Real Madrid’s relentless pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo finally paid off in June when the Portuguese forward completed his £80m transfer from Manchester United and the Spanish club have spent big in their pursuit of European dominance once again. >
Real, 6.00 shots for Champions League glory in 2010, dominated the Continental transfer market over the summer and in addition to securing the services of the Ballon D’Or winner also captured Brazilian playmaker Kaka, French forward Karim Benzema and Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso.
If the Galacticos 2.0 project is greater than the sum of its parts then Real will be virtually impossible to beat but they still appear vulnerable defensively, the signings of Raul Albiol and Alvaro Arbeloa hardly set the pulse racing, and it will be fascinating to see how they get on.
Humiliated by Liverpool at Afield last season in the last 16, Real will surely be better this time around but new head coach Manuel Pellegrini is a man already under pressure and he has little time to find the right blend. Club captain Raul is still the daddy and while he remains in the changing room, Ronaldo, Kaka and Alonso et al. will all have to keep on their toes.
Real have let plenty of more than decent squad players leave the Bernabeu over the past three months, with the likes of Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Gabriel Heinze all departing, and, while I expect them to top this section with something to spare, it may take more than 12 months for Real to lift the biggest prize of all for the 10th time.
This looked like one of the strongest groups on paper when the draw was made in Monaco and there could just be a shock or two along the way. AC Milan, Marseille and FC Zurich complete the line up and with the Ligue 1 runners-up having strengthened their squad since finishing three points behind Bordeaux at the top of the standings they could challenge the Italians for second spot behind Real.
While the emergence of Alexandre Pato for AC Milan is viewed, quite rightly, as a huge positive one cannot underestimate what impact the departure of Kaka will have on the Rossoneri and their ageing squad and even with a seemingly rejuvenated Ronaldinho enjoying his football once again they could be up against it. Their first XI has weakened while others around them have been progressing and this is arguably the poorest Milan side in a decade. >
Leonardo still has plenty of talented players to work with but I can’t help but think that Marseille’s recent Champions League experience, this will be their third consecutive appearance in the tournament, will stand them in good stead and I’m more than willing to take a chance on the French side at 2.88 with Paddy Power to qualify.
Marseille had little chance 12 months ago when losing their openign three fixtures but they finished strongly and Didier Deschamps is bound to demand more from his men this time around. The signings of defenders Stephane M’Bia, from Rennes, and Souleymane Diawara has strengthened their backline and Marseille seemingly have goals throughout their side.
Argentina international Lucho Gonzalez, a big money signing from FC Porto, will bring an extra dimension to their attacking platy and fortress Stade Velodrome could well prove the difference in what promises to be a tight group.
Swiss football is really on the up at the moment and with the national team poised for South Africa 2010 much will be expected of FC Zurich in the Champions League. The Swiss Super League winners could hardly have asked for a tougher assignment however and Bernard Challandes’ side look really up against it. Even Uefa Cup football after the winter break looks beyond the outsiders and odds of 13.0 with Paddy Power to qualify seemingly sums up their chances
2pts Back Marseille To Qualify From Champions League Group C @ 2.88 (Paddy Power)