Officially, UEFA’s motto is “We Care about Football.” However, considering the breakneck turnaround between the old and new seasons it could just as easily be “The King is dead. Long live the King!”
It may have only been a month since Spain bested Italy to claim their historic victory at Euro 2012, but the juggernaut that is the Champions League is already under way, ushering in the new season mere days after the last one ended. The third qualifying round is now starting to separate the wheat from the chaff and then it will be full steam ahead as the phoney war ends and the last 32 line up to watch the groups tumble into place at the star-studded draw.
Those who enjoy rooting for the underdog could do worse than cheering for Montpellier. Rene Girard’s side fought off the mega-rich Qatar-backed Paris Saint-Germain to win their first league title last year, and though they lost top scorer Olivier Giroud to Arsenal, the French champions have a vibrant young side spearheaded by playmaker Younes Belhanda and youthful centre-back Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa which could spring a surprise. As for those yet to qualify for the group stages, Lille, Udinese and Braga continue to excel in discovering top talent, fitting them into an exciting squad and selling them for high profit without compromising their successes, and could easily follow the likes of Basel in knocking out a heavyweight like Manchester United (though hopefully not suffer the same fate the Swiss endured by taking a 7-0 battering away to Bayern Munich in the Round of 16).
Of course, Montpellier and teams like Danish champions Nordsjaelland will be fighting an uphill battle, not only in terms of experience but expense, and so the biggest challengers to the big beasts are likely to come from teams newly-rich from friendly oligarchs, sheikhs and other assorted sugar daddies. PSG, who now boast Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva following a hugely impressive double raid on AC Milan, have Champions League-winning coach Carlo Ancelotti to make sure their millions move them to Europe’s summit as fast as possible, having flattered to deceive for most of their 40-year history, while Malaga, providing they negotiate the third qualifying phase, could also be an ambitious upstart capable of usurping a leading side. Add in the emerging Eastern powers of Zenit St. Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk, whose recent UEFA Cup successes are translating into improved showings in the top competition, and this influx of money could finally transform the face of European football.
It is not just new names breaking through though, as several giants have awoken from their slumbers to return to the top table once again. An Ajax side boasting the wonderful Christian Eriksen have a new crop of youngsters that will hope to emulate their illustrious predecessors, and even if a tilt at the trophy is unlikely this season, a good showing could lay the foundations for another golden dynasty. Feyenoord – the first Dutch side to lift the European Cup – are also back after years in the doldrums, while 1977 finalists Borussia Monchengladbach, led by Lucien Favre, display the type of fluid offensive football so readily identified with the renaissance of the Bundesliga. Star player Marco Reus may have decamped to Borussia Dortmund, but should the Foals qualify they would pose a stern test for Europe’s defences.
Of all the sides returning to the fray though, one name overshadows them all. Twice European champions and five-times runners-up, as well as one of only four clubs to win all the European trophies and holders of a record number of Serie A titles, everyone is eager to see the return of Juventus. Three years after the Bianconeri’s last campaign, the club won their first league title since the Calciopoli scandal of 2006, lasting the whole season unbeaten as the evergreen Andrea Pirlo pulled the strings for Antonio Conte’s team. Tactically versatile, viciously competitive and with plenty of money to spend, their place in Pot 3 marks them out as the team every top seed wants to avoid.
The triumphant return of Juventus was a fitting end to the Bianconeri career of iconic striker Alessandro Del Piero, and across the continent there is an air of a new era. Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City both took home league titles last year – Dortmund doing it in style with a 26-game unbeaten run and thrashing Bayern Munich in the German cup final for good measure, Manchester City doing it as only they could by nearly throwing it all down the toilet – and both sides have the look of serious contenders with lasting power. After disappointing group stage exits last time out, each will be eager to firmly plant their flag on the summit of European football and re-establish reputations that faltered through financial turmoil and footballing farce for much of the previous decade.
However, as Euro 2012 showed, football is still living in the days of the Spanish Empire, and it is a toss-up between who are favourites out of Barcelona and Real Madrid – Mourinho’s men took the title off the Catalan kings of tiki-taka last season, but with Jordi Alba joining the Blaugrana’s already formidable squad it promises to be a fascinating personal rivalry between the two giants. With Manchester United also looking to improve on a disastrous showing which saw Europa League football at Old Trafford after Christmas, Bayern Munich seeking to avenge their final heartbreak and Chelsea – now legitimately European powerhouses – looking leaner and meaner with the arrivals of Eden Hazard and Oscar, the resident elite will fight tooth and nail to maintain their stranglehold on the tournament.
As Chelsea’s tortuous progress towards winning the competition last season proved, anything can happen in the Champions League and a host of exciting newcomers suggest the old days of the big sides cruising through the group stages could be over. Come the crowning moment at Wembley next May, Europe could well have a new king to toast.