Champions League returns with continent's best out to stop English elite

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Paris: The Champions League knockout stage kicks off this week with a blockbuster showdown between Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich topping the bill, doubts surrounding all of the English contenders and talk of a breakaway Super League resurfacing again.

Three and a half months have passed since the group stage ended, an unprecedented pause in the Champions League season caused by the break for the World Cup.

Since the tournament in Qatar there has been another transfer window of record spending by Premier League clubs, whose £815 million ($1 billion) outlay on new players in January represented 79 percent of the total across Europe's biggest five leagues according to analysts Deloitte.

That provides the backdrop to the return of the Champions League, with the financial gulf between the Premier League and the continent greater than ever and the promoters of the breakaway Super League project revealing their new vision of how the competition might look.

Bernd Reichart, the chief executive of the A22 group promoting the Super League, this week told German newspaper Die Welt that "the foundations of European football are in danger of collapsing. It's time for a change."

He presented the idea of a Super League with 80 teams, all places based on sporting merit and no permanent members.

But there is not yet anything concrete in place, and for now clubs from outside England will be aiming to stop the cash-rich Premier League teams dominating the latter stages of the Champions League.

There are nevertheless doubts surrounding all the English sides taking part in the last 16, even Pep Guardiola's Manchester City.

The 2021 runners-up are desperate to get their hands on the trophy for the first time but are still reeling after being charged with over 100 breaches of financial rules by the Premier League, leaving them at risk of serious punishment including the possibility of relegation.

The Abu Dhabi-backed club will still be favourites to overcome RB Leipzig, but they have appeared flawed domestically of late and perhaps the uncertainty surrounding the future will leave them feeling greater pressure to perform in Europe this season.

Tottenham Hotspur, runners-up in 2019, have been up and down under Antonio Conte but will be fancied against an AC Milan side who have collapsed, going seven games without a win before this weekend -- hardly the best preparation for their first Champions League knockout tie in nine years.

Chelsea spent more than a third of all the money lavished by the Premier League in January. That increases expectations at Stamford Bridge, but only three of their January recruits can feature in their European squad.

The 2021 Champions League winners have won just once in eight games and now face a Borussia Dortmund side who have won six on the bounce, and have Sebastien Haller fit again after treatment for testicular cancer.

Then there is Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, languishing in mid-table at home ahead of their rerun of last season's final against reigning champions Real Madrid, whose coach Carlo Ancelotti is confident English clubs are not about to have things all their own way.

"I don't think this will end the competitiveness of European competitions," Ancelotti said when asked about the Premier League's spending.

Then again, with key players like Karim Benzema and Luka Modric in the twilight of their careers, Real do not look like the force they were last season, although which of Europe's superpowers is in peak form?

Not PSG, who have lost four times already in 2023 and are without the injured Kylian Mbappe for the first leg against Bundesliga leaders Bayern.

Elsewhere it would be a stretch to suggest that Inter Milan, who face Porto, look like genuine contenders, while Benfica should beat Club Brugge but have lost their star player, Enzo Fernandez, to Chelsea since the group stage.

Could there be a new name on the trophy?

Napoli are running away with the Serie A title and Luciano Spalletti's team, who play Eintracht Frankfurt in the last 16, are eyeing what would be an utterly remarkable double.

"You can either stick or twist," Spalletti said recently.

"We have no doubts on that, we have made our decision to gamble and go for the double." AFP

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