UEFA Champions League 2013-14: Top 10 Contenders
The 2012-13 UEFA Champions League season was one of the most enthralling in recent seasons.
Holders Chelsea fell at the group stage, costing Roberto Di Matteo his job in the process. Controversy came at Old Trafford as Manchester United succumbed in the second round to Real Madrid, Juventus reached the quarter-final stage on their return to the competition, whilst underdogs Malaga were mere minutes from the semi-finals before an unlikely comeback in the Westfalenstadion.
But in the end, it came down to two from Spain and two from Germany, with the Bundesliga reigning supreme. Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich vanquished Madrid and Barcelona respectively, before a titanic all-German final at Wembley, which saw Die Bayern claim their fifth European Cup thanks to Arjen Robben's late winner.
Now, following the draw for the final qualifying round ahead of this year's Group Stage, the main action of the 2013-14 incarnation is edging ever closer.
And with that in mind, here's a rundown of the top 10 contenders—according to bookmakers Bet365—for this year's crown.
Manager: Gerardo Martino
Key Player: Lionel Messi
Last Season: Semi-final
Last season's semi-final demise at the hands of a far superior Bayern Munich had something of an end of an era feel to it, as Barcelona were eviscerated 7-0 on aggregate.
Nonetheless, having romped to last terms Spanish league title, Barcelona return as joint favourites for this year's European title under the tutelage of new coach Gerardo Martino.
Whether they are worthy of their place in the betting is open to debate. Certainly in Lionel Messi they can lay claim to the best footballer in the world, whilst Brazilian starlet Neymar has been added, at considerable expense, to their attacking lineup.
Nonetheless, question marks still hang over a defence which has (so far) gone without strengthening this summer, whilst club legends Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez creep ever closer to their twilight years, now aged 35 and 33 respectively.
Semi-finalists in each of the last six seasons, Los Cules will be aiming for glory in 2013-14. But having been so comprehensively overpowered by Bayern last time, and having only squeaked by PSG in the previous round, do they have enough variation and physical power to claim a fifth European Cup?
Bayern Munich: (7-2)
Manager: Pep Guardiola
Key Player: Bastian Schweinsteiger
Last Season: Winners
Jupp Heynckes has gone following an all-conquering campaign which saw Die Bayern claim an unprecedented treble, replaced by two-time Champions League winning coach Pep Guardiola.
Pre-season has been an interesting affair, Guardiola somewhat doing away with the Heynckes blueprint and exchanging Bayern's dominant and finely-tuned 4-2-3-1 formation for a more attacking 4-1-4-1, which has so far come under question.
The squad has been strengthened over the summer, with Mario Goetze having been plucked from national rivals Dortmund, and Thiago Alcantara, the Spanish international, the standout names.
Key to Die Roten's chances of success remains the intelligent and precise passing of deep-lying lynchpin Bastian Schweinsteiger. How he gets on playing as a single-pivot without the more defensive-minded Javi Martinez alongside him—if indeed Guardiola sticks with his new formation—will offer something of a microcosmic look at how the entirety of last year's treble-winners are adapting to Guardiola's methods.
Finalists in three of the last four campaigns, Bayern are rightly among the favourites in 2013-14 once again.
But Guardiola's apparent desire for revolution rather than evolution, could go one of two ways: Greater success and dominance, or failure to meet an already set standard.
Real Madrid: (5-1)
Manager: Carlo Ancelotti
Key Player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Last Season: Semi-final
The in-fighting which characterised Jose Mourinho's final year at the Santiago Bernabeu has been replaced with a far more amiable atmosphere under new manager Carlo Ancelotti, and hopes have been renewed that the time for Real Madrid to achieve could well be now.
The Italian has prior in this competition, having guided AC Milan to three finals—winning two—and pre-season has seen Los Blancos playing some thrilling stuff, with the camp appearing happy once more.
The pursuit of Gareth Bale has made headlines left, right and centre, but that apart, Real have done good business in the transfer market this summer: Attacking midfielder Isco, wonderful in Malaga's run last season, has been added, likewise Asier Illarramendi, the holding midfielder, and Dani Carvajal, the adventurous right-back. Nonetheless, the sale of Gonzalo Higuain may have left them looking light up front, Karim Benzema now backed up by Alvaro Morata.
Cristiano Ronaldo was imperious in last season's competition, netting 12 goals in as many games and his clinical finishing in and around the penalty area will be vital to Madrid's chances once more.
The semi-final hurdle has been fallen at in each of the last three campaigns; a squad packed full of talent and experience, will be expected to at least replicate that, if not go further, this time around.
Manager: Jose Mourinho
Key Player: Juan Mata
Last Season: Group stage
Winners in 2012, last season was nothing but a damp squib for Chelsea, unable to emerge from a group featuring Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Nordsjaelland, a 3-0 loss to Juve on Matchday 5 effectively cost Roberto Di Matteo his job.
Now, fresh from Europa League success under interim manager Rafa Benitez, Jose Mourinho has returned for a second crack in the Stamford Bridge dugout, and he'll want to build on Benitez's success.
A squad with a plethora of wonderful attacking talent, such as Eden Hazard, Oscar and new signing Andre Schuerrle, will once again look to Juan Mata to be the on-field dictator-in-chief. Marco van Ginkel, the young Dutchman who has impressed in pre-season, looks a particularly interesting two-way option, while Mourinho will hope to coax the very best out of his experienced veterans, Messrs, Cole, Terry, Cech and Lampard.
Question marks remain about whether Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and young Belgian Romelu Lukaku are good enough (yet, in Lukaku's case) against the very best defenders Europe has to offer—hence the chase of Wayne Rooney—but the Blues squad looks ominously strong, with plenty of options, particularly in midfield.
How that squad strength translates on the pitch remains to be seen, but it would be foolish not to expect a stark improvement on last seasons poor Champions League showing.
Manchester United: (12-1)
Manager: David Moyes
Key Player: Robin van Persie
Last Season: Second round
Sir Alex Ferguson's final Champions League match ended in controversy, Nani's red card in the eyes of many, cost Manchester United a place at last year's quarter-final stage. Now, following his retirement, the English champions have a new manager in David Moyes, who will be experiencing his first taste of proper Champions League fare.
A difficult summer has seen Moyes fail to add to his squad the kind of marquee signing that was expected—Cesc Fabregas eventually ruling out a move to Old Trafford to stay with Barcelona, as reported by the Guardian.
Dutch striker Robin van Persie will once again carry the main goalscoring burden and more will be expected from the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Ashley Young, both of whom struggled with injury last season.
They'll be expected to comfortably progress through the group stage, but how United get on with regards 2013-14 could well come down to something as simple as the draw; last year's semi-finalists all appear stronger, whilst the likes of PSG, Juventus, Chelsea and Manchester City have all strengthened this summer.
Merely standing still could well have left United further behind.
Manchester City (12-1)
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini
Key Player: Vincent Kompany
Last Season: Group stage
After Roberto Mancini's Manchester City finished bottom of their Champions League group without winning a game and ended the season trophyless, the Italian was given his marching orders over the summer and replaced by Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini, with the club looking to go in a more "holistic" direction.
Pellegrini's tactical nous took Malaga to the edge of the semi-finals, something he managed with Villarreal in 2006, and with greater talent and resources in Manchester, a similar splash isn't out of the question in 2013-14, despite City's struggles in their last two Champions League campaigns.
The summer has seen the club spend over £90 million as they strengthen their squad for assaults on England and Europe: Dynamic midfielder Fernandinho, creative forward Stevan Jovetic and Sevilla pair Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas all incoming.
A solid defence marshalled by captain Vincent Kompany remains and will hope to be less exposed than they were in Europe under Mancini last season, whilst the Jovetic and Navas signings offer variety and a plan B in attack.
An injury-free Sergio Aguero will also greatly improve their chances of relative success; a quarter-final spot is achievable.
Paris Saint-Germain: (16-1)
Manager: Laurent Blanc
Key Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Last Season: Quarter-final
Under the astute management of Carlo Ancelotti last season, PSG's first campaign among Europe's elite in nine years saw Le Parisiens reach the quarter-final stage, before being knocked out by Barcelona on away goals.
This season has seen Ancelotti depart and Laurent Blanc arrive, the former Bordeaux and France boss bullish about their chances speaking of their potential to be champions and saying that he "wants to do at least as well as last season," as reported by Yahoo-Eurosport.
In their pursuit of glory, the nouveau-riche French club have added Uruguayan international striker Edinson Cavani, outstanding young defender Marquinhos and French prospect Lucas Digne to their squad.
The main man at the Parc des Princes, however, remains Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The top scorer in Ligue 1 last season, how he co-exists with Cavani will invariably dictate what kind of impact PSG can make on the 2013-14 European Cup.
Manager: Antonio Conte
Key Player: Carlos Tevez
Last Season: Quarter-final
The Bianconeri have returned to the pinnacle of Italian football with successive Scudetti and made a solid return to European competition last season as they reached the quarter-finals.
Defeat to Bayern showed Antonio Conte exactly what his side was lacking, such was their lack of attacking threat over the course of that quarter final. Thus, he has seen fit to add greater attacking strength this summer: Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente joining from Manchester City and Athletic Club respectively.
Conte's tactical versatility has been a great strength in the past two years and he'll adapt his side's style to get the best out of his new-look forward pairing.
Andrea Pirlo's Indian summer shows no sign of abating and Arturo Vidal is as good a box-to-box midfielder as anyone on the planet; both will be vital to any hopes the Old Lady have of European success.
However, whilst they may be able to repeat last year's quarter-final place, do they have enough about them to progress further?
Borussia Dortmund: (18-1)
Manager: Juergen Klopp
Key Player: Ilkay Gundogan
Last Season: Final
Thrilling throughout their run to last season's final, Juergen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund will hope to make a similar impact in 2013-14.
Full of pace and inventiveness in the last campaign, an added year of experience and a stronger squad should stand them in good stead in the new campaign.
Last year's star man Mario Goetze may have gone, but the integral Robert Lewandowski and Ilkay Gundogan remain. Additionally, talented goalscoring midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan and quicksilver forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have been added to increase Klopp's attacking options.
Their start to 2013-14 has seen more breathtaking attacking play, Bayern vanquished 4-2 in the German Super Cup and Augsburg beaten 4-0 on the opening day of the Bundesliga season.
Working against them in the new Champions League season may be that they are no longer underdogs and Europe's elite will be increasingly aware of their high pressure, high-tempo style.
However, Klopp's side, particularly at the boisterous Westfalenstadion, will once again be a match for anyone.
Manager: Arsene Wenger
Key Player: Jack Wilshere
Last Season: Second round
Very much outsiders with the bookmakers this season, Arsenal set off 10th in the market after a summer that has seemingly bypassed them and with a tricky qualifying round against Fenerbahce to navigate.
Arsene Wenger's matchday squad remains virtually the same as last year—a number of fringe players have been sold or let go—and only young French striker Yaya Sanogo has arrived.
As such, Wenger is placing his faith once more in improvement from his current crop; keeping Jack Wilshere fit throughout the season will be vitally important, whilst a fully-fit Lukas Podolski will hope to improve on what was a decent haul in his debut campaign at the Emirates Stadium.
Despite the presence of Laurent Koscielny, the defence still appears shaky, while the midfield still needs a genuine destructive presence. Without it, they appear far too lightweight to make any kind of sustained run at the trophy.
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