The start of the Champions League may still be almost two months away, but the squads of the major contenders are already starting to come together. Indeed, holders Real Madrid have just secured one of the biggest transfers of the window and of all time.
Here’s a look at how they and the other favorites, according to the latest betting odds, are shaping up.
Real Madrid (4/1, according to bovada.lv)
Having finally secured their desperately coveted 10th European Cup with a dramatic extra-time win over Atletico Madrid in last year’s final, Real Madrid have hardly rested on their laurels this summer. After they broke the transfer record last summer to snap up Gareth Bale, Madrid have continued their penchant for spectacular signings by spending close to £70 million for Colombian World Cup star James Rodríguez.
Add the former Monaco man to their other summer capture, the World-Cup-winning Toni Kroos, and Carlo Ancelotti has an incredible squad at his disposal. But he will also face an even greater challenge than last season to find the right formula to get the best out of the talent at his disposal. Fortunately, Ancelotti has plenty of experience at fitting a system around a group of stars rather than the other way round. Still it will need all his skills and plenty of team ethos from the big names to prevent Madrid going the same way they did at the end of the first Galácticos era a decade ago.
Bayern Munich (4/1)
A semifinal loss to Real Madrid in April was a chastening experience, but the criticism that came Pep Guardiola’s way was ludicrously over the top given that he was in his first season of introducing a new footballing philosophy at Bayern and that no club had ever won back-to-back Champions Leagues. Having romped to the Bundesliga crown and ended the campaign with victory in the DFB-Pokal there is reason for optimism going into season two. That positive feeling is furthered by the arrival of a true world class striker in Robert Lewandowski. The loss of Kroos to Real Madrid hurts but Guardiola is hardly short of midfield options. And, having signed Spain Under-21 left-back Juan Bernat, he could even repeat the trick of turning full-back Philipp Lahm into a midfielder by doing the same with David Alaba.
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Guardiola could also get a boost from Germany’s World Cup win and, in particular, from the confidence Mario Götze should bring back from scoring the winning goal in the final. After a mixed first season following his move from Dortmund, the talented attacking midfielder could now be ready to excel. Perhaps the main weakness remains at center-back, although Jerome Boateng produced a brilliant performance in the World Cup final. And if Holger Badstuber can get back to his best after more than 18 months out it will be a massive boost.
It is all change at the Camp Nou. Last season witnessed the final embers of the great Barcelona team which dominated Europe under Pep Guardiola as they failed to make it to the last four of the Champions League for the first time since 2007. Out has gone inspirational captain Carles Puyol, goalkeeper Victor Valdés, Cesc Fàbregas and Alexis Sánchez and in their place has arrived Croatian playmaker Ivan Rakitic, goalkeeping duo Marc-André ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo and, the biggest signing of the lot, Luis Suárez.
Once he returns from suspension, the Uruguayan star will form what is on paper, along with Real Madrid’s, the world’s best attack alongside Lionel Messi and Neymar. If a top class center-back is finally secured then Barcelona certainly have the tools for success, if they can find the right blend going forward. Yet it will be a huge challenge for Luis Enrique, who has had a mixed start to his young managerial career, to win the biggest prize in what is likely to be a transitional first season of a new era.
Jose Mourinho failed to land a trophy in his first season back at Stamford Bridge and will be desperate to ensure there is no repeat this campaign. And the prize of a third Champions League title, becoming the first coach to do it with three different clubs, will clearly be at the forefront of his mind. He and Chelsea have showed real intent in this summer’s transfer window. The most glaring weakness has seemingly been addressed with the signing of Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa to give Mourinho the target man his style of play requires. His former Atletico teammate Filipe Luis will also improve the squad at left-back.
It remains to be seen how the other major new arrival, Cesc Fabregas, will fit into Mourinho’s incredibly disciplined tactics. He could become the man to replace the Frank Lampard of a decade ago, but that would mean Oscar being forced out. Chelsea appear to still lack a true dynamic midfielder in the mold of Michael Essien in his prime.
Paris Saint-Germain (12/1)
After a second straight quarterfinal exit, PSG will now be intent on breaking through to the final four for the first time since they became one of the world’s wealthiest clubs. The only business done by Laurent Blanc’s side thus far this summer, though, has been to make David Luiz the most expensive defender in history. While clearly overpaying for a player who was appalling in Brazil’s humbling by Germany in this summer’s World Cup, Luiz has shown that he can excel alongside the disciplined Thiago Silva.
Financial Fair Play restrictions imposed at the end of last season could restrict further incomings, although money could be raised by the sale of Edinson Cavani, who is unhappy about having to play wide. Getting the same production out of Cavani and star man Zlatan Ibrahimovic as last season could be a challenge. Blanc also provided further evidence in PSG’s exit to Chelsea last season that he may not be the top level coach the club requires to take them to the very pinnacle in Europe.
Manchester City (12/1)
Like PSG, Manchester City’s transfer market activities have also been influenced by Financial Fair Play. Still, they have addressed one of their major needs by securing a natural holding midfielder in former Porto man Fernando, and if they have the financial leeway to bring in his former club-mate Elliaquim Mangala, then they will have tackled another by getting an accomplished center-back.
Manuel Pellegrini largely impressed in his first season in England, taking home the Premier League title and leading Manchester City into the knockout rounds of the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history. Yet a Round-of-16 exit to Barcelona was somewhat disappointing and in more than one big game Pellegrini’s tactics were somewhat found wanting. Still he should be better off after a season behind him at the club and is likely to have the tools in place to mount a sizable challenge.