Champions League 2013 Odds: 16 Clubs with the Best Chance of Winning
Euro 2012 may be coming up in the next couple weeks, but next season will be upon us before you know it.
With this past season now over, we mostly know who will be playing in next season's Champions League, barring a few unexpected results in qualifiers.
The world's best club competition is the most exciting part of every season precisely because no one knows which big club will actually win it, as shown by Chelsea's incredible triumph this year.
So let's broaden our list of contenders a little bit. Here are the 16 teams out of the total 32 who have the best chance of taking home the famously big-eared trophy this time next year.
At the beginning of this season, it looked as if Antonio Di Natale had been denied his best chance to play in the Champions League with two qualifying losses against Arsenal.
With a more fortunate draw this time around, the striker might finally see his wish come true.
And Udinese certainly deserve to go far in this year's competition based on the quality they have throughout their team. Di Natale often gets more attention than the fantastic duo of Giampiero Pinzi and Kwadwo Asamoah in midfield, for example.
With some luck, the Bianconeri could succeed beyond expectations next season.
Even without monster goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Schalke still managed to improve on last year's Bundesliga finish and qualify for the Champions League. Why?
The Dutchman has scored 29 league goals in 32 appearances, proving that he can compensate for the absence of Raul, who has moved on through a free transfer.
With a very strong core around Huntelaar, including Jefferson Farfan, Julian Draxler and USA international Jermaine Jones, the Germans will be a force to be reckoned with.
Even though they play in one of the weaker European leagues, Porto have only lost one domestic match in the last two years. Not a bad record.
They can be a quite explosive side when they get into full gear, led by Brazilian winger and €100 million man Hulk, whose power and pace is truly awesome.
With the right group and a good draw, Europe could find out what Portugal has known for two years: You disrespect Porto at your own peril.
People tend to underestimate Ajax due to the fact that they play in the Eredivisie and their team is always relatively inexperienced. But the Dutch champions play some of the sweetest football around and can swing with the best.
Even with the imminent departure of captain Jan Vertonghen, Ajax still has plenty of talent to make a deep run in the Champions League next season.
Siem de Jong and Gregory van der Wiel remain, but headlining the delicious crop of young talent at the Amsterdam Arena is Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen, who Ajax will not be able to keep for much longer after his impressive performances for the club and what he will do this summer for his country.
They may have disappointed in Ligue 1 this season, but if any team can make sure they do not disappoint again next year, it is PSG.
Backed by millions of euros of oil money, Les Parisiens now have the lure of the Champions League to entice new players as well as the massive salaries they can offer.
They do play some of the best football in France and deserve to be in the Champions League, despite the fact that they could not unseat minnows Montpellier at the top of the Ligue 1 table.
I don't think that PSG will be willing to settle for second in France or Europe again.
Perhaps in an alternate universe, Valencia would be crowned champions of Spain and Roberto Soldado would win the Golden Boot. But in that world, Barcelona and Madrid would not get the huge television deals that allow them to make La Liga a two-team league.
Unfortunately, the best that Los Che can hope for is a Champions League place, and they have achieved the highest realistic place they could get in order to qualify.
If they can avoid the two giants in their own league, sterling striker Roberto Soldado and Spain international Jordi Alba might just be able to lead Valencia to glory.
Considering how well Borussia Dortmund did in Germany this season and the staggering amount of talent they have, it is amazing that the Bundesliga champions got bounced in the group stage of last season's Champions League.
There is no chance of that next season.
When you add up the lock-down central defensive partnership of Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic, teenage prodigies Mario Gotze and Marco Reus, potent striker Robert Lewandowski and veteran captain Sebastian Kehl, this is a team that could realistically challenge for the trophy next year.
There is a good reason why Bayern have made it to the Champions League final in two of the past three years, and the rich pipeline of talent that runs through the Allianz Arena is not set to dry up any time soon.
They continue to attract the very best players in the world, but Bayern's squad does not need a whole lot of reinforcement with most of their stellar core in their primes.
Backed by the titans that are Manuel Neuer and Bastian Schweinsteiger, Munich can push forward with Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben (when he's healthy) and Mario Gomez.
There is no reason why next season will be the one in which Europe finally figures out how to deal with all this steel and firepower in one side.
It appears that Arsenal's darkest days are behind them, and Arsene Wenger's side are ready once again to legitimately threaten for the Champions League title.
Finally, at long last, the frugal Frenchman is showing some ambition in the transfer market, signing Lukas Podolski before the season ended and constantly being linked with French midfielder Yann M'Vila.
The key, though, will be keeping captain and 37-goal scorer Robin van Persie, who is reportedly barred from speaking to other clubs as Arsenal work out how to keep their best player at the club beyond next year.
Accomplish that, and the Gunners will be true contenders.
I'd say that if you can go through an entire Serie A season unbeaten, you have a pretty good team.
And after not qualifying for the Champions League this past season, Juventus did much more than qualify this year: They have set themselves up for a potential run to the final.
Captain and face of the club Alessandro Del Piero may be leaving at the age of 37, but the Old Lady do not lack for talent all around the pitch. Players like Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo are more than capable of leading Juve to glory again.
They are sure to bolster their team with attacking midfield talent like Shinji Kagawa this summer, which will add to an already potent United attack that includes Nani, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and, of course, Wayne Rooney.
But for a couple miracles at the Etihad Stadium, the Red Devils would have been Premier League champions for a 20th time, which just goes to show the quality and consistency that Sir Alex Ferguson's squad has.
He may have one of the creepiest smiles in football, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic doesn't use it much in front of goal. He is a ruthless goal-scoring machine who is capable of wreaking havoc on any team in Europe.
With news that Thiago Silva will be staying at the club despite speculation over a possible exit, the Rossoneri are certain to have at least as strong a squad next season as they did this, though the departure of Alessandro Nesta will sting.
Like their intracity rivals United, Manchester City were knocked out of the Champions League at the first hurdle during their first trip to Europe in decades.
I wouldn't put my money on that happening again.
What I would put my money on is City spending a lot of money this summer on acquisitions that they do not really need, but adding yet more jewels to the priciest team in football regardless.
Even if they did not make any moves this summer—Robin van Persie anyone?—the Citizens still boast one of the deepest and most talented teams in Europe—perfect for making a deep run into the CL.
But for the random nature of penalty shootouts, Real Madrid would have booked a trip to this year's Champions League final instead of Bayern Munich, and we might have been talking about Los Blancos as the best in Europe again.
Unfortunately for Madrid, they had to settle for a La Liga title and a 100-point season to keep them happy and give then bragging rights over Barcelona this summer.
In all seriousness, though, this is a scarily good team in every aspect of the game, attacking with awesome fluidity and rarely letting a goal slip past the watchful eye of Iker Casillas.
There is no reason why, with their annual spending spree, Real cannot get back to at least where they were this season.
It is worth remembering that current European Champions Chelsea are only in next year's competition because they won it this year—their sixth-place finish no doubt annoys Roman Abramovich to no end.
Luckily for Blues fans, the checkbook already appears to be out in an attempt to rectify that situation, and Belgian wunderkind Eden Hazard is apparently coming to Chelsea's rescue.
The same questions of age and painful transition remain for a squad that will sorely miss Didier Drogba next year. Frank Lampard has to get old at some point in the near future, and Ashley Cole is losing more of his trademark pace every day.
Then again, everyone said that these uncertainties were too much for the team to overcome this year, and the Londoners did the impossible. Rule them out again at your own peril. I certainly won't.
Barcelona are always going to be near the top of the list of teams favored to win the Champions League, and no amount of disappointment or change at the Camp Nou can alter that.
Pep Guardiola may be leaving, Barca may have lost La Liga to Real Madrid and Chelsea did play just enough defence to get past the tiki-taka wizards. But none of that changes the fact that, on their day, the Catalans are simply unplayable.
Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pique, Villa and some guy named Messi who scored 73 goals this season—the list of incredible players goes on and on. And as long as they are playing together, Barcelona will be favored to win their third Champions League title in five years.