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Eric-Maxim Choupo Moting Bayern Munich 2020-21Getty

Champions League: Africa's best UCL bet lies in Munich

Unfortunately, Covid-19 is the inexorable shadow that looms over all social and sporting interactions.

It is difficult to predict quite what effect it might have on various squads and timings in this season’s Uefa Champions League.

Last season, a compressed format saw matches from the quarter-finals onward take place in Portugal, and all over a single leg. While Bayern Munich eventually justified their standing as favourites by winning the lot, the unusual circumstances lent themselves to some less predictable outcomes, most notably in the form of unprecedented runs by RB Leipzig and Lyon.

It is impossible to tell whether this format will make a return, and the degree of havoc it could play on projections if it does. What is clear, however, is that the field is more open than ever, not due to the strength of its contenders, but its weakness.

Even perennial German champions Bayern, so brusque in their dismissal of Barcelona en route last term, are weaker, having lost beating heart Thiago Alcantara to Liverpool over the summer.

There is doubtless quality there still, but it is impossible to completely mitigate so great an absence, and already this term they have suffered the sort of stinging defeat – in that 4-1 reverse against Hoffenheim – that the Spain international’s control in the middle of the park helped stave off.

Bayern Munich Champions League 2019-20 GFXGetty/Goal

There is also the small matter of motivation. Real Madrid’s three-peat is perhaps not accorded the recognition it deserves as a feat of desire and mental fortitude, but no other side has managed it in 30 years.

Is the hunger the same for Hansi Flick’s side?

Can it even possibly be?

The key to that will probably lie in the refreshing of the squad. Leroy Sane suffered repeated heartbreak in the competition while at Manchester City, and so should be positively ravenous for glory.

The same could be said for Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who arrived on a free and should, in theory at least, be smarting from defeat with Paris Saint-Germain last time out.

However, beyond them, there is not much; bigger roles for Nigeria-eligible teenagers Joshua Zirkzee and Jamal Musiala (in attack and midfield respectively) wouldn’t do their cause much harm, one would imagine.

Ultimately, however, Bayern remain favourites to go all the way once again. They might not even have to work that hard to return to the top of the mountain.

Eric Choupo-Moting Bayern MunichGetty

Beaten finalists in August Paris Saint-Germain have lost lucky charm in Choupo-Moting, but can still call upon the experience and tenacity of Idrissa Gueye, and have retained all of their star names.

However, considering their run to the final – or, more pointedly, their advance to the semi-final – only came in the highly peculiar circumstances of last season, the jury remains out on their ability to put it together once again.

Atletico Madrid will have to contend with the curveball that was Thomas Partey’s departure on deadline day, while at the same time grappling with Diego Simeone’s increasingly-crippling identity crisis.

City rivals Real have a pedigree in the competition that cannot be dismissed out-of-hand, but have no reliable goal threat, and not even Zinedine Zidane’s alchemy can reverse the course of life in the legs of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.

Perhaps the addition of Achraf Hakimi, considered dispensable at Chamartin, will spur Inter on an unlikely run. Antonio Conte’s side gained valuable experience with their Europa League Final run, and have a stacked enough squad to compete, but their manager’s famous hang-ups in this competition do not inspire a great deal of confidence.

Neither, for that matter, does Manchester City’s defence. Or the continental success rate of Pep Guardiola’s scheming.

Achraf Hakimi, Inter, 2020-21 Serie AGetty

Liverpool remain one of Europe’s top sides, and won the title in 2018/19.

That time, however, they had the towering Dutchman Virgil Van Dijk, a crucial component in their bold, front-foot defending; this time, courtesy of an anterior cruciate ligament tear, they won’t.

Leadership at the back will revert to Joe Matip, and while the Cameroon international has become oddly underappreciated by many, and remains a stellar defender in his own right, he will not offer quite as much comfort and control as Van Dijk typically does.

If Jurgen Klopp’s men are to adequately mitigate the loss of their defensive titan, it will have to be with even better pressing further afield.

That means greater buy-in and consistency from Naby Keita, as well as continued drive and excellence from Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.

Sadio Mane Liverpool Everton 2020-21Getty

Chelsea look to have addressed their goalkeeping concerns with the signing of Edouard Mendy, but their defence, coupled with the naivety of Frank Lampard’s decisions and set-ups, is likely to undermine them, despite their star power upfront.

Barcelona are in transition under Ronald Koeman, and the dysfunction is now so great that not even Lionel Messi, the immortal one, can single-handedly make it disappear.

The inexperience of Juventus’ Andrea Pirlo will almost certainly prove too big a hurdle to overcome, as will the general inadequacy of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for Manchester United.

The message is clear enough. There are too few standouts, and the big hitters have glaring weaknesses that are impossible to either mitigate or overlook.

It should make for a more relatable Champions League season, but a less exciting one...and, in those circumstances, the simplest answer – Bayern to retain – is often the correct one.

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