The group stage of the UEFA Champions League is underway, and 32 teams still have a chance to win Europe’s elite club competition. Some of them realistically have no chance — Cinderella teams from small leagues, such as Azerbaijan’s Qarabag FK, make for great stories but have no realistic chance of winning the competition. In fact, only about a quarter of the teams remaining in the draw look like they might end up realistically winning the trophy in Ukraine next May.
Here’s a look at the eight leading contenders to win the competition and call themselves champions of Europe.
This is not Diego Simeone’s most talented Atleti side, and they were hindered in a big way by a lack of summer additions stemming from a FIFA-imposed transfer ban relating to improper activities involving the signing of under-18 players. As such, this is more or less the same squad that ended up finishing third in La Liga behind Real Madrid and Barcelona last season.
Count Atletico out at your own peril, though, as Simeone has demonstrated a knack for taking this team deep into Europe’s premier club competition.
The flip side of the transfer ban is that it enabled them to dig in their heels and retain most of their key players, including French forward Antoine Griezmann, who had widely been expected to leave at the end of last season. In their last four seasons, Atletico’s worst Champions League performance has been a quarterfinal appearance — they lost in last season’s semifinals and have twice been runners-up to rivals Real Madrid. They have proven that they can have success in this competition, and it would be foolish to dismiss them easily.
Barca are definitely not in the best place they’ve ever been. Neymar’s decision to bolt for Paris Saint Germain surprised many, and it left a big hole in the club’s vaunted front line that had been their great equalizer. There is a lot of concern about the future of Barcelona and whether they can maintain their status as perennial contenders, and for good reason.
But for now, this team still has Lionel Messi, and as long as Lionel Messi is playing for you, you have a chance to win any game you’re playing. The same goes for Luis Suarez, who has toned down his biting habits and instead devoted himself to being one of the game’s great pure goalscorers. Barca aren’t the best team in the competition, but they have arguably the best player in the competition. They will be a tough out because of that reason.
Bayern are perpetual contenders, and it’s telling that their quarterfinal exit last season would actually count as a disappointment — it was the first time they’d departed the competition before the semifinals since 2011. The addition of 2014 World Cup standout James Rodriguez should add more punch to the attack, and the team still has the same core that has made them German champions for five years running.
The problem with such sustained domestic success is that it becomes expected — and in contrast, the club’s failures in Europe are magnified. It’s up to manager Carlo Ancelotti to make progress there.
Heavily favored to win their seventh consecutive Italian title this season, Juve were Champions League finalists for the second time in three seasons last year. The result was the same — they ran into a Spanish buzzsaw in the form of Real Madrid, just as they had in 2015 against Barcelona.
There was some upheaval in Turin over the summer, with defensive stalwart Leonardo Bonucci departing the club. Talented youngster Daniele Rugani won’t miss much of a beat, though. Juve still boasts one of the game’s most talented young strikers in Paulo Dybala, as well as a giant in defense in Giorgio Chiellini. They’re typically a sturdy, tactically sound outfit, which bodes well in European play. They have a chance to go far once again.
Man City are long overdue for a big step forward in the Champions League. This will be their seventh season in the competition, and only once have they made it past the last 16 — a semifinal appearance in 2016 which, frankly, felt like a fluke. Part of their issue has come down to squad depth problems and balancing the rigors of the domestic campaign with the difficult European season.
This year, City should have the depth. They have six top-quality attackers, including three of Europe’s best players in Sergio Aguero, David Silva, and Kevin De Bruyne. Their undoing could be defensive frailty. Even in their signature Champions League performance last season, a first leg win over Monaco, they allowed three goals, which proved their undoing in the second leg.
The talent is here, and they have a manager in Pep Guardiola who has won the competition twice and only failed to reach the semis once in his career — last season. No more excuses.
It may be a year too soon for Manchester United, but they have the top-level talent to do well in this competition. They have a manager in Jose Mourinho who has won it twice at Porto and Inter. They have a player in midfielder Paul Pogba who rates among the best in the world. They have a goal-scorer in Romelu Lukaku who, while untested in Europe, has been a quality scorer in the Premier League for several seasons now.
What could hold them back is a relatively youthful, untested, and shallow squad. United finished sixth in England last season, though they made marked improvements over the summer, but it’s a big jump to go from sixth in England to champions of Europe (unless you’re the Chelsea side of 2012, that is). Still, Mourinho’s pragmatic style of soccer plays well in Europe, and they have the talent to make a serious run.
Paris Saint Germain
The Champions League has been the holy grail for Qatari-owned and backed PSG, but despite heavy investment in the squad over the last six years, they’ve never made it past the quarterfinals. What happened last season was the last straw — a Round of 16 exit against a Barcelona side that they beat 4-0 in the first leg and led 5-3 on aggregate with five minutes to go at Camp Nou before conceding three goals in seven minutes to get knocked out in one of the most remarkable collapses in the history of the competition.
The Parisians are not messing around now. They got back at Barcelona — sort of — by snagging Neymar away from them, and used some fancy accounting to bring in young French star Kylian Mbappe from Monaco. They already had such gifted players as Angel Di Maria, Edinson Cavani, Marco Verratti, and Thiago Silva in the fold. It’s been made clear to PSG through their summer business that failure is no longer an option and progress is mandatory in this competition. Expect them to make it.
The reigning champions in back-to-back seasons and likely favorites to do it again. As they always do, Real Madrid boast an embarrassment of riches, particularly in their Cristiano Ronaldo-led attack. If the likes of Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, Isco, and Toni Kroos are supporting acts in your attack, you have a really good team, and that’s without getting into one of Europe’s brightest young talents in Marco Asensio.
What has made this particular iteration of Real Madrid so successful is a steady defensive presence. Casemiro has been an outstanding fixture in midfield; Sergio Ramos remains one of Europe’s best defenders; and goalkeeper Keylor Navas had become one of the steadiest in the world at his position. Manager Zinedine Zidane was a Real legend as a player and has been given an unusual amount of autonomy in his role. The club is extremely political with a lot of executive meddling, but giving Zidane control has paid off. It would not be a surprise if the 12-time European champions made it lucky number 13 in 2018.