You know what’s more exciting than the Champions League draw? The Champions League itself.
Events in Monaco on Thursday may whet appetites before the action gets back under way, but barring a group stage disaster, it’ll be the usual runners and riders contending in the knockouts.
As such we’ve picked out the five likeliest contenders, in order, who will be left clutching that coveted crown come May.
1. Manchester City
How can a team that has never reached a Champions League final, let alone won the thing, be classed as favourites? It’s quite simple really – just because something hasn’t happened before, doesn’t mean it won’t this time. And in the here and now, Pep Guardiola’s men are a clear cut above the rest.
It’s season four of the Pep Guardiola Experience and Raheem Sterling is playing lights out, Aviators-on football with five goals in three games while City have ripped off the physio room for ‘like-a-new-signing’ Kevin De Bruyne’s services.
City aren’t perfect. They can get rattled. See the Tanguy Ndombele show for Lyon last season and Tottenham exploiting them on the counter that led to last season’s demise. Losing Vincent Kompany – especially with John Stones taking a series of backwards lunges – has opened up a big hole next to Aymeric Laporte in defence.
Otherwise their first XI is exemplary and their bench depth is excellent. Surely only blind, dumb luck will stop them reaching the 2019/20 final.
You’ll disagree with this if you think Lionel Messi is the reason Barcelona haven’t won the Champions League in three years. Those of us of an even temperament believe that Messi would be the sole reason far inferior teams, never mind the Blaugrana, would stand a chance with the awesome Argentine in their team.
The 32-year-old scored 12 goals alone in the 2018/19 campaign and only nuclear-scale defensive bungling over the last two seasons cost them big shots at glory. The sole concern should be his durability, with his calf injury slow to heal.
Does the likely signing of Neymar alone take them over the top? It shouldn’t harm them, but one wonders how MSN+G works with Antoine Griezmann part of the 2019/20 reboot. The focus instead should be on whether veterans such as Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets – who feels Frenkie de Jong’s breath on his neck – hold up when the going inevitably gets tough.
If you somehow haven’t bumped into a Liverpool fan sticking his or her fingers out over the summer, the Reds have indeed won it six times. No7 will be incredibly hard to win but that’s not necessarily a reflection on decreased chances – more the fact that before Real Madrid won three on the spin, UCL defences had been thwarted for a quarter of a century.
There are a few reasons to believe that Liverpool won’t return to the summit this season. The overriding motivation is to rip that Premier League millstone from around their necks and beat City domestically. Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Alisson may also pay for summers away on international duty when it comes to the thick of it. This then could bring squad depth into play, which was not severely tested last season. It is also a squad not significantly strengthened – unlike others – over the summer.
Yet they have a bedded-in philosophy. Superb chemistry. And a manager that they’d happily die for, matching the German chuckle for chuckle while doing it. Perhaps another digit will be added to those hand gestures come May.
Just as the presence of Messi vaults any team into the top five, Cristiano Ronaldo creates opportunity. The problem this season may not necessarily be the men on the pitch, but the man in the dugout.
That is not to disparage Maurizio Sarri. In a terrible dose of misfortune upon his return to Italy, he has been struck down with pneumonia and has been forced to miss the start of the season.
It’s another wrinkle to what is already a multi-layered method of management. Many of Sarri’s players have professed that ‘Sarrismo’, or Sarri-ball, is an incredibly demanding philosophy that needs many hours of practice on the training pitch and seamless cohesion between players.
Was this the right appointment for a team quite clearly in win-now mode in Europe with a 34-year-old Ronaldo as the spearhead? With a huge pool of options, particularly in midfield, should they have plumped for a manager who loathes to rotate? There are many questions to be answered.
5. Atletico Madrid
Nope, don’t rub your eyes, it’s the workhorses from the Wanda instead of the boys from the Bernabeu who round out our top five.
If it’s a surprise to see them here, let’s dispel a few doubts. They suffered a Barca-style, Ronaldo-shaped aberration when a quarter-final berth was snatched from their fingertips by Juve last season. They’ve also reached two finals under Diego Simeone over the last five seasons, with no other team having done at least that apart from Juventus and Real.
The early signs are that Simeone’s side will remain pugnacious if short of pizzazz – despite their carousel of changes over the summer – following two gritty 1-0 victories in La Liga. It’s a style suited to those hostile away days in the Champions League, where so often nervelessness conquers all.
Losing Griezmann isn’t ideal but they’ve gained Joao Felix, the teenager who revels in pulling rabbits out of hats. Without the declining Diego Godin, Stefan Savic has stepped up. No Rodri, but Thomas Partey can now come to the fore. A blueprint is there – the same can’t be said for their neighbours.
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