As the new season of league football in Europe fast approaches, we have seen some of the top clubs shuffle their squads to great effect, buying and selling players of the highest quality for exorbitant amounts of money.
Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United face the season with new managers and new tactical philosophies, but with the common ambition of winning the most prestigious trophy in European club competition: the UEFA Champions League.
While the signings of the likes of Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Radamel Falcao, Mario Gotze, Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez and Stevan Jovetic will undoubtedly alter the landscape of the top leagues in Europe, their collective impact on the Champions League this season should be absolutely astonishing to behold.
The years between Manchester United's triumph in Moscow in 2008 and Chelsea's victory in Munich in 2012 saw Pep Guardiola's Barcelona firmly establish themselves as the best team in Europe, but Jupp Heynckes' Bayern Munich side laid the foundation for what could be another era of single-handed domination of the European title by reaching the final in 2012, and winning next year on their way to an unprecedented treble.
However, this year's competition sees a host of teams enter the group stages with a clear eye on the trophy, and each of these teams can boast of a squad capable of achieving European glory.
This article takes a look at some of the clubs (in no particular order) that can stake a claim to the Champions League title that will be on offer in Lisbon, Portugal on 24 May 2014 and discusses their realistic chances of lifting the trophy.
Chelsea completed possibly the biggest signing of the summer so far by coaxing Stamford Bridge legend Jose Mourinho into a high-profile return to the club he led to two Premier League titles.
Blues fans will likely be overcome by fervent anticipation of what is expected to be the season in which Mourinho masterminds the London club's return to the summit of English football, and even a fleeting glance at the squad he has at his disposal will suggest that Chelsea are more than capable of challenging for the Champions League trophy they lifted in the most inconceivable of manners in 2012.
With the likes of Andre Schurrle, Marco van Ginkel and the returning Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Michael Essien adding to the brilliant creative talents of Juan Mata and Eden Hazard and the solid defensive set-up of Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, David Luiz and Gary Cahill, this squad has the perfect balance of youth and experience. Watch out for Chelsea's home form, as Mourinho has a nearly unmatched record at home.
While the loss of Tito Vilanova will be a big blow to the La Liga giants, Gerardo Martino could just be the perfect man to carry forward Barcelona's tactical philosophy of intricate passing and off-the-ball movement.
The signing of Brazilian superstar Neymar will come as a cause for great optimism for the Catalan club, and the potentially destructive partnership of Neymar and club legend Lionel Messi will be one that no team will want to go up against.
While the midfield duo of Xavi and Iniesta are advanced in years, they are still world class footballers, easily capable of plying their trade at the very top level for the foreseeable future. Barcelona may not be the unplayable force they were at the zenith of their powers in 2011, but can still call themselves genuine contenders.
The only cause for concern is their defensive roster, which is in sore need of a world-class centre-back of the ilk of Thiago Silva or David Luiz, one who can command the penalty area in a way Javier Mascherano has just not been able to.
If Barcelona spend even a fraction of the money they have in recent seasons on players like Neymar, Ibrahimovic and Villa, to bolster their defence, they could expedite a return to the summit of European football.
Having convinced Cristiano Ronaldo to stay at the club, Florentino Perez has displayed Real Madrid's desire to win "La Decima" by roping in young Spanish starlets Isco and Illarramendi for a combined total of almost €70 million, and has remained steadfast in his single-minded pursuit of Tottenham Hotspur's star Gareth Bale, despite being quoted a fee of over £100 million.
Although they've sold Gonzalo Higuain, Madrid look like a potent attacking force, equipped with the steady supply of goals guaranteed by Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, and the superb creative quality of Mesut Ozil, Isco and a possibly rejuvenated Kaka.
Carlo Ancelotti is an experienced campaigner in Europe, and could lead this stunning squad one step further than the three consecutive semi-final appearances it achieved under Jose Mourinho.
Fresh from the best season in the club's history, Bayern have made a clear statement of their ambitions for the future by bringing in Pep Guardiola to replace the retiring Jupp Heynckes, and have strengthened their squad by signing Mario Gotze and Thiago Alcantara, thus adding to a midfield that already houses incredible quality.
While Guardiola will find it difficult to improve on Heynckes' achievements, he has already begun the process of introducing the squad to his preferred style of play, and it will be intriguing to see whether these changes prove to be for the better or worse.
If they can replicate the form of last season, we could see Bayern dominate the European scene yet again. However, one crucial area of concern will be the extent to which Guardiola changes things at the club.
Bayern have a great set of players who worked wonders when utilised according to Heynckes' tactical set-up, and rapid changes to the football at the Allianz Arena could prove to be debilitating to the club's progress.
If Guardiola adopts the prudent approach and keeps the tactical tinkering to a minimum, Bayern should consider themselves favourites for the Champions League title.
Jurgen Klopp's men showed the footballing world that they are probably the most watchable team in Europe with their stunning German Super Cup victory over Bayern Munich. Having signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henri Mkhitaryan to replace Mario Gotze, Klopp has made the team even better than it was last year, and it showed against Bayern. Over the course of the season, the offensive quartet of Reus, Lewandowski, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang could be impossible to defend against, and Dortmund should prove to be a potent threat on the counter-attack. With the likes of Gundogan and Hummels having committed to the club, Dortmund will be as good a team as any of the title contenders. They aren't the best team defensively, but are an un-containable force when attacking, and should be able to tear through opponents on their way to the latter knockout stages.
Led by experienced Chilean manager Manuel Pellegrini, Manchester City enter the new season with the hopes of improving on their torrid group-stage exits in the two previous campaigns. They responded to relinquishing the title of English champions to neighbours Manchester United by spending close to £100 million on the established European talents of Stevan Jovetic, Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas and Fernandinho in a breathtaking display of the strength of the overflowing coffers at the Etihad Stadium, and have stated their intentions of adding to the squad in the time that remains before the end of the transfer window.
The only major loss to the squad has been that of Argentinian striker Carlos Tevez, but if the duo of Negredo and Jovetic can strike an understanding with club record signing Sergio Aguero, there is very little chance that Manchester City will be prevented from reaching the latter stages of the Champions League this time around. The squad boasts an uncompromisingly solid defensive line-up, an efficient midfield boasting world class footballers like Yaya Toure and David Silva, and a potentially prolific forward line, and could stand a chance of upsetting the traditional European giants this season.
The 2013-2014 season will see the unfamiliar face of David Moyes in the Old Trafford dugout, and will determine whether the burden of the expectations that come with the job of football manager at Manchester United is too much for the Scot to bear.
Moyes has gotten off to a difficult start to his Old Trafford career, and is faced with a spate of issues that need immediately addressing, not least of which are the uncharacteristic pre-season performances, Wayne Rooney's transfer saga and the club's inability to secure its preferred transfer targets.
The United squad boasts a plethora of promising young talent in David de Gea, Phil Jones, Rafael da Silva, Wilfried Zaha and Co.--players who, over the next decade, could develop into genuinely world-class footballers.
The lack of big name signings so far though could mean that it could be a while before United experience the glories of that night in Moscow in 2008 again.
United are a club very much in transition, as can be expected, and it may prove to be too much for them to challenge for the European crown this season.
It seems to be an act of incredible folly, naming a team with the likes of Gigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente as outsiders for the Champions League title.
However, Juventus' long hiatus from the competition, and the fact that Europe is getting increasingly competitive with each passing year, could mean that Antonio Conte will need a little more time to deliver European glory to The Old Lady.
What proved to be Juve's undoing last season was their lack of genuine goal-scorers, but with the inexpensive acquisitions of Llorente and Tevez adding considerable firepower for the midfield of Pirlo, Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, Juventus should be able to navigate a path to the Round of 16 with relative ease, and could just progress further if the draw favours them.
One thing about the draw, though: there are rarely any easy fixtures in the Champions League, and this could stack the odds against Juve.
Lionel Messi and Neymar may be the world's most promising offensive partnership, but if PSG duo--and respectively the top scorers in Ligue 1 and Serie A in the 2012-2013 season--Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani can create an understanding with each other, the Ligue 1 champions could be a genuine force to reckon with in Europe.
While Laurent Blanc's side will face diligent competition from AS Monaco in French football's top division, the Champions League will present a much stiffer challenge, although PSG can take encouragement from their admirable performances against Barcelona in their quarter-final clash last season.
If the offensive wizadry of Lavezzi, Lucas Moura and Javier Pastore can supply the two star strikers on a regular basis, PSG could be the ultimate dark horses in this year's Champions League.
One can name many more clubs that you would not be surprised to see reaching the Round of 16 with relative ease--the likes of Arsenal, Porto, Benfica, Shakhtar, Atletico Madrid, Marseille, Ajax, Napoli, Schalke, Milan, Galatasaray and Bayer Leverkusen are all teams with great quality--and the fact that there is very little to separate any two of these teams just about proves that the Champions League tournament will be impossible to call this season, and we could just be in store for the most exciting edition of the annual footballing extravaganza in recent memory.
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