Europe hasn’t had the greatest of years but if there is one constant for the continent to be proud of it’s the Champions League and Europe’s biggest competition appears to have lost no prestige.
Harmony across the continent has sometimes been in short supply but a partnership between an Italian and a German could reap the biggest of rewards with Bayern Munich strongly fancied for the honours this season. Last season was another frustrating one for them in Europe as Pep Guardiola was denied a final appearance in his three seasons at the club but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Guaridola’s unique style never quite suited the personnel he had in comparison to Barca, coming off the back of Jupp Henckyes’ style, with Real Madrid cutting through them ruthlessly in 2013-14, Barcelona’s treble winning side taking advantage of a spate of injuries that occurred (including a helping hand from Lionel Messi) the season after, and Antoine Grizemann’s away goal giving Atelti the win last year.
On all three occasions the imbalance between Pep’s players and his style, combined with fortune that inevitably makes a difference at this level, made the difference, but there’s now a man at the job who seems perfectly suited to the task at hand. The only manager to have won the UEFA Champions League three times and reached four finals (three finals and two victories with Milan, and one victory with Real Madrid), Carlo Ancelotti has one of the best records in this competition of any manager in recent history and he once again has a club that’s focused solely on European glory.
He inherits a squad that’s the equal, if not superior, of anyone on the continent and somehow he has managed to improve it, bringing Mats Hummels over from Dortmund and Renato Sanches from Benefica after a fantastic Euros. With only one serious Bundesliga opponent at home there’s little distraction (especially if they make as short work of the Bundesliga as 1/8 prices suggests) and Carlo, who took no League title but landed La Decima at Madrid, has an exceptional platform to work with.
Madrid, the defending Champions, could actually benefit long term from a stable situation at the club with Zidane firmly in charge after taking Undecima last year so an early price of 11/2 ought to tempt many. However they will be lucky, for all their talents, to find a route through to the finals as charmed as last year, when they eventually played Serie A third Roma (who were naive and wasteful in both legs), Bundesliga seventh Wolfsburg, and then a Manchester City side who offered precious little going forward, were generally seen to have underperformed badly and who also faced a PSG side that was suffering from many injuries.
Madrid are of course capable of taking on and beating the best and by the time the knockout stages get serious they will have their full XI back assuming injuries are kind, but no side that retained the trophy since it moved to its current format and chance dictates that it will be far harder this time around.
Wherever Madrid are, Barcelona will never be far behind and they have made some very encouraging moves during a good window after flattering in the spring of last year in Europe. Several players under the age of 25 have joined, including defensive reinforcements in the shape of Lucas Digne and Samuel Umtiti whilst Denis Suarez already looks comfortable in the first team and Paco Alcacer from Valencia yesterday, giving Luis Enrique more solidity at the back and more off the bench including Ajax cat Jasper Cillessen. That is factored into their price at 7/2 currently though and it won’t change before the winter break, when we’ll have had a good look at them.
Those three are the only ones in single figures but a team at a double figure price has made the last four Champions League finals and it’s worth looking further. It was only a treble winning Barcelona that was able to stop Juventus from their own treble two seasons ago and last year Manuel Allegri’s side had a place in the quarter finals in their sights after taking a 2-0 lead at Bayern Munich before a failure to take the best of their chances let the Germans back in for an extra time victory. They had shown tremendous resolve to come back from 2-0 down on home soil to take a draw and gave Bayern arguably the toughest test they’d had all season.
If anything though, they have improved their squad this summer. Paul Pogba was always going to leave for that stunning transfer fee and bringing in Miralem Pjanic from Roma and Gonzalo Higuain from Napoli arguably makes for a more dynamic forward line especially when one includes Paolo Dybala. In defence, Mehdi Benatia was one of the few class centre-backs to make a move this summer and a real coup to add to the trio of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. The experienced Dani Alves can be a partner in crime for Stephan Liechtensteiner in the same mould as a wingback whilst Axel Witsel and Juan Cudrado, a scorer against Munich last season, are set to arrive, giving Allegri perhaps more strength in depth than he’s ever had so far at Juventus.
The opening sings have been good, with a couple of hard earned wins against Fiorentina and Lazio boding well considering two of the new signings are being integrated and they usually can afford to focus all their resourced on Europe in the second half of the season and they have every chance of giving Europe its first winner outside of the ‘big three’ since 2012.
Atletico Madrid could easily have won two titles in the last three years but they were beaten in extra time and penalties by Real Madrid in the 2014 and 2016 finals and look sure to be constantly on the perimeter once again. Nobody of real note left during the transfer window and upfront they now have Kevin Gameiro from Sevilla and Nicolas Gaitan from Benefica to join a happier Fernando Torrres and Yannick Ferrera Carrasco.
Their strong point is their defence, with Jan Oblak protected by Stefan Savic, Jose Maria Gimenez Diego Godin, Juanfran Torres and Felipe Luis and they should prove to be the most obdurate side in Europe to pass once again for most opposition, and go well along with that.
All four of the English sides will be happy with their groups but clearly the strongest claims lie with last season’s semi-finalists Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s side already look improved with the manager’s effect impressing so far. The form of Raheem Sterling in particular is a shining example but Gael Clichy and Alexis Kolarov have already looked better in new and more flexible positions to boot and this style of football is perfect for David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne who have already fed Sergio Augero to great effect this season in four wins on the bounce so far.
Guardiola is yet to use Leroy Sane, Ilkay Gundogan and also the excellent Claudio Bravo so they should improve yet further and this is a side with plenty of European experience to boot, so they should give plenty a run for their money.
We’ll know a lot more when they take on their city neighbours United – three days before the start of the group stages – but the signs are very promising.
Arsenal have a reasonable section but their record in Europe is a now familiar tale and for all their late business being smart business, there is a feeling that the squad is still well short of challenging for domestic let alone European honours. Shokdran Mustafi is a very good centreback addiction to Laurent Koscielny and Granit Xhaka will provide steel in midfield to back up the creative influence of star Mezut Ozil which makes for a potent combination as shown by their win at Watford. It remains to be seen if Lucas Perez is an improvement on Oliver Giroud, but it is hard to look at the squad and feel that they have made the jump needed to compete with the likes of Barcelona (5-1 aggregate winners against them last year) along with Bayern or Madrid.
Tottenham will be pleased with a competitive but winnable section and they did small but select business in the transfer window with the arrival of Vincent Jansen and Vincent Wanyama, two quality options, although in Georges-Kévin NKoudou and Moussa Sissoko they do have two options with great potential in the midfield if they play to their best. The worry for them is that the core of their side that provided much of the backbone towards England’s international efforts could suffer from what was a long season last year and a summer without rest – Harry Kane has played nearly 60 games over the last two seasons for example – could begin to take their toll on a first XI that often does not get much in the way of rotation.
Leicester would be delighted with getting three winnable away trips on the evidence of last season and they have done well to only lose N’Golo Kante, but in the grand scheme of things Europe’s best will be a total different challenge assuming they make it out of the group stages. Their counter attacking style could work a little better in Europe where the onus won’t be on them to break everyone down, but it is hard not to think this will be a step too far in terms of realistic aims. Celtic will be having some amazing nights up in Scotland, but their collapse in Israel just two weeks ago is ominous for a group that contains three high class sides with the tools to take them apart.
PSG have plenty of midfield talent but and a nice section, although Unai Emery, three times a winner of the Europa League with Sevilla, is shorn of the services of Zlatlan Ibrahimovic. Layvn Kurzawa has scored twice already for them and there are goals in a midfield packed with technical ability from the likes of Lucas Moura and Marco Veratti, but the struggles of Edison Cavani returned to a central role do not offer much in terms of comfort and Jese will need to take up much of the slack upfront.
Dortmund’s Thomas Tuchel did a fine job last year to return them to European football and they have wheeled and dealed well, although they have lost Mats Hummels (Bayern), Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United) to richer prey. Keeping Pierre-Emerick Aubaemyang was key though and there is the same pace and intensity of the Klopp years in players like Raphael Guerreiro and exciting teenager Ousmane Dembele whilst Andre Schurrle should keep things ticking. However, it does not have the sheer quality on paper of the teams that went do deep into Europe in the past.
Sevilla, winners of the Europa League for the last three years on the trot, dropping out of this competition to do so again. Unai Emery’s departure could be considered a blow but they have signed a quality motivator in Jorge Sampaoli, fresh from success on the international stage with Chile. His additions, including Wissam Ben Yedder, Carlos Correa, Luciano Vietto, Ganso, Claudio Kranevitter, and Franco Vasquez to name a few, all seem suited to the ultra-pressing style but on the early evidence of their four games this season there’s plenty to be ironed out before they can compete with Europe’s best.
Bayer Leverkusen signed well across the break and kept most of their best players, especially in midfield where they have the likes of Karim Bellarbi to go forward, added to the dead ball specialist Hakan Calhanoglu, whilst upfront Chicarito and Kevin Vollmer will make for a handy pairing. The worry for them is that their defence, despite being stacked with talented ballplayers, could begin to let them down again.
That is also the concern for Napoli, an impressive second in Serie A last season. They were forced to let go of Gonzalo Higuain but for the money it was too hard to resist and new arrival Arkadiusz Millik has ever chance to make a success there judged by his double against AC Milan on Sunday. There’s a wealth of attacking players for Maurio Saurri to use but on the evidence of a win and a draw so far, they must tighten up at the back if they’re to make a serious challenge.
Borussia Mochengladbach finished fourth in what was a very tough group last year and once again they have landed an extremely tough one with Barcelona and Manchester City. Lyon and Monaco were a creditable second and third in Ligue 1 last season but both were miles behind PSG and didn’t make much of an impact when it came to the latter stages in European competition and they could struggle again this time around even if qualification to the knockouts Is realistic for both. Porto were trashed by Bayern Munich and it’s difficult to know what’s changed since, although they have a very realistic chance of getting through their section top with Club Brugge and Copenhagen. PSV could cause Atletico Madrid trouble as they lost out via penalty shootout in the last 16 last season but facing them and Bayern Munich is a tall task to simple make the latter stages.
Lisbon must get past one of Borussia Dortmund or Real Madrid, the same task facing Warsaw, qualifiers through the Champions Route, and Ludogorets look overmatched against Basel, Arsenal and PSG. CSKA have a more realistic task than lasty year but nobody from that section proved to be any great shakes so they are overlooked and Zagreb could find Juventus, Sevilla and Lyon too much.
Benfica will be hopeful of qualifying against a Napoli side that always gives you a chance and in a four way shoot-out between Beskitas and Kiev anyone of the four will hope to go through top. Benefice and Napoli look most likely to do so and make a run although there has not been huge changes made at either club to make one think that a new run is forthcoming.
5 pts Bayern Munich (4/1 general)
2 pts each/way Juventus (12/1 general)
1 pt each/way Atletico Madrid (14/1 general)