Big spenders threaten to upset Champions League hierarchy

BERLIN (AP) — The Champions League group stage starts Tuesday with a match between traditional heavyweights Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but big-spending upstarts elsewhere are the title favorites this season after a summer of eye-catching transfers.

Paris Saint-Germain bolstered its ranks with the arrivals of superstar Lionel Messi from Barcelona, former Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, Italy’s European Championship-winning goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, Netherlands midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, and wing backs Achraf Hakimi and Nuno Mendes — the latter arguably the most exciting player in Portugal last season.

PSG, which has been backed by Qatar Sports Investment since 2011, reached the Champions League semifinals last season and the final the year before that, but has never won the title.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the club’s spectacular recruitment campaign comes with a view to winning Europe’s premier club competition before Qatar hosts the World Cup next year.

PSG begins its bid Wednesday in Group A at Club Brugge, where Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé could play together for the first time, a fearsome attacking lineup for the Belgian champion to contend with. Messi warmed up for the game with a hat trick for Argentina in World Cup qualifying.

PSG rejected an offer of about $188 million from Real Madrid for Mbappé, despite knowing he can leave without a transfer fee when his contract expires next year.

SPLASHING THE CASH

Premier League clubs have been displaying a similar tendency toward recruitment. Last season’s Champions League finalists Chelsea and Manchester City spent club-record fees on marquee signings.

Attacking midfielder Jack Grealish joined City for $139 million, a record fee for a British player, and striker Romelu Lukaku moved back to Chelsea from Inter Milan for $135 million.

That strengthened already-deep squads at both clubs that helped them reach the final in Porto in May.

City hosts German club Leipzig in Group A on Wednesday, a day after Chelsea welcomes Zenit St. Petersburg in Group H for its first game as defending champion.

Manchester United trumped its domestic rivals by signing England forward Jadon Sancho, France defender Raphael Varane and Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo from Juventus for a combined cost in transfer fees of more than $150 million.

Ronaldo’s first Champions League game for United since losing the 2009 final to Barcelona is at Swiss champion Young Boys on Tuesday in Group F.

The big spenders have been bucking the recent trend across Europe, where the coronavirus pandemic has had an adverse effect on most clubs, including Juventus, which is struggling without Ronaldo before its visit to Malmö on Tuesday in Group H.

NEW ERA AT BARCELONA

Six-time champion Bayern has a new coach, Julian Nagelsmann, but had a very quiet offseason, giving young home-nurtured players such as Jamal Musiala and Josip Stanišić a chance to establish themselves in the team.

Barcelona endured a difficult summer, with the pandemic and years of big spending playing a role in the exits of Messi and Antoine Griezmann. Ansu Fati inherited Messi’s No. 10 jersey, and Barça supporters are also hoping another 18-year-old, Pedri, can help usher in a new successful era after his brilliant performances for Spain at the European Championship.

The Group E match at Camp Nou comes after Bayern trounced Barcelona 8-2 in their last meeting in the 2020 quarterfinals.

TOUGH TEST FOR MADRID

Inter Milan hosts 13-time champion Real Madrid in another intriguing opening-round game on Wednesday in Group D. Although Mbappé did not move to Spain, Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti has succeeded in reviving an attack that had shown signs of stagnation in the final months of Zinedine Zidane’s tenure. Vinícius Júnior has found his scoring touch to add to the speed that creates more space for Karim Benzema.

Another big match sees six-time champion Liverpool host seven-time champion AC Milan on Wednesday in Group B. Liverpool, which last won the competition in 2019, can call upon defensive stalwart Virgil van Dijk again after a serious knee injury.

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AP Sports Writers Andrew Dampf, Steve Douglas, Graham Dunbar, Jerome Pugmire and Joseph Wilson contributed.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Ciarán Fahey on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cfaheyAP

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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