Lionel Messi makes PSG more dangerous than ever in European play. (John Berry/Getty Images)
PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

Champions League: Who Can Stop Messi, Mbappe, Neymar, & PSG?

Paris Saint-Germain are naturally betting favorites to win their first-ever European crown. Let’s identify their top rivals as the Champions League returns.

Armed with three of the most prolific goal scorers in the world, Paris Saint-Germain is the odds-on favorite — +360 on FanDuel — to win its first Champions League title as 2021-22 group stage play begins Tuesday.

PSG was far and away the biggest winner of the summer transfer window after signing Lionel Messi, one of the greatest players ever to partake in a sport, on a free transfer, the greatest beneficiary of FC Barcelona’s ongoing debt issues. He joins returning superstar Kylian Mbappe, who the club didn’t sell to Real Madrid despite multiple offers, including a reported $212 million bid, to obtain the 22-year-old French sensation for the last year of his contract.

PSG boasts the No. 1 (Mbappe), No. 8 (Neymar), and No. 21 (the 34-year-old Messi) most valuable players on the planet according to Transfermarkt, a trio that combined for 97 goals across all competitions last season.

They’ll combine with new incoming stars like goalkeeper and EURO 2020 hero Gianluigi Donnarumma from AC Milan, right back Achraf Hakimi from Inter, left back Nuno Mendes from Sporting CP, and Georginio Wijnaldum from Liverpool to form the most potent side in the history of France’s Lige 1, and one of the most valuable the world game has seen. Mix in holdovers like Marquinhos, Mauro Icardi, Marco Verratti, and Presnel Kimpembe, and it stands to be a monumental task to stop the European trophy from landing in Paris for the very first time.

With that in mind, let’s roll through the top teams standing in PSG’s way based on betting odds:

Manchester City (+380)

Debut game: Red Bull Leipzig (Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET)

Though it wasn’t able to complete a transfer for Tottenham striker Harry Kane, the defending Premier League champs still brought in Aston Villa stud midfielder Jack Grealish for an English-record $118 million. Led by Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, and Phil Foden, City was actually drawn into Group A with PSG, RB Leipzig, and Club Brugge, a challenging quartet that’ll test City and PSG heading into the knockout rounds.

Bayern Munich (+750)

Debut game: @Barcelona (Tuesday, 3 p.m. ET)

The 2020 Champions League winners have won nine Bundesliga titles in a row and show no signs of slowing down after raiding second-place RB Leipzig for not just center back Dayot Upamecano and midfielder Marcel Sabitzer, but manager Julian Nagelsmann.

Robert Lewandowski may desire a departure from the club, but the Polish No. 9 is still a goal-scoring machine at age 33 and is further bolstered by the elite-level contributions of Joshua Kimmich, Leon Gortezka, Serge Gnabry, and Alphonso Davies. Bayern’s Tuesday Group E match against Barcelona highlights the UCL’s opening week UCL schedule.

Chelsea (+800)

Debut game: Zenit St. Petersburg (Tuesday, 3 p.m. ET)

The defending champion Blues further bolstered their attack with a $135 million purchase of Romelu Lukaku from AC Milan. Midfielder Saúl Ñíguez joined from Atlético Madrid to complement Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Christian Pulisic. Chelsea was drawn into a manageable Group H with Juventus, Zenit St. Petersburg, and Malmo.

They won this thing last year, and they’re noticeably more talented now. Consider Thomas Tuchel’s team a nifty value pick.

Liverpool (+1000)

Debut game: AC Milan (Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET)

Jurgen Klopp’s club still has the main pieces from its 2018-19 Premier League-winning squad, most notably Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Andrew Robertson. The Reds were yet another team that raided RB Leipzig over the offseason, with its $44 million purchase of center back Ibrahima Konate looming largest.

However, Liverpool was drawn into the group of death this year, with Atlético Madrid, AC Milan, and Porto standing in the club’s way of reaching the knockout stage. The path back to glory won’t be easy despite their injury situation at the back being infinitely less dire than a year ago.

Manchester United (+1400)

Debut game: @Young Boys (Tuesday, 12:45 p.m. ET)

Cristiano Ronaldo made his presence felt immediately in his return to United on Saturday, scoring twice in a 4-1 Premier League win over Newcastle. CR7’s shock transfer from Juventus pairs well with the club’s splashy $93 million swoop for Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho and the $44 million move for Real Madrid center back Raphael Varane.

Considering Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, and Paul Pogba already key a super-potent attack, a Group F featuring Villarreal, Atalanta, and Young Boys gives Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s a truly manageable path to the knockout stage.