MARK O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) is insistent that there’s one team that has to be backed in the Champions League outright market. Here, he explains all…
Champions League | 15th September 2015 – 28th May 2016 | BT Sport
The planet’s best club competition returns on Tuesday and the annual puzzle of picking the Champions League winner needs solving once more. Luckily (I hope), there’s one standout selection for 2015/16 and I’ll be as cocky to say, it’s one of the best value bets of the season. But first, a bit of background…
The road to the San Siro sees the last three Champions League winners top the betting and that’s understandable enough. It would be remiss to ignore the claims of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid here, as the three superpowers are clearly the obvious candidates.
Will Barca retain the trophy? History says no. I’m sure we’re all well aware that no club has ever retained the trophy in the Champions League era – Milan were the last team to achieve the feat, way back in 1989 and 1990. Three holders have reached the final in the following 24 years but Milan, Juventus and Manchester United were all downed at the final hurdle.
It would be wrong to rule Luis Enrique’s side out based purely on the historical trend but as I’ve said previously in La Liga previews, the current Catalan outfit aren’t the same animal as last season. Pedro’s departure is of course a blow, the squad is thinner and the Bluagrana must also deal with Club World Cup duties before Christmas in Japan.
The transfer ban will have little effect – Barca should cruise into the knockout stages and from there Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal will be eligible. But I do fear for the physical condition of the small squad when the business end of the campaign comes around.
Barcelona boast (big statement alert) one of the best front three’s the game will ever see and are worthy 3/1 (Bet365) favourites but I’m not prepared to invest my cash here. There’s better value elsewhere.
Plenty of pundits believe Pep Guardiola must claim Champions League honours with Bayern Munich if he’s to write his name into the Bavarians history books. FC Hollywood have left the competition with their tail between their legs in the past two renewals and with Guardiola now in the final year of his contract, the pressure is on to deliver.
Bayern have recruited Arturo Vidal and Douglas Costa and the latter has made a flying start. Last season their defensive failings were a major downfall in Europe but a well-documented spat between Pep and the medical department also proved their undoing. The German giants were hampered by key injuries and never truly convinced. They’ll be there or thereabouts at 9/2 (BetVictor).
Real Madrid (11/2 Betway) shouldn’t be written off. Despite talk of the contrary, Los Blancos have strengthened in the summer and Champions League-winning coach Rafa Benitez is overseeing a change in style and system to make the capital club a more compact and solid outfit.
The suggestion is, this is a season of adapting and regrouping after a desperately disappointing end to 2014/15. It was a campaign that promises so much before nose-diving in 2015 but the Bernabeu club are certainly no slouches. There’ll be an expectation from within the club to compete and early indications show they’re a group united behind Benitez.
Chelsea (10/1 Bet365) are next in the betting and floundering in their attempts to defend the Premier League. Because of it, the Londoners are unlikely to get too much support but could a failed Premier League challenge see Jose Mourinho’s side shift their focus firmly onto the Champions League? Perhaps. Mou’s Blues have been given a straight-forward group and are never comfortable opposition in knockout football.
Manchester City have been talked up after their 100% start to 2015/16 but do I really want to back them at 12/1 (Bet365) quotes? No. The Citizens splashed the cash again during the transfer window but you can’t help but feel their progress hinders firmly on the fitness of David Silva and Sergio Aguero. Manuel Pellegrini’s men are in a tough group and the media will relish ramming their recent continental struggles down their throats as soon as they slip-up.
Like the blue side of Manchester, PSG have chucked more money at the team in the hope that they’ll finally get things right on the European stage. Last season’s performance in dumping out Chelsea deserved huge credit but Barcelona comfortably booted them out in the quarter-finals. The Parisians believe (and now expect) progress following Angel Di Maria’s addition but Layvin Kurzawa could prove equally as pivotal, solving the weak link at left-back.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is getting no younger and is entering his final year with the French quadruple winners and their saunter to another Ligue 1 title should ensure Laurent Blanc can focus all their attention on continental glory in 2016. Again, I’d need convincing to back the 16/1 (Bet365) on offer.
Manchester United (20/1 Ladbrokes) appear a touch overrated, to me. Louis Van Gaal’s criticised for their tactics, selection and the style of play the Red Devils are employing in the Premier League. Although there have been green shoots, the consistent winning formula has yet to be found and I just don’t believe they’ve the mettle or quality to go deep in this competition.
I can’t really be bothered to mention Arsenal (25/1 BetVictor). The Gunners will do the necessary to make the knockout rounds before bravely exiting early and Juventus (28/1 Bet365) are in transition. I opposed the Old Lady in the Serie A outright market so I can’t justify a bet on Max Allegri’s men now they’ve been drawn in the ‘Group of Death’.
That leaves me (OK, there’s 22 teams I’ve not mentioned) with a certain Spanish side and Spanish clubs are simply the best (cheers Tina). La Liga’s the strongest domestic division and the leading lights prosper in European competition. This century, the Spanish have won 14 of 32 major continental trophies – you don’t need me to tell you, that’s nearly half – England have claimed five.
Spanish clubs are also dominant in the knockout stages when faced with foreigners. La Liga’s finest have faced non-Spanish opposition 25 times in European knockout ties and finals, and won 23 of them – that’s an astonishing record, right?
Well Spain’s success means there are five La Liga teams in this year’s tournament and Atletico Madrid’s claims look far, far stronger than the quoted 21/1 (10Bet). They just have to be considered the best bet – I won’t have anyone say otherwise!
Atleti were finalists two seasons ago, the same year they beat the duopoly of Real and Barcelona to clinch their domestic title. How the heck can they be the same price as Arsenal and Manchester United then? Do me a favour.
Diego Simeone’s troops remain as combative, aggressive and defensively stodgy as ever. They’re built from a tremendous base that includes towering Uruguayan centre-halves Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez. The return of Filipe Luis will only enhance their backline but crucially, the Mattress Makers now offer a serious threat again in the final third.
Mario Mandzukic’s lack of pace exposed Atletico’s attack far too often last season. They didn’t have a player to run the channels or capable to carry out their wonderfully effective counter-attacking approach. The signings of Jackson Martinez, Luciano Vietto and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco could and should be game-changers when it comes to Atleti’s shot at silverware.
The last 10 Champions League winners all reached the knockout stages the previous season with eight making the quarter-finals and Simeone’s side have been handed an excellent draw too. They’re a team suited to knockout football and they don’t need to prove their credentials. Last year’s efforts solidified the view that 2013/14 wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
The only stat that goes against the Mattress Makers is that which says, nine of the past 10 champions finished in the top-two of their respective league the proceeding season. But when you’re competing in La Liga, I think we can forgive Atleti here. Just one of the past 20 winners have come from outside the top four European leagues and Atletico Madrid are unquestionably the best bet for 2015/16.
Champions League – Atletico Madrid to win outright (21/1 each-way 10Bet)
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