Football

Champions League 2013 contenders

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Real Madrid and Barcelona are favourites. (©GettyImages)
Real Madrid and Barcelona are favourites. (©GettyImages).

This year's Champions League competition has the potential to be the most open campaign since Porto beat Monaco in the 2004 final. Barcelona and Real Madrid will once again be the overwhelming favourites, but there are a number of other clubs, aside from the usual candidates, with genuine reason to believe they can be in contention when the tournament reaches its climax next spring.

Manchester City, Juventus, Zenit St Petersburg and Paris Saint Germain are four sides who could surprise their European rivals, and have the potential to beat any other club in the field.

Holders Chelsea will be motivated to try and become the first team to retain football's premier club trophy, while last season's losing finalists Bayern Munich will also be determined to right the wrongs of last May.

Manchester United's group stage exit in 2011/12 is a sore subject for Sir Alex Ferguson, so he will make sure his players are in the right frame of mind to bounce back this year, while Arsenal's consistency in reaching the competition's knockout phase means they cannot be ignored, either.

On that note, Barcelona's dominance over the past five years is astonishing. Three semi-final appearances - in 2008, 2010 and 2012 - and two final victories, in 2009 and 2011, justifies their position as one of the pre-tournament favourites. But, under the new stewardship of Tito Vilanova, early indications suggest that the Catalan's will be slightly less aggressive, and not as focused in defence.

That could pave way for a rival competitor to capitalise on Barca's frailties. However, the mere presence of pint-sized magician Lionel Messi - who has been the tournament's top scorer in four of the previous five seasons - means they will still be a contender.

At the Argentine's present strike rate, Messi will break Raul Gonzalez's record as all-time leading marksman by the end of 2013/14.

Four-time Champions League winner Carlo Ancelotti - twice as a player and a manager - now in charge of big-spending Ligue 1 outfit PSG, is adamant that this year's tournament is wide open, but downplayed the Parisian's chances of claiming the European crown.

"Because we've spent a lot of money, we're favourites to win the competition," explained the Italian. "But football isn't about spending money to build a team, you need time to do that.

"Players need to get to know each other. It isn't as easy as it first appears. Our objective is clear: getting through the group stage, and then, who knows?" Ancelotti also refused to rule out another of his former sides, AC Milan, warning: "The Champions League is in Milan's DNA."

Meanwhile, Jose Mourinho, fresh off the back of his La Liga title success with Real Madrid last year, will have his sights set on a third Champions League crown with his third different club. But first, Real must face the difficult challenge of getting through their group of death, alongside Manchester City, Ajax, and Borussia Dortmund. A league made up of national champions from each of their respective leagues.

Former Madrid forward Emilio Butragueno said that although his team, along with City, might be viewed as favourites to qualify from the group, every game would be challenging.

"From a spectator point of view this group is very attractive and we will watch great matches and players with great prestige," he said. "But it will be tough and it will be like a final each time so we have to be prepared."

The two teams meet at the Santiago Bernabeu in the first round of group stage fixtures next week, while Arsenal travel to Montpellier, which will see the return of new Gunners striker Olivier Giroud to his former employers.

Chelsea begin the defence of their trophy when they host Serie A champions Juventus at Stamford Bridge, and Manchester United will be eager to get off to a strong start when they welcome Turkish side Galatasaray to Old Trafford. Below is a full breakdown of the group stage draw:


Group A: Porto, Dynamo Kiev, Paris St Germain, Dinamo Zagreb

Group B: Arsenal, Schalke, Olympiakos, Montpellier

Group C: AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg, Anderlecht, Malaga

Group D: Real Madrid, Manchester City, Ajax, Borussia Dortmund

Group E: Chelsea, Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, FC Nordsjaelland

Group F: Bayern Munich, Valencia, Lille, BATE Borisov

Group G: Barcelona, Benfica, Spartak Moscow, Celtic

Group H: Manchester United, Braga, Galatasaray, CFR Cluj

Topics:
Football
UEFA Champions League
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