The World Cup will probably always be soccer’s biggest competition, but the UEFA Champions League, which returns Tuesday, is arguably the sport’s best. No other tournament in world soccer beats the UCL in terms of the quality of teams and the quality of players on display, and the packaging and theme song aren’t half bad either.
As far as Off The Post is concerned, it’s this combination of the planet’s best teams (in sum, anyway) coupled with the tournament being such a grind (it starts in September and ends in late May) that makes it must-see TV for every soccer fan in the world. After all, while the best European team over the length of a given season often comes out on top in this competition, anything can and still does happen (see Liverpool’s win in 2005 or Chelsea’s in 2012).
Thanks in part to the increased investment of multi billionaires in Europe’s biggest clubs, the field of possible UCL winners has grown tremendously, making picking a winner in September harder than ever. Yet, we will try, anyhow.
Judging by their transfer activity and respective starts to the season, OTP reckons that six teams should be considered the favorites for this year’s UCL (in no particular order): reigning European champ Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.
Barcelona, which won this competition relatively handily barely three months ago, has two big things going against it heading into the 2015-16 UCL: one, it is incredibly difficult to repeat as winner of this competition -- in fact, no team has accomplished the feat since the European Cup became the UCL in 1992 -- and two, the club’s transfer ban has meant that its squad is thinner than last year.
The latter in particular could be a major strike against the club’s ability to retain the title. Barca lost four rotation players during the summer -- Xavi, Martin Montoya, Pedro and Alex Song -- and signed two new ones, Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal, who will not be able to play in the group stage at all. It is a thin squad, which means that tiredness and/or key injuries could really hamper the club’s success. Keeping the likes of Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets and each of its front three healthy will be really important -- particularly in the group stage, which is not necessarily straightforward with both Bayer Leverkusen and AS Roma stronger than last season. While few really expect the reigning champ to struggle in the group stage, look for Barca to strengthen in January because it will need a bigger squad to win the competition again.
One team that will want revenge against Barca for the way it lost last season is Bayern Munich. The German champion was beaten badly by Barca’s front three in the semifinal and coach Pep Guardiola, who famously coached the Blaugrana to two UCL titles, will be anxious to make his final season in charge of the Bavarian giant a winning one. Make no mistake about it: Bayern has improved in the off-season: the additions of Arturo Vidal and Douglas Costa in particular have already paid dividends, but the acquisition of Kingsley Coman from Juventus could also be important, as Bayern looks thin in the striker department with just Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Mueller, although they are both off to a great start so far this season.
Without question, Real Madrid has an excellent squad, one very capable of capturing a record 11th UCL title. The biggest question mark for this team in each of the competitions it will try to win this season is how the squad adapts to its new coach, Rafael Benitez. Early signs were that the Spaniard and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo do not see eye-to-eye, but then again, Ronaldo just put five past Espanyol -- and most of these were glorious team goals. Goalkeeping could be a question mark after the club narrowly missed out on signing David De Gea, its No. 1 transfer target from Manchester United over the summer. It will be important for Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas to hit top form.
Like Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain is another team that was already solid but whose additions make it that much better. Former Man United winger Angel Di Maria is an excellent signing, as is fullback Leyvin Kurzawa from AS Monaco, and both acquisitions were in areas of need for the reigning French champ. However, though PSG is having a solid start to life in Ligue 1, history shows that the tournament’s eventual winner almost always benefits from having a tight contest in its domestic league, as well. As yet, no clear rival has emerged in France for last season’s quadruple winner, which could adversely affect its UCL campaign.
Atletico Madrid is another solid Spanish team that had a very good summer transfer window. In Diego Simeone, the club also has an excellent coach whose teams rarely give away soft goals. An excellent coach plus a very good transfer window usually equals a strengthened overall squad, and should at the very least add up to a strong UCL campaign. Perhaps most importantly, Atleti also got a very kind group stage draw which means it should breeze into the Round of 16; no one will want to play this team from the quarterfinals onward.
If you had to pick one English Premier League team to possibly win the UCL this season, it has to be Manchester City. City started with a very good team and bought some excellent new players but how far this team goes depends on a couple of factors. One, the striking department, which consists of Sergio Aguero and Wilfried Bony, is thin, and you don’t win the UCL without a strong forward line. Keeping Aguero fit is absolutely essential to City’s success, because Bony has not yet proven to be a reliable back-up. Behind the striker, center midfield and central defense will also be key, which means Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany need to return to their best, while newcomer Nicolas Otamendi alongside Kompany is the key new addition.
Who will win it all? Like anyone else, OTP has no idea, but if he had to pick one standout from this excellent collection of clubs, it would have to be Bayern. The German champ has an excellent coach, is better than last season and rival Borussia Dortmund has shown early signs that we may actually have a title race in Germany, which should in turn help Bayern’s UCL prospects.