Serie A looks set to end Spanish club supremacy
Spanish clubs have dominated the Champions League in recent years, with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid providing five out of six finalists over the last three years, but La Liga’s grip on Europe’s biggest prize could be about to loosen.
There has been no great secret to Spain’s success.
Barcelona and Real Madrid have acquired the world’s greatest players and Atletico, runners-up in two of the last three years, have a tremendous coach in Diego Simeone.
However, Barca and Real Madrid have failed to strengthen their starting teams over the summer and Simeone’s substance-over-style stance always means Atletico will need a touch of fortune along the way, with three penalty shootouts in their last six knockout ties.
The cycle could be about to change and Serie A can be the beneficiary, thanks in part to the Premier League’s spending splurge which saw Manchester United invest a world-record sum in Juventus’s Paul Pogba.
That investment allowed Juve to be ultra-aggressive themselves and the arrival of Gonzalo Higuain, Dani Alves and Miralem Pjanic makes the Old Lady serious challengers to lift the trophy in Cardiff.
Juve, beaten finalists in 2015, were desperately unfortunate to go out at the last-16 stage last season in a thrilling extra-time defeat at Bayern Munich, but they are in a group this time where Seville are seen as their closest rivals which gives the Italians a strong chance to finish top.
Max Allegri’s men have become a truly dominant force in Serie A and, with their world-famous defence possibly not having too much longer left, the decision has been made to go all-out for Champions League glory before a major rebuilding job is needed.
Veteran keeper Gigi Buffon remains a capable performer at 38 and in front of him stands a back three of Leonardo Bonucci (29), Giorgio Chiellini (32) and Andrea Barzagli (35).
The defence can still do a fine job, there is plenty of competition for places in midfield despite Pogba’s sale, and Higuain’s arrival can take Juve to the top level.
Higuain scored 36 goals in 35 league games last season and is already on three from three at Juve. His partnership with Paulo Dybala is potentially devastating.
The loss of Higuain obviously harms Napoli but at the same time it meant they were able to keep hold of Kalidou Koulibaly even though Chelsea offered crazy money for the centre-back.
Higuain apart, this is the same side which dazzled Serie A observers last season under excellent coach Maurizio Sarri and it may pay to go for an Italian champion with Napoli chucked in alongside Juventus.
Napoli’s group with Benfica, Dynamo Kiev and Besiktas is most winnable.
Bayern are difficult to rule out under Champions League specialist Carlo Ancelotti, who has already won this competition three times as a manager, while there is world-class quality throughout the side.
However, the men from Munich can’t be considered certainties to go through as group winners given they face Atletico, and odds of 4-1 could look poor value if things go wrong in the last-16 draw.
Pep Guardiola lost out three times with Bayern in the semi-finals but he maintained his record of always having reached the last four and the former Barcelona boss is widely regarded as the greatest tactical innovator around.
Manchester City now have Guardiola’s wisdom and, while their huge summer outlay was made with one eye on the future, the Premier League outfit are major players this season.
Saturday’s Manchester derby success at Old Trafford was achieved without Vincent Kompany, Ilkay Gundogan and Sergio Aguero and the football already produced in Guardiola’s brief tenure suggests something special is brewing at the Etihad.
Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva can carry City as an attacking force and there is enormous potential in the likes of Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Brazilian Gabriel Jesus – who many say is the new Neymar and will arrive in January.
The real Neymar will be lining up against City in the group stages and, much like Bayern, Barcelona could get a pig of a last-16 tie if things don’t go to plan.
Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez can win any game with their brilliance but there is a question mark over coach Luis Enrique, who has been accused of being unable to change a game tactically if his forwards are struggling to make an individual impact.
That may seem harsh considering Enrique won the Champions League as a coach with Barca in 2015, but Chelsea were champions of Europe in 2012 under Roberto Di Matteo and few could claim the Aston Villa boss is of the highest calibre.
Sometimes teams or managers get lucky and in the Champions League, a tournament where fine details often matter most, it is more about consistently doing the right things.
That may explain why no team have ever retained the Champions League and Real Madrid are the next side to attempt to rewrite the history books.
Madrid were a long way short of being the real deal at stages of last season’s competition with a comeback win needed against Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals.
Their knockout schedule was soft and this term may tell us more about novice Zinedine Zidane’s coaching credentials if they come into collision with Europe’s elite.
Of the rest, Paris St-Germain appear to be a weaker side than last season following the departures of David Luiz and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while Group A rivals Arsenal have continually been found out in the Champions League knockout stages.
Arsenal’s defence usually gets them into trouble somewhere along the line and it could be the same for Dortmund. The Germans conceded four at Liverpool in the Europa League and one iffy performance in the Champions League usually means it is game over.
This is completely new territory for Leicester, while Tottenham have surrendered home advantage to play at Wembley, so Napoli are the pick of the outsiders.
Italian club to win the Champions League
1pt 11-1 Ladbrokes
Man City to win the Champions League
1pt 12-1 general