Barcelona delivered a master class performance in last season’s UEFA Champions League final, defeating English champions Manchester United 3-1.
Only the most biased of fans could deny Barcelona favouritism again for this season’s premier European torunament, but looking for a clear second favourite makes for a much more difficult piece of analysis.
Real Madrid’s captain Iker Casillas confidently declared that “100 per cent,” Madrid would have beaten United had they made it through to the final.
AC Milan’s Massimo Ambrosini offered a slightly more level-headed observation recently, when he told La Gazzetta dello Sport; “only Barcelona are in a league of their own at the moment. Milan are part of a group of five or six teams of the same level that can all go a long way as well.”
Below we analyse those five teams Ambrosini may have been referring to:
Starting with the Italian champions – there is no doubt that they will pose a serious threat to their opponents in the upcoming version of the UEFA Champions League.
Led by some of the best attacking players in world football, in Alexander Pato, Robinho, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Antonio Cassano, goals should not be hard to come by for the Rossoneri.
Milan have also strengthened their defence with signings of AS Roma’s French defender Philippe Mexes, and Marseille’s Nigerian left-back Taye Taiwo. The squad at the San Siro is not a youthful one, but it is oozing in experience and quality, two vital factors required in a successful European campaign.
Inter Milan suffered from an extremely disappointing campaign last term, after the fantastic treble they captured the season prior under the management of Jose Mourinho.
Whether they do have the ability to bounce back this season and impress in Europe once again, may depend on their movement in the transfer market over the next few weeks. Inter have been heavily linked with the want-away Argentine striker, Carlos Tevez, but rumours continue to persist that their star midfielder, Wesley Sneijder, may leave for Manchester United.
If Inter can keep Sneijder and capture Tevez then there is no reason why the Nerazzurri won’t impress in Europe and reach the latter stages of the competition once again. Injury was a poisonous cloud over their attempt to defend their European crown last term, so any realistic chance this season must be accompanied by a relatively injury free season to their key players.
The current Real Madrid side should be recognised as a fantastic football team, which makes the dominance of Barcelona all the more remarkable. Mourinho’s club record almost dictates that Madrid must win something this season, and if Cristiano Ronaldo continues his fine form, then Los Blancos will be irresistible to watch, and very difficult to overcome.
There is no need to examine their supremely talented squad, though they are possibly one quality striker short. With the move of Sergio Aguero to Manchester City, there are rumours that Madrid may make a more determined effort to capture Tevez.
With or without another striker, it is hard to disagree with Casillas’ comments that Madrid are the second best side in the world. Barcelona may well be the only team that can prevent Mourinho from winning the UEFA Champions League with a third club this time around.
Sir Alex Ferguson has worked extremely hard to replace his retiring stalwarts this summer, but whether these replacements can deliver remains to be seen. Shot stopper David de Gea had an outstanding season with Atletico Madrid, but at just 20 years of age, de Gea is lacking in experience at the top level.
Ashley Young and Phil Jones are both yet to experience the challenges of playing in Europe’s elite competition. Fans will have to hope that Sir Alex can inspire his new signings to lift to the level required, should the Red Devils play off in the Munich final.
The most impressive aspect of United’s game over the past few years has been their ability to win matches, when their performances have been sub-standard. Examining the squad from Old Trafford this season, they do not appear as strong as their continental rivals, but it would take a brave person to write off a club as strong as Manchester United.
New Chelsea manager Andre Villa-Boas will be expected to lead the Blues into the final stages of the Champions League this season, and he has some experience in Europe after winning the Europa League with Porto last term.
A lot more will be expected of Fernando Torres and David Luiz in their first full campaigns at Stamford Bridge. Both players failed to live up to their high expectations last year, given their combined price tag of £80 million.
Similar to Milan’s ageing squad, the London based club make up in experience for what they lack in youth. Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and John Terry are all entering the twilight years of their respective careers, and their form this season will be vital for Chelsea.
This year’s version of the UEFA Champions League will feature some fantastic teams from all across Europe, including several that have not been mentioned above, in Arsenal, Manchester City, Napoli and Bayern Munich.
As the current holders, Barcelona should rightly be regarded as the favourites to lift the European cup, affectionately known as ‘Big Ears,’ in Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena this May.
But the chasing pack consists of some quality sides, and if Barcelona do drop the level of their performances just a touch, then one of a whole host of sides could be named European champions this season.
Which club are likely to pose the biggest threat to Barcelona in this season’s UEFA Champions League?