The Champions League group stage doesn’t kick off until the 15th of September, but the qualifying rounds are already underway. 22 teams are already assured of a place in the groups, and ten will join them through the qualifiers. The big players will all be there though, and Barcelona will be looking to defend the trophy they won from Juventus last season.
The draw for the group stage of the competition will be held on 27th August, when the 32 teams will be drawn into the traditional eight groups of four. The only restriction is that teams from the same country cannot be drawn against each other, but there have been some significant changes to the seeding arrangements this season.
The change means that Pot 1 in the draw will now feature the champions of the top eight associations, so this year’s top seeds will be: Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Benfica, PSG, Zenit St. Petersburg, and PSV.
This leaves the likes of Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal in Pot 2, and will set up some mouth-watering clashes. Let’s get straight on to the odds for the ultimate winner:
Barcelona – +333 with Coral
Clearly Barcelona are favourites after lifting the trophy last year courtesy of a 3-1 victory over Juventus in Berlin’s Olympic stadium. The triumvate of Messi, Suarez and Neymar was too hot for Europe’s finest to handle last season, and they beat Manchester City, PSG, and Bayern Munich on their way to the final.
They secured the Spanish title as well last season, and it’s hard to see how Real Madrid can break their domestic dominance. However, it’s been 25 years since a side won top European honours in back-to-back seasons, and they will have to emulate the AC Milan side of 1989 and 1990.
Real Madrid won the crown the season before, beating City rival Atletico 4-1 in the final, and Ronaldo & Co. will be hurting after a trophy-less year. If Rafa Benitez can get Bale, Rodriguez and Ronaldo performing in tandem they can be a force to be reckoned with, but rumours coming out of the club suggest that not all senior players were impressed with his appointment.
There is always controversy in Madrid, and this could be another disappointing season if they aren’t all pulling in the right direction. On the flip side, if the poor return last year sparks some hunger and desire, they will be hard to stop and they can be expected to be in the mix next spring.
Bayern Munich are one team that look far too short at the odds, and they are easily opposed. They should win the German title again, but Robben and Ribery are not getting any younger, and the two players who have carried the team so often in the past cannot be relied upon to the same extent. Bastian Schweinsteiger has also left for Manchester United, and it remains to be seen how much his influence will be missed.
Chelsea were knocked out by PSG last season, and will want to give a better account this time around. They are a fair price, but just don’t appeal as outright winners. They were efficient and ruthless in their Premier League campaign, but that doesn’t always work in Europe as they discovered against PSG.
Chelsea’s victors make much more appeal at a much bigger price to continue the progress of the last two seasons and reach the final at least. They were knocked out in the quarter-finals by the Blues in the 2013/14 season, but got their revenge in the second round last year. They were unfortunate to come up against eventual winners, Barcelona, in the quarter-finals last year, going out 5-1 on aggregate.
They continue to spend big money in search of European glory, and the latest rumour is that Angel Di Maria is set to join from Manchester United. He could be a valuable addition for the French champions, and if they can keep hold of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they are poised for another serious challenge at the Champions League. They’re among the top seeds for the group stage, and although that doesn’t provide any guarantees, with a decent draw they could be handed a great opportunity to win the group and set up a favourable draw for the second round.
The other side we like at a big price is Manchester City, although it is a slight leap of faith after their dismal campaigns over the last two seasons. They should have learned a great deal from those experiences, and like PSG were a little unlucky to come up against an imperious Barcelona in the second round last year.
They’re in the second pot of seeds, so a good draw could go a long way to helping them along in the group stage, but they have enough talent to compete with any side in Europe anyway – if they can transfer their form to the European stage. £49 million signing Raheem Sterling could bring a new zest to a City attack which already features David Silva and Sergio Aguero, and if those three stay fit and firing it could be a great season for the Citizens.
They are a long shot for Champions League glory, but they surely can’t be as disjointed this season as they were last, and are worth an each way bet, with most bookies paying out half the odds for a second-placed finish.
The two tips should give us a good run for our money throughout the competition, and man-for-man, both can stand up against the teams at the head of the market.
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