The biggest and best club competition in the world starts this week. The UEFA Champions League kicks off on Tuesday, featuring another great cast of competitors that will try to win the most coveted trophy on the planet. Welcome to our Barça Blaugranes Preview, where you can catch up on the biggest favorites to win the UCL, including our beloved Barça.
As you know, last season's winner was Real Madrid, who beat Atlético Madrid in one memorable Final in Lisbon. The colchoneros had the win until the 92nd minute, but a miraculous goal from Sergio Ramos put Real back in the game, which went to overtime. In the extra minutes, Atleti felt the consequences of a long, hurtful season, and ended up losing the Final by 4-1. The Madridistas finally won their Décima, with Cristiano Ronaldo finishing up as the all-time best scorer in one single UCL edition, with 17 goals.
All of that is in the past. A lot has changed, and the Road to Berlin starts with no clear favorite. There's a plethora of contenders with equal chances of going to the last game, and the last decade of competition has showed that winning back-to-back titles is nearly an impossible feat.
So let's meet the biggest contenders and know what they have done in terms of preparing for the season ahead. The teams are ranked according to my UNICORN - United Coeficient to Rank and Nitpick. Based on the position from last year, the changes in the squad and their history in the UCL, I ranked the teams from 1 to 32, with their UNICORN rating showing my expectations for them. Here's a rundown of the UNICORN:
- 1-2.9: Thanks for coming, goodbye
- 3-4.9: Thanks for coming, good luck in the Europa League
- 5-6.9: You're good, but you're not winning this thing.
- 7-8.9: You can actually win it! But don't get that excited
- 9-10: Holy Moly, you're a REAL contender!
Of course, this is a fun exercise. You can use it as a base for your own expectations, but keep in mind that this is not a prophecy.
Alright, let's go:
Thanks for coming, goodbye
32. Malmö FF - UNICORN Rating: 1.0
The Champions League debutants from Sweden are mostly known for being the first club of world-class striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That's really the only good thing about him. They are harmless to the competition in Group A, and the chances of getting a single point are not that great.
31. NK Maribor - UNICORN Rating: 1.1
The Slovenian National League champions reached the group stage for the first time in 15 years, but they'll just be there to get beat by a very strong group of opponents.
30. PFC Ludogorets Razgrad - UNICORN Rating: 1.2
The Ludogorets Saga to get into the UCL group stage is perhaps the best story of this year's edition. In the last Playoff game, they went to penalty-kicks with a center-back defending the net, because their goalie got sent off during the game. Not only did the guy score his own penalty, he SAVED TWO (!!!!!!!!!) to put his team in the UCL. They should get a free pass to the Round of 16 just because of that. But they won't, since they'll have to face the defending champs and one of the best teams of Europe.
29. FC BATE Borisov - UNICORN Rating: 1.6
BATE is kind of a constant in the UCL. They're always part of the party now. They're sometimes good, but never good enough to take points off the contenders. Once again, they're getting beat.
28. APOEL FC - UNICORN Rating: 2.4
We're very interested in this team as Barça fans, since we get to face them in our Champions League debut. They're not good, but they're not poor. They have a nice, young core of players, but right now, they're just going down in a tough Group F.
27. RSC Anderlecht - UNICORN Rating: 2.8
The best of the worst teams in this edition. The Belgium powerhouse begins to get some international momentum. They've been improving year. It's too early to say that they'll make any noise on the group stage, but in five our six years, they could be players. For now, they could be a decider in a very tricky group. If they take points from the better teams in Group D, it could alter the Round of 16 picture.
26. PFC CSKA Moskva - UNICORN Rating: 2.9
They once were the best team from Russia, and facing them was never a good thing, especially in their home. Now, CSKA are not the same. Playing in Moscow is never an easy thing, but this time it will be mostly because of the adverse conditions, not because of the opponent. On this edition especially, their chances of getting points are minimum, since they're stuck in the Group of Death.
Thanks for coming, good luck in the Europa League
25. Sporting Clube de Portugal - UNICORN Rating: 3.3
After a long time, Sporting is back in the mix. They're known for being a strong Portugal side, but their most successful football thing was introducing Cristiano Ronaldo to the world. They obviously wish they could have him, but without CR they're not going too far. As the clear third best team in the group, they're not good enough to beat the other two, but the Europa League is a nice chance for a successful season.
24. AS Monaco FC - UNICORN Rating: 3.5
Monaco is the saddest story of this season. They were finally ready to make some noise in the international scene, but they lost their biggest stars: James Rodríguez and Falcao García. Without them, they're at risk of finishing last in a difficult Group C. However, that group is wide open, and they still have a fairly good team. Maybe they can do enough to finish third and still play international competition this season.
23. Galatasaray AS - UNICORN Rating: 4.3
Turkey's best team is always a factor in the UCL, and it's almost unfair to rank them this low. But the people above them have made great acquisitions, while they've kept the strong base that made them players in Europe in the last couple of years.
22. AFC Ajax - UNICORN Rating: 4.4
They're not one of the best teams in this group of contenders, but they deserve respect for their amazing history in the UCL, and their amazing history of providing coaches and players that changed the course of our sport. Their incredible youth system is always able to come up with a young, competitive squad that can always give trouble to their opponents. However, the chances of advancing in a group headlined by Barça and the France champs are small. But they still can do damage in the Europa League, which is probably where they're headed.
21. FC Basel 1893 - UNICORN Rating: 4.5
I am personally excited about Basel. They've been improving every year, and this season the Swiss have a fair shot at the second place in their group. It's hard, but they've already surprised most in the past, and they keep getting better. Keep an eye on them.
20. Olympiacos FC - UNICORN Rating: 4.9
The Greek Freaks are good teams that never become great. It's the case this year. They've got two former Barça players in Eric Abidal and Ibrahim Afellay, and they could make some noise in a tricky group. But they're not good enough to finish second.
You're good, but you're not winning this thing
19. FC Shakhtar Donetsk - UNICORN Rating: 5.0
The Ukraine kings are always a tough opponent for anyone. However, with the political context, they have lost some important pieces of their squad, including some Brazilian players that refused to join the team in fear of the problems in the country. They have a fair shot at the second place, but the most logical thing right now is them going to the Europa League.
18. SL Benfica - UNICORN Rating: 5.5
The defending Portugal champs lost to Sevilla in the Europa League last season, and they should be a good team. However, they lost their best players from last season, and that weakened their squad big time. Because of that, they won't be able to do much more than competing for a place in the Round of 16.
17. FC Porto - UNICORN Rating: 5.8
After a disastrous end of last season, Porto still got a slot in the Champions League. After another successful transfer window, in which they sold big to the Europe's best, they've formed a great squad, including Barça's Cristian Tello. The chances of going past the Group Stage are great, and they can do damage if they reach the Knockout Round.
16. FC Schalke 04 - UNICORN Rating: 6.4
They have solidified theirselves as a Germany contender, and now they seek to improve their international status. The young pieces are one year older, and this could be the season that turns Julian Draxler into a star. They will advance to the Round of 16, and they could make noise with the right draw for the quarter-finals.
15. Bayer 04 Leverkusen - UNICORN Rating: 6.5
Another German contender, Leverkusen is in the same position as Schalke. The core remains the same, and some key additions to the squad can make Bayer a factor in Europe this season.
14. Athletic Bilbao - UNICORN Rating: 6.6
The reason why Bilbao is near the top of this list is simple: they beat Napoli to get here. And that's not easy to do. Bilbao are one of the hardest opponents in Spain, especially when they play in San Mamés. The squad is better, even though they lost a few key pieces. Keep an eye on them. They're hungry, and they're legitimate.
13. FC Zenit - UNICORN Rating: 6.8
The Russians are coming! Zenit gets better and better each time they play the UCL. Hulk is their guy, and he's eager to erase the bad image people got from him after his poor showing in the World Cup. Hulk is a beast (no pun intended), and he is the leader of a very solid side. They'll finish first in the Group Stage, and the right match-up in the Knockout Round could make them tough opponents for the big dogs.
12. AS Roma - UNICORN Rating: 6.9
After a very good season in the domestic department, Roma wants to solidify their spot as a worthy competitor in the European spotlight. They lost their best center-back, Mehdi Benatia, but that doesn't make the team any less threatening. They are solid, balanced and have got a really good defensive unit. Just like Zenit and Bilbao, they can make some noise. However, their chances of going to the knockout stage are minimum, since they got stuck in the Group of Death with two of the best teams in the world. But because of the strength in their squad, they can still compete for a place in the KO stage.
11. Juventus - UNICORN Rating: 6.95
The Italian champs are a question mark. Even though they kept all the key players, they lost Antonio Conte, their head coach. In his place, comes in Massimiliano Allegri, a former AC Milan manager who personally asked for the release of Andrea Pirlo, Juventus' best player, due to personal issues. It's said that everything is fine and well, but we can't know that for sure until the season starts. Still, they are very good.
You can actually win it! But don't get that excited
10. Arsenal FC - UNICORN Rating: 7.3
We're used to seeing Arsenal cruise through the group stage, only to be destroyed by a better team in the Round of 16. This year, however, they have somehting new: Alexis Sánchez. The former Barcelona star is their biggest signing of the season, and the right one to solve the team's offensive issues. The injury plague always gets them, but they can actually do something if they're healthy.
9. Liverpool FC - UNICORN Rating: 7.5
They should be higher on this list. But Liverpool lost their biggest chance of winning the UCL: Luis Suárez. Even though they've spent a lot of money to build a VERY GOOD squad, they simply don't have the best pure striker in the world. That will hurt them in the long run. Badly.
8. Paris Saint-Germain - UNICORN Rating: 8.2
PSG is suffering from the UEFA Financial Fair Play sanctions, so they didn't spend much and just signed David Luiz in the most expensive center-back transfer in history. Luiz doesn't make them that much better, the team is one year older, and the injuries start to worry them. But they're still very good to compete for a place in the semi-final. And they'll have a chance to prove their value in two group stage clashes with Barça. Let's see what they can do.
7. Manchester City FC - UNICORN Rating: 8.6
The defending Premier League champions are clearly the second best English team in the world, and they are set to reach the top of the European mountain. They have made great signings for their defense and mifield, and they look scary. However, they don't have a rich history in the UCL, so we can always take a step back before going all in with the Citizens.
6. Borussia Dortmund - UNICORN Rating: 8.9
Doesn't matter how many players they lose to their biggest rival, Dortmund is always going to be consistently awesome. Jürgen Klopp, their coach, never changes his philosophy, and the office always makes the right signings to make them good and competitive. Ilkay Gündogan is finally healthy, and Shinji Kagawa is back. That alone will make them good. They've also got Marco Reus. If he stays fit, Dortmund will always be great.
Holy Moly, you're a REAL contender!
5. Atlético Madrid - UNICORN Rating: 9.3
The colchoneros are for real now. They fought hard last season, and Diego Simeone taught us the concept of team success. They lost their three best players in Thibaut Courtois, Filipe Luís and Diego Costa, but they were able to spend the money received on those transfers to build another very good squad. Especially, they signed Mario Mandzukic, perhaps the best forgotten striker in the world. Simeone will always find the best in this players, and Atleti will always be there, from now on.
4. FC Barcelona - UNICORN Rating: 9.4
As Barça fans, we know how good our team has become. However, in light of their recent international failures, it would be unfair to put the Blaugrana as the biggest favorites to win the UCL. They've got something to prove, and they signed the right players to make that happen. They're in great position to win for the third time in the last 7 years, but the rest of the world still doubts Barça. Good.
3. FC Bayern Munich - UNICORN Rating: 9.5
The disastrous end of last year's Champions League campaign, with an embarrasing 4-0 loss at home in the semi-final, raised a lot of questions about Pep Guardiola's team. But they've gotten better, signing Robert Lewandowski and Xabi Alonso to improve their (already fantastic) roster. Bayern is currently trying to adapt to Guardiola's idea of a 3-men back-line, but as soon as they figure themselves out, along with the return of key injured players such as Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thiago Alcântara, Bayern are big favorites to conquer Europe for the second time in three years.
2. Chelsea FC - UNICORN Rating: 9.6
The London side has become the best English team in the world during the last off-season. They still spent money, but unlike what happened before, this time they signed players for the positions they acutally needed, and the squad they've got now makes them one of the scariest teams on the planet. With the additions of Cesc Fàbregas and Diego Costa, they're not only an incredibly good defensive team; they're also a monster attacking team, and the 15 goals in the first four Premier League matches are a proof. Beware of the Blues. They're coming for blood.
1. Real Madrid CF - UNICORN Rating: 9.7
Sure, you're a bit angry to see Madrid here, but we have to be objective. They're the defending champs, and even though the chances of winning again are small, they're still a VERY, VERY GOOD team. They've made huge mistakes letting Xabi Alonso go and signing James Rodríguez just because of what he did in the World Cup, instead of keeping Ángel Di María, their best player from last season. No question about it. But this is still a very good team. When you have that much talent and a great coach in Carlo Ancelotti, you figure it out. It won't take long for them to discover how to fit all pieces together to keep the team balanced and competitive. When they do that, they'll have a great shot at winning back-to-back titles.