Barca can be Euro stars again
An in-depth outright preview of the UEFA Champions League.
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5pts Barcelona to win the Champions League at 13/5 (Paddy Power, sportingbet).
1pt Juventus to win the Champions League at 18/1 (Coral, Sky Bet, Paddy Power).
2pts Zenit St Petersburg to win Group C at 2/1 (William Hill, sportingbet).
1pt e.w. Zlatan Ibrahimovic to be the top scorer at 28/1 (Coral 1/4 1,2,3,4).
Don't believe for a second that last season's drama in the final of the Champions League will not be replicated.
The prize that the cream of Europe's clubs covet the most has a typically open look but there is undoubtedly some mileage in the 13/5 available with sportingbet and Paddy Power about the best of the best - Barcelona.
The Catalan giants are a blindingly obvious pick but having sat down and done a bit of background work before looking at the prices, I came to the conclusion they would be trading at under 2/1.
Going back to 2006, they have won the competition three times and also got into three semi-finals, most recently falling at the last four-stage to eventual winners Chelsea on a supercharged night in the Nou Camp in the spring.
It is a new era for Barcelona this season after the exit of Pep Guardiola. The organisation wisely promoted one of their own from within and Tito Vilanova has got off to a pleasing start with four consecutive victories that sees them out in front in the early stages of the Primera Liga.
Vilanova is not going to tinker with his side's slick footballing ideals and his additions during the summer have been relatively low-key with former Gunner Alex Song and Jordi Alba being blended into the mix.
Of more importance is the return to fitness of classy attacker David Villa after missing much of the last campaign with a broken leg and his presence will add another goalscoring facet to go along with the golden touch provided by Lionel Messi.
Still only 25, the Argentine notched a remarkable 72 times for club and country last season and has started off in similar vein once more with six goals already domestically.
The fear for Barca is how they would react if Messi ever picked up an injury that would see him ruled out for a period of time but for whatever reason physically, he seems able to avoid any problems despite the inevitable heavy-handed treatment he receives.
It is incredibly scary to think that he might still not have reached his pinnacle as he marches on to cementing his legendary status as one of the all-time greats of the game.
Vilanova will have to do without defensive stalwart Carlos Puyol for the first couple of rounds of games due to a knee injury but that should not be a huge loss in the grander scheme considering they could not have asked for a much easier challenge in Group G.
Benfica, Spartak Moscow and Celtic on paper look at least two or three levels below Barcelona and it is easy to see why the layers make them the shortest price to top their section at 1/7.
Ask most people with a knowledge of the game and they would say that Barcelona remain the best team in Europe.
So it comes down to the question of price and at the odds available, Messi and company are worthwhile favourites and very backable - none of their rivals in the betting have been flawless so far this season, yet Barca's price has barely moved.
England provided the winners last season after Chelsea's heroics and they along with Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal carry the hopes of the Premier League this time around.
The defending champions will do well to enjoy the big breaks at the right time for a second successive campaign and this will be a much bigger test of Roberto Di Matteo's credentials as a manager.
Manchester City should be all the wiser after a hit-and-miss campaign in 2011 but a tough group against Real Madrid, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund will need them to be at their best throughout to progress.
The red half of the city suffered their first group stage exit since 2005 but qualification for the knockout phase should be on the cards once again against Braga, Galtasaray and CFR Cluj.
Robin van Persie's goals will carry them a good distance but some lingering issues at the back could be exposed the deeper they go in the competition.
Arsenal could be the side to turn a few heads from England. The defence seems to have developed some solidity under Steve Bould while there is undoubted quality in attack which should improve vastly as the season unfolds.
But in terms of a bet to supplement Barcelona, I like the chances of Juventus.
The Old Lady are back on the big stage for the first time since 2008/09 having made a remarkable start under Antonio Conte's leadership by winning the Scudetto in his first season while remaining unbeaten.
Conte was recently handed a 10-month ban from the Italian federation for not reporting a match-fixing affair during his time at Siena so will not be allowed on the bench or in the dressing room on match days.
But he can still coach the team and replacement Massimo Carrera will take up his duties pending an appeal from Conte - far from ideal, but workable according to Juve officials.
On the pitch, they are led by peerless midfield supremo Andrea Pirlo, who has looked one of the bargains of the century after a free transfer from AC Milan.
They tried to reinforce their attack this summer with an audacious bid for van Persie but ended up settling for Emirates reject Nicklas Bendtner which hardly set many pulses races in Turin.
But this is a talented outfit with a tremendous winning habit - they are already three from three in Serie A - and Juve have the potential to be a surprise package outside of the top echelon of the market.
AC Milan are the only other Italian team involved this season and they are worth taking on in Group C with the up-and-coming Zenit St Petersburg.
The Rossoneri have begun a huge rebuilding process with nine stalwarts all leaving the club over the summer.
Patience is pretty thin on the ground in the modern game and the clock is already ticking for Massimiliano Allegri despite the huge player upheaval.
The signs have not been good with just one win so far in Serie A and two defeats at the San Siro and the Russian champions can take advantage of the turmoil when focus switches to Europe.
They made a big statement by signing Hulk and Axel Witsel for a King's ransom over the summer as they look to expand their domestic dominance to a wider stage.
The former will boost their productivity in front of goal and under shrewd manager Luciano Spalletti, they can prove the class act against other rivals Anderlecht and Malaga.
Messi is going to be tough to thwart once more in the betting for leading goalscorer but the much-travelled Zlatan Ibrahimovic makes some each-way appeal at 28/1 with Coral, who pay four places.
The Swede was part of the clearout from AC Milan in the summer as Paris St Germain coughed up £20m to secure his services.
He has started well in the French capital with five goals already following his best ever season in Italy where he scored 28 times.
He may not be everyone's cup of tea and at times looks like he wants to be anywhere but on a football pitch but this new challenge for an ambitious club should keep the fires burning.
He has a proven European pedigree having scored 31 goals in the Champions League and his performances will be pivotal to how far PSG progress.