With the first round of knockout clashes this week in the Champions League, the temperature is rising across Europe as the competition to be crowned champions of the continent heats up.
But who exactly are the favourites this term? With current holder Chelsea exiting the competition early at the group stage, surely the other finalists from last year Bayern Munich must fancy their chances this time around.
The German giants had a disappointing season overall last year having lost out on both the Champions League and the Bundesliga title, which was claimed by Borussia Dortmund. However, they’ve redeemed themselves this season – they currently sit 15 points clear of Dortmund at the top of the table in the league.
They face Arsenal in their last-16 clash at the Emirates next week and with the Gunners having suffered a poor run of form that sees them 5th in the Premier League, they’ll feel optimistic about their chances of beating the Group B runners-up.
Chelsea also did a number on Barcelona in the semi-finals last year. The Catalans too had an underwhelming season, losing out both in Europe and domestically, as they watched Real Madrid lift the La Liga trophy.
Any side that has the likes of Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi, runner-up Andres Iniesta, Xavi, and Cesc Fabregas within their ranks have to be considered favourites.
But whether this will be Barca’s year remains to be seen. If the Spanish national team’s performance at the European championships which they won last year are anything to go by, Barca are real contenders who will be there or there abouts. The Catalans currently sit 12 points clear at the top of La Liga.
Whilst Real Madrid won the Spanish top tier title last season, this year they’ve fallen apart under Jose Mourinho’s leadership. They’re all but out of the La Liga title race – in fact they’re not even second placed, but third after Athletico Madrid.
Mourinho is desperate to win his third Champion’s League trophy with a third club and, with his side out of the Spanish title race, he’ll have his sights firmly set on Europe this year.
Especially now that it looks as though he’ll be departing from the Santiago Bernabeu at the end of the season, this will be his last chance of major silverware.
However, Real will have to beat Manchester United if they are even to make it through to the next round. That clash is very much the ‘glamour tie’ of this round and the winner of the competition could very well come out of that fixture.
United are currently 12 points clear of holding Premier League champions Manchester City at the top of the league table and, having bought last year’s PWA and PFA Player of Year Robin van Persie from Arsenal, they will feel like they have the arsenal to gun down any opposition.
They face a tough trip to the Bernabeu this week but if they can emerge from the first-leg relatively unscathed they can really do some damage to Los Blancos in the return leg at Old Trafford.
Other than that, the only outsider that could potentially pull off areal upset might just be Paris Saint-Germain. They’ve bought big in the last couple of seasons and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is almost unstoppable in the kind of form he’s in.
They certainly aren’t favourites to win the competition, having never won it before, but I wouldn’t bet against them this year. They’re currently storming ahead in Ligue 1 where they sit rather comfortably 6 points clear at the top of the table.
Manager Carlo Ancelotti has won the Champion’s League twice with Inter Milan and he might just fancy chasing Jose Mourinho’s record of winning it twice with two different clubs.
Who knows who will grace the pitch at Wembley come the end of May but one thing’s for sure, there are no certainties in football.
image: © andyjakeman