Champions League Draw 2013: Ranking Top Clubs Heading into Group Stage Draw
The Champions League group stage draw is set to take place on Thursday (11:45 a.m. ET/4:45 p.m. BST), which will chart the path top clubs must travel to reach the knockout stages. Right now, those title contenders are just hoping to avoid a group of death.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are still five spots in draw up for grabs as squads finish the playoff round on Wednesday. Clubs like AC Milan, Zenit St. Petersburg and Lyon are looking to earn berths in the second legs of their qualification ties.
While those clubs could become dangerous members of a group, none of them would be top contenders heading into the next stage. Let's examine the top three clubs heading into group play of the marquee European tournament.
1. Bayern Munich
Bayern Munich were virtually unstoppable last season. They won the treble, including the Champions League title, which was highlighted by a 7-0 destruction of Barcelona in the semifinals. It was the type of campaign many clubs can only dream about.
Now comes the tough part: doing it again. Bayern added Mario Goetze and Thiago Alcantara to bolster an already elite squad, so the talent is there to repeat the feat. But surviving two straight extended seasons without slipping up is extremely difficult.
That said, the German powerhouse remains the favorite because of its terrific depth and proven success under pressure. Whether it's Arjen Robben, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Manuel Neuer or one of the other numerous stars leading the way, Bayern have what it takes to make another UCL championship run.
Barcelona made one of the summer's most high-profile moves by bringing in Neymar to team with Lionel Messi in attack. That effort is still very much a work in progress but should be working like a well-oiled machine by the latter stages of the Champions League.
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Barca cruised to the La Liga title last season, but the Blaugrana's league dominance might have actually had a negative impact on their UCL hopes. They were not in top form when they went up against Bayern, and the eventual champions took full advantage.
Despite that lackluster exit from last year's competition, Barcelona are still among the upper echelon of clubs. Once Messi and Neymar get on the same page to go along with the club's usual cast of stars, including Andres Iniesta and Xavi, Barca will be very potent once again.
3. Real Madrid
Real Madrid feature a high-upside squad. Although the club is still led by veterans like Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Pepe, there's a new wave of rising stars who are starting to showcase their talent for los Blancos.
Isco, Alvaro Morata, Casemiro and Daniel Carvajal are among the players who are going to provide the depth Real have lacked compared to other top UCL clubs in recent seasons. That's clearly beginning to change at a rapid pace.
Real are still a step behind Bayern and Barcelona, at least until that group of young players proves themselves in high-pressure matches over the course of the campaign. But Real Madrid are definitely trending in the right direction in the early going.
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