The intelligent punter's guide to the Champions League 2013/14
With the start of the group stage only days away, who should you risk your money on?
THE first group stages of the Champions League begin on Tuesday 17 September. There are eight groups each consisting of four teams and the top two in each group will go through to the last 16.
Last year the competition was full of surprises, with Bayern Munich beating Borussia Dortmund 2-1 in an all-German final, after the two Bundesliga teams had knocked out their better-fancied Spanish opponents, Real Madrid and Barcelona in the semis. Did we witness a power-shift in European football, or was it just a one-off? Which teams are the best bets in this year's competition?
The first thing to bear in mind when considering a flutter is that it often pays to look beyond the shortest price contenders. Last year's winners Bayern Munich were available at 16-1 last September, despite having appeared in two of the previous three finals. Chelsea, winners in 2012 were also somewhat under the radar, as were the 2010 winners Inter Milan.
Also worth noting is that teams beaten in the final have a fair record in the next four years: Bayern lost in 2012, but prevailed in 2013, Chelsea lost in '08 but won in '12, Milan lost in '05 but won in '07, Munich lost in '99 but won in '01 and Milan lost in '93, but won twelve months later. So it might be wise to put the last four beaten finalists on your short-list.
From 2005 to 2012, the competition was won by teams from Spain, England and Italy, but last year Bayern became the first German winners since 2001 and so sticking exclusively to clubs from the 'Big Three' leagues as a betting system may now be redundant.
Another interesting stat is that Chelsea in 2012 are the only team since Borussia Dortmund in 1997 to win the Champions League - or its predecessor, the European Cup - for the first time. In other words, it makes sense to stick with teams who have won the competition at least once. Now let's take a closer look at some of the likelier contenders for European glory, plus a few 'outsiders' who may give us a good run for our money.
MANCHESTER UNITED: Although there are no pushovers in Group A, manager David Moyes looks to have been handed a reasonably comfortable start to only his second ever Champions League campaign and United should make it through to the next stage. Rather unlucky to lose to Real Madrid in the quarters last year, they're likely to reach the last eight again, though Moyes's lack of experience in this competition and the fact that they haven't significantly strengthened their squad might make it hard for them to go beyond that. Odds to win Group A: 4-6. Odds to win CL: 14-1.
SHAKTAR DONETSK: Quarter-finalists in 2010-11, the Ukrainians made it through to the last 16 last year where they lost to the eventual runners-up, Dortmund. They've got a good recent European pedigree having also won the UEFA Cup in 2009 and have a side full of talented Brazilians. Likely to give Manchester United the most headaches in Group A and could make it through to the last eight again, if they get the breaks. Odds to win Group A: 5-1. Odds to win CL: 100-1
BAYER LEVERKUSEN: Bundesliga teams have done well in the competition in recent seasons so Leverkusen, who finished third in the German league last season behind the two Champions League finalists, are worthy of consideration. They've made a decent start to their domestic campaign, but the sale of their star player Andre Shurrle to Chelsea doesn't help their chances of Champions League success. Odds to win Group A: 6-1. Odds to win CL: 125-1.
REAL MADRID: Haven't won the competition since 2002, but the Galacticos are likely to make a very strong challenge again this year under new manager Carlo Ancelotti, who has already won the competition twice before. The world record signing of Gareth Bale from Spurs will obviously enhance their chances and it's hard to see them not reaching at least the semi-finals. Odds to win Group B: 4-7. Odds to win CL: 11-2.
JUVENTUS: Beaten finalists in 2003 but they've failed to get beyond the quarter-finals since then (they lost to the winners Bayern 4-0 on aggregate in last year's quarter-finals) . They could do better with the arrival of Carlos Tevez from Manchester City, they're still likely to come up a bit short when they're out of the group stage. Odds to win Group B: 5-2. Odds to win CL:20-1.
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN: Only went out on away goals in the quarters to Barca last season and the big-spending Qatari-owned Parisians have boosted their chances with the £55m signing of Uruguayan centre-forward Edison Cavani from Napoli, to add to an already talented squad which includes master craftsman Zlatan Ibrahimovic. No French side has won Europe's top club competition since Marseilles in 1993. PSG represent the country's best chance of success for many years. Odds to win Group C: 8-13. Odds to win CL: 18-1.
BENFICA: Failed to get out of the Group stage in two of their last three CL campaigns, but although they've got a fair chance of doing better than that this year, it's hard to see the Portuguese going much further after that. Odds of winning Group C: 9-4. Odds of winning CL: 100-1
BAYERN MUNICH: You have to go back to 1990 to find the last time a team won Europe's top club competition two years running. But while that stat is against them, odds of 4-1 for a team that has reached three of the past four finals is a tempting each-way proposition. Face it, most would agree this is the best club in the competition, with Pep Guardiola in charge to boot. Odds to win Group D: 4-7. Odds to win CL: 4-1.
MANCHESTER CITY: New boss Manuel Pelligrini worked wonders to get Malaga through to the quarters last year, where they so nearly knocked out eventual finalists Dortmund and in 2006 he took unfashionable Villareal to the semis, so he clearly knows how to do well in this competition. Under Pelligrini, City should fare better than last year's disastrous campaign under Mancini and could make it to the last eight, but the key stat against them winning it is that you have to go back to 1997 to find a team that won the CL in their first ever final. Odds to win Group D: 15-8. Odds to win CL: 14-1.
CSKA MOSCOW: Russian champions who did reach the quarters in 2010, and the last 16 in 2012 but they've got a tough group to negotiate and the three-month Russian winter break doesn't tend to help teams from that country in this competition. Odds to win Group D : 20-1. Odds to win CL: 350-1.
CHELSEA: Take a club that's won European trophies for the past two seasons - including the Champions League in 2012 - and unite them (once again) with a manager who has /seven/ CL semi-final appearances and two victories in the competition to his name and what do you have: a team at odds of 10-1 that is simply crying out for an each-way bet. Odds to win Group E: 1-3. Odds to win CL:10-1
BASEL: They played some excellent football in getting to the semis in the 2012/13 Europa League, beating Tottenham on penalties in the quarter-finals. They got through to the last 16 of the CL in 2011/12 having helped to eliminate Manchester United at the group stage and also had a home win against Bayern to their name. Those looking for a real outsider to have some fun with during the winter might do worse than siding with the Swiss: they won't win the competition, but could cause some surprises when they play the bigger teams. Odds to win Group E: 16-1. Odds to win CL: 750.
BORUSSIA DORTMUND: It's going to be hard for Jurgen Klopp's side to match last season's exploits, when they reached the final, but they remain a very good side and it might be rash to rule them out completely given the good record that beaten finalists have in the competition. They've also made an excellent start to their domestic campaign. Odds to win Group F: 6-4. Odds to win CL: 22-1:
ARSENAL: Arsene Wenger's team is more suited to the Champions League than domestic Cups - last year they were knocked out by Bradford City and Blackburn Rovers in the League Cup and FA Cup in England, but pushed Bayern, the winners, mighty close in the last 16 in the Champions League, only going out on away goals. The addition of the ex-Real Madrid midfielder Mesut Ozil is a big plus and at 33-1 the Gunners make some each-way appeal. Odds to win group F: 12-5. Odds to win CL: 33-1.
NAPOLI: Manager Rafa Benitez has an excellent record in European competitions. He guided Chelsea to Europa League success and won the CL with Liverpool in 2005 and also got to the final with the same team in 2007. In addition he won the UEFA Cup with Valencia in 2004. Napoli finished runners-up in Serie A last year and despite the loss of Cavani to PSG, they've made some good signings over the summer and could be lively outsiders. Odds to win Group F: 100-30. Odds to win CL: 50-1.
PORTO: The Portuguese champions have made it out of the Group stage in five of their last six CL campaigns, and look good to qualify from Group G. But, since winning the competition under Mourinho in 2004, the best they've done is to reach the quarter-finals in 2009. That again would be as far as one could seem them going this time too, with an exit in the last 16 looking even more likely. Odds to win Group G: 2-1. Odds to win CL: 100-1.
ATLETICO MADRID: The Spaniards, third in La Liga last year, are a very useful side and could cause a few surprises if they get out of Group G, which they should do. They're very dangerous on the break and the signing of the experienced David Villa over the summer is a further boost to their chances. Could be one of this year's dark horses but still hard to see them winning the tournament. Odds to win Group G: 11-8. Odds to win CL: 40-1
ZENIT ST PETERSBURG: The Russians will be boosted by the return of Andrei Arshavin and while they're dangerous opponents on their day, they'll probably lack the consistency to go much further in the competition if they do manage to get out of a difficult group. Moreover Russian sides are always at a disadvantage in this competition due to the long domestic winter break. Odds of winning Group G:7-2. Odds of winning CL: 125-1.
BARCELONA: You've got to go back to 2007 to find the last time the Catalan giants haven't reached at least the semi-finals and only once since 2005 have they failed to make the semis. Given that record, it would be sheer folly not to have them on the shortlist. However, against that there's the fear that they're not quite the same force they were at their glorious best at around the turn of the decade and at current odds may be worth opposing in the outright-win market. Odds to win Group H: 2-7. Odds to win CL: 9-2.
AC MILAN: The Italians did well in this trophy in the Noughties, winning it twice, but haven't progressed past the quarter-final stage since they last won the trophy in 2007. They're likely to qualify from Group H but likely to come unstuck again in either the last 16 or the quarters. Odds to win Group H: 9-2. Odds to win: 80-1.
CELTIC: They memorably beat Barcelona in the group stage last year and they're paired with the Catalan giants again in Group H. It's going to be hard to see them escaping from a group which also includes AC Milan and Ajax but they're sure to give it a jolly good go and no team in the group will relish a trip to Celtic Park. Odds to win Group H:66-1. Odds to win CL:750-1. ·