Real Madrid CF, FC Barcelona, FC Zenit St Petersburg, Manchester City FC, Juventus and, just possibly, Paris Saint-Germain FC. These are, in Carlo Ancelotti's eyes, the teams most likely to be in contention when this UEFA Champions League campaign reaches its climax next spring.
Let's be clear. The Italian, who has won this competition four times (twice as a player and twice as coach), regards Barcelona and Real Madrid as clear favourites. Juventus, Manchester City and Zenit are three teams, he believes, who could surprise their rivals and have the potential to beat any other club in the field.
As for his own outfit, Ancelotti jokes it is too early for the Parisians to be among the favourites. "Because we've spent a lot of money, we're favourites to win the competition," he said recently. "But football isn't about spending money to build a team, you need time to do that. Players need to get to know each other. It isn't as easy as it first appears."
This is the most the phlegmatic trainer would concede: "Our objective is clear: getting through the group stage, and then, who knows?" Nor does Ancelotti rule out his former side AC Milan, warning: "The Champions League is in Milan's DNA." His hope – and this sentiment will be echoed by 30 other coaches in the competition – is that Barcelona, under their new coach, might be "less aggressive and slightly less focused in defence".
You can see why he would like to think that. Barcelona's dominance of football's premier club competition is astonishing. In the last five years they have got to three semi-finals (in 2008, 2010 and 2012) and won the UEFA Champions League twice (2009, 2011). For four of those five seasons, a certain Lionel Messi has been the tournament's top scorer. At his present strike rate, Messi will break Raúl González's record as all-time leading marksman by the end of 2013/14.
When you consider three teams that Ancelotti hasn't even mentioned, the difficulty of winning this competition becomes even starker. FC Bayern München, Chelsea FC and Manchester United FC all have eyes on the prize after investing heavily. This could be the most open UEFA Champions League campaign since FC Porto beat AS Monaco FC in the 2004 final. I wouldn't be surprised if, next May at Wembley, one of the finalists had an Italian coach in the dugout.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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