Four months after Chelsea defeated Bayern Munich to win the Champions League crown, the best clubs in Europe begin the journey toward the coveted title once again. As always, the first goal is surviving the group stage without any unexpected setbacks.
While some teams would be happy just to advance to the next round, the elite clubs are looking toward the trophy and nothing less. With that in mind, let's take a look at how the top contenders are shaping up heading into their first group match.
Barcelona was stunned by Chelsea in the semifinals last season, ending the team's hopes of defending its title. The Blaugrana are looking for a return to the top, and judging by their early-season form, it would be tough to pick against them right now.
Barca has opened the La Liga season in dominant fashion, winning four straight games with 12 goals scored. Half of those goals have been provided by the unstoppable Lionel Messi. The only disappointing result so far has been letting the Super Cup slip away against Real Madrid.
The one thing that has separated Barcelona from the pack in recent years is depth. The return of David Villa to provide support for Messi as well as the additions of Jordi Alba and Alex Song to go along with an already stacked roster makes Barca the favorite.
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While it's been smooth sailing for their Barcelona rivals, Los Blancos have endured some turbulence in the early going. They have already suffered two La Liga losses, equaling their total from all of last season when they won the title.
Although there's little question about Real Madrid's ability to bounce back, the lack of intensity, especially against opponents it should handle easily, is concerning. It's something that has to change quickly because Madrid is in a brutal group.
Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax are the other squads in Group D, meaning Madrid isn't guaranteed a spot in the next round. Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. are still a title threat, but there are more questions now than there were about a month ago.
Manchester City began the season by defeating Chelsea to win the FA Community Shield, but has been inconsistent since that point. Draws with Stoke City and a rebuilding Liverpool side show there's a lot of room for improvement.
That said, it's hard not to like what the defending Premier League champions have to offer. Carlos Tevez's return to form gives the Citizens an astonishing amount of attacking options to go along with a potent group of midfielders.
If Joe Hart can continue his ascent toward the top of the goalkeeping ranks, City will be tough to beat. Like with Madrid, the "Group of Death" is an issue, but the Citizens should advance and are the top choice outside of the Spanish rivals.