The group stages of this years Champions League have commenced and the focus seems firmly on Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester City.
Real Madrid have of course won 4 out of the last 5 tournaments, and reached the semi-final the other year. That’s dominance. That’s outstanding form. This year they are without Ronaldo, but the rest of the Galacticos remain, so Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema now have the chance to lead the attack and fire them to glory.
Liverpool, last years beaten finalists, have strengthened their team in the off-season and their early season form has their fans believing again. There’s no doubt they are stronger than last season, particularly in defence and they will look to exploit their speed up front. Their last win in this competition was 2005, when they defeated Milan in a glorious night in Istanbul, before Milan reaped revenge two years later. Under Jurgen Klopp they have been building towards this, so another win now would not surprise.
Manchester City are the bookies favourites. Pep Guardiola has a settled and confident outfit playing in his style and expectations are high. They suffered a heavy loss to Liverpool in the quarter finals last year, an anomaly on their dominance throughout the season, and are fully motivated to go all the way this year.
However there are three sleeping giants that cannot be discounted, all led by mercurial superstars.
Barcelona have the irrepressible Lionel Messi. Despite leading them to the La Liga title last year, the great man has been overshadowed by Madrid’s recent run in the Champions League, and after a disappointing World Cup campaign he has something to prove. He has been in sparkling goal-scoring form already this season and leads the attack in a team determined to prove their credibility in this competition.
Juventus, the Old Lady, have their focus on the Champions League this year, after winning seven consecutive domestic titles. They have been close in recent years, and have decided to take the final step by securing Ronaldo in the belief he is the missing link. With seventy goals just in the last five seasons of the Champions League, his pedigree cannot be doubted and he delivers on the big stage for his club.
The other sleeping giant is Paris Saint Germain, led by the incredibly skilful Neymar Jnr. There is no doubt he let himself down at the recent World Cup, where his diving was mocked worldwide. However at his best his skill levels surpass all others and with the right attitude he can be the talisman that PSG need. Add in the supporting cast of Kylian Mbappe and Edison Cavani and the goals will flow. One thing in their favour is their dominance in the domestic league will allow them to ease through the season and be at their best in the crucial knockout games (a distinct advantage over say Liverpool and Manchester City who will face competitive fixtures every week).
I’m not discounting Bayern Munich, Athletico Madrid or even Manchester United from contention, however more and more it is the superstar that drags his team through this competition and makes the difference. Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar will throw up the challenge to the favoured three teams mentioned earlier. Will it be enough? Only time will tell.