Who’s looking in better or worse shape than we thought to lift the trophy next May?
It’s very early. We’ve had two matchdays. It’s the group stages and one would expect all these teams to make it to the knockout rounds, where anything can happen if the draw goes your way.
Nonetheless, there is a sense of which sides are on the up or down, who looks stronger or weaker than one might have expected. Looking at the eight teams that bookmakers most favour to win the tournament (apologies to the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Ajax), let’s see who’s stock has risen or fallen since before a ball was kicked.
Champions League Risers
Manchester City (+333)
Crisis? What crisis?
There were real concerns about Pep Guardiola’s defence against Norwich. These concerns have not entirely been answered. There may still be another bad day in this squad. But damn. When they’re good, they’re unstoppable.
In all competitions, the last five fixtures have a combined scoreline of 19-1 to City. In that period, they have taken more than three shots for every one the opponent attempts. Centre-back remains a huge concern, with John Stones joining Aymeric Laporte on the injury list. But it’s a question as to whether teams can even get the ball into dangerous areas to test those defenders. Guardiola’s side are the team to beat in this season’s Champions League.
Bayern Munich (+900)
For all that we love to discuss managers, coaching methods, formations, pressing, possession football and the rest, sometimes the most important thing is just the talent of the players. Niko Kovač might not be the most exciting manager in the world, but the talent he has at his disposal is as deep as it gets.
Philippe Coutinho, for all his tactical issues at Barcelona, remains one of the best ball dominant playmakers around, while Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard have added more flexibility at the back. They probably don’t have the high end quality of Manchester City, or an individual star like Lionel Messi, but over a long season, no one has the depth of Bayern. That could be enough.
Paris Saint-Germain (+700)
The thing about PSG is that the big names haven’t even played that much this season. Neymar hasn’t kicked a ball in the Champions League yet. Kylian Mbappe played for half an hour against Galatasaray. And yet, Thomas Tuchel keeps winning.
Idrissa Gueye has arrived from Everton and seems to have become a world class midfielder overnight. This is not, as many might assume, a team of galacticos across the pitch. This is a team of a few incredible individuals and a manager getting the rest to play out of their minds. The arrival of Gueye and Ander Herrera should help them toughen up against top European sides. The blend could finally be right this year.
Atletico Madrid (+2100)
It doesn’t matter who is playing. It doesn’t matter who gets sold. Diego Simeone gets his team playing the same way regardless.
You could put Messi, Neymar, Mbappe and Eden Hazard in this team and Simeone would still have them forming a compact shape behind the ball. Atleti have kept four clean sheets in a row now. Playing against this side must be a deeply miserable experience.
It’s not always pretty, they probably won’t be your first choice if you’re looking for a group stage game to watch on a given Tuesday or Wednesday, but it just works. Diego Simeone may be a loose canon, but dammit, he gets results!
Champions League Fallers
Now, this might be a little harsh of me. After all, Liverpool sit five points clear atop the Premier League table, having won every game this season bar the poor defeat at Napoli. But it looks a little shaky.
Understat have Jurgen Klopp’s side conceding more than an expected goal a game in the league. The team have decided to play a higher line, in the hope of a more aggressive offside trap, but the main effect seems to be that Virgil van Dijk is getting exposed a little more easily.
Maybe this all just shakes itself out over the season. Liverpool will probably be fine. But questions exist that didn’t at the start of the season. The five point lead is hugely value domestically, but in terms of winning the Champions League, it hasn’t been a great start.
Perhaps the Turin side are starting to fix things? The move to a diamond formation, with Aaron Ramsey as a number ten behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala, has loosened things up a bit in attack. It’s still a long way from what we think of as an ideal Maurizio Sarri side, but this was always going to be the case.
The project Juventus are embarking on is such a dramatic break from the eras of Max Allegri and Antonio Conte that it was always likely to take time. Right now, it’s a bit shaky. But there’s still every chance it all clicks once the knockout stages come around in 2020.
Oof, where do we start?
Barcelona snuck a win at home to Inter but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone outside of Luis Suarez’ family who was impressed by it. Messi’s absence at the start of this season has shone a light on just how poor the side is. Ernesto Valverde has built a team with no clear tactical ideas, no cohesion, no plan to win games other than the simple “give it to Messi” approach. That he exists is the only reason they have any shot at winning this trophy.
It’s a mess from top to bottom. The rot goes deep. The main man won’t be around forever. When he is gone, we might see how bad things can really get.
Real Madrid (+2000)
Zinedine Zidane, why are you doing this? You have wealth that I could only imagine. You could be anywhere right now, doing anything with your life. What you choose to do is manage Real Madrid to a 2-2 draw at home to Club Brugge. You don’t seem to know your best team. You still don’t seem to have any idea how this group of players is supposed to play without Cristiano Ronaldo. You don’t seem to trust any of these players too much.
I get that you’re an obsessive, that your desire to win overrules all sense and logic. But come on, man. Just go home. Watch some Netflix. Enjoy life and let Real Madrid hire Jose Mourinho to coach this side for two good years before it all implodes.
Where to Bet the Champions League in the US
In the US, you can legally bet on soccer online in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.