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Sunday, 09 December, 2018

Mega-money deals give PSG a serious chance

The former Champions League winner gives us his best bets

New PSG signing Kylian Mbappe
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The jaw-dropping size of Neymar’s transfer fee had many people thinking the world of football had finally gone mad – but Paris St-Germain will reckon it’s money well spent if the Brazilian superstar helps them to Champions League glory.

And I reckon that with Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and the other assembled world-class acts now plying their trade at PSG, this could be the season that they deliver.

I’ve got a couple of Serie A hotshots to put on a shortlist, but punters are all over the French powers and I’m inclined to support their optimism.

Does this mean that I’m tipping the end of Spanish dominance? Not a bit of it.

Real Madrid are still the team to beat and are rightly favourites, though city rivals Atletico could struggle to compete domestically and in Europe with a small squad because of transfer limitations.

And while Barcelona aren’t necessarily in decline, they are clearly that much weaker minus Neymar and having failed to land a blow in each of the last two seasons, I can’t have Barca getting it right this time.

But the rest, led by Juventus and PSG, are closing the gap. PSG have been finding their feet in this competition in recent seasons, picking up results which show what they are capable of, and now, with their summer investments, they are ready to go to the next level and win it.

Neymar adds something extra special to an already talented front line – the key will be how they fare defensively.

To that end, home-and-away shootouts against Bayern Munich in the group stage will give them a great indication of where they stand and if Unai Emery needs to change anything in the January window.

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Top scorer

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I’d be surprised if he does, however, because this looks a really strong squad.

The same can be said of Juventus, who fell agonisingly short last season but are ready to go again.

There were cries of indignation from Turin when Leonardo Bonucci headed off to Milan in the summer but Juve will never be short of defenders and both Mehdi Benatia and Benedikt Howedes are top-drawer centre-backs.

Blaise Matuidi improves an already strong midfield while keeping hold of Paulo Dybala might just be the best bit of non-business done by any manager over the summer.

Like PSG, Juventus will learn a lot of lessons from last term and they have to be a threat again at a decent price.

And at a really big price, I like Napoli, who are going to be a threat to Juve in Serie A this season and a threat to everyone else in Europe.

They are a massive price to win their group – which is effectively a match against Manchester City – and bring great form into the tournament.

Maurizio Sarri is one of the star coaches of Europe and it’d be a surprise if he’s in Naples next season.

They were handed a really tricky playoff round tie against Nice, one of France’s better clubs, and made light work of them. They’ve won three out of three in the league and play a really attacking, positive style, but based on a solid defence.

You need both components working to do well in the Champions League and Napoli definitely have got the balance right.

United look best of the English bunch

I can't see all five English teams making it through to the knockout stages.

I’d probably pick three with Tottenham facing an almighty challenge against Real Madrid and Dortmund in Group H – where Real look a lay, incidentally – and Liverpool up against it in Group E alongside Sevilla and Spartak.

Of the quintet, I’d take Manchester United to go the furthest. They could possibly make the semis.

Jose Mourinho knows exactly what’s required to win the Champions League having done it twice before and even last season, when not many presumed he would take the Europa League seriously, he found a way of winning that as well.

He’s got a touch in Europe and his signings in the summer are the type of players who should do well on the Champions League stage, none moreso than Nemanja Matic, who’s exactly the type of player a top team needs to flourish.

Keeping David de Gea was also a masterstroke – he gives a strong defence an even more assured look.

Manchester City give the impression they’ll give up too many chances to be healthy – we’re seeing that in the Premier League this season. And Chelsea’s small squad may well ultimately be exposed by trying to defend their league title while competing in Europe, which was something Antonio Conte didn’t have to worry about last season.

Leipzig can go well with Werner up front

One team to keep your eye on this season are Leipzig, who are making their Champions League debut but are no one-season wonder.

They are in a really competitive group alongside Monaco, Porto and Besiktas and I’m taking last season’s Bundesliga runners-up to finish top.

This is a seriously well-run club where Ralf Rangnick runs the off-field operation brilliantly allowing Ralph Hasenhuttl to coach the side properly.

They did well to hang on to key players in the summer and have started the campaign well.

Their first league game was actually a 2-0 loss at Schalke and you can imagine the critics were queuing up to say this was the start of the Leipzig decline following their amazing first season in the top division.

But they have responded classily with a 4-1 hammering of Freiburg and a 2-0 win in Hamburg where two of their most important players – Naby Keita and Timo Werner – bagged the goals. Werner’s was absolute class.

Werner is a lovely kid – very quiet, very thoughtful – and a real talent with pace to burn. There’s another young star there to look out for who Leipzig fans reckon is the best of the lot, and that’s Jean-Kevin Augustin, who is on loan from PSG and is threatening to become a major star. He has only just turned 20.

Could Leipzig reach the quarters? Possibly. Will they be the German team to go furthest? It's not impossible, though I do think Dortmund, more than Bayern, will go deep.

Because I think Leipzig will go well I fancy Werner for top-scorer honours at 100-1. My other runner at fancy odds is Arkadiusz Milik at Napoli. They will deal in goals and the young Pole can show his Ajax goalscoring form.

Didi's Diamonds
13-2 general
16-1 each-way Betway
35-1 each-way Paddy Power
Napoli to win Group F
13-5 bet365, Coral, Ladbrokes
Leipzig to win Group G
11-4 Betfair, Hills
Dortmund to win Group H
4-1 general
Man Utd furthest progressing English team
9-4 Betway
T Werner top scorer
100-1 each-way Betfred
A Milik top scorer
250-1 each-way Betfair

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I reckon that with Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and the other assembled world-class acts at PSG, this could be the season that they deliver
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