Real Madrid are the team to beat in the Champions League. Zinedine Zidane’s men have won the tournament two times in a row, making it 12 in total, as they once again swept all before them last season.
Ahead of the competition restarting, here’s a look at five contenders who look best equipped to end Real’s dominance.
1. Juventus: They may have lost Leonardo Bonucci to arch rivals AC Milan but it would be foolish to suppose Juventus are not a major contender this time around. While Bonucci’s absence is inconvenient, the bulk of a team that was uncompromising at both ends last season is back and they have enough world class talent elsewhere to make amends.
That was evident on the second match day of the Serie A season when Paulo Dybala’s hat trick helped them to a comeback 4-2 win at Genoa. With Blaise Matuidi and Douglas Costa on board, Juventus have greater depth in other key areas now, adding to a squad that is rich in Champions League pedigree.
There is also the argument that greater competition domestically, even if it comes from Bonucci and Milan, may help them. Their experience in last season’s final was a humbling one but it is still hard to find an outfit better equipped to put up a fight against Real than the Bianconeri.
2. Manchester City: At some point you sense it will click for City in Europe and they look far better equipped for an assault on the Champions League than during last season’s ultimately disappointing campaign.
The addition of two players who were so influential for the Monaco team that beat them, Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva, is a significant reason. With Kyle Walker also on board they now have the kind of energetic, attacking full-backs a convincing challenge demands.
It is hard to imagine Pep Guardiola falling short for much longer. With Gabriel Jesus rapidly emerging as a top class alternative to Sergio Aguero, there is depth in key areas too. The only department of genuine concern is centre-back, where a creaking Vincent Kompany may be relied upon too heavily. Guardiola would at least have January to sort that out. City should progress comfortably enough through their group and a run at the last four looks possible.
3. Paris-Saint Germain: Was Neymar the final piece in PSG’s Champions League jigsaw? That is the intention, but too many doubts remain to unreservedly suggest they are the team best placed to end Real’s run of success.
Dani Alves, who was instrumental for Juventus in the latter stages of last season’s competition, should prove as useful to their European prospects as his compatriot and PSG can certainly be fancied to end a barren spell of 23 years without a semifinal place.
Kylian Mbappe adds another option to a thrilling front line but you wonder whether they have Champions League-winning depth in other, equally important, areas of the team. Matuidi was let go for a remarkably low fee in today’s market and with squad option Grzegorz Krychowiak having also departed, they look light in the centre of the park.
There are also doubts about their central defensive reserves and while PSG should beat the majority of sides they meet in Europe, against the canniest opposition they may fall just short.
4. Barcelona: Every time the Last Rites are read on Barcelona, they come back punching. That was certainly the case in the stunning round of 16 comeback against PSG last season, the difference this time being that the man who tilted the balance has swapped sides. The loss of Neymar cast a shadow over Barca’s summer but it would be a fool who ruled them out of contention even if there is an air of transition under Ernesto Valverde.
Lionel Messi shows few signs of slowing up and there remains star quality throughout the squad. A lot hangs, though, on the quick integration of Ousmane Dembele — a thrilling talent who, nonetheless, did not deliver weekly for Borussia Dortmund last term and is not yet at Neymar’s level.
He should get there eventually; whether Barcelona can reach their former heights is doubtful but it would be rash to rule them out as a Champions League contender.
5. Atletico Madrid: We are wise enough these days never to write Atletico off but the obvious questions will linger. How smoothly will they adapt to life at their new Wanda Metropolitano stadium, both domestically and on those big European nights? Can a tight-knit squad muster up the energy and will required by Diego Simeone yet again? Will they be able to ride out their summer transfer ban and, if necessary, use January to add a little extra sparkle?
In truth they could do with that now, as Chelsea and Roma will be fiendish group stage opponents, but it would be a surprise if they missed out and Simeone has worked enough wonders with Atletico to merit being bunched among the main challengers once again.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.