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Monday, 17 December, 2018

Bayern Munich have the talent to break Real's stranglehold

Napoli are interesting underdogs

Bayern Munich celebrate winning the Bundesliga
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The Champions League is the ultimate prize in club football and the determination of many to be crowned kings of the continent has seen unprecedented levels of spending in an astonishing summer transfer window which may have changed the sport forever.

Neymar's arrival at Paris St Germain for just shy of £200m - double the previous world transfer record - was the most remarkable of the lot and in response Barca broke their club record for Ousmane Dembele.

Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Tottenham and Leipzig were just some of the other contenders to go further than they dared previously, while not to be outdone Manchester City twice broke the world record for defensive reinforcements to bring in attacking full-backs Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy.

Neighbours Manchester United also raised the record for fees between Premier League clubs with the arrival of Romelu Lukaku and nobody can be totally sure whether this is just the beginning or maybe even the beginning of the end as clubs try to keep pace. 

In all of the madness Real Madrid, who have won the last two European Cups and are favourites to complete the hat-trick, were in profit to the tune of nearly £70m with only relatively minor arrivals at the Bernabeu in the form of Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos.

It can only be right that Real start as market leaders. The Spanish champions have the greatest goalscorer in the modern game in Cristiano Ronaldo and the best player of 2017 in Isco, who forms part of a perfect midfield diamond where Casemiro sits while Toni Kroos and Luka Modric pass opponents to death.  

One of Zinedine Zidane's many successes, however, was the ability to rotate his squad so they arrived at the key moments with a fresh team and the departures of established reserves Alvaro Morata, Danilo, James Rodriguez and Pepe leave them slightly short unless the youngsters are ready to step up.

Also from a price point of view there is not a great amount of love for Real Madrid in the sophisticated match markets, which are usually a more reliable guide than ante-post lists to rating teams.

Real were slight underdogs to win this season's Spanish Super Cup against Barcelona and last term's Champions League final against Juventus was a virtual pick 'em affair.

Bayern Munich were as short as 4-7 to beat Madrid in their Champions League quarter-final in April and punters should not be fooled by the 6-3 aggregate triumph for Zidane's side.

Five of Real's goals came when Bayern were down to ten men - red cards in either leg to Javi Martinez and Arturo Vidal proved costly to the German champions - and Carlo Ancelotti's men can use those frustrations to go all the way in Kiev this season. 

Bayern, just like a number of European powerhouses, have not made a flying start but it's all about peaking from February onwards and the Munich men have everything needed to go deep once again.

Manuel Neuer is as good as any goalkeeper around, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng won the World Cup as Germany's centre-back pairing, while the options in midfield are plentiful with Thiago Alcantara, Vidal, Sebastian Rudy and record buy Corentin Tolisso.

Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben continue to dazzle on the flanks and James Rodriguez brings a new dimension to the team in terms of creativity. Robert Lewandowski is a prolific goalscorer and any side would like to have Thomas Muller as the back-up option.

Bayern are in the same group as Paris St-Germain, who have been backed from an opening 20-1 following the captures of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, signings that definitely take them closer to their goal of a first European Cup.

A front three of Neymar, Mbappe and Edinson Cavani will indeed take some stopping, although their team doesn't yet justify their price.

Goalkeeper Alphonse Areola has much to prove and 35-year-old Thiago Motta should have been replaced at the base of midfield. Instead PSG attempted to ease their Financial Fair Play concerns by binning two players who could have performed that role in Blaise Matuidi and Grzegorz Krychowiak.

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Questions must also be asked of their character and the coaching qualities of Unai Emery given PSG surrendered a 4-0 first-leg advantage against Barca in last season's first knockout stage.

Barcelona's odds have taken a walk with the departure of Neymar, although Dembele is a fair replacement and they still possess Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, who could take the Catalans all the way.

However, Paulinho was not the answer to Barca's midfield issues and defensively they have been a shambles in big matches. There was the 4-0 defeat in Paris and 3-0 at Juventus last season, while Real Madrid beat Ernesto Valverde's men 5-1 on aggregate in the Spanish Super Cup.

Atletico Madrid are much better organised under Diego Simeone and can go well once again having reached at least the quarter-finals in each of the last four campaigns. The competition rules which means Atletico cannot play another La Liga team until the quarter-finals also helps as they are guaranteed to avoid Real and Barca.

English clubs have won only two of the last 12 renewals and the last of those was Chelsea in 2012 with five going to post this time.

Manchester City and Liverpool can be put into the same category as sides with the attacking qualities to hurt most opponents but at some stage their wobbly rearguards are likely to be found out.

Chelsea have greater defensive resilience, although the squad looks light in a couple of key positions - most notably in attack - and Antonio Conte needs to prove he is capable of rotating his troops correctly, which was not the case during his time at Juventus.

Their draw with Atletico Madrid and Roma could have been kinder, while Tottenham's is brutal alongside Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund.

Manchester United can have no complaints on that count but bookmakers are giving little away at the prices with Jose Mourinho's side shorter than last season's beaten finalists Juventus.

Juve may have sold too much defensive experience in Dani Alves to PSG and Leonardo Bonucci to repeat those efforts and there must be a nagging doubt as to whether the best chance has passed for Gigi Buffon to get his hands on the trophy.

For a second bet stick to Italy and take a chance on Napoli, who finished last season with the best goal difference in Serie A despite having to settle for third place.

This time last year they were trying to find a new way of playing after Gonzalo Higuain's departure to Juventus but by the end of the campaign they were as good as anyone in an improving Serie A.

Maurizio Sarri's fluid front four of Marek Hamsik, Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon is a joy to watch, while they are getting better as a defensive unit.

A centre-back pairing of Raul Albiol alongside Kalidou Koulibaly is talented enough at this level and no side will relish the trip to their intimidating San Paolo stadium.

Bayern Munich
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It can only be right that Real start as market leaders. The Spanish champions have the greatest goalscorer in the modern game in Cristiano Ronaldo
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