The Champions League group stage kicks off on Tuesday with Bayern Munich beginning their defence of the trophy won in Lisbon in August . AFP Sport picks out some of the storylines to watch over the next few weeks:


– Messi v Ronaldo –


They are the two greatest players of their generation with 11 Ballons d ’Or between them , and the two highest scorers in Champions League history . Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are now set to renew their individual rivalry when Barcelona and Juventus clash in Group G .
They have not faced off since the Portuguese superstar left Real Madrid for Juventus in 2018.


Ronaldo is currently self – isolating after testing positive for Covid-19 and will need to pass a negative test before being allowed to feature against Barca in Turin on October 28 . The return at the Camp Nou is on December 8 .

Both sides should advance from a group also containing Dynamo Kiev and Ferencvaros, but both Messi and Ronaldo are running out of time to win the Champions League again. Messi, now 33 , has featured in four victorious campaigns , while 35 – year -old Ronaldo has won it five times.


– Will Man Utd get out of their group ? –
Manchester United begin their campaign at Paris Saint – Germain in a repeat of their dramatic last -16 meeting in 2018 -19 , when the Red Devils progressed thanks to a controversial late penalty.


That was arguably the high point of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign as Old Trafford manager. It was his 14 th win in 17 games as caretaker , and soon after he got the job permanently . But United went out to Barcelona in the quarter – finals and did not qualify for last season’ s Champions League.


Solskjer ’ s first full campaign in charge saw United finish third to return to Europe ’s top table, but serious doubts remain about his managerial ability and they are in a tough group , with last season’s semi- finalists RB Leipzig and the Turkish champions , Istanbul Basaksehir , as well as PSG.


The knives will be out for the Norwegian if they fail to make the knockout stage .


– Haaland to star again? –


Erling Braut Haaland was the star of last season’ s Champions League before the competition was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.


The Norwegian was a sensation for Red Bull Salzburg in the group stage , scoring eight times. After moving to Borussia Dortmund in the winter he scored two more in the defeat of PSG in the last 16 , first leg , although Dortmund ended up losing on aggregate.


In total Haaland scored 44 club goals last season, all before turning 20 in July . He already has 11 this season for club and country and Dortmund will hope he can help them out of a group also containing Zenit Saint Petersburg , Lazio and Club Brugge .


– Atalanta : Dark horses no more –


Atalanta ’ s run to the quarter – finals , where they suffered an agonizing defeat to PSG , would have been heartwarming even had it not coincided with their home city of Bergamo being devastated during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Gian Piero Gasperini ’ s side qualified for the last 16 despite losing their first three group games and then beat Valencia 8 -4 on aggregate in their debut Champions League campaign . They also finished third in Serie A to return to Europe ’ s elite club competition .


But Atalanta are no longer a surprise package and are probably now favorites to advance from their group along with Liverpool , and ahead of Ajax and the Danish champions , Midtjylland . Will they continue to thrive despite no longer being the dark horses ?


– The debutants –


Atalanta may no longer be the new boys but four teams are appearing in the group stage for the first time .
The most interesting first -timers are Rennes , who had a best-ever third -place finish in France a year on from winning the French Cup . In Julien Stephan , they have one of Europe ’s best young coaches, while midfielder Eduardo Camavinga is possibly the hottest young prospect in world football . They are in a difficult group , though , with Chelsea , Sevilla, and another newcomer in Russian side Krasnodar .


Midtjylland will have it tough up against Liverpool , Atalanta , and Ajax . Meanwhile, after breaking up the dominance of the Istanbul giants in Turkey , Basaksehir will hope to cause problems for PSG , Manchester United and Leipzig .


( AFP )


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