Champions League football returns in three weeks’ time, and excitement is slowly building up towards the knockout stages of Europe’s premier club competition.
Sixteen teams will rough it out to make it past the round of 16, games of which start on 14th February. Holders Real Madrid are eyeing unprecedented back-to-back triumphs; they have Napoli awaiting them in the first round of the knockout stages.
Real Madrid aside, a few other teams are in among the favourites to win the Champions League this season. As has been the case in recent years, the likes of Real, Bayern Munich, and Barcelona are once again the frontrunners to go all the way this season.
No team has defended the Champions League in the competition’s current incarnation, hence Real Madrid’s chances look slimmer than usual. On the other hand, Real’s fierce rivals, Barça, could ape Los Blancos to win two Champions Leagues in three years.
At Bayern Munich, Carlo Ancelotti is one of the most decorated European managers and will look to take Pep Guardiola’s previous work at the club to another level this time round.
Should Bayern successfully negotiate Arsenal in the round of 16, they will have a strong case to win the competition altogether. Die Roten have lost in the semi-finals in the past three seasons, hence reaching the final is long overdue.
Italian champions Juventus are also one of the favourites. Massimiliano Allegri’s side lost to Barça in the 2015 final, but they have strengthened their squad this season.
Additions of Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic have made them stronger in attack, while their defence is one of Europe’s best. Juve look the most balanced out of the contenders and if you’re looking for a solid dark horse to back, you can bet online for them to go all the way and end their 21-year-old Champions League disappointment.
The dark horses
Last season’s runners-up Atlético Madrid have looked out of sorts in La Liga this season, but Diego Simeone’s side have mastered the art of navigating two-legged ties. It won’t surprise many should they reach their third final in four years, but whether they can finally lift the “big ears” remains to be seen.
Guardiola’s Manchester City impressed during the group stages, but last season’s semi-finalists have to play better than they are playing at the moment to have any chance of going all the way.
Likewise, Unai Emery’s Paris Saint-Germain have the squad to compete against any team in Europe, but they have to first beat Barça in the round of 16 to start dreaming of creating history.
Judging by their respective squads, Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal are also in the reckoning. However, the Gunners have to first take care of Bayern to think about latter rounds. Thomas Tuchel’s Dortmund have an easier draw—they face Benfica—but this season could be one too early for a tilt at glory for the youthful and dynamic Black and Yellows.
Should there be no upset in the knockout stages, expect one out of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Juventus to win the competition. With the curse of the defending champions still haunting the Champions League, Real are outsiders at this stage. Barça and Bayern are due another Champions League win, while the astute Allegri could also spring a surprise with Juve.
Predicted winner: Barcelona or Bayern Munich or Juventus.