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Can Cristiano Ronaldo and Juve realize Champions League dream?

New club, same superstar -- this year's Champions League will have a different complexion following Cristian...

Posted: Aug. 30, 2018 9:11 AM
Updated: Aug. 30, 2018 9:11 AM

New club, same superstar -- this year's Champions League will have a different complexion following Cristiano Ronaldo's high-profile move to Juventus.

Ronaldo has helped Real Madrid lift the most coveted trophy in club football four times in the past five years, but his departure from the Spanish side, along with manager Zinedine Zidane, means this year's competition is one of the hardest to call in recent seasons.

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Beaten finalist in 2015 and 2017, Italian champion Juventus will be hopeful that Ronaldo, the Champions League's all-time top goal scorer, can fire the Bianconeri to a first European Cup since 1996.

"He'll do what he's been doing for the last 10 years, he'll bring goals to Juventus and I fancy Juventus to win the Champions League this year solely for the fact Cristiano has gone there," English striker Wayne Rooney, a former teammate of Ronaldo at Manchester United, recently told CNN.

Europe's top five nations do, however, each possess a side capable of toppling Ronaldo and Juventus. As with previous editions, Manchester City, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich are being mentioned among the favorites.

READ: Tottenham star Son Heung-min closes in on national service

Winning club football's most prestigious prize has not insignificant financial benefits. Prize money of $1.5 billion was last year distributed between participating clubs -- from the qualifying rounds to the final -- while winners Real Madrid walked away with over $100 million.

First up, however, is the group stage draw, which takes place Thursday in Monaco.

The group format remains the same -- eight pools comprising of four teams each, with no more than one club from a single nation in each group.

Final seedings will be decided following Wednesday's final round of qualifiers, after which teams are drawn from four pots.

Teams at the top

The top of the draw features holder Real Madrid, Europa League winner Atletico Madrid, and the domestic champions from Spain, Germany, England, Italy, France and Russia, with the latter's Lokomotiv Moscow the clear underdog.

Manchester City will be hoping to replicate domestic success in Europe this season, and the feeling amongst Pep Guardiola's players is that a Champions League title is within their reach.

"In Manchester last season we had a feeling that we are ready for it," midfielder Ilkay Gundogan told German newspaper WAZ. "It was not enough. This year nothing has changed in this feeling.

"I believe that we are even a bit more mature. We have the potential to become Champions League winners."

READ: Jose Mourinho demands more 'respect' after humbling defeat

Guardiola, who masterminded the English champion's record-breaking season last year, won the Champions League twice with Barcelona but has since failed to take a side beyond the semifinals.

Qatari-backed PSG has been chasing European glory for the best part of a decade, but new boss Thomas Tuchel dismissed talk of winning the Champions League when he replaced Unai Emery at the end last season.

In Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, and Edinson Cavani, however, Tuchel has arguably the most feared strike force in European football.

German champion Bayern Munich, the last non-Spanish Champions League winner in 2013, was unlucky to fall short against Real Madrid in last year's semifinals. Niko Kovac has replaced Jupp Heynckes at the club's helm.

Atletico Madrid is also expected to shine after winning the Europa League last season -- Europe's second-tier club competition -- and overcoming rival Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup.

Barcelona has fallen at the quarterfinals in the past three seasons; Ernesto Valverde's side will hope to avoid Roma -- its nemesis last year -- in the group stages.

Who plays who?

Below the competition's heavyweights in pot two are sides capable of topping any Champions League pool.

Tottenham did just that last year, defeating Real Madrid at Wembley in the process, while Roma reached the semifinals after mounting a stunning comeback against Barcelona.

Manchester United may be a side in disarray having already suffered two Premier League defeats, but Jose Mourinho's star-studded side will still hope to go further than the last 16 stage than they managed last season after being surprisingly knocked out by Sevilla.

READ: Don't write off Manchester United and Mourinho, says Rooney

Napoli, meanwhile, is under the watchful eye of new manager Carlo Ancelotti, who has led sides to three Champions League titles. The Italian outfit fell just short of winning its first Serie A title since 1990 last season.

Benfica's qualification on Wednesday means last year's finalist Liverpool will be drawn from pot three. Teams higher up the draw will be desperate to avoid Jurgen Klopp's men and a firing Mohamed Salah.

Visit cnn.com/football for more news and videos

The first group stage games will take place on September 18, with the eventual champion crowned at Madrid's Wanda Metropolitano on June 1.

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