Analyzing the Champions League field
Tuesday, the 57th edition of Europe's top-tier cup competition -- in its current UEFA Champions League incarnation -- kicks off to decide which of the 32 entrants from across the continent is the best club team in Europe.
We've broken the key teams into three categories of likeliness to lift the trophy. To try to impose order on an unknowable future. To give you something to talk about at work or school -- or with other commenters below.
The ContendersThe rarified atmosphere of European club soccer is getting thinner. As the money continues to flow almost exclusively to the super-rich clubs, the number of true contenders shrinks as more and more teams are forced to drop out of the arms race. Consequently, there are only a handful of real contenders of the 32 teams in the competition, and even among that select group there are big disparities.
European champions twice in three years and thrice in six, Barca remains the big favorite to hoist the big cup once more. Its weakness last year was its depth. That trifling inconvenience has been ameliorated this summer by adding midfielder Cesc Fabregas (the prodigal son returned for a $45 million fee), the emergence of fellow youth academy product Thiago and the purchase of forward Alexis Sanchez from Udinese. Frighteningly, this could well mean Barca can cruise through the season on autopilot until April or so, with its regulars cycling in and out of the squad to stay fresh. Though it did suffer a setback when the club ruled out Sanchez for up to eight weeks with a thigh injury sustained in Saturday night's draw at Real Sociedad.
With that frustrating first year under Jose Mourinho over, Real looks a much sharper and fluid side early on this season. Improbably, it has gotten deeper too, with a few more solid pickups such as midfielders Nuri Sahin, Hamit Altintop and Jose Callejon and defenders Raphael Varane and Fabio Coentrao. What's more, in the Spanish Supercup Real gave off the impression it has figured out how to compete with archrival Barca at long last.
United is coming off its third Champions League final in four years and its 12th Premier League title in 19 years. The Red Devils have won the Champions League just once in those three finals, but they have again managed to refresh and improve their squad with young players without sacrificing too much experience, signing David de Gea, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverly and Ashley Young. United is the third-best team in the world, but unlike Barca and Real, it will have to slog through a hugely burdensome domestic season. This will be draining, no matter how effortlessly United's first few games have been won.
The team known as FC Hollywood has emerged from a season of turmoil in which manager Louis van Gaal was fired to rejoin Europe's elite. Joining an excellent core of young and experienced German internationals and world-class wingers Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben are highly rated Mannschaft keeper Manuel Neuer, versatile defender Jerome Boateng, forward Nils Petersen and Brazilians Rafinha and Luiz Gustavo. Retooled and newly stable with Jupp Heynckes in charge, Bayern could quickly be a lot stronger than people had anticipated.
Chelsea isn't in the same class as Barca, Real and United, but it is a hugely experienced squad that for the most part has been playing together a very long time and has made a deep run into the Champions League before, losing to United on penalties in the final of the 2007-08 edition. This team knows how to win, as evidenced by its six consecutive top-three finishes in the EPL. It has been stockpiling talent, too, adding superstars-in-waiting Juan Mata and Romelu Lukaku as well as midfielder Raul Meireles, while bringing forward Daniel Sturridge back from loan. With a little luck and a favorable knockout phase, Chelsea has a shot.
The PretendersThe start of a new season brings unreasonable expectations. Going far in Europe is likely a pipe dream this year for these clubs.
Jean-Michel Aulas's enigmatic project in Lyon is floundering. Lyon is still Europe's most savvy team on the transfer market, forever replenishing its side with excellent talent bought at a premium but that always seems to yield a profit. Nevertheless, the mojo seems to have run out on the field. After seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles between 2002 and 2008, Lyon hasn't won anything in three years and is now under the command of a first-year manager in Remi Garde. Lyon long looked like it was knocking on the door of a breakthrough in the Champions League, making the knockout stage in seven consecutive seasons, including last year, while reaching the semifinals once and the quarterfinals three times. But this won't be the year Lyon finally lives up to its potential.
After yet another summertime raid by bigger or richer clubs, sending Fabregas to Barca and Samir Nasri to Manchester City, the Gunners look to be a shell of their former selves, and their acquisitions on the last day of the transfer window -- defenders Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos; midfielders Mikel Arteta and Yossi Benayoun; and forward Park Chu-Young -- won't compensate.
The Rossoneri lumbered to the 2010-11 Serie A title with no conviction, showing themselves the weakest Italian champions in memory. And they have made no significant additions, other than to make Zlatan Ibrahimovic's loan from Barcelona permanent. If they weren't in a group with two dreadful teams in BATE Borisov and Viktoria Plzen, you'd wonder if they'd even make it to the knockout stage.
After a spell of dominance in the Serie A under Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho -- not to mention the 2009-10 Champions League title with the Special One -- Inter doesn't quite seem to know how to stop the rot. Tellingly, several managers had reportedly turned down the head-coaching job before Gian Piero Gasperini accepted. Inter may have held onto playmaker Wesley Sneijder this summer, but adding nobody better than forward Diego Forlan won't stop this squad from circling further into the spiral of staleness.
The Sky Blues are on the rise and will mount a very serious challenge for the Premier League title. An already ludicrously deep squad now has forward Sergio Aguero and midfielder Nasri in its ranks, too. Winning in the Champions League, however, is a very different beast. With no easy games to speak of -- especially not in City's deadly Group A with Bayern, Napoli and Villareal -- it requires a consistency and ability to grind out wins that one can't reasonably expect from City yet. But despite its almost unprecedented depth, City isn't likely to have played together long enough to challenge in Europe yet.
The OutsidersA lengthy group stage and three two-game elimination rounds before the final just about rule out Cinderella stories, but here are a few clubs that could push far against the odds.
Glory days are here again in Napoli after Diego Maradona made the club a force in the late 1980s. The team made a serious push for the title last year. And with an attacking triangle of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marek Hamsik and Edinson Cavani intact and backed by a sturdy supporting cast, Napoli is a solid outsider. If it can make it out of Group A, that is.
After winning the 2009 UEFA Cup, Shakhtar won its group -- which included Arsenal -- in this bigger tournament last season. It pushed into the quarterfinals by knocking out AS Roma, but was unlucky to run into Barcelona after that. Buttressed by perhaps the largest private collection of Brazilian midfielders on the continent, Shakhtar is solid through and through.
ESPN FC on Twitter
Don't miss a moment of the latest soccer coverage from around the world. Follow us on Twitter and stay informed. Join »
Consistently among Europe's best small-league clubs, FC Porto completed the treble last year, going undefeated in the Portuguese league and winning the Portuguese Cup and the Europa League. The team lost manager Andre Villas-Boas to Chelsea and striker Radamel Falcao to Atletico Madrid, but by promoting AVB's assistant Vitor Pereira to manager, the line of succession dating back to Mourinho is kept intact. Plus, in Kleber, the club seems to have already found an adequate replacement for Falcao.
Dortmund strolled to the German league title with embarrassing ease last season and could even afford a late-season slump, such had been its dominance. While the club that won this tournament in 1997 lost Sahin to Real Madrid, it has enough transcendent young talent in Mario Goetze and a good supporting cast to compensate and compete.
The longest of long shots, Ajax now and then has a habit of overachieving in Europe. In 1971 and in 1995, it won this tournament to everybody's surprise with a young bunch of complete unknowns from its famed academy. Ajax is stacked with great prospects again -- Gregory van der Wiel, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen and Siem de Jong -- and is led by a young manager, Frank de Boer, who has already shown he knows how to get the most out of them, winning the Dutch league last year. Every few decades, those Ajax prospects mature much quicker than expected.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @LeanderESPN.
MORE SPORTS HEADLINES
- Ribery, Benzema charged with soliciting minor
- Ex-U.S. coach denies Solo's shoving allegation
- Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta UEFA award finalists
- Kompany: Van Persie would boost any team