Top 10: Champions League contenders 2013/14
Can Bayern Munich retain the giant trophy next May?
Every year the UEFA Champions League brings the greatest players in the world to television screens all over the world.
Last May, Bundesliga winners Bayern Munich were victorious against domestic rivals Borussia Dortmund in the final at Wembley, lifting the giant trophy for a fifth time in the club's history. While both sides are among the favourites, they are eight more waiting to stake a claim to become the new champions of Europe.
The current champions are probably the favourites to retain their Champions League crown and with good reason given the side's current crop of world class players. In Manuel Neuer, Bayern can boast that arguably the best goalkeeper in the world is between the sticks at the Allianz Arena.
Then there's club captain Phillip Lahm whose first taste of Champions League glory will only spur him onto leading his side to victory once again. In midfield, the star studded duo of Spain's Javi Martinez and Germany's own Bastian Schweinsteiger were the core of the team which went all the way to Wembley and triumphed last May. Further up the park, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and new signing from rivals Borussia Dortmund, Mario Gotze offer a lethal combination of skill, tenacity and the ability to score.
Striker Mario Gomez was sold to Italian side Fiorentina this summer meaning Croatian Mario Mandzukic remains the club's main goal threat. Dutchman Arjen Robben had a fantastic Champions League campaign last season exemplified as he tormented Barcelona from start to finish during Bayern's 7-0 aggregate mauling of the Spanish champions.
With a plethora of great players in almost every position surely it's hard to name the side's top star right? However this moniker is reserved for the man who won the UEFA Best Player in Europe Award last month ahead of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, of course none other than French winger, Franck Ribery.
Ribery's skill and passion for the game propelled Bayern from becoming ''nearly'' European champions to reigning and defending European champions. The club's hopes of retaining the giant trophy in May next year rely on Ribery playing at his brilliant best.
One thing is for certain, if the squad are anywhere near as devastating as last year, Bayern will remain the favourites to become the first side ever to retain the Champions League. The Bundesliga champions will begin the defence of their title in Group D against CSKA Moscow, Viktoria Plzen and Premier League runners up, Manchester City.
Key player: Franck Ribery
Barcelona dominated two recent Champions League campaigns in 2009 and 2011 with the club's brand of tiki-taka playing style under then manager, Pep Guardiola. While both triumphs were magnificent, the defeats have been mainly pointed at the club's weaknesses in defence.
In 2012, Barcelona relinquished their crown to English side Chelsea who despite not creating many chances, singled out the gaps in the Spanish side's back line and punished the Catalan giants for it. This year, not only were Barcelona defeated but were decimated and humiliated by eventual winners Bayern Munich - a 7-0 aggregate defeat spelled the end of the club's dominance, almost like the torched had been passed.
Despite this, Barcelona remain one of the top contenders to bring the Champions League trophy back to the Nou Camp for a fifth time in the club's rich history. This summer, Brazilian superstar Neymar was signed from Santos for a fee in the region of £50m.
This is his first chance to exhibit his talents and exploit defences in Europe and also the opportunity of lifting the Champions League trophy in his first season with one of the biggest club's in the world. Midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta remain two of the current team's best players and will be looking to open up opponents back lines in the Champions League from the off when the Catalans take on Dutch side Ajax later this month.
While their are many vital players in the Barcelona squad, the club's key man just like the last number of years is the Argentine goalscoring phenomenon, Lionel Messi. At the age of 26, the striker has already scored 59 goals in Europe's premier club tournament, closing in on Raul's record of 71, few would bet against Messi overtaking the Spanish striker and what better way to do it than in the final of the Champions League in May next year?
That's certainly what the Catalan faithful will be hoping for but with the club making no new additions to an already frail defence, this will continue to remain a problem position for the four time champions.
Key player: Lionel Messi
It has been over ten years since Los Blancos last tasted the sweetness of Champions League glory. On that occasion, then world record signing Zinedine Zidane scored the decisive goal which gave Real their unprecedented ninth European triumph. Now after smashing the world transfer record once again by signing Welsh forward Gareth Bale from Tottenham, can Madrid once again reach the pinnacle of club football and become champions of Europe for a tenth time?
Whether it's Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Raymond Kopa, Francisco Gento, Michael Laudrup, Roberto Carlos, Raul, Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane or Cristiano Ronaldo, at one time or another Real Madrid have claimed the greatest players on the planet. The club is still partially living off the five consecutive European Cup triumphs achieved during the Puskas, Di Stefano era from 1955-60.
The last five times the world transfer record has been smashed it was Real making the stellar signing. Most recently, just a few weeks ago with the acquistion of Bale for a fee of £85m. However even with Bale coming to the Bernabeu, the club is still reliant on the goalscoring talent of Portuguese forward, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Last season he was the Champions League's top scorer with 12 goals but you can bet he would have traded each one of those strikes for victory in the final at Wembley. He has 50 goals in the competition for both Manchester United and Real Madrid and few would bet against him adding to that already outstanding tally in this year's campaign.
On the flip side, the club sold German midfielder Mesut Ozil to Arsenal on transfer deadline day - how much will his creative influence be missed in the season ahead and can Isco, who was signed from Malaga this summer replace his assist rate?
Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo
The 2012 winners have been reinvigorated with the return of ''The Special One'', Jose Mourinho. The Chelsea manager won the Premier League twice, the F.A. Cup once and the League Cup twice but despite achieving Champions League success with Porto in 2004 and Inter Milan in 2010, the giant trophy eluded Mourinho during his first stint with the Premier League side. The 50-year-old left Stamford Bridge in 2007 and returned this summer. While regaining the Premier League will be a goal Mourinho wants to achieve again, the Champions will remain his top priority.
The Blues made two major signings this summer as well. Firstly, long time transfer target and German international Andre Schurrle signed from Bayer Leverkusen before Willian signed from Russian side Anzhi, a player who caused Chelsea all sorts of problems in the Champions League with Shakhtar Donetsk last season.
Mourinho also recruited Willian's Anzhi teammate, Samuel Eto'o, a Champions League veteran, and he was also coached by the Chelsea manager during Inter Milan's Champions League triumph three years ago. The striker's experience in the competition will be vital having lifted the trophy twice, firstly with Barcelona and then again with Inter.
Chelsea's player of the year for the last two seasons Juan Mata has seemingly been frozen out of The Blues squad but surely Mourinho won't overlook the Spanish international who was key to the side's Europa League triumph last season.
Winger Eden Hazard is also highly rated and remains a key figure for Chelsea and could be the difference in the latter stages of this year's competition. One thing the club has lacked since the departure of Didier Drogba is a reliable goalscorer.
Fernando Torres has failed miserably in repaying the colossal £50m transfer paid for him in 2011 while fellow striker Demba Ba has struggled for game time since joining from Newcastle in January last. If Chelsea are to stake a claim, a regular goalscorer is required.
Certainly as the competition hots up in February. If the goals aren't flowing, Mourinho may look to strengthen in the striker department in January.
Key player: Juan Mata
Manchester United fans are still coming to terms with the departure of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The club has been in transition for a number of years and despite winning the Premier League last season, many feel the current United squad lacks the same kind of depth the Champions League winning teams of 1999 and 2008 possessed.
New manager David Moyes has already come under pressure, perhaps due to the club's lack of activity in the most recent transfer window. However on deadline day, Moyes splashed £27m to sign Marouane Fellaini from his former club, Everton. The tenacious midfielder not only tormented United in previous seasons, but is also the kind of player the club has lacked arguably since the departure of Roy Keane in 2005.
The goals of star striker Robin Van Persie will once again be key if United are to be a force in this year's competition. After winning his first Premier League medal last season, the Dutchman will be looking to add to his list of honours.
The acquisition of Fellaini could free the space to allow playmaker Shinji Kagawa and striker Wayne Rooney to press forward and push opposition back lines to the limit. Something United lacked in last season's competition was creativity coming from midfield, for the United faithful hopefully this will not be a problem when the club takes on Bayer Leverkusen in the first game of the new Champions League campaign on on September 17th.
Key player: Robin Van Persie
For the last two seasons, Italian giants' Juventus have dominated Serie A - winning the Scudetto title on both occasions. With a strong defence in front of captain Gianluigi Buffon, can the Old Lady return to the top of European football for the first time since 1996?
Midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo is set to play in his last season of professional football as he has reiterated his desire to retire from the game following next season's World Cup in Brazil. Nonetheless his passing and vision will be vital to the black and white of Juve in what could be the last Champions League campaign of his career. The Italian champions also signed two strikers this summer, firstly Fernando Llorente from Athletic Bilbao before the acquisition of Argentina international Carlos Tevez from Manchester City. Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal will partner the magnificent Pirlo in midfield and adds tenacity to the Italian's finesse.
As stated previously, the back line remains very strong for Juventus with the majority of the Italian national team defence key figures in the Serie A champion's squad. It has been said on numerous occasions that the Italian league is in decline, however it is a chance for Pirlo and co to prove that Serie A is still one of the top leagues in world football and the first task will be to progress from Group B containing Galatasaray, Copenhagen and the mighty Real Madrid.
Key player: Andrea Pirlo
Gunners fans are joyous over the signing of Germany's star midfielder from Real Madrid, Mesut Ozil. The club's last trophy came eight years ago in the form of the F.A. Cup and despite the pressure heating up on the players and in particular manager Arsene Wenger, Arsenal now have a stellar name - something the fans have been crying out for since the departure of Robin Van Persie.
Ozil smashed Arsenal's transfer record fee paid for a player, costing the side over £40m, almost three times the amount Wenger paid to sign Andrey Arshavin in 2009. The German star instantly becomes his new club's key player and his creative genius will ensure Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud will be able to take more chances in the final third.
The Champions League has been a title that has eluded the north London club and the closest Arsenal went to claiming the prestigious trophy was in 2006 as the Gunners reached the final, only to be beaten 2-1 by Barcelona.
While the squad was much stronger with the likes of Thierry Henry, many fans believe the eight-year long wait for success is about to come to an end - will the signing of Ozil inspire Arsenal to the pinnacle of European football? The side were placed in a tough group this campaign alongside Marseille, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli, a real test early on for the new look Arsenal.
Key player: Mesut Ozil
Paris St. Germain
The big spending French champions added Uruguayan international Edinson Cavani to boost their chances of taking the Champions League trophy to the Parc des Princes for the first time in the club's history. Cavani will partner star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a pairing that could be the most formidable in this season's Champions League campaign.
PSG were placed in Group C with Benfica, Olympiacos and Anderlecht and are favoured not only to progress to the round of 16, but to top the group as well. The dynamic duo up front will receive support in the midfield from Javier Pastore, Marco Verratti and Lucas Moura. Also the support from the wings will be important with Jeremy Menez and Ezequiel Lavezzi providing both creativity and goals, meaning PSG could be one of the most feared sides in the Champions League this season.
Manager and former France player and coach Laurent Blanc has lot to prove after stepping down from his country following a poor Euro 2012 campaign. Blanc has the resources to add to the squad in January if needs be, however the current Paris side is as strong as ever and it's hard to see which areas need to be improved. Time will tell as the Champions League progresses towards the knockout stages.
Key player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Last season's finalists were everybody's second favourite team and dazzled fans and opponents with a number of sensational performances against the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester City. Manager Jurgen Klopp encourages his side to play ''the beautiful game'' and there is real panache and charisma throughout the current Dortmund squad.
The 1997 Champions League winners lost a key player in Mario Gotze to rivals Bayern Munich this summer however were able to keep a hold on the majority of the squad in particular, Marco Reus, Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels. Much like they did in last year's campaign, Dortmund will be a very tough team to come against no matter the opposition. The Bundesliga runners up face a tough group once again much like they did last year, this time the German side will be up against Arsenal, Marseille and Napoli.
While the group looks difficult, few would bet against Dortmund progressing and maybe even topping the pile, judging by last season's performances, no one can bet against them. Reus is the club's star man and his classy style of play will create multiple chances for striker Lewandowski. No team in the world will underestimate Dortmund, as proven in last year's competition, can they do the unthinkable and reach the final again come May?
Key player: Marco Reus
Milan are far from the side that retained the European Cup in 1989 and 1990. During that period the club had three of the best players in the world at the time in Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten. However with the return of Kaka, a player instrumental to the Italian side's triumph in 2007, many fans of the Rossoneri believe that the good times are just around the corner as the seven time winners step into a group consisting of all former European champions.
Barcelona, Ajax and Celtic have all tasted European success at least once and in what looks like the ''group of death'' in this year's competition, can Milan produce the same magic that has brought seven European cups to the San Siro.
Milan have two of the best young players to come out of Italy in the last number of years. Both Stephan El Shaarawy and Mattia De Sciglio have shown during their short time in Serie A they can both become world class players for a number of years for the club. With Nigel De Jong, Riccardo Montolivo and Kaka in the midfield, Milan can name a strong midfield for the first time since Andrea Pirlo moved to Juventus.
They are certainly the underdogs of the ten teams mentioned to go all the way to the final but if history has taught football fans anything, never discount the spirit which radiates from Italian teams.
They seemingly always prove to be tough opponents no matter the opposition. Former Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli remains the club's key threat in front of goal and given his form since his switch from England back to Italy, he has looked as dangerous as ever.
But will his goals be enough to help the red and black of Milan regain the Champions League trophy?
Key player: Mario Balotelli
Which team will conquer Europe and lift the giant trophy at the Estadio da Luz in May next year? Have your say below.
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