year wait for a league championship, even if it means sacrificing their status as European champions.

Odds to win: 7/1

Napoli

Champions League best: Last-16 (1990-91, 2011-12, 2016-17)

Key man: Kalidou Koulibaly

Manager: Carlo Ancelotti

Strengths

Kouliabaly holds the fort and that’s only when he is needed because there is plenty of threat going forward. Lorenzo Insigne, Arkadiusz Milik, Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens are all excellent options in attack. Even veteran Fernando Llorente is on the books now and he proved handy in Tottenham’s march towards last season’s final.

Weaknesses: Stadio San Paolo. It’s incredible to think how one of Europe’s most hostile atmospheres for away teams can now also be a weakness for the hosts. Renovation works to the ground have left changing rooms far from complete and it leaves Napoli in limbo when preparing for home matches.

Odds to win: 50/1

Red Bull Salzburg

Champions League best: Group stage (1994-95)

Keyman: Dominik Szoboszlai Manager: Jesse Marsch

Strengths: They are in flying form right now. They have won all seven of their games this season including at the weekend where they triumphed 7-2 at home. The Champions League is a significant step up in quality, but the Austrian champions could not be better prepared to enter the competition.

Weaknesses: Napoli. Red Bull Salzburg will likely have to battle the Italian runners-up for second place in the group behind Liverpool but memories will be fresh from last season when they lost to them in the last-16 of the Europa League.

Odds to win: 500/1

Genk

Champions League best: Group stage (2002-03, 2011-12)

Key man: Mbwana Samatta

Manager: Felice Mazzu

Strengths: Home form has been good for the Belgian champions, going undefeated in 15 of their last 16 matches at the Luminus Arena in Europe – winning 12 of them. If they are to have any chance of progressing or even bagging a Europa League berth in the new year, it is crucial they bag home points because…

Weaknesses: …they are an utter shambles on the road. In their previous two Champions League group stages, their away record reads played six, won zero, drew two, lost four, scored one and conceded 21. Their Belgian title defense has also got off to a rocky start as they sit mid-table after seven games with just 10 points.

Odds to win: 1000/1

Group F

Barcelona

Champions League best: Winners x5 (1991–92, 2005–06, 2008–09, 2010–11, 2014–15)

Key man: Lionel Messi

Manager: Ernesto Valverde

Strengths

Having arguably the world’s best player in Messi within your ranks helps but with the likes of Luis Suarez and new signing Antoine Griezmann in your supporting cast you are not going to go too far wrong in attack. Barca are unlikely to become goal-shy any time soon.

Weaknesses: Shadows. Merely the ones of themselves from the great Barca squads over the last 10 years. This is still a very good team but as shown against Liverpool last season, and Roma the year before, it can be vulnerable even with a commanding lead. The fear factor has gone slightly out the Spanish champions.

Odds to win: 11/2

Borussia Dortmund

Champions League best: Winners x1 (1997)

Keyman: Marco Reus

Manager: Lucien Favre

Strengths: Creating chances should not be a problem with Dortmund this term. Along with the skipper Marco Reus, there is England star Jadon Sancho, Mario Gotze and arriving this summer one of the Bundesliga’s leading assist makers last term in Julian Brandt.

Weaknesses: Vanishing acts. Last term they stormed into the last-16 as group winners triumphing in four of their six group games. They were highly fancied to advance to the latter stages of the competition but were immediately dumped out in the last-16 by Tottenham, losing 4-0 on aggregate without laying a glove on the north London side. The quality is there to win the competition but sudden costly collapses in performance are not unusual.

Odds to win: 40/1

Inter Milan

Champions League best: Winners x3 (1963-64, 1964-65, 2009-10)

Key man: Romelu Lukaku

Manager: Antonio Conte

Strengths: A motivated manager. This is not the Conte who sulked through his last year at Chelsea. Why is he not sulking? Because he finally has what he didn’t get at the Blues in the form of Lukaku as his main striker. There’s a winner in the Italian and he is at the helm of one of the most exciting Inter sides in a decade.

Weaknesses: Are the big names that arrived in the summer actually good enough? After all, Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez were key parts of a Manchester United side that massively underachieved last term. Is Sanchez already past it? Is Lukaku really just a flat-track bully? Or were both simply prevented from reaching their true potential at Old Trafford? Europe awaits…

Odds to win: 66/1

Slavia Prague

Champions League best: Group stage (2007-08)

Key man: Tomas Soucek

Manager: Jindrich Trpisovsky

Strengths: This paragraph could age badly but their defence is rock solid under Trpisovsky, conceding just 23 goals towards winning the Czech top flight last term. They are also top of the league this season too – having only been breached twice in nine games. Europe will be the real acid test but they have a handy defensive screen in Czech international Soucek.

Weaknesses: There is little experience of regular Champions League football in the squad and that leaves them brutally exposed in the group of death. Shutting out teams in the Czech Republic may be proving easy, but trying to keep out the attacking class of Barcelona, Dortmund and Inter will give them a new level of problems that no amount of domestic games can prepare them for.

Odds to win: 1500/1

Group G

Zenit

Champions League best: Last-16 (1985-86, 2011-12, 2013-14, 2015-16)

Key man: Artem Dzubya

Manager: Sergei Semak

Strengths: The European equivalent of the old Premier League trope ‘can they handle a cold Tuesday night at Stoke?’ Zenit can enjoy giving visitors a frosty welcome – especially in December when a temperature high is still below freezing. They have a good record at home and if they can get Barcelona flop Malcom combining with leading goal scorer and assist maker Dzubya, they will offer a competitive game too.

Weaknesses: Away record in Europe has been appalling in recent times – and that’s just in the Europa League. Their last 11 trips across the continent have seen them win just once and even that was at Macedonian minnows Vardar. Since then they have suffered some embarrassing losses away from Russia including a 4-0 hammering by Dinamo Minsk of Belarus in a Europa League qualifier.

Odds to win: 250/1

Lyon

Champions League best: Semi-final (2009-10)

Key man: Memphis Depay

Manager: Sylvinho Strengths: With Paris-Saint Germain in town, the dominant days of the 2000s where they won seven straight league titles look unlikely to return anytime soon. But under the new management of former Arsenal and Manchester City full-back Sylvinho they have plenty of quality players in their squad. Depay (rejuvenated after flopping at Manchester United) and former Celtic striker Moussa Dembele already have nine goals between them after just five league games.

Weaknesses: Zenit. Group G looks like it will competitive throughout but the Russian champions already have a slight psychological edge over their group rivals having beaten them home and away in their last European meeting four years ago. Odds: 125/1

Benfica

Champions League best: Winners x2 (1960-61, 1961-62)

Key man: Pizzi

Manager: Bruno Lage

Strengths

They may have lost star man Joao Felix to Atletico Madrid but the curious nature of Benfica is it seldom seems to affect them that severely and there always seems to be another gem within their side. As Europe waits for the two-time winners to unleash the next world-class talent, the long-serving and reliable Pizzi will be pulling the strings in the midfield.

Weaknesses: That curse. Bela Guttmann, the manager who guided them towards their two European Cup successes, put a hex on the club amid a pay dispute. He vowed that not in a 100 years would the club become European champions. Since then they have gone on to lose all eight of their European finals.

Odds to win: 150/1

RB Leipzig

Champions League best: Group stage (2017-18)

Key man: Timo Werner

Manager: Julian Nagelsmann

Strengths: It’s a team that has been bankrolled by Red Bull to the top level of European football since they were created just 10 years ago and in that time has been severely criticised in Germany for it. As a result any hate or intimidation coming towards the team isn’t going to stick that well. The squad, featuring Germany striker Werner, may as well be co-sponsored by a producer of teflon.

Weaknesses: Puzzling away form in Europe. In their 12 trips outside Germany they have won just three times – although one of those was a superb triumph at Napoli to overturn a Europa League round-of-32 two-goal deficit from the first leg. Yet in the same calendar year they also failed to win at obscure sides such as Hacken (Sweden), Universitatea Craiova (Romania) and Zorya Luhansk (Ukraine.)

Odds to win: 66/1

Group H

Chelsea

Champions League best: Winners x1 (2011-12)

Key man: N’Golo Kante Manager: Frank Lampard

Strengths: There is a feel-good factor buzzing around Stamford Bridge this season. Young English stars including Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori managed by fan favourite and club legend Frank Lampard seems to have brought a fresh look to the Blues and boosted the team ethic too.

Weaknesses: Are the kids still raw? Lampard’s young team may be doing the job in the Premier League but are they cut out for the European level? Eden Hazard was the heartbeat of the side that won the Europa League and his are not an easy pair of shoes to fill.

Odds to win: 40/1

Ajax

Champions League best: Winners x4 (1970-71, 1971-72, 1972-73, 1994-95)

Key man: Donny van de Beek Manager: Erik ten Hag

Strengths: Unfancied heading into last year’s competition – having had to progress from the second round of qualifiers. Yet they went unbeaten in a group featuring Bayern Munich, then ran rings around Real Madrid and Juventus before going within seconds away from reaching the final. The team has no fear under the leadership of Ten Hag.

Weaknesses: Last year’s success was found on a bed rock of the highly rated Dutch stars of Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt who have since left the club. Other stars including Van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech remain but the team may be following the Dynamo Kiev path from 20 years ago who after reaching the semi-finals never quite offered the same threat once Andriy Shevchenko and Sergei Rebrov were poached.

Odds to win: 100/1

Valencia

Champions League best: Runners-up (1999-00, 2000-01)

Key man: Goncalo Guedes

Manager: Albert Celades

Strengths: In Guedes, Valencia have a player who has plenty of experience playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal and that can only be a positive. He had injury issues last term but could be the difference for the Spanish side as they likely look to battle in a group which looks competitive throughout.

Weaknesses: It’s carnage right now at Valencia following the brutal sacking of manager Marcelino just days before the competition begins. Players have taken a vow of silence from the media as a form of protest and Celades, who is now in charge until 2021, has a tough job to refocus minds ahead of a trip to Chelsea.

Odds to win: 100/1

Lille

Champions League best: Last-16 (2006-07)

Key man: Victor Osimhen Manager: Christophe Galtier

Strengths: No Nicolas Pepe, no problem. With the £72million they banked from selling the forward to Arsenal in the summer, in came Renato Sanches from Bayern Munich, Yusuf Yazici and Osimhen who has started the season on fire after netting five goals from as many games.

Weaknesses: For all of Osimhen’s goals, it’s otherwise been an average start in the French top flight. While home form has been impressive, they have lost both their away matches to sides in the lower half of the table. Sanches is still finding his feet at the club, although that’s what they said at Bayern and in his loan spell at Swansea City too

Odds to win: 500/1

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