With due respect to Real Madrid CF, who are nine-time winners of this competition and semi-finalists in each of the last two seasons, the message seems to be: beat FC Barcelona if you want to reach the UEFA Champions League final.
And, if you don't, then count on Barcelona doing so – and winning it. Since 2005/06 the Blaugrana have been either winners (three times) or narrowly beaten in the semi-finals by the eventual champions (again, three times). The only exception was 2006/07 when their conquerors, in the round of 16, were Liverpool FC who went on to finish as runners-up. Some record.
It will be fascinating to watch how new coach Tito Vilanova copes with the tournament but the return to fitness of David Villa and the addition of UEFA European Championship winner Jordi Alba and Arsenal FC's Alex Song will surely help.
As for the Spanish champions, it was an explicit part of recruiting José Mourinho in 2010 that Real Madrid CF wanted to re-establish European dominance. He, too, yearns to add a third UEFA Champions League title following victories with FC Porto (2004) and FC Internazionale Milano (2010).
Madrid came agonisingly close in the last two seasons and being in a scintillating group of national champions alongside AFC Ajax (four-time kings of Europe), Borussia Dortmund (1997 winners) and English title holders Manchester City FC will be a massive stimulus.
Valencia CF, also with a new coach in Mauricio Pellegrino, have been performing both sporting and financial wizardry in recent campaigns and must do so again. The sales of Villa, Juan Mata and David Silva have helped diminish the club's crippling debt yet so has the financial reward of getting to the UEFA Champions League (€18.8m last term). Perhaps the emergence of Roberto Soldado and Jonas as a scoring partnership can help them into the knockout stage this time around.
Finally, debutants Málaga CF have superseded expectations by qualifying for Group C, where their big bonus is facing seven-time winners AC Milan. Their difficult summer of sales and low recruitment means that Isco, in particular, will need to shine.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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