[UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] Barcelona will begin the 2011-12 UEFA Champions League season as the favorite to repeat as the champion, but other title contenders have made key acquisitions. Here's a look at six offseason signings who could impact the title race ...
Sergio Aguero (Manchester City). With six goals in his first four EPL games for Manchester City, Aguero has settled in quickly at Eastlands. The Argentine could be the player who could make City a title contender in its Champions League debut. Independiente made him the youngest player ever to play in the Argentine First Division when he debuted at the age of 15. Atletico Madrid signed Aguero at 18, and after five seasons and 101 goals, he moved to Manchester City in a $62 million transfer. He is best known as the son-in-law of Argentine great Diego Maradona. “He looks like me when I was a player," says Maradona. "He is strong, with thick legs. I took notice of that.”
Fabio Coentrao (Real Madrid). Fabio Coentrao played left back for Portugal at the 2010 World Cup, where he was one of the few satisfactions on an otherwise underachieving squad. Real Madrid already has one of the best left backs in the world in Brazilian Marcelo so why did the Merengues buy Fabio Coentrao from Benfica for $50 million? Coach Jose Mourinho moved Coentrao around during Real Madrid's U.S. tour, but he looks set to hold down one of the two holding midfield positions, on the left side where he'll team up with fellow Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo to form a dynamite trio.
David de Gea (Manchester United). Perhaps no signing will be under as much pressure as de Gea, the 20-year-old Spanish keeper signed from Atletico Madrid to replace the retired Edwin van der Sar at United. A couple of early mistakes had skeptics wondering whether de Gea has what it takes to succeed at United. His first season brings back memories of another young keeper freshly arrived at Old Trafford. Tim Howard signed from the MetroStars in 2003 and made the PFA Team of the Year for his league play with United. But a mistake against eventual champion Porto knocked United out of the 2003-04 Champions League in the round of 16. By the next season, Howard lost his starting job and two years later he was gone to Everton.
Diego Forlan (Inter Milan). After seven years in Spain, Forlan, voted the best player at the 2010 World Cup, is off to Italy. "I am looking forward very much to rejuvenating myself," he says of the move to Inter, which made a last-minute bid to sign him after Samuel Eto'o left for Russia's Anzhi Makhachkala. "It's all new and it's where you find motivation because the challenges are greater. You don't often get a chance to go to Inter at the age of 32 and I hope I can live up to the expectations." Forlan helped Atletico Madrid win the 2010 Europa League but his post-World Cup season was disappointing. He showed, though, at the Copa America he still has talent. Inter will be counting on him to duplicate the form he showed in the final where his two goals helped Uruguay beat Paraguay, 3-0.
Juan Mata (Chelsea). Let's just say Mata settled in a lot quicker at Chelsea after his $43 million move from Valencia than fellow Spaniard Fernando Torres did. Mata came off the bench to score in his EPL debut. By contrast, it took Torres, who had cost Chelsea an English record $75 million, 14 games before he scored after arriving from Liverpool. Chelsea has never won the Champions League, and with an aging team, this could be the Blues' last serious shot at the title for a while. They are counting on Mata's enterprising work on the wings to keep them in contention this season.
Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich). Neuer was sensational in goal for Schalke 04 in last year's Champions League against Manchester United, but the English club had no chance of signing him to replace van der Sar. Bayern Munich had already wrapped up a $25 million deal to sign Neuer. At only 25, he could be the Bayern goalie for the next decade. But like de Gea, Neuer was off to a shaky start at his new come, setting off alarm bells in Munich. Former German goalkeeping star Jens Lehmann says Neuer needs to be more consistent. "Manuel looks world-class compared to most of the other goalkeepers out there," Lehmann told AZ. "However, he is still too inconsistent to be absolutely world-class. He needs to improve that area of his game."