Europe. It is the continent of culture, great food, some of the most incredible sights on the planet, the free movement of people, goods and services, and of course, it’s greatest product, the Champions League. The time has come for the word Europe to be associated with something other than Michel Barnier’s jibes, loud conversations in traditional pubs, Sunday Morning interviews and angry columns on Facebook as the best competition in football returns for another season.
Until this year it had never been won by the same team back to back but so good were Real Madrid that there wasn’t a side that could touch them and that doesn’t look to have changed over the summer. It’s worth remembering not only their route to the final last season, but the complete and utter dominance they showed in doing so before dismantling a Juventus side that was aiming for a treble.
They were 6-2 winners on aggregate over Napoli and would have had their quarter final tie sealed by the second leg had it not been for a remarkable goalkeeping performance from Manuel Neuer and whilst there had been some dreadful officiating at the Bernabeu, Madrid dominated large parts of that second leg.
City rivals Atletico were swept aside in the first leg with a 3-0 win whilst their masterclass in the final was a stunning show of second half force with a 4-1 win.
Very little has changed at the Bernabeu. Zinedine Zidane has what few Madrid managers have had in the modern era – the total backing of the board and the dressing room – and he will go to war with the same side that no-one in Europe could lay a hand on last season.
The management of Cristiano Ronaldo has been perfected to a tee with the Portuguese focused at this competition and scoring more than ever, and outside him, Karim Benzema continues to be a brilliant creator of space.
Gareth Bale’s recent performances haven’t been of his usual standard but he didn’t start the final last season and this team has played many crucial games without him when needed.
The performances of Isco and Marco Asensio in Spain’s 3-0 win over Italy were two of the most dominant midfield performances of the year and they combine with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to pass opponents off the park. The presence of Casemiro at the rear of the midfield has also given Madrid defensive shield to a rearguard whose qualities are often underrated.
Keylor Navas is one of the world’s best shot stoppers behind the sticks and the centre back pairing of Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos offers everything a manager could want. Marcelo is the world’s best left back and Carvajal one of the best on the opposite side, and it’s difficult to think of a first XI that has the edge over Madrid all across the park.
Wins over Manchester United and Barcelona (twice) in Super Cup games underline the gulf between them and even high class opposition and one should not worry about consecutive draws against Valencia and Levante when they dominated the opposition and should have won both easily and it is difficult to think of more than one team that would be favourites to beat them over two legs before a neutral final.
Paris Saint Germain’s incredible summer spending has arguably changed the face of the game – for the worse in the long term – but it will mean plenty of fireworks at the Parc Des Princes. If you can’t beat them, buy them, and the saga that ended with Neymar coming tips the balance in favour of the French side and away from Barcelona ,who beat them in that epic encounter last season when Neymar himself provided the crucial edge.
His addition was a huge asset but the arrival too of Kylan Mbappe from Monaco gives Unai Emery a trio that is arguably the equal of any forward line in the world and it’s scary to see how week they have already linked up so well in the rather gentler waters of Ligue 1. By February they could be a terrifying force going forward and the addition of Dani Alves, fresh from a brilliant spell at Juventus, means that their position as second favourites is deserved, although they are not infallible.
Defensively a huge amount relies on Marquinhos at centre back and Thiago Motta at the base of the park, and there’s a suspicion that they are defensively vulnerable if a top-class side can get at them, especially down either flank. The absence of Blaise Matitudi might not help in this regard going forward either.
Barcelona have done well to recruit Osumane Dembele for the future and the appointment of Ernesto Valverde is the right one for the season ahead. However, they have lost a lot in the shape of Neymar leaving to a key rival and whilst Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez are capable of beating sides on their own, the worry for them is at the back once you go past Iniesta and Xavi, who are not the forces of old.
This puts a huge brunt of defensive responsibility on Sergio Busquets in not only covering Pique and Umtiti but also in protecting Ivan Ratiktic as well, and last season we did see sides repeatedly get in behind them – they needed to pull off a miracle comeback against PSG and then Juventus beat them 3-0 last season before shutting them out in the return.
They are not to be written off, but it would make sense to revisit their price around January when there might be the potential for another move or two.
Atletico have made the semi-finals in three of the last four editions and been runners up on both occasions, but eve time they have found Madrid just too strong which is a slight worry. Diego Simeone’s side must be respected though, with helpful rules meaning that they can’t play Real or Barca (or Seville) until the Quarter-finals.
This competition is all about getting going in February and onwards but their sluggish start – where they needed an inspired late comeback to get a point from Girona and then holding on for a 0-0 against Valencia when they ought to have been beaten – is a slight worry and this same side has played the same high-intensity football for nearly four years now. A transfer ban could well prove a major hindrance this time around too with Antoine Griezemann having to be the team’s finisher and central creative point, and it’s likely that we will learn a lot about them after tonight’s clash with Roma.
In Carlo Ancelotti, Bayern have one of the great European coaches and there will be reason for the Germans to fancy their chances in a rematch with Real. Five of Madrid’s six goals against them last season came when they were down to ten men, and they will feel aggrieved at what was some questionable referring for all that the tie could and should have been finished before it went to Madrid.
However, they ooze quality from Manuel Neuer to Robert Lewandowski and they have bought superbly to bring in James Rodriguez from Madrid as well, with the Colombian having been at his best when Ancelotti was at Real.
The midfield and attacking options of Thiago Alcantara, Vidal, Sebastian Rudy, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben are as good as any team on the continent, and they must rate the main threat especially when Thomas Muller is not even the main forward. They must be seen as the main threat.
Domestic rivals Borussia Dortmund eventually lost Osumane Dembele to Barcelona but aside from that they signed very well and new manager Peter Bosz has the tools for the job. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was the top scorer in the league last season beating even Lewandowski and Omer Toprak was a smart defensive signing for a side that is packed with attacking talent.
It’s worth remembering that they had to play their first leg against Monaco last season very soon after the game was abandoned due to a terror threat when Marc Batra was also ruled out of the first leg, and they picked up a good deal into the second 45 of the first leg there. The likes of Nuri Sahin, Andre Schürrle, Lukas Piszczek and Marc Batra all remain and have shown plenty so far this season, and they would make considerable appeal if getting through their group, which looks to be the toughest in the competition.
Juventus were no match for Real Madrid in the final last season, but upto that point they had been exemplary and they also took both the Serie A and Coppa Italia titles last season and the Old Lady look to have been ignored by the bookmakers once again.
They have been one of the smartest operators in the transfer market for a long time and whilst the losses of Leonard Bonucci and Dani Alves are obviously significant ones, they may well be cancelled out but the arrival of Douglas Costa and Blaise Matiudi on the wings and at the rear of midfield anyway.
Mehdi Benatia is a fine centre back anyway who can go toe to toe with the best in Europe and the proactive runs of Matuidi could be a perfect catalyst for a side that is able to call upon Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira in a very useful midfield.
Upfront, they have a wealth of attacking riches with Juan Cuadrado, Paolo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic and Gonzalo Higuaín with Dybala settling into his position as the club’s chosen attacker perfect with five goals so far this season, and at the rear they still have Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Stefan Lichtsteiner in front of Gianluigi Buffon.
It helps too that Massimiliano Allegri can be tactically versatile as well through the latter stages and they were comprehensive winners over two legs over Barcelona and Monaco before reaching the final, and they will be a challenge for any side to break down; They have a long list of injuries ahead of their visit to Barcelona tonight but they have often hit their straps in the second half of the season and they should manage to make it through their group even with the Catalans involved.
Napoli had a better goal difference than Juventus last season and they make the most appeal of the ‘outsiders’. Their game is all based on attack but they managed to make a good go of matching up with Real Madrid last season and their front four of Marek Hamsik, Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon can get past any defence. They should give Manchester City a serious run for their money before the knockout stages and they can go well if they get a reasonably kind draw in the knockout stages.
Only two of the last 12 Champions Leagues have been won by an English side, but there is merit in the five-pronged challenge this time around.
Manchester City should be a much slicker force by the time the knockouts come around with so many new signings bedding in but they have already started well and the likes of Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva (who proved themselves with great performances for Monaco last season upto the semi-finals) have clearly enhanced the side.
Gabriel Jesus’s partnership with Sergio Aguero also gives Guardiola new options (along with the return to form of Raheem Sterling) and the Spaniard now has the depth for challenges on all fronts which makes them a more appealing option than they were last year. The worry – still – however, is the defence, which will be hugely reliant upon Kyle Walker giving more solidity from midfield and also Fernandino staying fit through the latter stages.
Guardiola’s commitment to his attacking ambitions is to be admired, but one could argue that it cost him dearly against Monaco and neither of the centre backs have entirely convinced so far this season still.
Neighbours United look more solid defensively and ready to step up after winning the Europa League last season and buying very smartly over the summer. Jose Mourinho’s men have made a solid start in the Premier League with three wins and a draw, with Romelu Lukaku looking like a sharp addition with every touch whilst Nemanja Matic looks a cheap addition from Chelsea by the standards of the current season in midfield and the arrival of Victor Lindelof gives the defence a classy edge alongside Eric Bailly.
The existing core of the side, which includes the increasingly impressive Marcus Rashford, Antony Martial, Heinrkh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata before one gets to Paul Pogba, now looks well supplemented and they appear to be one of the most well-balanced English sides, with two games a week not likely to be a problem for them, after their slog to the Europa League title last year.
After their opening game loss to Burnley predictions of Chelsea’s demise appear to have entirely unfounded and the Champions have been deeply impressive in three straight wins since. New signings Alvaro Morata, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Antonio Rudiger have made impressive starts and ought to be fully bedded in by the time the knockouts come around, when Eden Hazard will also be back.
Indeed, their first XI should be a match for anyone, but the worry is that they have a thin squad compared to most of their rivals and last season they were able to focus solely on the league which played a big part in their success last year. It remains to be seen how strongly they carry their form through to the latter months of the campaign whilst Antonio Conte’s European record doesn’t match up to his domestic achievements, even if there are mitigating circumstances.
At Juventus, he did have the misfortune of running into a Bayern side that did the treble, but he then went out at the group stages and failed to win the Europa League that season. Much of the squad there credited that run for helping them get the foundation to get to the final next season but it might be that a lack of tactical flexibility was a bigger barrier to their progress.
Liverpool’s 5-0 defeat to Manchester City is a throw-out result that was turned over by Sadio Mane’s deserved red card but beforehand they had been impressive in dismantling a dreadful Arsenal and doing the double over Hoffenheim in the qualifying playoffs. Quality oozes through their attacking line and the arrival of Mohamed Salah is a great addition, but they did not manage to get a major defensive addition which cost them in the Premier League last season and might well do again.
Tottenham have the quality to go head to head with the best in the Premier League and they should be able to hold their own, but they have a very tough task with Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, and their Champions League performances of last year – and then their Europa League knockout – was underwhelming and there’s been no obvious change in the side to suggest they can threaten the top sides.
Red Bull Leipzig have recruited well ahead of their first season at this level and keeping Naby Keita. Timo Werner and keeper Emil Forsberg may be their best signings this season for all that there’s plenty of promise in the shape of Jean-Kévin Augustin and Bruma. This is a big step up in experience for them, so it might make sense to see how they go through the group stages.
Monaco were superb in their run to the semi-finals last season and have actually bought well over the summer, but it looks an impossible task to replicate that run without Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Kylian Mbappe for all that they have done well to purchase this in Kieta Blade and Stevan Jovetic.
Roma have also suffered some big losses over the summer, with Mohamed Salah, Antonio Rudiger and Wojciech Szczesny all leaving to leave a side that lost Luciano Spaletti from the dugout over the summer and they are also in a very hard group with Chelsea and Atletico fancied to get the better of them.
4 pts Real Madrid (4/1 general)
1 pt each/way Juventus (14/1 general)