Bayern begin Champions League defence in punishing European autumn

    European football is reeling with stadiums largely empty and revenues down, but it is business as usual on the field for the continent’s biggest clubs this week as the Champions League group stage gets underway and Bayern Munich begin their defence of the trophy.

    Hansi Flick’s all-conquering team have a glamour tie to get things going, at home to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid on Wednesday.

    It will be a fascinating contest, and as Bayern’s Thomas Mueller admitted after the draw was made, “the pressure is on you straight away when you are the holders.”

    Before that, on Tuesday, Paris Saint-Germain return to the competition following their defeat by Bayern in last season’s final as they take on Manchester United.

    They are arguably the week’s two standout ties and would be spine-tingling occasions under the lights before a full house, as would Liverpool’s trip to play Ajax in Amsterdam.

    But those games will go ahead behind closed doors. After all, while UEFA is allowing clubs to open stadiums up to 30 percent of capacity, it all depends on the green light of local authorities.

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    The few who attended Bayern’s final win over PSG behind closed doors in Lisbon just two months ago can attest to how surreal that occasion was, and yet the quality of the football was not in question.

    And so there will be a spectacle on the pitch if not in the stands, with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo due to face each other when Barcelona and Juventus clash in Group G.

    – Season for a surprise? –

    Last season, long before the debacle of Barcelona’s 8-2 humiliation against Bayern in Lisbon, Messi had let slip that “the way we are right now I don’t think it’s enough to win the Champions League”.

    They may still be nowhere near good enough, but they and the continent’s other super clubs are again aiming to stave off the four-pronged assault from the Premier League.

    For all Barcelona’s current problems, they, Bayern and Real Madrid have won eight of the last 10 Champions Leagues between them, and 10 of the last 15.

    It is surely only a matter of time before PSG and Manchester City get their hands on the silverware they crave more than anything, but if there is to be a surprise winner maybe this is the year.

    The very biggest clubs have the strongest squads, yet they are already complaining about the punishing schedule in a season that is more condensed than ever — the six rounds of group games are being packed into eight weeks up to early December.

    – Objective Istanbul –

    Last season’s competition finished nearly three months behind schedule with a series of one-off knockout ties behind closed doors in Lisbon from the quarter-finals onwards.

    UEFA does not envisage repeating that format, insisting this season “will be played out in its entirety, in its existing format with the final in Istanbul”.

    The Turkish city was supposed to host last season’s final before the pandemic forced a change of plan. It remains to be seen if fans will be able to flock from abroad to the banks of the Bosphorus on May 29 next year.

    That is still a long way off, but UEFA has adapted its rules and regulations to try to limit potential disruption caused by the pandemic, including insisting games go ahead as long as each team has at least 13 fit players including one goalkeeper.

    Using neutral venues is a possibility in the face of potential travel restrictions, while European football’s governing body has decreed that, even if there are postponements, the group stage will not go on beyond January 28.

    Something else facing disruption is the prize pot.

    UEFA has not made the amount of its prize money public but a reduction from last season seems inevitable due to the economic downturn.

    Then the pot amounted to a fraction over two billion euros ($2.3 billion) for the Champions League and Super Cup.

    Bayern were able to pocket almost 87 million euros for their winning run. To that they could add another 35 million euros from their coefficient ranking, with more on top from broadcasters.

    It is those riches that the biggest clubs come for, and Bayern will take some stopping again.


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