Europe's elite is preparing to fight in the most lucrative Champions League yet

Europe

"After three straight, why not the fourth? You always have to dream, aspire to things and believe in the team," said captain Sergio Ramos after the draw for the group stage last month in Monaco.

In Liverpool, Ramos is seen as the villain who forced Mohamed Salah to injure himself in the final of last season. Salah makes his return to the competition this week against Paris Saint-Germain Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, in the most glamorous of the opening matches.

Another Spanish winner?

No club competition has a concentration of individual talent like this, the stage of some of the greatest achievements in the careers of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

That duo has been fundamental to the longest spell of sustained dominance of a country in Europe's leading competition, five consecutive victories for Spain, as the English clubs won the trophy six consecutive years from 1977 to 1982.

With Barcelona ready to put more emphasis on Europe this season and Atlético de Madrid dreaming of winning the final in their own stadium, Spain has every chance of getting back on top.

And if it is not one of their clubs, why not a Spanish coach?

Pep Guardiola's Manchester City is among the favorites, but the competition between the elite will be intense.

"The Champions League is a very difficult competition, but a club like Bayern Munich should aim to win," said James Rodriguez of Bayern.

There is still a lot of variety this season, as 14 of the teams competing this time were not involved 12 months ago: former Inter Milan winners return after a seven-year absence, while Young Boys and Hoffenheim show up for the first time .

However, the reality is that we are approaching a closed shop in the top table of Europe, and only six teams have gone through the qualifying rounds to move to the group stage, compared to 10 a year ago.

Half of the qualifying points have been allocated to four countries, with England, Spain, Italy and Germany with four places each.

New improved prize

The dominance of the elite means that very few of the main teams will likely be eliminated in the group stage, and occasions such as the PSG's trip to Liverpool are really mere testers of what is expected in the elimination rounds.

A new pot of prizes promises to strengthen the dominance of the giants of Europe, with the total amount of money distributed to the 32 teams rising sharply from 1,300 million euros (1,510 million US dollars) to just over 2,000 million euros this season.

The winners can expect to save around 70 million euros only in prizes, plus a large amount of TV.

In addition, UEFA has now introduced an additional prize pool based on the teams' coefficient rankings: the status of Real Madrid as the top-ranked team guarantees another 35 million euros.

The rich get richer while the relatively disadvantaged continue to fight against waste, and it is a situation that clashes with the declared ambition of UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin to introduce a greater competitive balance.

"The gap between the big and the small is getting bigger, we would probably be naive to think that we will stop it altogether, but let's try to slow it down at least," Ceferin said recently.

For now, however, Real and his giant companions are eager to get their hands on the increase of millions. Only the few can realistically achieve the glory of the Champions League this season, but only after an expected procession through the first group stage.

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