COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
While it once seemed that retainership of the coveted trophy was the holy grail of European football, the monopoly that Real have enjoyed in the last three years had stripped away much of the mystique of it. No single footballer symbolized their outsized dominance quite like Ronaldo, from whom the goals flowed in relentlessly. Especially in the business end, where most teams are evenly matched, his star power and mentality often proved the difference.
His departure opens up the field somewhat, especially for African contenders, with only Real's Acraf Hakimi winning the title since Chelsea's quartet of John Obi Mikel, Michael Essien, Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou did in 2012.
That triumph, with Chelsea upsetting the odds in such remarkable fashion, also marked the last time a team outside Spain's big two had their names on the trophy, and is a seminal point.
It is more to the point that there have been few teams playing at a consistently high level with a strong African influence in that time. That is set to change: Liverpool, beaten finalists last time out, have added Guinea gem Naby Keita to their flying attacking double-act of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
Both Mane and Salah memorably reached double figures for goals, and tore Europe apart until Sergio Ramos definitively put a stop to that, wrestling the Egyptian to the ground to end the fairytale in tears.
That run last season helped put the Reds back on the map in Europe, and they have now fortified those credentials by adding Keita, giving the workmanlike midfield which ran down the competition the last time out a more creative bent. It may prove enough of a gain to move up a level.
However, Juventus must also be considered a part of the conversation, especially as it was them who moved heaven and earth to release Ronaldo from his discontent in Madrid. They have faced the agony of being denied twice in finals in the last four years, and the Portugal international proved the difference in the quarter final stage last year as well, so much so that his mere presence had become a mental block.
Medhi Benatia was, of course, on the receiving end of the torment, and will now heave a sigh of relief.
He would love to hold that trophy aloft himself, having been denied repeatedly at the semi-final stage while he was at Bayern Munich. Having the single biggest influence in this competition in the last decade on his side, for once, may well make all the difference.
Atletico Madrid have similarly suffered the misfortune of multiple defeats in finals, and can also look forward to the transformative impact of an emblematic forward. Antoine Griezmann may be the star of the side, but it is the aggression and energy of Diego Costa that transforms Diego Simeone's side into a different animal.
The multifunctional play of Thomas Partey, who can play on either side of the ball in midfield, gives a rigid Atletico side a semblance of fluidity. His influence within the side has steadily increased, and the new democracy in Europe means he (and his side) has as good as they ever will to truly strike out on their own, away from the gargantuan shadow of their wealthier, noisier, infinitely more successful neighbours.
Speaking of riches, this might be the season that finally sees Paris Saint-Germain deliver on their promise. Their status as the new aristocrats of European football is now widely acknowledged, but there is only so long they can go without winning in Europe where it truly matters before stars like Neymar and Kylian Mbappe begin to yearn for La Liga.
In Thomas Tuchel, they now have the sort of young, universally acclaimed manager who fits the sexy image of the city and the club.
In Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, however, the fit is less obvious; signed right at the end of the transfer window from Stoke City, it remains to be seen in just what ways he can contribute. If PSG break their glass ceiling though, it may be a case of right place, right time for the Cameroon international.
Perhaps nothing better encapsulates the openness of the field this term than Carlo Ancelotti turning up at Napoli. His reputation as something of an expert in the Champions League, a competition he has won thrice, precedes him, and means that Kalidou Koulibaly is firmly in the frame.
However, there is a concern here.
In replacing Maurizio Sarri with Ancelotti, there is a danger that Napoli have made the same kind of mistake as Bayern, who last employed the Italian, did when they appointed him to replace Pep Guardiola. The drop-off may be too steep in terms of intensity and tactical rigour. That would obviously count against them.
This year’s Uefa Champions League may well be the most unpredictable in a long time, and for a number of key sides, the performances of African players will be absolutely central to that.