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Dublin: 12 °C Saturday 26 May, 2018

Neymar and Mbappe head to Celtic Park and what to look out for as the Champions League returns

The group stages of Europe’s elite club competition are back tonight.

PSG pair Neymar and Kylilan Mbappe.
PSG pair Neymar and Kylilan Mbappe.
Image: Press Association

1. Zidane’s Real Madrid eye three in-a-row

NOT SINCE THE Bayern Munich side of the 1970s has a club won three consecutive Champions League/European Cups, yet Real Madrid go into this year’s competition as outright favourites to do just that.

The Spanish giants made it back-to-back victories under Zinedine Zidane by seeing off Juventus at the Millennium Stadium last May and they have now been crowned champions three out of the last four years.

Led by Argentine great Alfredo Di Stefano, Madrid were actually the first-ever European Cup winners in 1956 and went on to wrap up five titles in-a-row between then and 1960. They are the most successful club ever to grace the tournament with a 12 wins and this current team will go down as one of the greats regardless of what happens this season.

Group H sees both Gareth Bale Luka Modric make a return to their former club as the holders are pitted against Tottenham, Borussia Dortmund and Apoel Nicosia. On Wednesday night, the Cypriot champions make the trip to the Santiago Bernabeu, while Dortmund visits Maurcio Pochettino’s men at Wembley.

2. Celtic welcome big-spending PSG

Last season, Celtic were handed an extremely difficult group and finished bottom behind Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach after three draws and three defeats.

Brendan Rodgers’ side would go on to complete the season unbeaten in domestic competitions as they won the Scottish Premiership, Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup. It doesn’t get much easier for the Hoops this time out as the recent draw landed them in with Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Anderlecht.

Having gone out to Barcelona the last-16 stage last term, Qatari-backed PSG smashed the world transfer record by signing their Brazilian superstar Neymar for €222 million. They quickly followed that up by taking 18-year-old Kylian Mbappe from their French rivals Monaco — initially on loan with a compulsory purchase clause to buy him next summer for around €180m.

Their transfer activity is clearly a sign of intent from the club, who are hell-bent on winning the Champions League for the first time. Bayern Munich have had their early season struggles in the Bundesliga but Celtic have some job on their hands and qualification to the Europa League via a third-place finish is probably a realistic goal.

This evening, Parkhead hosts Neymar, Mbappe and co in what promises to be one of those special European nights in Glasgow.

3. Mourinho back among the elite

Manchester United’s Europa League triumph has earned them a place back in the Champions League — a competition manager Jose Mourinho knows all about. As Porto boss, the Portuguese coach knocked United out en route to lifting the trophy in 2004.

Mourinho claimed it for a second time during Inter Milan’s treble-winning campaign of 2010 and he would love nothing more than to join Carlo Ancelotti and Bob Paisley on three by leading his current club to European success.

United appear to have spent well in the off-season and they have started the Premier League campaign brightly to sit joint-top with rivals Manchester City after four matches. The draw has been kind too as FC Basel, CSKA Moscow and Benfica make up Group A.

That said, tonight’s opponents Basel have caused problems for English clubs in the past. In 2011, United lost 2-1 away to the Swiss outfit to exit the group stages and two years later they beat Mourinho’s Chelsea by the same scoreline with Mohamed Salah on the scoresheet.

4. Reds return with a repeat of Europa League final

Liverpool came through a two-legged play-off with Hoffenheim to make their Champions League comeback after a three-year absence. The reward was a spot in Group E, which also features Spartak Moscow, Sevilla and Maribor.

The Reds’ first outing tonight is an opportunity to get one over on the club who stopped them from winning the 2016 Europa League — when Jurgen Klopp lost out to current PSG boss Unai Emery as Sevilla earned a 3-1 victory.

A 5-0 hammering by Man City wasn’t the ideal preparations for their return to continent’s top club competition but Sadio Mane’s sending off played a major role in the outcome of that game. Former City forward Nolito joined Sevilla in the summer but the Spanish international misses out here due to a thigh problem picked up in Saturday’s 3-0 win over Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho has not yet played for Liverpool this season after they refused to sell him to Barcelona during the recently-closed transfer window. He could be set for a first appearance at Anfield, however.

5. Barca and Juve lock horns again

It hasn’t been all plain sailing at Barcelona of late. Having sold one of their prized assets in Neymar to PSG, there were suggestions that the club was in decline as Real Madrid thumped them 5-1 on aggregate in the Spanish Super Cup.

The Catalan giants went out and spent a considerable portion of the €222m they received for Neymar on young Frenchman Ousmane Dembele and Brazilian midfielder Paulinho. They sit top of La Liga thanks to victories over Real Betis, Alaves and Espanyol and Dembele provided a debut assist in the 5-0 drubbing of their city rivals last weekend.

Spain: FC Barcelona v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg Leo Messi and Sami Khedira last season. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

But success in Europe is the benchmark for Barca and they face a mouth-watering opening night fixture at home to last year’s beaten finalists Juventus later on. Back in March, the sides locked horns in the quarter-finals with Serie A champions Juve winning out 3-0 on aggregate.

The Old Lady of Turin have also picked up maximum points from three league outings and shrewd signings Douglas Costa and Blaise Matuidi have been added to Max Allegri’s squad — although Leonardo Bonucci’s departure for AC Milan will surely be felt.

6. Conte’s first European outing with Chelsea

After missing out last year, Chelsea secured a spot in the Champions League with their Premier League title win under Antonio Conte. They will meet Atletico Madrid, Roma and first-timers Qarabag.

Chelsea striker Diego Costa has been left out of their squad for the group stages, meaning he won’t face his former club Atleti. The Spain striker expressed an interest in rejoining Diego Simeone’s side over the summer but their transfer ban prevented that from happening.

This evening, Stamford Bridge hosts Azerbaijani club — who are making history with their debut appearance.

7. Man City begin against Dutch opponents

Man City make it five Premier League sides in this season’s Champions League and Pep Guardiola will be aiming to improve on his first attempt with the club — when they went out in the round of 16 to Monaco.

City have since bought Monaco pair Bernardo Silva and Benjamin Mendy in a £200m spending spree that also included the acquisitions of Ederson, Kyle Walker and Danilo. Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson won’t be available for Wednesday’s game against Feyenoord, however, after he took a boot to the face from Liverpool’s Sadio Mane.

Guardiola possesses the most expensive squad in football history — pipping PSG with Man United third — and the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss will be well aware that he was brought in to make provide European silverware.

Getting out of the group won’t be a formality though, as a talented Napoil side and Shakhtar Donetsk will be hoping to take one of the top two spots in Group F.

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See a full list of this week’s Champions League fixtures here

‘They played more long balls than we did’ – Hughes hits back at Mourinho’s dig

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Ben Blake

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