Football/Soccer

Get backing what you know as Real are team to beat in Champions League

Real Madrid can win the Champions League for the third season in-a-row as Zinedine Zidane has the most settled squad of any of the contenders

THERE is nothing quite like the Champions League, and the more Uefa tweak things, the better it actually gets.

European football's governing body played about with the seedings ahead of the group stage draw, making sure that the champions from the continent's top eight leagues were top seeds.

While that led to a slightly ludicrous situation where Spartak Moscow and Shakhtar Donetsk were seen as the superior of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, it did ensure we have classic matches right from the outset of the competition, as well as a number of highly-competitive groups.

Last night saw the first games, and straight away we had a heavyweight clash between Barca and last season's beaten finalists Juventus, as well as an eyecatching pairing in Glasgow between Celtic and Paris Saint Germain.

We also have some power-packed groups, with Chelsea, Atletico and Roma scrapping it out for the top two places in Group C, and holders Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Spurs facing each other in Group H.

While some sections look more straightforward, the big guns don't have the time to ease themselves into the competition that they did in the past.

And the majority of those big guns have been spending frantically over the summer to get into prime position to compete for club football's biggest prize.

The market went mad during the last few weeks of the transfer window, all started by PSG's ability to prise Neymar away from Barcelona for £200m.

That deal threw down the gauntlet to the other giants, and when the Paris club brought in Kylian Mbappe as well, bookies and punters alike sat up and took notice.

PSG had been backed in from 20/1 to 6/1 in places ahead of last night's clash with Celtic, thus disrupting the established ‘big three' of Real, Barca and Bayern Munich in the betting.

It is clear that Unai Emery's team are live contenders and conquering Europe is their aim this season.

A front three of Neymar, Mbappe and Edinson Cavani has the potential to terrorise even the most secure of defences, so PSG will have their backers, even at the 6/1.

Yet their recruitment drive does appear a bit haphazard, and leaves them very unbalanced.

They could be vulnerable defensively, with the decision to let midfield dynamo Blaise Matuidi move on to Juventus a strange one.

PSG will go deep in the competition, but the value has gone.

Barca spent some of the Neymar money on Ousmane Dembele from Dortmund and they are vastly talented as always.

They've started the season well under Ernesto Valverde, but I can't help but feel they are a fading force and they could live to regret failing to sign Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool.

The best teams have figured the Catalans out, even with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez still around, and they've lost to Atletico and Juve in the quarter-finals in the last couple of years.

I can't have them at 7/1, and the same is true of Bayern, who have made a slow enough start to the season on the domestic front.

Carlo Ancelotti is not universally popular in Munich and might not see out the season, while the retirements of Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso leave a huge hole in terms of leadership and experience.

Meanwhile, the five English clubs might publicly say they can win the Champions League, but recent history suggests otherwise.

No Premier League side has threatened to win this competition since Chelsea lifted the famous old trophy in 2012, and the fact that Leicester City were the best performers by reaching the last eight last season tells a scary tale.

The Manchester clubs were both available at 12/1 at the time of writing, and it's not hard to see why they are regarded as the strongest English challengers after splashing the cash over the summer.

Yet both have big weaknesses, as do Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool.

United have the biggest squad and experience of winning the Europa League, so Jose Mourinho's men are a good bet at 9/4 to be the best English team with Betway, but they aren't likely winners.

Which leaves us with reigning champions Real Madrid as the most likely winners again

That is somewhat ironic because Real's rivals have spent lavishly in an attempt to catch up with them, yet Zinedine Zidane has been relatively quiet on the transfer front over the summer, with the main deals being the departures of Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez to Chelsea and Bayern Munich respectively.

It's not hard to see why Zidane is content with what he has, despite a sluggish start to the season.

The defence is solid, while Casemiro is an expert midfield shield in front of them.

But the Real strength lies going forward. The midfield trio of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric (above) and Isco are as good as it gets, while Karim Benzema and the irrepressible Cristiano Ronaldo show no signs of slowing down.

Marco Asensio is a sublime young talent as well, and while Gareth Bale isn't at the peak of his powers, he can still change a game.

Real defied history by becoming the first club to successfully defend the Champions League last season and I see no reason why they can't make it three on the bounce.

Yes, they are the jollies at a best price of 4/1 with Sky Bet, but they have far more going for them than their main rivals at a couple of points more so they have to be backed.

As for an each-way alternative at bigger odds, once again it is a case of more of the same.

Juventus were well off the pace set by Real in last season's final in Cardiff, but they strolled through to the decider in a typically professional manner, seeing off Barcelona comfortably along the way.

The bookies have clearly focused on the final itself, pricing them up at 16/1 (Betway) ahead of last night's trip to Barcelona.

They are a proven Champions League side and have reached two of the last three finals.

Dani Alves and Leonardo Bonucci have moved on, but Mattia de Sciglio and Benedikt Howedes are seasoned replacements, while Matuidi and Douglas Costa could be inspired signings by Max Allegri to add to the quality already in Turin, notably Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain.

They tick loads of boxes and at 16/1 they are the beat alternative to the holders.

It might not be original, but sticking to what you know can bring rewards this term.

Selections

Real Madrid, 4/1 (Sky Bet)

Juventus, e/w, 16/1 (Betway)

Manchester United, top English team, 9/4 (Betway)

CRISTIANO Ronaldo has turned the Champions League top goalscorer race into a procession over the past few seasons, yet he can still be backed at 4/1 (Sky Bet) to top the charts again this season.

It's not often the bookies offer up a gift, but this really has the look of one.

Ronaldo is 33 now but is as good as ever and Zinedine Zidane has started to pick and choose his games to keep his star man fresh for the big ones.

And the Portuguese superstar is not about the let his standards slip. He has been the outright top scorer in four of the last five seasons, while he shared the honour with Neymar and Lionel Messi in 2014-15.

That pair are amongst his main rivals again, but Ronaldo (right) is in the best team, is guaranteed to go deep into the competition and defenders simply can't handle him.

Messi will have his fans at 11/2, but Ronaldo is the main man on the European stage these days and has the ego to ensure he stays ahead of his main rival.

Real may not have the handiest group with Spurs and Borussia Dortmund to overcome, but their talisman only scored two in the opening stage last term before adding another 10 in the knockout rounds to pip Messi.

And with Real a safer bet to be in the latter stages than Barca again, he has to be the man at a price that is far too big.

If backing a 4/1 shot is not your thing, however, take the 14s offered by Bet Victor about Real winning the competition and Ronaldo finishing top scorer.

Elsewhere, Robert Lewandowski will get goals for Bayern Munich but 8/1 is skinny enough, while PSG's superstars might share the scoring between them.

Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku is totally unproven at this level, but he might just be worth a bet at 16/1 generally (before last night's games) as the Red Devils should make handy enough progress from Group A, which also features Basel, Benfica and CSKA Moscow.

There is a school of though that Lukaku is a flat track bully but he is good enough to shine in that company and has started the season in fine fashion.

Finally, a small investment on Paulo Dybala at 50/1 (Paddy Power) is suggested.

The Argentinian averages better than a goal every two games for Juventus in Serie A and found the net four times from 11 Champions League games last term.

Now that he has more European experience, Dybala should improve that strike-rate in a Juve team that could be involved right to the end.

He take penalties for Max Allegri's team which has to be a major plus, and with some firms going as short as 22/1, the 50/1 on offer can't help but catch the eye.

Selections

Cristiano Ronaldo, top goalscorer, 4/1 (Sky Bet)

Romelu Lukaku, top goalscorer, e/w, 16/1 (General)

Paulo Dybala, top goalscorer, e/w, 50/1 (Paddy Power)

Real Madrid to win/Cristiano Ronaldo top goalscorer, 14/1 (Bet Victor)

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