Champions League 2021/22 Preview
After another rollercoaster of a European season that saw an invigorated Chelsea claim Europe’s top prize, 32 of the continent’s best are ready to duke it out for supremacy. Our football writers got their thinking caps on and have made their predictions ahead of another massive year of European competition.
In what has become a yearly tradition for us at ENRG Sport, a number of our team of football writers have joined forces to put out a collaborative preview of the upcoming season in the UEFA Champions League. Granted, last year didn’t exactly go according to plan for our team, as not one of the five contributors predicted that Chelsea would overcome the odds to win their second Champions League title – in fairness, Struan Garvie did have the Blues down as his Surprise Team, so well done to him. I suppose.
Regardless, we are set for another blockbuster year of Champions League action, with plenty of different storylines set to play out in front of our eyes throughout the season. Will Paris Saint-Germain’s real-life Ultimate Team achieve their primary objective of lifting this season’s trophy? Will Pep Guardiola finally be able to secure the jewel in his immaculate crown? Will teams like Sheriff, Malmö and Young Boys stand to prove doubters wrong and pull off some massive upsets? Don’t count anything out.
Let’s see what our team have gone for…
Favourites – Chelsea
Call it excessive naïvety, but for the second set of predictions in a row, I’m backing the current European champions to retain their crown – considering how well it went last time (Bayern falling in the quarter finals to a vengeful Paris Saint-Germain), I’m doing so with a sense of trepidation. That said, I genuinely do think that Chelsea stand a good chance of keeping the trophy in West London.
Thomas Tuchel has transformed the meek and defensively culpable side left behind by Frank Lampard into one of the hardest teams in world football to break down. One of the best examples of this impressive solidity was in Chelsea’s 1-1 draw away against Liverpool – after Reece James was dismissed just before half-time, many expected the floodgates to open, with a mercurial Mo Salah leading the charge against his former side. However, The Blues remained water-tight, hardly giving Jürgen Klopp’s side an inch for the remainder of the match. For Chelsea fans, this can be nothing but encouraging as they start their title defence against Zenit St. Petersburg on Tuesday night.
Furthermore, in a change from the norm, Chelsea haven’t sat back in the transfer market after winning silverware. While the number of outgoings has vastly exceeded the incomings, the squad has been trimmed exactly to Tuchel’s specifications – in Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea have the elite finisher that they were lacking so often last season and in Saúl Niguez, Tuchel has been able to add positional versatility, defensive persistence and real technical quality into an already stacked midfield. Add in a blossoming Trevoh Chalobah to provide cover for club legend César Azpilicueta, and Chelsea have their squad balanced excellently.
Despite it all, it’s still quite questionable of me to back the current holders of the trophy for the second year in a row, especially given how challenging a title defence can be. As we’ve come to see, however, Chelsea are quite accomplished in the art of defending…
Surprise Team – Wolfsburg
A number of teams have been celebrated for one standout season in the modern Champions League – the youthful Ajax side of 2018/19 and the swashbuckling Monaco team of 2016/17 are two examples that immediately spring to mind. Another is the VfL Wolfsburg outfit of 2015/16 – fresh off the back of selling Kevin De Bruyne and Ivan Perišić, Die Wölfe became the hipster’s pick as they fought their way to the quarter finals. Since then, the club haven’t so much as made a single Champions League appearance. This year, they make their return, and no doubt have plans to recapture those attentions they held in 2016.
Managed by former Barcelona and Bayern Munich midfielder Mark van Bommel, Wolfsburg have enjoyed a flawless start to their league season, sitting pretty at the top of the Bundesliga tree, having conceded a solitary goal in four games. Spearheading the side is Dutch striker Wout Weghorst, who scored an impressive 25 goals in all competitiions, while also laying on nine assists. There are a number of talented young players throughout van Bommel’s side, with the likes of Luca Waldschmidt, Lukas Nmecha and Maxence Lacroix all highly touted across Europe. Add in some players in their prime years – Kevin Mbabu, vice-captain Max Arnold and captain Koen Casteels – and Wolfsburg could seriously make a case for replicating their 2015/16 run.
Die Wölfe have been drawn into a tricky group to call, with Sevilla, Lille and RB Salzburg standing between them and knockout stage football. For half a decade, Wolfsburg have been starved of European football’s premium competition and don’t count them out to be in the hunt when the knockouts roll around.
Breakthrough Player – Yeremi Pino
Villarreal seem to have unearthed a real gem in 18-year-old Yeremi Pino. The Spaniard made his debut for The Yellow Submarine last season, two days after his 18th birthday, and finished the year as the youngest Spanish player to start in a major European final, with Villarreal winning the Europa League. Given his 37 appearances throughout last season, it’d be fairly safe to say that Pino’s ceiling is very high.
Pino has played in a few different positions for Unai Emery’s Villarreal, but primarily as a right-sided attacking midfielder. A bright and lively player, Pino has no problem sizing up an opponent and breezing past them, ranking in the 84th percentile of attacking midfielders/wingers in Europe’s top five leagues for Dribbles Completed per 90. Adept at finding the target with a long ball (97th percentile for Long Pass Completion), Pino is a constant nuisance down the right, doing the defensive side of his job just as diligently as his attacking responsibility. He regularly rushes down an opponent in possession, pressuring them hard before stealing the ball and taking it forward. He finished last season with seven goals and one assist in 37 appearances, with a vast majority of those appearance coming as a sub. He’s since nailed down a starting role and already has two assists to his name this year, laying on both goals in a 2-2 draw against Atlético Madrid.
With Villarreal being drawn into a manageable group (bar perhaps Manchester United), Pino will have the opportunity to announce himself on the biggest stage of European football. Given his transition from bit-part player in the squad to a bona fide starter, spectators are likely to take notice – and quickly,
Game of the Group Stage – AC Milan vs Liverpool (Group B)
Some footballing moments are so mind-blowing, so unbelievable, so iconic, that they are forever immortalised in history. In the Champions League, one moment stands tall as perhaps the greatest of all – the 2005 Final in Istanbul between Liverpool and AC Milan.
While these two clubs will forever remain as some of Europe’s most storied institutions, the pair have been through some relative obscurity – Liverpool have been unable to match that level of success until very recently, and while AC Milan were able to bounce back from their defeat in 2005 and claim a Champions League trophy (among a number of others) in the coming seasons, they too have dropped into hard times, not qualifying for the tournament since 2014. However, these two giants are rightfully back at the peak of European football and are all too familiar with each other as they kick off Group B on Wednesday night.
While both fixtures between the two clubs will gather plenty of excitable spectators, the clash at the San Siro will be particularly special, given that the iconic stadium is set to be destroyed and the final European nights should be treasured. Other games might be bigger profile, other games might mean more, but considering the history and the journey that these two clubs have been on since 2005, the clashes between The Reds and I Rossoneri have me the most excited.
Favourites – Chelsea
Over the past two seasons, I have predicted Manchester City to FINALLY get their hands on the illustrious UEFA Champions League title that has evaded them for many years. This time, however, I am going for something different, and that is why I believe Chelsea will retain the title this season.
At the start of last season, Chelsea already had a squad capable of winning both the Champions League AND the Premier League. To that squad, they have now added a great manager in Thomas Tuchel and a £100 million striker in Romelu Lukaku. With Chelsea’s depth, talent, and winning mentality, I feel they should have no issues in retaining the Champions League. Another factor I believe is important is that there is currently a dip in quality across Europe with the likes of Barcelona and Juventus – who share a group with Chelsea – struggling, meaning there is less ‘fierce’ competition for The Blues.
Chelsea have a great keeper, a solid defence, a dominating midfield, and a deadly attack. Therefore, I see no reason why they cannot win back-to-back Champions League titles.
Surprise Team: Borussia Dortmund
Borussia Dortmund have gone through quite a lot of changes this past summer, namely losing one of their best players in Jadon Sancho and appointing Marco Rose as their new manager. Rose is a very exciting coach who did very well in the Champions League last season when he got Borussia Mönchengladbach to the last 16, advancing from a group that contained Inter Milan and Real Madrid. This season, he has a much stronger squad and with a striker like Erling Haaland, they will have no problem scoring goals.
Last season, Dortmund were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Manchester City, however, they gave a very good account of themselves over the two legs. They were also without Sancho for these games due to injury. This season, they will be looking to go one step further than the quarters. Dortmund shares a group with Sporting Lisbon, Ajax, and Besiktas. A difficult group no question, but one that Dortmund CAN win. With leaders such as Mats Hummels and Marco Reus in the squad, they certainly have the right personnel to do well.
Breakthrough Star: Ferrán Torres
What was the one position that Manchester City needed to strengthen over the summer? Striker. Did they spend £100 million on a player? Yes. Did they get a striker? No. Will they be ok without one? Yes. Why? Ferrán Torres.
Torres arrived at City last summer from Valencia arriving with a lot of potential and ability that Pep Guardiola was excited about. Initially, it seemed like the young forward would be used mainly as a winger in Guardiola’s 4-3-3 setup. Due to Sergio Agüero’s decline and Gabriel Jesus’ form, however, Torres ended up playing as a striker on several occasions and thrived in the role. The Spaniard played so well that he is now a regular member of the Spanish national side despite only being 21 years of age.
City and Guardiola are desperate to win the Champions League this season and after making it to the final last year, they know they have what it takes. Torres may not be one of City’s big superstars but could be the side’s most important player in the Champions League this season and may soon become a household name.
Match of the Group Stage: Ajax vs Dortmund (Group C)
Ajax and Dortmund both have a very good chance at winning Group C and their head to heads may be the decisive fixtures in determining who gets the top spot.
A few years ago, the footballing world fell in love with Erik Ten Haag’s Ajax team that made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League. Despite that team being torn apart in the transfer market, Ajax have recruited very well and once again have an excellent side.
Dortmund have also recruited well in recent seasons and now have a perfect blend of youth and experience to their side.
There is also another battle in this match, and it will be between Jude Bellingham of Dortmund and Ryan Gravenberch of Ajax. The midfielders are two of the most talented young players in Europe and will be ones to watch in the Champions League this season. The two players are tipped to go all the way to the top of football and are vital to their respective sides. Despite their age, they are already full-time internationals for their countries, and both midfielders also featured at Euro 2020.
To me, this game screams “goals galore”, so I apologise in advance for the ensuing 0-0 we may witness.
Favourites – Liverpool
Those two in Group A could finally do it but I don’t want to think about that. Atlético Madrid look as strong as ever, while Bayern Munich, though lacking depth, and Inter Milan, though lacking Messrs Conte and Lukaku, still look brilliant too. There’s even the holders Chelsea and a rejuvenated Manchester United… but I’ll go for Jürgen Klopp’s Reds. Because surely their injury woes are over? Right?
This is still the same team that conquered England, Europe and the World after all. Georginio Wijnaldum has gone and Ibrahima Konaté is in, but that’s it. The core is still there. There’s still Alisson in goal, with Virgil van Dijk at the back surrounded by the finest wing-backs in the game in both Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. There are experienced midfielders in Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Thiago to intertwine with young, emerging stars Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott – although, ironically, Elliott has just been sidelined with a serious injury. And lastly, there’s that front line. Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané haven’t shone for a while but Diogo Jota has. And Mohamed Salah most definitely has.
This is still a squad of world class quality, a squad capable of bringing the European Cup back to Merseyside for a seventh time. They just need to get past AC Milan, Porto and Diego Simeone’s calculating Colchoneros first.
Surprise Team – Sevilla
Sevilla were my surprise team last year and they shall be again. The kings of the Europa League reached the round of 16 to at least justify my selection but the club has only made it to the final eight twice in their history – one of those times was in 1958. This is the time for them to kick on and actually surprise the world watching on. There is a squad here capable of better this time round – especially as Jules Koundé, despite intense transfer speculation surrounding the young French defender being reported all summer, is staying in Andalusia for the time being.
Youssef En-Nesyri is potentially the more important keep, however, as the centre-forward grabbed six goals in the Champions League last season to go with his 18 La Liga strikes. The Moroccan maestro has lost attacking partners Luuk de Jong and Bryan Gil but he will be joined in attack this season by new recruits Erik Lamela, who has notched three goals in as many substitute appearances since joining, and Rafa Mir, who joins from Wolverhampton Wanderers. There’s also another fresh face in midfield as Thomas Delaney, off the back of a superb Euros with Denmark, joins Fernando, Joan Jordán, Papu Gomez and Ivan Rakitić in a talented midfield.
To go with an excellent squad at his disposal, Julen Lopetegui has been gifted a fairly average group that is lacking super teams and instead consists of Austrian champions Salzburg, floundering French champs Lille and Germany’s 4th best side Wolfsburg. A potential first-place seed heading into the last 16 would be a gigantic help for Los Rojiblancos as they aim to go deep into the competition this time round.
Breakthrough Player – Wout Weghorst (Wolfsburg)
What if I told you there was a star ready to break out on the biggest stage of them all; a towering presence at 6’5” who knocked in 20 Bundesliga goals last season and has already made 10 appearances for the Dutch national team. The only catch is… he is 29 years old.
This is a man with a name just as fantastic as his footballing ability: Wout Weghorst. This powerhouse is a commanding, hard-working goal machine who has laboured his way from the depths of Dutch amateur football to the Champions League. Despite not signing a professional contract until the age of 20, Weghorst has earned moves up the ladder in the Netherlands before making the switch to Wolfsburg in 2018.
He possesses greater than expected dribbling and passing qualities given his very tall frame but it is his predatory instincts in the box that has seen Weghorst nab 53 goals and 18 assists in 100 Bundesliga appearances throughout his first three seasons with Die Wölfe ,as well as topping both the club’s scoring and assists charts last season. He is the talisman that the fourth seeds will be counting on if they are to have any chance of relative success in the competition.
Match of the Group Stages – Manchester United vs Atalanta (Group F)
For this, we head to Manchester. Not for the El Cashico derby. But instead to watch Ole Gunnar Solksjær’s superstars battling Gian Piero Gasperini’s disciples. Manchester United versus Atalanta.
Whether it is at Old Trafford or Stadio di Bergamo, this will be a cracker. The second and third seeds, behind Europa League victors (over United) Villarreal and ahead of Swiss champions Young Boys, are sure to entertain with their exciting styles of play and incredibly talented squads. United will start this Champions League campaign with European heavyweights Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphaël Varane leading the line and shoring up the defence respectively, while Atalanta have made squad improvements of their own after another successful season in which they finished 3rd in Serie A and reached the Coppa Italia final.
We’ve got an all-powerful giant, finally ready to conquer, taking on the admirable underdog who plays beautiful football. The Red Devils versus The Goddess. This is proper Champions League football.
Favourites – Chelsea
Having dominated last year’s competition under the noses of a few people, Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea will more than likely have their sights set on a second successive trophy this season. And why wouldn’t they?
The squad depth at Stamford Bridge this season can only be described as unfair and with the return of Romelu Lukaku, who has already torn up the Premier League this season, The Blues will be laughing all the way to the final.
Despite the unfortunate departure of Kurt Zouma in the summer, Chelsea have only strengthened from the squad that dominated teams such as Real Madrid last year and will not only enjoy but relish the midweek games that are coming their way.
Surprise Team – Ajax
Having been drawn a relatively kind group this year, Ajax will be hoping for a good run in the competition.
Despite losing their best talents each and every year to major leagues around Europe, the Dutch champions will look fondly upon their opponents and have their sights firmly set on the Round of 16.
A well-rounded team could prove vital if Ajax do want to top their group when playing against the likes of Dortmund, who are very attack orientated, and if David Neres continues to be a danger upfront, he could cause havoc for all sorts of defenders.
Breakthrough Player – Riqui Puig
With the financial state that Barcelona have found themselves in this year, it was no surprise that they had to let a few of their key players go. However, this has paved the way for their young talent and given them a direct route into the first team.
One example is a player like Riqui Puig, who will likely fill the gap left by Miralem Pjanić following his loan to Besiktas. The midfielder will bask in the opportunity to play in the Champions League and could prove vital for the Catalan giants if they are to live up to expectations.
His quality ball control and eagerness to perform is exactly what Barcelona need during this time and will inject some energy into an ageing starting 11.
Game of the Group stage – Manchester City vs PSG
El Cashico is back and better than ever.
With the arrivals of Lionel Messi, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Sergio Ramos, PSG have no excuse this year and as such will be putting everything on the line – as will Man City, who are still looking for that illustrious trophy as Pep Guardiola enters his final year at the club.
The combined talent of the 22 players on the pitch will be breath-taking and the hunger for trophies will be frightening.
It’s set to be a classic, and I can’t wait.