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The Champions League is BACK! The lowdown on the favorites, dark horses & breakout stars

The Champions League is BACK! The lowdown on the favorites, dark horses & breakout stars
The biggest club competition in world football returns on Tuesday as the Champions League kicks off again, with defending champions Liverpool in action as well as a Barcelona team welcoming back Lionel Messi.

Eight matches begin the 2019-20 edition of the tournament, including some mouthwatering match-ups as Liverpool face a tricky trip to Napoli while Barcelona play Borussia Dortmund at the fabled Westfalenstadion.

Elsewhere, last season’s sensations Ajax host Lille, Russia’s Zenit St. Petersburg make the trip to France to play Lyon, while Frank Lampard will be in the dugout for his first Champions League game as Chelsea host Valencia.

Wednesday night sees the opening round blockbuster clashes between Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid and Juventus.

Ahead of all the action, RT Sport gives you the lowdown on what you need to know.

What are the groups again?

There's plenty of potential drama in store at the group stage some big-hitters face off.  

Real Madrid, 13-time winners, have found themselves in Group A alongside PSG, Brugge and Galatasaray, while La Liga rivals Barcelona also look to have it hard in Group F with Dortmund, Inter Milan and Slavia Prague.

RT

Group D is a definite 'Group of Death' contender, featuring Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and Lokomotiv Moscow – who could find themselves the whipping boys.

Last year's winners Liverpool open against Napoli but will also have easier-looking encounters against Genk and Salzburg. 

The full list of groups is here:     

Group A: Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Club Brugge, Galatasaray

Group B: Bayern Munich, Tottenham Hotspur, Olympiacos, Red Star Belgrade

Group C: Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb, Atalanta

Group D: Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, Lokomotiv Moskva

Group E: Liverpool, Napoli, Salzburg, Genk

Group F: Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, Slavia Prague

Group G: Zenit St. Petersburg, Benfica, Lyon, RB Leipzig

Group H: Chelsea, Ajax, Valencia, Lille

Who are the favorites?

Premier League pair Manchester City and Liverpool as well as Spanish giants Barcelona are the bookies' favorites to win this year's competition.

Pep Guardiola’s City team fell to eventual finalists Tottenham in agonizing circumstances in the quarterfinals last season, but their expensively-assembled, star-studded squad is at around 7-2 to win the competition outright this time around – although they failed to impress in a shock 3-2 league defeat to Norwich at the weekend.

RT

Widely fancied with the bookies are also Barcelona, who are set to welcome captain Lionel Messi back from injury as they face Dortmund on Tuesday.

They have also spent big in the summer, bringing in Antoine Griezmann and welcoming Frenkie de Jong into the ranks.

Starlet Ansu Fati, just 16 years old, has also burst spectacularly onto the scene in La Liga, and could make his Champions League bow in Tuesday’s game at Dortmund.    

Also on rt.com Messi declared fit for Barcelona Champions League opener at Dortmund

Jurgen Klopp’s reigning champions Liverpool are tipped as being among the front runners again, especially after their flawless start to the Premier League season.

RT

Behind that trio are the lesser-fancied PSG, Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and German powerhouses Bayern Munich.

PSG have just welcomed Neymar back amid troubled circumstances, and their opening game does not come any bigger as they host Real Madrid – but the Brazilian is suspended for that game after his pitchside outburst during the defeat to Manchester United last season. 

On your bike! Neymar gets BOOED by PSG fans, then scores stoppage-time bicycle-kick winner (VIDEO)

Real are in the process of rebuilding under Zinedine Zidane, and despite some big-money summer acquisitions including Eden Hazard they are not fancied to reassert themselves at the top of the European tree just yet.

RT

Juventus are bidding to end a more than two-decade wait for Champions League glory, and will always be a threat with the indomitable Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks.

The Turin giants have also recruited extensively this summer, signing Dutch defensive wonderkid Matthijs de Ligt as well as the likes of Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey. 

Juve travel to Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, in a repeat of the pair’s last 16 tie from last season which Juventus won thanks to an incredible second-leg hat-trick from Ronaldo.

RT

Despite the departure of Griezmann from their ranks, Diego Simone’s Atletico team strengthened this summer with the acquisition of Portuguese teen ace Joao Felix, who has already impressed hugely since his $135 million switch from Benfica.

RT

Simeone’s men have also added England full-back Kieran Trippier to the squad, and will be as hard to break down as ever.

German teams struggled last season as none made it beyond the last 16, but Bayern Munich and Dortmund will be the prime candidates to rectify that this season.

Bayern have seen some player turnover in the summer with stalwarts Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben leaving, but secured playmaker Philippe Coutinho from Barcelona on loan as well as defenders Lucas Hernandez for $90 million from Atletico Madrid and the $40 million Benjamin Pavard from Stuttgart.

Any team with prolific Pole Robert Lewandowski in their ranks will also always fancy their chances.

RT

Bayern will likely face their toughest group stage task against last season’s finalists Tottenham Hotspur, who exceeded expectations in coming so close before falling at the last hurdle against Liverpool.

Spurs’ biggest summer signing was 22-year-old French midfielder Tanguy Ndombele for $65 million from Lyon, but perhaps their biggest business was not losing playmaker Christian Eriksen despite the likes of Real Madrid circling – although the Dane is now into the last season of his contract.

RT

Spurs should see their way out of the group stage, but would do very well if they can repeat their heroics of last season.

The dark horses

While not exactly underdogs given their undeniable quality, Dortmund could be the team from outside the main favorites to make the biggest mark on the competition.

The Germans have the exciting talents of assist merchant Jadon Sancho in their ranks, and have seen the return of Mats Hummels from Bayern while adding Thorgan Hazard – the highly-rated brother of Eden – to the squad as well as left-back Nico Schulz and winger Julian Brandt.

RT

Others to look out for from outside the big favorites include French pair Lyon and Lille, while Napoli under Carlo Ancelotti play an exciting brand of football and is a tough place to visit for any team.

Fellow Seria A club Atalanta are making their Champions League debut, and are an exciting prospect, having top-scored in the Italian league last season.  

Inter Milan now have the formidable Antonio Conte at the helm, have made an unbeaten start to the Serie A season and will be a much tougher prospect than previous seasons.

RT

Last term’s surprise package Ajax have been shorn of key players de Jong and de Ligt, but still boast talents such as Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech.

They would do well to repeat their run from last time around, but will be many people’s second favorite team.   

RT

Russia boast two Champions League competitors this season in league winners Zenit St. Petersburg and runners-up Lokomotiv Moscow.

Lokomotiv have been drawn in a group with Juventus, Atletico and Bayer Leverkusen - the latter of whom being where they open their campaign on Wednesday.

It will be a tough ask for Yuri Semin's men to even snatch third from that mix, and their task has been made harder buy injuries to key men including young stars Alexey and Anton Miranchuk, both of whom will not feature in Germany.

RT

Elsewhere, however, Zenit will fancy their chances of emerging from a group containing Benfica, Lyon and Leipzig. 

The Russian champions have a strong talisman up front in the form of national team skipper Artem Dzyuba, and typically deploy the talented Sardar Azmoun to play off him.

Zenit have strenghtened with the $45 million arrival of Brazilian star Malcom from Barcelona, and while he won't be fit for their opening group game at Lyon on Tuesday, he will be key for their chances further on in the competition.

The breakout stars 

Joao Felix has already shown Atletico what he is capable of with some standout performances in pre-season and so far in La Liga.

The 19-year-old appears at ease with his $100+ million price tag, and could make his mark on the competition.

RT

Across the country in Barcelona, 16-year-old Ansu Fati has been nothing short of a revelation since being called up to the first team by Ernesto Valverde.

Fati become Barca’s youngest ever La Liga scorer when he netted against Osasuna, and added to that tally in his first start for the team when he bagged a goal in the 5-2 rout of Valencia at the weekend.

Also on rt.com Ansu Fati: Meet the starlet hugged by Messi after becoming youngest Barca league player in 80 years

He’s in Valverde’s squad for the trip to Dortmund and this season could be a special one for the teen starlet.

Chelsea are in the process of rebuilding under club legend Frank Lampard, and could see an unfamiliar focus on youth under the playing legend.

Forward Tammy Abraham has started the season in sensational form, scoring hat-trick against Wolverhampton Wanderers as the 21-year-old took his tally to seven Premier League goals already.

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The youngster will be key to his team’s attacking threat if they can mix it with more fancied rivals in this season’s competition.   

All of this week's fixtures

Tuesday, September 17

Group E: Napoli v Liverpool

Group E: Salzburg v Genk

Group F: Inter v Slavia Prague

Group F: Dortmund v Barcelona

Group G: Lyon v Zenit

Group G: Benfica v RB Leipzig

Group H: Chelsea v Valencia

Group H: Ajax v Lille

Wednesday, September 18 

Group A: Club Brugge v Galatasaray

Group A: PSG v Real Madrid

Group B: Olympiakos v Tottenham

Group B: Bayern Munich v Red Star Belgrade

Group C: Shakhtar v Manchester City

Group C: Dinamo Zagreb v Atalanta

Group D: Atletico Madrid v Juventus

Group D: Bayer Leverkusen v Lokomotiv Moscow

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