Atletico ready for hike in class
Ben Linfoot fancies Atletico Madrid to ruffle a few feathers as he previews the UEFA Champions League.
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The UEFA Champions League, complete with anthem, 32 teams, 96 group games, 15 ties in the knockout stages and millions of viewers worldwide is back and, not unusually, last season's winners head the outright betting.
Bayern Munich are the 4/1 favourites following their victory over fellow Bundesliga outfit Borussia Dortmund in the 2013 final and it's hard to argue they are not the best equipped side in the quest for glory once again.
Last year's squad has been improved by the acquisition of Mario Gotze on the pitch and Pep Guardiola in the dugout and plenty will be investing in the Germans as they bid to become the first side since Milan in 1990 to retain the trophy.
However, they don't appeal at 4/1. It may take Guardiola time to stamp his style on Bayern and given the unpredictable nature of the knockout stages taking short odds about the Germans doesn't appeal for a season-long investment.
The two Spanish giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid, are also prohibitively priced up despite their impressive squads.
Barca were humiliated by Bayern in the competition last season when their bid for a fourth Champions League triumph in eight years effectively ended with a 4-0 defeat in Munich.
The injury troubles Lionel Messi endured at the back end of last season were partly to blame but there's no doubt that their aura of invincibility has been shattered and they too are easily passed over at around 9/2 despite the arrival of talented Brazilian Neymar.
It's harder to put a line through Real Madrid who look ready for a huge campaign following the arrivals of Isco, Gareth Bale and perhaps most importantly, Carlo Ancelotti.
His stable influence should not be underestimated and the Italian will be hopeful of adding a third Champions League title to the two he won with Milan given the immense talent he has at his disposal.
As ever, their problems are at the back and with Iker Casillas' best days behind him it could be that they will prove vulnerable to the very best attacks in the knockout stages. It's enough of a doubt to ignore their claims at 11/2.
None of the English sides appeal.
Manchester City have struggled in their brief Champions League campaigns so far and their collective inexperience in Europe remains a concern, with progression to the knockout stages a more realistic aim for them.
Manchester United don't lack for inexperience, on the pitch at least, but David Moyes does and it would be a miracle first season for him were he to deliver the Champions League trophy. It looks beyond him and his squad.
Chelsea's lack of a top-class striker looks set to hurt them in the big games while Arsenal are far from certain to make the last 16 in a tough-looking group.
Napoli are in Arsenal's group and Rafael Benitez's team, led by Gonzalo Higuain, are outsiders worth considering but I prefer the claims of Atletico Madrid at a general 40/1.
La Liga and the Bundesliga remain the best leagues in Europe for my money and though Serie A is on its way back and Ligue 1 looks sure to house a Champions League winner sooner rather than later, I'm happy to concentrate on the talents from Spain and Germany this campaign.
Of course the giants of Barcelona and Real Madrid are most likely to bring glory to Spain, but I don't think these A-list teams are that far ahead of Atletico Madrid who look overpriced and underrated at 40s.
Success breeds success and 'Los Colcheneros' are no strangers to winning trophies after their Europa League (x2), Super Cup (x2) and Copa del Rey victories in the last few years.
Plenty will point out that such triumphs were accomplished due to the goals of Diego Forlan and latterly Radamel Falcao, and while their feats should absolutely be acknowledged I don't think they were the key reason to Atletico's ascendance.
That would be Argentinian coach Diego Simeone, one of the brightest young managers in Europe, who has built on the good work done by Quique Flores at the Vicente Calderon.
Simeone led Atletico to third place in La Liga last season as well as three trophies and their victory over Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final proves they can mix it with the big boys on the biggest of occasions.
Their Europa League successes should not be underestimated either and though the Champions League is a step up in class, their brand of football and team ethic will translate well to the big league.
The signing of defender Toby Alderweireld from Ajax should prove to be a shrewd investment given his Champions League experience while the likes of Tiago and Raul Garcia ensure quality in the midfield.
Replacing Falcao was never going to be easy, but Simeone might just have pulled off a masterstroke signing David Villa on the cheap while Diego Costa looks set to shine on the big stage if he can channel his aggression in a positive manner.
Simeone is tactically astute, gets the best out of his players and his talented squad has all the tools to progress from Group G with Zenit St Petersburg, Porto and Austria Vienna unlikely to stop the Spaniards from going through as group winners.
From there, Atletico Madrid will need a bit of luck. They aren't the best team in the competition - after all, they are only the third best team in Spain - but Simeone has created a tremendous team spirit and that, along with the goals from Costa and Villa, can take them a long way.
I would rather have a small bet on Atletico at 40s than a larger bet on one of the more fancied teams as predicting what might happen in the knockout stages next year is a thankless task at this stage.
Borussia Dortmund were the surprise package last season and their run to the final was largely due to the goals of Polish scoring machine Robert Lewandowski.
The early signs from this season's Bundesliga are encouraging as far as Dortmund's prospects go this season and another good run in the Champions League would not surprise under the guidance of another talented coach in Jurgen Klopp.
As short as 14/1 for the trophy this time around, Dortmund look sure to go well but their success depends on the form of Lewandowski.
He won't have the surprise factor this time around, but he's a class act who can cope with more savvy defenders and at 33/1 he makes some appeal in the top goalscorer betting as he can take his team deep into the tournament.
He was second in the list last season, two goals behind Cristiano Ronaldo who topped the charts with 12. The Portuguese is battling Messi for favouritism again at around the 3/1, but such short odds are happily ignored.
At over ten times the price, Lewandowski is a much more appealing wager.