Champions League 2016/17: Pogba's exit could see Juve go all the way

Robert Lewandowski and his Bayern Munich side look a formidable team
Robert Lewandowski and his Bayern Munich side look a formidable team

The Group stage of the Champions League returns in midweek with Arsenal, Man City, Tottenham and newcomers Leicester representing England. James Horncastle give his thoughts on the mouthwatering competition...

"Honestly it's hard to find a flaw in Bayern Munich's team, especially now with the additions of Mats Hummels in defence and Renato Sanches in midfield."

Can Zizou's men go back-to-back?

And so it begins. The long and winding road to Cardiff. Champions League football is back and as is tradition we ask if the holders are able to retain the trophy?

No one, since Arrigo Sacchi's Milan in 1990, has managed to keep hold of Big Ears for longer than a year. Might Real Madrid be the ones to do it? Can Gareth Bale go back-to-back and celebrate a third Champions League triumph in his hometown?

On Saturday Zinedine Zidane's team won their 15th game in a row in La Liga, matching the club record established by Miguel Muñoz and his boys in the 1960-61 season. Zizou has exceeded all expectation since replacing Rafa Benitez and joined an exclusive club at San Siro in May, becoming only the seventh individual to win the Champions League both as a player and a coach.

Unusually for Real, they had a quiet summer by their standards, investing only €30m in the side. To put that into context 14 Premier League clubs spent more, including Bournemouth and Swansea.

The European champions brought Álvaro Morata back to the club from Juventus and Marco Asensio from Espanyol. Both have got more game time and made a bigger and better impact than anticipated. Asensio for instance has been a revelation.

Unfortunately for them, as mentioned, history is against this team repeating what it achieved last season and now that they are operating under a transfer embargo, one wonders if they perhaps should have done more business in the summer. The exchange makes Real third favourites at 6.611/2 to be triumphant again in May.

Barça and Bayern the predictable favourites

Predictably Barcelona once again have the shortest odds at 4.57/2 and it's not difficult to understand why when Luis Enrique can still count on the MSN up front. Confidence in Barcelona is not only down to their frightening attacking trident, though.

The club has commendably added the depth needed in order to keep the team fresh and ensure Barça do not fade like they did in the Champions League in April last season. Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne, André Gomes and particularly Paco Alcácer add competition for places and give Enrique the option to rest other important personnel as well as change things up from the bench.

Bayern Munich yet again also have a formidable look to them this season. The exchange favours them only marginally less than the Catalans to win a sixth European Cup at 4.94/1. Honestly it's hard to find a flaw in their team, especially now with the additions of Mats Hummels in defence and Renato Sanches in midfield.

Pep Guardiola has gone but his successor Carlo Ancelotti is a superior man-manager and is peerless in this competition, matching the great Bob Paisley for winners' medals (three) to which he can add another two as a player.

From a tactical point of view, Bayern remain the most sophisticated in Europe and Ancelotti is no slouch here either. Where he makes the difference, though, particularly in this competition is in his ability to radiate a sense of calm in high pressure moments, often with a joke and an arched eyebrow.

Can Pep's City go all the way?

Ancelotti's predecessor Guardiola has never failed to reached the semi-finals and the price you can get on the exchange for Manchester City to return to the final four is short at 1.84/5.

The understandable Guardiola factor, City's impressive recruitment and their flying start to the season has clearly convinced a number of people to put their faith in them. City are 13.5 to win the whole thing and if you fervently believe in their chances it's definitely worth bearing in mind the First Time Winner market as well where you can back that event at 2.01/1.

Of course Atletico Madrid have come very close to making that happen themselves in recent memory. Beaten finalists in two of the last three years, they now find themselves under a transfer embargo but unlike neighbours Real they did spend and spend big this summer, writing cheques for €81m to sign Kévin Gameiro, Nico Gaitán and Sime Vrsaljko.

Crucially Atleti didn't lose anyone either and still have Antoine Griezmann knocking around the Calderón. They're 17.016/1 on the exchange. There isn't a team in Europe that relishes playing against Diego Simeone's side.

Big spending Juve to reap the rewards

Atletico's defence is the meanest in Europe along with that of Juventus.

Incredibly, the Old Lady looks even better without Paul Pogba on her arm. His world record sale and those of Simone Zaza and Roberto Pereyra to the Premier League allowed Juventus to spend €162.5m this summer and still turn a profit.

Dani Alves and Miralem Pjanic bring more technique and refinement to the team. Gonzalo Higuaín is one of the best strikers in this competition, together with Luis Suárez, Robert Lewandowski and Sergio Agüero.

There was a lot of consternation outside of Italy at Juventus' willingness to pay €90m for the 28-year-old this summer, but that is to underestimate the scale of his achievement at Napoli last season. Higuain had the most prolific season of any player in Serie A history, breaking a record that had stood since 1950.

They have gone all-in for the Champions League. After reaching the final two years ago and almost eliminating Pep's Bayern last season, Juventus are cautiously optimistic that they can end a two-decade wait for this trophy either this season or the next.

Before Pogba left, coach Max Allegri warned him to think carefully because he would be leaving one of the top four sides in Europe. Looking at their squad, that is no exaggeration. They're my pick to win the competition.

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