London – When Paris Saint-Germain signed Neymar from Barcelona for £198m this summer they not only broke the transfer record but also destroyed one of the most successful attacking trios of all time.
Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez – nicknamed MSN – had terrified defenses across Spain and Europe for the past three years before PSG managed to lure the Brazilian to the French capital and then add Kylian Mbappé from Monaco to form their own super forward line.
That trident has now been given its own name MCN (with Edinson Cavani completing the lineup) while in Spain there is still the BBC of Real Madrid (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo). As for Barcelona, they recruited Ousmane Dembélé from Borussia Dortmund and even though they have not yet been given an official nickname, someone jokingly suggested LOL.
Whatever the lineup there seems to be a plethora of superb forward lines across Europe and as the Champions League kicked off The Guardian Sport takes a look at the 14 strongest of the teams involved.
Paris Saint-Germain (rating 9.5/10)
“He could become the next Pelé. He has no limits.” Hyperbolic or not, Arsène Wenger has a point, Kylian Mbappé has everything; terrifying speed, unerring finishing and an alarmingly quick change of direction. Worryingly for the rest of Europe this simply amounts to more of the same for PSG. Between Mbappé’s pace, Neymar’s irresistible swagger and Edinson Cavani’s ninja-like movement, Unai Emery’s front three have a variety of ways to insight panic and potentially provide an avalanche of goals. Assuming, that is, the clinical Cavani of the spring holds off the infuriatingly wasteful Cavani of last autumn. Are they good enough to lead Paris to Kiev? €465m says they are.
For many, it was the best front three of all time but it has gone. No more MSN. Neymar will be missed by Messi and Suárez, off the pitch as well as on it where they were good friends. The president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, described Neymar’s departure as an “opportunity” to tilt the balance back towards midfield and some agreed – they had lost a little of their identity, so dominant were the front three. And yet €145m has been spent on a player who, in theory, is a direct replacement (if a downgrade) on Neymar. It could less a frontline of three, though, with Messi now playing deeper as a playmaker, passer, dribbler and goal scorer in one. It’s legitimate to ask how long Suárez has left and just how good Dembélé will be remains to be seen but this is still potentially a hell of a forward line. Because Messi is … well, Messi.
Manchester City (9/10)
Pep Guardiola’s embarrassment of glittering forwards means Sergio Agüero, the Premier League’s most prolific goalscorer since 2012, may struggle to be a regular pick against continental rearguards, yet Saturday’s demolition of Liverpool may make the manager think twice before putting the Argentinian on the bench again. The manager’s difficulty in packing in all of his attack-minded talent is further illustrated by Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva now operating in a less advanced role as quasi-traditional central midfield string-pullers. Raheem Sterling is a further quick-footed forward who may receive unwanted bench time under the midweek bright lights of the Champions League. No defence will fancy facing this cadre.
Real Madrid (9/10)
Time for Real Madrid to change the channel? For so long, it was the BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano) up front, with Zidane admitting that they were non-negotiable picks if fit, but no more. One newspaper has taken to calling them the bbC on the basis that only Ronaldo is really worth the title any more, while the performances of Isco – since he was given a chance in place of the injured Bale last season – make things far less clear cut now, as he dropped in behind the forwards and led them towards a double. Madrid looked a better team with that shift in style and personnel. With a more populated midfield came control and less of a counterattacking style. Add to that the emergence of the brilliant Marco Asensio, plus Zidane’s taste for rotation, and it’s not clear what their preferred forward line is now. One thing is for sure – it’s supremely talented.
The group of forwards who propelled Juventus to the final last season was already exceptional. Paulo Dybala is a one-of-a-kind talent, Gonzalo Higuaín a world-class No. 9, and Mario Mandzukic a furious competitor who recently scored one of the greatest goals in European Cup history. If Juan Cuadrado was perceived as the weak link, then how about the mercurial Douglas Costa – a man with a half-century of appearances in this competition – as an alternative? Federico Bernardeschi is new to this stage but has the talent to thrive in a deep-lying role.
Bayern Munich (8.5/10)
Robert Lewandowski is still there, as is Arjen Robben, Thomas Müller, Kingsley Coman and Franck Ribéry – and perhaps that is part of the problem. While the Pole is at the absolute peak of his game, the people around him seems to be stagnating or possibly be on the way down. Bayern are favorites to win the Bundesliga and are expected to go far in the Champions League but all is not well in Bavaria. Last weekend, they lost 2-0 to Hoffenheim and looked a little devoid of ideas (although admittedly against a very compact side). Lewandowski recently criticized the club for not spending more than €40m on any player – for which he was rebuked by the club’s chief executive, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge – but maybe the striker has a point. Müller appears to have lost his magic and it still remains to be seen whether James Rodríguez, a two-year loan signing from Real Madrid, can find a way back to his 2014 World Cup form.
Chelsea’s forward line has changed complexion without Diego Costa in the ranks – the Brazil-born striker has not been included in their Champions League squad – but, in Álvaro Morata, they still boast a Spain international of pedigree to lead the line. He will work defenders in a different way but his threat has already been clear in the Premier League and, once Eden Hazard is fit and firing, and with Willian or Pedro stretching teams on the right, Antonio Conte has a potent front three. The worry is a lack of depth. Michy Batshuayi has been only a bit-part player and the failure to secure Fernando Llorente on deadline day as a very different kind of option could still be felt.
As Hoffenheim discovered to their cost in the play-off second leg, Liverpool possess forwards capable of obliterating opponents in the Champions League. There was no clearer demonstration of the speed of thought and movement in Jürgen Klopp’s attack than the devastating 21-minute spell at Anfield that secured Liverpool’s passage into the group phase. The intelligence of Roberto Firmino, the skill of Sadio Mané and the pace of Mohamed Salah provided an ideal balance and, with Philippe Coutinho returning to the fold, the supply line will only improve.
Manchester United (8.5/10)
This frontline has already returned eight goals in four Premier League outings with José Mourinho’s headline summer signing Romelu Lukaku registering half of those. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s direct replacement to an attack that fired United to the Europa League title, the Belgian adds greater pace and a lesser tendency to drop deep. This allows Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial more chance to cut the opposition apart, a threat Champions League opponents are sure to study. It is the addition of the holding midfielder Nemanja Matic that may be key to the line flourishing as the Serb’s penchant for clever passes is creating opportunities that did not exist last season. Juan Mata’s guile and Jesse Lingard’s directness can be potent weapons from the bench, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic to add yet another dimension once fit.
If we were assessing only starters, then Napoli’s score would be higher still. Dries Mertens’s emergence as a No. 9 has upgraded Napoli into a relentless scoring machine, with Lorenzo Insigne and José Callejón carving in from either flank. Undersized they might be, but these “Marvellous Smurfs” have made Napoli into Serie A’s most prolific side. Arkadiusz Milik can provide strength and aerial prowess when a different tack is required but there is a lack of depth on the flanks.
Atlético Madrid (7.5/10)
Antoine Griezmann stayed, insisting it would have been “dirty” to leave Atlético amid their transfer ban. He is the star, a special talent, and miles ahead of his team-mates. Who he plays with is still unresolved: Ángel Correa impresses from the bench, skillful and clever, more subtle than the rest, but tends to be less significant as a starter. Yannick Carrasco plays wide rather than in a forward line but is fast and talented. The 33-year-old Fernando Torres offers a physical presence but is now used less by Diego Simeone. Kevin Gameiro is, in theory, the most likely to threaten with his pace, directness and finishing, yet even he inspires some doubts. Luciano Vietto may get a second chance but so far Simeone appears unsure. Vitolo will arrive in the winter to play wide. Chelsea’s Costa is the man they really want and the feeling is mutual but there is still no sign of that becoming a reality.
To say Monaco escaped the summer relatively unscathed seems ludicrous. But despite losing the effortless guile of Bernardo Silva and the lightning Mbappé, this is the case. Marquee sales are occasionally a necessary part of the way Monaco conduct themselves and these were losses they foresaw – keeping Thomas Lemar and Falcao are sizable victories. The shrewd additions of Stevan Jovetic and the bulldozing Baldé Keita as well as the burgeoning talent of Rony Lopes allow Monaco to retain much of the youthful exuberance, technical panache and attacking flair of last season. Underestimating Leonardo Jardim would be a terrible mistake to make twice.
Borussia Dortmund (7/10)
A potent front three, but without the devastating speed and trickery of the departed Ousmane Dembélé, lacks a little something compared with best forward lines in Europe. Christian Pulisic, only 18, has accepted the challenge of replacing Dembélé in Dortmund’s starting XI with Maximilian Philipp starting on the left and Andrey Yarmolenko also to be integrated following his £23.1m transfer from Dynamo Kyiv. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is still the focal point of the attack with Marco Reus out yet again with another long-term injury. Milan wanted Aubameyang this summer but he stayed and has looked sharp. “It is proof of what a professional player he is,” said the Dortmund chief executive, Hans-Joachim Watzke, after the Gabon striker’s five goals in five games this season. The new manager has several options from the bench too, including André Schürrle, Alexander Isak and the 17-year-old Jadon Sancho, who joined from Manchester City in the summer.
For now we can only guess at Roma’s first-choice attack under Eusebio Di Francesco. Appointed in the summer, he has not yet had a full squad at his disposal. Patrik Schick arrived at the very end of the transfer window, while Alessandro Florenzi – who has played at full-back in recent seasons, but previously operated as a wide forward – is just back from a cruciate tear. Edin Dzeko was Serie A’s top scorer last season but he will miss the assists provided to him by the departed Mohamed Salah.
*The Guardian Sport