Real Madrid look favourites in a more unpredictable Champions League

Denis Doyle

This season sees the most open and unpredictable Champions League in some time, and if any team looks likely to take back the title of a truly great side, it's Real Madrid.

With a healthy dose of generosity towards Manchester United and Manchester City, a year or two ago today's round of fixtures would only have seen four contenders for the champions league involved, with two more yet to play. England's big three, Spain's big two, and Bayern Munich plus the temporary inclusion of Borussia Dortmund. Anyone else was an afterthought, the José Mourinho-inspired Inter anomaly backed up by his successors' struggles in the role.

Today, there will be two more in Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, with Napoli and AC Milan also joining the party on Wednesday. This is the most open tournament we've seen for some time, with a full eleven sides capable of going all the way. Partly, this is because a number of sides has improved, but we'd be lying if we denied that a large chunk of it was because there just aren't the great, all-conquering teams out there these days.

Yes, that Barcelona side are still at large, and Real Madrid's Gareth Bale-Cristiano Ronaldo combo could yet prove unstoppable. Yet both have showed a vulnerability beyond their defences on this stage in very recent history, and the sure thing that greeted Sergoi Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi going at any opposition now no longer seems to be a safe bet.

Most intriguing of all is that this is where great teams are born, living or dying by their accomplishments here. Barcelona had to undergo some fine-tuning to be able to avoid the exit they faced at the cynical hands of United in 2008, and Bayern Munich formed their reputation as the greatest team on earth with their complete destruction of the Catalans a few years later, the grim confidence of their progress ending their usually tumultuous runs through the competition. Last year, AC Milan and PSG both gave their reputations a significant boost with some impressive performances. With the right progress being made at both clubs this year, it's time to consider the possibility that, with some luck and good form, they could go all the way in a manner that four years ago was essentially an impossibility.

The real top-tier of sides, who seemed almost undefeatable, consisted only really of Barcelona and an on-off presence of Real Madrid. The latter may not have won the competition in that period, but their pedigree was undeniable. United gaining a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu last year seemed a remarkable achievement. Even a team of their stature were made to look like rabbits in headlights as the glamour and the all-white kits combined to make it seem like they were playing a team of ethereal supermen who appeared to swoop and glide around the pitch, the entire affair resembling an end-of-level boss battle where Alex Ferguson had used up all his spare lives and was running low on health and ammo.

That time will come again, and the sense they are not of this world will be boosted by their new acquisitions this summer, one in particular. Madrid broke no transfer records in the era of Di Stefano and Puskas, but they certainly spent heavily - the first Galacticos era was intended to hark back to that mythical era. Lessons were learned in balancing the team out correctly for the second, but football moved on once again. Now the lessons have been learned more quickly, and the third incarnation might just be the lucky one.

* * *

Another point of interest tomorrow should be Marseille's game against Arsenal - while Paris Saint-Germain appeared to be developing a monopoly on Ligue 1, Monaco have started far strongly than similar projects of that type have, with Manchester City and Chelsea taking some time to find their feet. They could fall apart and finish miles behind, of course, but there's also an interesting third wheel in Provence.

Marseille had a surprisingly effective summer, making some genuinely exciting signings like Benjamin Mendy and Florian Thauvin, and provided the boost to the league's prestige is arrested by the progress of PSG and Monaco, could quietly put an excellent team together.

A potential front four of Thauvin, Mathieu Valbuena and the Ayew brothers (with the notoriously-reliable Andre-Pierre Gignac also playing a significant part) could be the most frustrating, inconsistent, showboating unit ever put together since their Parisian rivals lined up with Ronaldinho and Jay-Jay Okocha in the same midfield three. But it could also be hugely exciting, back up their otherwise solid side and help them out of the hardest group in the tournament.

After a period of dull Lyonnais haegemony was followed by teams seemingly being chosen at random to have a title-winning season and implode the next year, Ligue 1 has gone from unwatchable to baffling to exciting and beginning to make sense. Their game against Arsenal will easily be the standout fixture on Wednesday.

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