Cue the music, the group stages of Europe’s premier competition begin tonight. After Chelsea's dramatic penalty win, which teams can be considered contenders for the Champion's League title this season?
Barcelona and Real Madrid will start as highly fancied favourites. Both failed in the semi-finals last year, Real Madrid against an excellent Bayern team and Barcelona in the face of Chelsea’s unlikely charge to the title. Barcelona may have lost the talismanic Pep Guardiola as manager, but have added Alex Song and Jordi Alba to what was already the best squad in the world, and have David Villa back and scoring. Thanks to the Mourinho factor, Real Madrid may be labelled the overall favourites for the tournament, with the Portuguese perhaps looking for the perfect sign off to his time in Spain. Madrid have also been active in the transfer market, star signing Luka Modric will add guile to their already outstanding attack.
Last year's beaten finalists Bayern Munich look like the best of the rest. They have strengthened their squad with the likes of Javi Martinez, Xerdan Shaqiri and Mario Mandzukic and will be the likeliest team to challenge Spanish dominance. Zenit St Petersburg are also an interesting proposition, their raid on the Portuguese league to sign Hulk and Alex Witsel gave us the most extraordinary day of the transfer window. They have also been drawn in a relatively straightforward group with AC Milan and Malaga weakened significantly by the summer departures of players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and Santi Cazorla, and Anderlecht unlikely to challenge the Russian side. PSG are another team who have spent big this summer, and could progress well in the tournament, having drawn a weak looking group of Porto, Dinamo Kiev and Dinamo Zagreb.
The English teams may face an uphill struggle this year. Inexperience and drawing a group with Real Madrid, Ajax and Dortmund may do for Manchester City. Defensive issues highlighted by their Super Cup demolition at the hands of Athletico Madrid may be too much for defending champions Chelsea to overcome, and similar frailties may end Manchester United’s challenge. It’s tricky to predict how well Arsenal will do, but even if they are successful in the early knockout rounds it’s hard to see them overcoming teams like Barcelona and Bayern.
As a group the English teams look weaker than the continent’s elite sides, and may also struggle against the like of Zenit and PSG if their new stars click into gear quickly. It would be no surprise to see the semi-final line up free of Premier League teams, but then Chelsea’s run last year shows exactly why it is impossible to rule out English teams entirely.