THE DANGER TEAMS:
18. Marseille: Very inconsistent last year, but thoroughly deserved their place in the last 16. Once again, you don’t know what to expect of them on any given day, Ligue 1 or CL, but they should do fairly well in both.
Coach Deschamps has made a few brilliant decisions in his time at Marseille, but they have a very tough group, with three possession-based sides.
17. Valencia: Top coach Unai Emery will have to adjust quickly to life without Mata, but even more pressing are the defensive problems. If he can fix those, Valencia should advance out of Group E, and they are a team which can cause upsets.
16. Lille: The reigning Ligue 1 Champions’ attacking play should thrive in a group featuring Inter, CSKA, and Trabzonspor. Lille’s return to the Champions League will be full of goals and drama, and expect the same in Ligue 1, where they face a huge fight to reclaim the title.
15. Benfica: While their defense may not be the best, Benfica has incredible attack and could beat any team in Europe in one game. They want to prove that Porto isn’t the only Portuguese team that can do damage in Europe, and got a better draw than their rivals.
14. Arsenal: There is no doubt that the Gunners will improve, but this is hardly the type of team that can make a run to the final four. They will be respected, but not feared by opponents. This ranking could end up anywhere between six and eighteen, depending on how much the return from injury of key players helps.
13. Napoli: With the “Golden Triangle” intact, I had high hopes of a deep run into the Champions League by the Azzuri. But they got about as bad a draw as possible, and even finishing ahead of Villarreal is no easy feat. There is good news, though: Both City and Bayern can be inconsistent. Don’t expect their scary current forms to continue for very long, especially on Bayern’s part.
12. Bayer Leverkusen: With one of the best young coaches in Europe, and an easy second-place finish in the Bundesliga, Bayer Leverkusen had to be ranked pretty high, and the fact that no one expects them to do well helps, too. Even if they start winning, they could slip under the radar for quite some time.
11. Shakhtar Donetsk: Another Champions League campaign, another surprising group win and quarterfinal appearance. Then, the next year, they go back to obscurity. If there is one team outside the top five to keep an eye on, this is it.
Watch out for Dmytro Chygrynskiy, the former Barcelona centre-back, who is expected to be the key player in host Ukraine’s Euro 2012 run.
10. Chelsea: Abramovic continues to go all out for the Champions League, adding Juan Mata, who gets reunited with Valencia in a relatively easy group. Depending on the draw, this team could return to the semifinals, but they are a class below Barcelona and AC Milan.
THE DARK HORSES:
9. Borussia Dortmund: Like fellow German giants Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund should be considered a threat for the trophy, but is more than likely to fall out in the first round. The young side don’t have a terrible draw, but their European inexperience means it is basically even between themselves, Arsenal, and Marsielle. But then, we thought their experience would hurt them in the Bundesliga last year.
8. FC Porto: After replacing Falcao with Kleber, and keeping their other key players, we’ll see how much of their previous success was based on Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas. Last year’s team would have made the semifinals, in an off year for Man-U and AC Milan. They face tough journeys to Russia and Ukraine, while looking over their shoulder and Benfica and Sporting Lisbon, their main domestic league rivals.
7. Inter Milan: On paper, they should reach at least the semifinals. But Gian Piero Gasperini has faced a rocky start to his Inter tenure, and things rarely seem to go that well these days for Inter Milan.
Eager to prove themselves, and well suited to Europe, I see them making the semifinals, even as they fall farther and farther behind AC Milan at home. We’ll see.
6. Bayern Munich: With so much talent in the squad offensively, three goals isn’t a surprise for Bayern in any Bundesliga game. Neither is six. The Champions League is different though and, as so often, the health of Robben and Ribery is key. So far the signs are positive. Meanwhile, Mario Gomez remains a head case.
5. Manchester City: This is a team very, very well suited for cup play, so their first Champions League could see at lest a semifinal appearance.
Adding Samir Nasri, like a David Silva on the other side, is a great move, while strikers Dzeko and Aguero have been the Premier League’s two best players so far. Then they have Carlos Tevez on the bench. Those are attacking options. Statiscally, they are better at defense, thanks to Vincent Kompany, Joe Hart, Micah Richards, and Pablo Zabaleta.
4. AC Milan: They underachieved last year, and are even older this time around, but their summer transfer window was very impressive. Like other Italian teams in Europe, they aren’t expected to go as far as they should.
We’ll know a lot more about them after Tuesday’s game with Barcelona.
3. Manchester United: It is likely to be a disappointing year for United fans. The odds are City will pass them at home, while they will go as far as the draw takes them in the Champions League: until they meet Barcelona or Real Madrid. Their young side won’t do well against Real Madrid, and we’ve already seen how they match up against Barcelona, pre-Cesc Fabregas
If they do meet again, maybe Sir Alex will have learned a few things: Play more midfielders, and keep Berbatov on the bench, in case Chicharito gets isolated.
2. Real Madrid: The minimum aim this season will be either the Champions League, or La Liga, and Madrid think they can win both.
Once again, it all comes down to their amazing competition with Barcelona, as both reach heights never seen before in soccer, and keep going, propelled by the sight of their rivals, neck and neck with them.
1. Barcelona: I gave Real Madrid La Liga, and Barcelona the Champions League, but really, at this point in the season, both are fifty-fifty.
Europe’s two behemoths continue to build, but this time they’ll have no shortage of competition.
Last year was a down year for the Champions League, but this year with Napoli, Manchester City, and Borussia Dortmund among the new teams, looks like it will be anything but that.