As the Champions League group stages get underway, James Horncastle looks at the contenders to lift the trophy in Kiev in May...
"Judging by their displays in La Liga this season, Neymar's orphans seem determined to prove a point. Messi remains the best player in the world and has scored a brace in each of his last 10 games for goodness sake. Ernesto Valverde seems to have freshened things up a bit at the Camp Nou and with that in mind maybe we should think twice about writing them off."
Madrid look strong but don't write off Barca
The manner of Real Madrid's second half performance in last season's Champions League final and the first hour or so of the European Super Cup left the impression that the Spanish champions are far and away the best team on the continent. They should probably be shorter than [5.4] on the Exchange. And here's why? Real Madrid's third Champions League title in four years feels like it is only the beginning, not the end.
A big part of that is Isco fulfilling his potential and the emergence of Marcos Asensio. But also the succession planning that has seen Real sweep up the vast majority of Spain's best young talent. Having said all that, there are some who think Madrid no longer have the depth they had last season, particularly now Alvaro Morata, Danilo and James Rodriguez are gone. But their bench still betters any other in Europe.
"For the first time in nine years I feel inferior," Gerard Pique said after the Spanish Super Cup. The loss of Neymar, and a complete lack of confidence in a board that has allowed Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta to enter the final year of their contracts has made Barcelona look vulnerable this summer. The market reflects that by making the Catalans only fourth favourites @ [8.2] to win the competition in 2017/18. But are we underrating Barcelona?
Judging by their displays in La Liga this season, Neymar's orphans seem determined to prove a point. Messi remains the best player in the world and has scored a brace in each of his last 10 games for goodness sake. Ernesto Valverde seems to have freshened things up a bit at the Camp Nou and with that in mind maybe we should think twice about writing them off.
Atletico and Juve look overpriced
Perhaps trading on past reputation are second favourites Bayern Munich [7.6]. The Bundesliga champions are no longer at the same level they were under Pep Guardiola and, even during his time at the Allianz Arena, never reached a Champions League final. In fact their last appearance in the final came in 2013 and when you consider Juventus [16.0] and Atleti [26.0] have each finished runners' up twice in the meantime, it's a wonder why they aren't as short as the Bavarians.
Carlo Ancelotti has an extraordinary record in the Champions League. He is the most successful manager the competition has ever seen along with Bob Paisley. But the senators in the Bayern dressing room don't seem entirely convinced by the avuncular Italian and the media need little excuse to get their knives out.
One of Ancelotti's former clubs probably expected to be rated higher than [7.4] by the Exchange after smashing the world transfer record for Neymar and promising to pay Monaco €180m for Kylian Mbappé at the end of his 'emergency loan' next summer. PSG's Qatari owners seem absolutely hellbent on seeing their team win the Champions League before the state hosts the World Cup in 2022. But is this year really their year?
While the speed at which Mbappé, Neymar and Edinson Cavani have struck up an understanding is impressive, question marks remain about the goalkeeper, the left-back position and whether the Parisians have enough depth in midfield. Even so, it's about time PSG broke through the glass ceiling of the quarter-finals and made the last four for the first time since 1995.
Manchester United the best bet of the English teams
As for the English contingent, well, we have five to choose from. Jose Mourinho has done the UEFA Cup/Champions League double before and also won the Champions League in his second year at Inter. You may recall nobody had Inter anywhere near the favourites then. It was at a time when Pep's Barcelona were at the peak of their powers, so Manchester United look like a value bet @ [15.0]. Manchester City are the shortest of the Premier League representatives @ [13.5] but for all the progress they are making under Pep, the defence still looks like a limiting factor.
The Exchange likes Liverpool [22.0] more than Atletico, which may or may not have something to do with the uncertainty caused by Los Colchoneros moving to a new stadium next week. But it must be said Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone's teams do have something in common. No one wants to play either of them. Liverpool reached the Europa League final in Klopp's first season at Anfield and, for all their flaws, they still have the feel of a dark horse.
As for Chelsea, a lot will depend on Antonio Conte. The Italian's record isn't as bad as is made out in Europe. Remember Juventus weren't in the Champions League in his first season and got knocked out in the quarters by a Bayern team that went on to do the treble in his second.
A group stage exit in his third is used as a stick to beat him but let's consider the context. Roma won their opening 10 games that season and Conte maybe got too wrapped up in Juventus defending their title. In the end they still reached the semi-finals of the Europa League, which was seen as progress by the players and credited as a big part of their run to the final the following year under Massimiliano Allegri. The Blues can be taken @ [19.0] to repeat the success of 2012.