It seems like only yesterday that Real Madrid beat Juventus to secure a second consecutive Champions League title, but already the prestigious competition is back upon us. Fans are being treated to such exciting and glamorous fixtures as Maribor v Zrinski and FK Kukeski v FC Sheriff. None of these teams are likely to trouble Real Madrid et al in the latter stages of the competition, but it is welcome relief for bettors that have endured a long summer without any club football, and the quality improves next week when teams like Nice and Ajax enter the fray.
Dutch runners-up Ajax made it all the way through to the Europa League final last season, only to be beaten by Jose Mourinho’s Man Utd and be denied a place in the Champions League for 2017/18. They have another shot at it this summer, but first they will have to fend off Nice, who finished third in Ligue 1 last season, 11 points clear of Lyon and only nine points behind megabucks PSG. It is the highlight of the qualifiers so far and both teams can count themselves unfortunate to be drawn against one another. It really could go either way and should be an open, free-flowing game. Both teams to score in the first game, which takes place in Nice, looks a good option at 4/5 with Stan James.
The other big clash sees CSKA Moscow take on AEK Athens. CSKA should qualify from this one, and they look a good bet to win the first-leg tie, in Athens, at 6/4 with Sky Bet. Dynamo Kiev to beat Young Boys (3/4 with Bet Victor) and Steau Bucharest to beat Plzen (11/10 with Sun Bets) also look good options. On the British front, Liverpool are not involved until the final stage of qualifying, but Celtic are already in action and on course to cruise past Linfield. They will then face Dundalk or Rosenberg, and should get through to the final playoff round, so they stand a great chance of making the group stage for the second year in a row and the even money Paddy Power is offering on this outcome looks a good bet.
However, none of these teams have a chance of actually winning it. Celtic are 2,000/1 with 888 Sport, while Ajax are 250/1 with Bet Victor. A small, elite group of European powerhouses will once again contest this competition. Real Madrid have to be the frontrunners after winning it twice in a row, led by superstar striker Cristiano Ronaldo. Many bookmakers have them as joint favourites with Barcelona and Bayern, but overall Barca are the outright favourites with most bookies. They have a new manager and that typically galvanises Barcelona, while Lionel Messi will be desperate to wrestle the limelight back from Ronaldo, so they have a great chance. Bayern came the closest to beat Real last season and can count themselves very unfortunate to have lost that tie after falling victim to some questionable offside and red card decisions from the officials. Of the three, however, Real have to be considered the best value (they are 11/2 with Bet Victor) as they have such great balance in their side.
Juventus have lost Leonardo Bonucci to AC Milan and are unlikely to improve on last season’s runners-up finish. The other Italian teams in the competition are not up to scratch, nor are the remaining German teams. PSG seem to fall apart at the worst times and perhaps the level of competition in their domestic league does not keep them at the requisite level of intensity. Monaco meanwhile are being ripped apart by European clubs cherry picking their best players and they will surely regress. Atletico Madrid cannot get over their hoodoo against city rivals Real and will be hit by their transfer ban.
The competition for that Barca-Bayern-Real axis then will have to come from the Premiership. It should have five representatives, provided Liverpool qualify and join
Chelsea, Tottenham, Man City and Man Utd. They bring to the table five top managers and a wealth of expensively assembled talent, and will be a threat to anyone, particularly Premiership champions Chelsea. Man Utd are also very strong in knockout competitions and will be a force to be reckoned with due to Mourinho’s masterful tactics.
Bet365 is offering a line on which nationality the winner will hail from and England looks an intriguing option at 5/2. But right now the 6/4 it is offering on a Spanish winner looks to good to ignore. For that you get champions Real Madrid, favourites Barcelona, and a dogged Atletico thrown into the bargain, and that looks a very good bet indeed.