Saudi-backed Magpies fly close to the sun in this season’s Uefa Champions League
Europe’s premier football competition promises another enthralling instalment.
One of the most alluring sports competitions on the globe, the Uefa Champions League, returns for another instalment of exciting tussles among some of Europe’s best clubs.
Eyes will be on Manchester City and the question will be whether Pep Guardiola’s men can entrench themselves as a true global soccer force by defending the title they won for the first time last season.
Regardless of form, record European champions Real Madrid are always a factor in the competition.
In spite of lengthy injury lay-offs to some of Real’s key players – including an anterior cruciate ligament tear for first-choice gloveman Thibaut Courtois – Los Blancos will be mentioned as contenders to win a 15th Champions League trophy.
With usual representatives Liverpool and Chelsea not in the picture this year, it falls to Arsenal, Newcastle United and Manchester United to fly the English flag.
Newcastle are particularly interesting, as they appear in Europe’s elite club competition for the first time in 20 years. The last time the Magpies played in the group stage of the Champions League was in the 2002/03 season.
Two decades later they are back, backed by the billions of their Saudi owners and with dreams of reaching the levels Manchester City have since Emirati businessman Sheikh Mansour took over that club in 2008.
However, as shown by the Citizens’ long trek before eventually conquering Europe in early 2023, the road might be an arduous one for Newcastle. Even France’s Paris Saint-Germain have found it tough in the Champions League, despite their Qatari owners pumping billions into the club.
For Newcastle – who have been a mid-table English Premier League club at best (though they’ve had some memorable Premier League seasons, especially in the mid-1990s) – it will be a balancing act of riding their momentum in English football while trying to build a continental profile.
A tough Champions League group sees them pitted against Paris Saint-Germain, Germany’s Borussia Dortmund and European powerhouse of yesteryear AC Milan of Italy. These sides have all reached a Champions League final in the past 16 years.
It will be a baptism of fire for Eddie Howe and his men. If they manage to navigate it like they did their group 20 years ago (when they finished as runners-up), it will bolster their credibility as a rising force.
“It’s a real challenge for us, there’s no doubt about it. We’re playing elite teams. But we’re in the Champions League and you’re always going to face top teams in that competition,” Howe told Sky Sports.
“Certainly, from our point of view, there’s already a steely determination to attack it and show our very best. I’m very much looking forward to it,” said Howe, who will be making his debut in the competition.
A visit to the San Siro
The Magpies start their campaign on 19 September with a visit to the San Siro Stadium in Milan – scene of many a memorable Champions League battle.
“Everyone will enjoy those experiences. We’re going to visit some great places, some great stadiums, and play against some really good teams,” said the man who led Newcastle to fourth in the Premier League last season, their highest placing since clinching third in 2003.
“There’s nothing but positive thoughts towards it and you can’t help but be excited by the challenge that awaits us.”
Howe and his charges will have to turn around a poor start to their domestic season, which sees them with just one victory and three losses from their four league matches to date.
Also back from the wilderness and into the Champions League are Arsenal. Their history in the top European club contest has more pages – including a 2-1 loss to Barcelona in the 2006 final.
After a six-year sabbatical, Champions League showdowns return to Emirates Stadium. There is an air of excitement in the Gunners’ community after a silver-medal league campaign.
But, as with Newcastle, the question is whether the London side can juggle the pursuit of domestic silverware with making a splash on their European excursion.
“We cannot prioritise anything. We have to go there and try our best to play well in any competition,” Gunners’ sporting director Edu Gaspar told the club’s website.
“To be in the Premier League, Champions League and cups … it’s important to do our best and perform in the best way possible and finish in the best position.”
They should have little trouble negotiating a way out of Group B, where they have been pitted against last season’s Europa League winners Sevilla, Dutch outfit PSV Eindhoven and France’s Lens.
Domestically, Arsenal have started the new season positively, winning three matches and drawing one to trail defending champions Manchester City by two points.
A continuation of that form when they open the European campaign against PSV in London, on 20 September, should see them fire a warning shot at rivals.
Lethal English marksman Harry Kane returns to his homeland when his new side, Bayern Munich, visit Manchester to take on United in the opening game week.
A trophyless run
Kane left Tottenham Hotspur recently after a trophyless run, despite his finding the back of the net 280 times in 435 appearances across all competitions.
In Munich he is sure to pick up some domestic silverware, but he would love to help his new team to capture the big fish that is the Champions League.
Other than the Red Devils – who are toiling to regain their special aura since the departure of Alex Ferguson 10 years ago – the Bavarians face Copenhagen and Turkey’s Galatasaray in Group A.
Spanish giants Barcelona are desperate to recapture the magic that made them one of the most feared clubs in the world.
Maladministration in the boardroom has seen the team’s influence wane in recent years. However, under the tutelage of former midfield maestro Xavi Hernández, things are looking up – as evidenced by them winning La Liga last season.
In the Champions League, things did not proceed as smoothly, with the Blaugrana failing to qualify for the knockouts for the second successive season.
Grouped with Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk, Portuguese heavyweights Porto and Belgium’s Antwerp, they will fancy their chances of not just qualifying for the knockouts this time, but winning their group outright. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.