Champions League: Will Real Madrid retain title? Can PSG win? Are Barca flawed?

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Champions League: Will Real Madrid retain title? Can PSG win? Are Barca flawed?

Real Madrid are chasing an unprecedented third consecutive Champions League title, Paris St-Germain are breaking spending records and Barcelona appear fallible.

Add a record six British challengers into the mix and this season’s competition, which gets under way on Tuesday, has all the ingredients to be one of the most intriguing yet.

Can Real Madrid make it three in a row?

After becoming the first club to win the trophy in consecutive years in the Champions League era (post-1992), Real Madrid have already made history. The real question is whether they can extend that repeat into a sustained period of dominance, following the achievements of their predecessors who won the first five editions of the European Cup after its foundation in 1956.

There are positive signs in that direction. Rarely has a team gone into a Champions League season as such strong favourites. It’s not just the superlative nature of El Real’s second-half performance that swept aside Juventus in June’s final in Cardiff that persuades, either.

For the first time in a long time at the Bernabeu, it seems like there’s a plan for the future beyond hoovering up superstars. The club has been astute in picking up young talent like Marco Asensio, Dani Ceballos and a host of others – and they have a coach in Zinedine Zidane who has the bravery to pick on merit rather than status.

The success of Zidane’s tenure so far can be measured not only in trophies, but by the fact that even Gareth Bale (and Zizou is a big fan of the Welshman) is not sure of a place, especially after Isco’s rise to become arguably Los Merengues’ star performer in the past six months.

With Cristiano Ronaldo, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos tied down to long contracts and Isco, Asensio and others set to follow suit, the future looks bright.

Should we count Paris St-Germain among the favourites?

If Real Madrid have stepped back from taking the transfer market by the scruff of the neck, then PSG have taken their place in some style.

The signing of Neymar shook the football world, and it felt like a turning point for the French giants. For all their achievements since Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) took over the club in 2011, they had never been able to recruit an elite-level star in his prime – until now.

With France’s brightest talent Kylian Mbappe leaving Monaco for the Parc des Princes, Neymar will continue to be a part of Europe’s most vaunted front three. It’s just that this time it will be a completely new one, made up of the Brazilian, the teenage Mbappe and the profilic Edinson Cavani.

There’s little doubt the trio will click. Some have voiced concerns that Cavani will be marginalised, having been forced out wide when Zlatan Ibrahimovic was at the club, but both Neymar and Mbappe prefer to attack from wide areas. In fact, Mbappe said earlier this year that playing around a traditional number nine in Radamel Falcao gave him the freedom he needs. Cavani will do the same.

The concerns are elsewhere.

Having missed out on Mbappe’s Monaco team-mate Fabinho, PSG are perhaps short of a midfield destroyer, and neither Kevin Trapp nor Alphonse Areola really convince in goal. With last season’s capitulation to Barcelona in the last 16 still fresh in the mind, it’s PSG’s mettle – rather than their flair – that will come under the microscope.

Are Barcelona still realistic contenders?

The sheer amazement value of Barcelona’s comeback against PSG in that last-16 tie – largely inspired by the will and drive of Neymar, rather than the collective brilliance we’ve become used to in recent years – covered a multitude of shortcomings. Still in shock after the Brazilian’s exit to France, the difficulties the Catalan giants face on the pitch and in the boardroom have been laid bare.

Neymar should have been tied down but wasn’t, and he had lost faith in the management. Lionel Messi has still not signed an extension to the contract that runs out in the summer, and after under-pressure president Josep Bartomeu claimed Andres Iniesta was set to sign a new deal, the legendary midfielder publicly denied it.

Yet for all the chaotic management and fudging of transfers, the window wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

They’ve filled a few significant holes, with a quality new right-back in Nelson Semedo and the arrival in midfield of Paulinho, who has been as important for Brazil of late as he was disappointing for Tottenham. Ousmane Dembele, signed from Borussia Dortmund in Neymar’s stead, is a generational talent and a potential Ballon d’Or winner. It’s when you get beyond the XI that the doubts start to arise.

A lack of strength in depth is where Barca started to fall behind their rivals Real, with successive quarter-final defeats after winning the Champions League in 2015 at least partly down to fatigue. With little done to address that, it’s hard to imagine Ernesto Valverde’s side going much further.