As Europe’s best teams prepare to do battle in club football’s most prestigious competition, there’s one question that defines this year’s Champions League: Who can stop Manchester City?
Pep Guardiola’s men finally got their hands on the trophy they’d wanted most last season as they completed the treble and whilst there’s no prizes to be had for stating the obvious, they look very well placed to make a bold bid at retaining their title.
Last season City didn’t hit top stride until the second half of the campaign but they were unstoppable once reaching full gear, dismantling Leipzig in the last 16 (won home leg 7-0), Bayern Munich in the Quarter-finals (won home leg 3-0), and then producing one of the best performance seen in recent renewals of the Champions League to smash Real Madrid 4-0 at the Etihad in the semi-final.
There’s been a bit of turnover during the summer – City have seen Riyad Mahrez, Aymeric Laporte, and crucially Ilkay Gundogan whilst bringing in Josko Gvardiol, Matheus Nunes, Jeremy Doku and Mateo Kovacic – but based on a perfect start to the Premier League they look as good as ever and by the serious end of the competition they should be in full flow.
At that stage of the competition, it’s hard to see a club managing to stop the might of Erling Haaland (supplied by Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish) whilst Rodri steers proceedings in midfield, sometimes joined by John Stones, and a back four of Kyle Walker, Reuben Dias, Josko Gvardiol and Manuel Akanji is right up there. An outright price of 2/1 won’t appeal to many, but it’s hard to query with their status as favourites.
Of the other English sides, Arsenal have made brilliant progress under Mikel Arteta but 10/1 makes little appeal considering this is their first Champions League appearance in 6 seasons, and squad depth is also a worry for the Gunners. Manchester United are beset by on and off-field issues, and even if they were to progress from their group their record against top sides doesn’t make much appeal. Newcastle – one of four teams in the group of death – are also making a first appearance in 20 years.
The record of Spanish teams in Europe has long been the stuff of legend, and the El Clasico duo of Real Madrid and Barcelona could be well-placed to challenge City this season.
Madrid were blown away by City at the Etihad in last season’s semi-final but it was their third straight season in the semi-finals, and on the other two occasions only the eventual winners beat them.
All of those came with Karim Benzema leading the line but Rodrygo and Vinícius Júnior scored 12 goals between them in last season’s competition and the arrival of new midfield superstar Jude Bellingham has given them a new dimension.
Bellingham – who has scored five goals and registered an assist in his five appearances so far – gives a big boost to a midfield that has two other top talents in Federico Valverde and Aurelien Tchouamenini and the experience of Toni Kroos, whilst Antonio Rudiger is the star quality in defence.
The big negative with Madrid is the season-ending injury to Thibaut Courtois – a key difference-maker on many occasions – but there’s still plenty to like about their chances.
2023-24 UEFA Champions League
Final: Wembley, London
Group Stages: September 19 – December 13
Round of 16: February 13/14/20/21 and March 5/6/12/13 2024
Quarter-finals: April 9/10 and 16/17 2024
Semi-finals: April 30/May 1 and May 7/8 2024
Final: June 1 2024
2022-23: Manchester City
2021-22: Real Madrid
2019-20: Bayern Munich
2017-18: Real Madrid
2016-17: Real Madrid
2015-16: Real Madrid
2013-14: Real Madrid
2012-13: Bayern Munich
Past Golden Boot Winners:
2022-23: Erling Haaland (12 goals)
2021-22: Karim Benzema (15 goals)
2020-21: Erling Haaland (10 goals)
2019-20: Robert Lewandowski (15 goals)
2018-19: Lionel Messi (12 goals)
2017-18: Cristiano Ronaldo (15 goals)
2016-17: Cristiano Ronaldo (12 goals)
2015-16: Cristiano Ronaldo (16 goals)
2014-15: Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi (10 goals each)
2013-14: Cristiano Ronaldo (17 goals)
2012-13: Cristiano Ronaldo (12 goals)
Barcelona were knocked out at the group stages last season – although they were in the group of death – and have to play away from the Nou Camp for the first time since 1956 but they were hugely impressive in landing the La Liga title and despite their off-field woes, could be outright value.
Impressive winners of La Liga last season, the Catalans are stacked with attacking talent. Robert Lewandowski is still one of the best strikers around and there’s every sign that Xavi can get the best out of Ferran Torres and new addition Joao Felix. In midfield, Gavi and Frenkie de Jong add real class and they’re now joined by Ilkay Gundogan, who was one of the best midfielders in Europe last season as City won the treble.
The capture of Joao Cancelo gives them a quality right -back option and Marc-Andre ter Stegen is an excellent shot-stopper and distributor, something which is vital at this level. Xavi’s relative inexperience as a manager is another possible negative, although he should have learned plenty from his experience in last season’s competition and now has two seasons under his belt at the club. Barcelona have also avoided a nightmare group this time, facing Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and Antewerp in Group H.
The arrival of Harry Kane at Bayern Munich is a massive boost for their chances, and their position as second favourite is understandable. Kane is already up and running up front whilst the addition of Raphael Guerreiro and centre-back Kim Min-Jae to a side already packed with talent made their transfer window a real success.
Considering the other attacking talent present – Leroy Sane, Thomas Muller, Serge Gnabry, Jamal Musiala, and Kingsley Coman all provide threat going forward – and a more stable environment with Thomas Tuchel as manager, Bayern ought to be upto going close and rate as the main threat to our selections.
There’s been a lot of change at PSG – Lionel Messi, Neymar and Marco Veratti have left whilst Luis Enrique has seen a whole host of new faces coming in – and whilst they have clear talent, other sides make more appeal at the prices.
Last season’s runners up Inter Milan are the most interesting of the other contenders. They destroyed rivals AC Milan at the weekend to make it four wins from four games, their attack is in great shape with Lautaro Martinez thriving alongside new arrival Marcus Thuram while Benjamin Pavard and goalkeeper Yann Sommer are quality additions from Bayern Munich to add to an already strong squad.
Of the other Serie A sides Napoli’s best chance might well have gone – they fluffed their lines against AC Milan in last season’s quarter-final and it’s hard to see them hitting the same heights as they did during the last campaign.
It’s hard to look past Erling Haaland – he scored 12 goals in last year’s competition despite not scoring in either leg of the semi-final or the final – but at even money he’s short enough for an ante-post bet. Star are paying 1/4 the odds for four places so it’s worth having an each/way option or two and Robert Lewandowski could go well at 9/1. He scored 5 goals despite Barcelona failing to make it out of the group stages but with a much weaker section that shouldn’t be an issue and he’s already scored three in La Liga to boot. Despite turning 35 he looks as good as ever and Barcelona have plenty of creativity to support him.
It’s hard to put anyone off Harry Kane at 4/1 – he’s the right second favourite behind Haaland, whilst Mbappe could thrive as the undisputed Number 1 at PSG – but there are some tempting prices floating about and Lautaro Martinez could go well for Inter Milan.
Martinez has scored five goals so far for the Serie A leaders and whilst reaching the final again will be a tall order, there are goals to be had in a group with Benfica, Real Sociedad and Salzburg, and a run to the quarters at least feels more than possible if they can keep this form up.
BACK Manchester City – Outright Winner 3 pts at 2/1 (⭐
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BACK Real Madrid – Outright Winner 1.5 pts each/way at 8/1 (⭐
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BACK Barcelona – Outright Winner 1 pt each/way at 14/1 ⭐
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BACK Robert Lewandowski – Top Goalscorer 1.5 pts each/way at 9/1 (⭐
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BACK Lautaro Martinez – Top Goalscorer 1 pt each/way at 50/1 with (⭐
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PROFIT/LOSS (SEPT 2023): LOSS -9.29 points