Who should you put your money on in the Champions League?
November 27, 2017
With the final round of group stage Champions League games now approaching, thoughts are beginning to turn to next years’ knockout stages. Teams such as Paris St. Germain, Manchester City and defending champions Real Madrid have already qualified, while sides like FC Basle and first-time qualifiers RB Leipzig could also make an appearance in the latter stages of the tournament.
Punters are also beginning to speculate on the eventual winners of the tournament, with several teams having genuinely impressed during the five group games so far.
In this article, we’ll look at the contenders that are most likely to challenge for the Champions League and assess their chances of winning the ultimate prize in football.
- Paris St. Germain
After years of treading water in Europe’s elite competition, Paris St. Germain look to have finally come of age this year. Perhaps the turning point came in the Nou Camp last season, when the Parisians were distraught after Barcelona had overturned a 4-0, first leg deficit with a thrilling 6-1 win in the second round.
Neymar, who was the architect of Barcelona’s stunning comeback at the Nou Camp, was signed by PSG during the summer in a world record £200 million deal. Then the mercurial youngster Kylian Mbappe was signed on loan from Monaco, with the French forward expected to complete a permanent, £168 million deal next summer.
With the experienced Dani Alves having also joined on a free transfer, PSG have built a seasoned and incredibly talented side that has already thrashed Bayern Munich 3-0 during the Champions League group stages. In fact, the French side have plundered a record-breaking 24 goals in just five group stages games so far, with Neymar, Mbappe and Edinson Cavani forming a lethal and rapid forward line.
As a result of their performances this season (they’ve also won 12 of 14 league games while averaging more than three goals a game), the bookmakers have made PSG the 7/4 favourites to win their first Champions League crown. It’s hard to look past them on current form, although there remain doubts about the teams’ ability to defend resolutely against fellow members of the European elite.
Chances of winning: 4/5
- Manchester City
Manchester City have also underperformed in the Champions League during the last five years, progressing beyond the second round only once during this time. Under the progressive stewardship of Pep Guardiola, however, the club has improved immeasurably during the last 18 months and looks well placed to finally mount a realistic challenge for Europe’s elite crown.
The Blues have already qualified for the knockout stages as group winners, winning all of their five games and scoring 13 goals in the process. The club has also enjoyed a record breaking start to the new EPL season, and in total City have won a staggering 18 consecutive matches across all competitions since August.
It’s the fluidity and pace of their attacking play that has really caught the eye, however, with Belgian playmaker Kevin de Bruyne particularly impressive in a relatively free attacking role. With young stars such as Raheem Sterling and the brilliant Leroy Sane also showcasing incredible speed and movement in attack, City have a beguiling range of options in the final third and are playing with tremendous fluency and the type of intensity that Pep Guardiola craves.
There are still concerns about City’s defensive qualities, of course, with Napoli having put them under immense pressure at times during their Champions League clash in Italy. Clearly, the better quality and more intense pressing of sides like PSG could cause City and their high defensive line untold problems in the latter stages of the tournament, but at present their form fully justifies a price of 9/2.
Chances of winning: 3/5
It’s been a strange old start to the season for the 2015 Champions League winners, who endured a disappointing year both at home and abroad last time out. Despite losing Neymar in the summer and struggling to recapture their swashbuckling form of previous seasons, however, Barca have made an exceptionally positive start to the season and can be backed at 6/1 to win the Champions League.
They’ve already qualified for the knockout stage with a game to spare, while they club has also won 11 out of 13 La Liga matches (they’re currently unbeaten) and opened up an eight point lead over arch-rivals Real Madrid. Barca have also adapted well to Neymar’s acrimonious departure, reverting to a more familiar, possession-based style and restoring Lionel Messi to a relatively free role in attack.
With experienced players like Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitić also providing genuine know-how and pedigree to an assured side, Barcelona look more accomplished and harder to beat than they did last season.
With Messi also playing exceptionally well and the mercurial Luis Suarez finally returning to form after a barren spell at the beginning of the season, the Catalan giants will be hard to beat in all competitions and could well go deep into the tournament.
Chances of winning: 3/5
- Real Madrid
We close with defending champions Real Madrid, who are looking to become the first side to win three consecutive UEFA Champions League titles. The club has not started the new season well, however, having fallen behind domestic rivals Barcelona La Liga and already been beaten by Tottenham during the group stages.
In truth, Madrid are probably paying the price for not significantly strengthening or refreshing their squad in the summer, as they failed to land their primary target Kylian Mbappe while stars such as Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez were allowed to leave the club. This has left them a little bereft of ideas, depth and quality, particularly with Gareth Bale injured and Cristiano Ronaldo strangely out of form.
Despite this and a disappointing defeat at Wembley against Spurs, however, Madrid have still plundered 14 goals in five UCL group stage games while managing to secure qualification to the knock out stages. Ronaldo has also managed to reserve his best form for the Champions League so far, scoring eight of his 11 goals this season in the competition. With their experience, pedigree and status as the 12-times champions of Europe, it should come as no surprise that even an underperforming Madrid are competing well on the grandest of stages.
Having qualified in second place from Group H, there will be certainly be a number of group winners hoping to avoid Los Blancos in the knockout stages. There will also be plenty of punters looking to back them at 6/1 to win the UCL, even if the weight of history is against them