Champions League Tips: Bayern deserved favourites but room for dark horses

Bayern Munich are the best team in Europe and the market reflects that, but Andy Brassell is looking at clubs with well-stocked squads in another unusual season...

Every single year, fans and journalists alike settle down for the Champions League group stage draw and end up saying exactly what they said the year before. How does it take it so long? You can normally set your watch by it, though this season we had the uncommon sensation of watching it unfold under grey skies as autumn gets underway.

While some feelings may be familiar, there is very little normal in prospect about this season Champions League. The late start caused by the stoppage in last season means that the whole programme is condensed, with only two fallow weeks between mid-October and mid-December.

Groups to watch

This presents a huge challenge for clubs below the elite rung, with Borussia Mönchengladbach, Marseille and Lazio among the high achievers from last season who might lack the squad depth to get through the groups and keep up a good standard of domestic form.

Gladbach would be facing an uphill task anyway against Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk and Inter, but the latter two will be eyeing second place behind Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund respectively. André Villas-Boas' team were last in the competition seven years ago (when they lost every group game), and the Italians have been out of it since 2007-08, and their big names shouldn't obscure that they lack experience in this arena, as well as numbers.

That's not to say that some even bigger clubs won't struggle with the schedule, though. Take Chelsea. Frank Lampard has an enormous amount of talent at his disposal after this summer's signings, but he is a way off deciding on a first-choice line-up.

In Group E they face a Sevilla side who are expert in game management, as they showed in the Europa League in Germany, and two hungry first-timers in Krasnodar and Rennes who have also spent considerably in recent times and will be tough away trips. Laying Chelsea as group winners at around 2.40 looks interesting.

Sorting out the favourites - and the surprises

Depth is the only real reason to have doubts over Bayern Munich 5.70 at the moment, as they aim to retain the trophy for the first time since the years of Dettmar Cramer in the mid-1970s. Hansi Flick wants more cover in midfield in particular, with Thiago departing and the area being key to his side's powerful style, though that could evolve by Monday's transfer deadline.

Thiago's new club Liverpool also look attractive at 6.80, and the signing of Diogo Jota offers to take pressure off their sacred front three.

Even after the timely signing of Rúben Dias from Benfica it does feel as if Manchester City are priced way too short at 5.80, and Pep Guardiola's team looks like the odd one out in the top of the betting, even if they are on the longest consecutive run of group stage appearances for an English team (10). There is little sense that they have sorted out their defensive vulnerabilities - and one player, however well and quickly he adapts, can't change that on his own - or that they are capable of grinding out results.

Last season's finalists Paris Saint-Germain are out at 13.50 and that might seem attractive, given Bayern (2013) and Liverpool's (2019) recent progressions from runners-up to winners in straight seasons. Yet when their own coach Thomas Tuchel say he thinks "we're not as strong as last season," with the losses of the experienced Thiago Silva, Edinson Cavani and Thomas Meunier, it doesn't bode well.

Set your gaze towards Spain

That Real Madrid 15.00 and Barcelona 15.00 are both priced so long suggests a sea change in the balance of power in the European game and both are in a state of transition, but Juventus at 16.00 underlines inertia or even regression in the case of many of the giants.

As so often, the value lies in Spain where Atlético Madrid look good at 25.00, despite last term's disappointing quarter-final exit to Leipzig. The arrival of Luis Suarez and the regeneration of João Félix after a tough debut campaign means they have attacking options, and their slow burn style might suit what could be a gruelling season.

With that in mind, let's not count out the aforementioned Sevilla 50.00, who are defensively solid, extremely fit and have a far more versatile squad than many of their competitors, with Ivan Rakitić's return adding that extra bit of Champions League winning experience too.

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