Can anyone stop Real Madrid in the Champions League?

LA CORUNA, SPAIN - AUGUST 20: Real Madrid line up prior to the La Liga match between Deportivo La Coruna and Real Madrid at Riazor Stadium on August 20, 2017 in La Coruna, Spain. (Photo by fotopress/Getty Images)
LA CORUNA, SPAIN - AUGUST 20: Real Madrid line up prior to the La Liga match between Deportivo La Coruna and Real Madrid at Riazor Stadium on August 20, 2017 in La Coruna, Spain. (Photo by fotopress/Getty Images) /

Real Madrid are the undisputed kings of Europe and this season are aiming to retain the trophy for a third season running. Can anyone stop them?

The Champions League starts up again this week, and with it comes a whole host of questions, about Liverpool and Chelsea and Manchester United’s prospects on their return to the competition, about how Barcelona and PSG will look following the Neymar transfer, about whether Bayern Munich can finally make the final again. But one question looms above the rest: can anyone stop Real Madrid from winning the tournament for the third year in a row?

Los Blancos are the most dominant team in Champions League history, and after a barren spell between their ninth and 10th titles, it’s clear they’re once again the team to beat, having won three of the last four trophies and last season becoming the first side ever to win the tournament two years in a row under its new format.

Real have drawn two of their opening three matches in La Liga, minor cause for optimism for the rest of Europe, but have also rotated their squad, and demolished Barcelona over two legs of the Spanish Super Cup to start the season. So who, if anyone, can challenge Europe’s soccer powerhouse? The three main contenders are Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Manchester City.

United’s last Champions League campaign ended in the group stage, as they finished third behind PSV and Wolfsburg in the 2015-16 competition. And the Red Devils are only in the competition because of their Europa League triumph, as they finished sixth in the Premier League last season.

However, they’ve started this season in rampant form and now have a very strong squad capable of competing on multiple fronts. Romelu Lukaku offers the pace up front United lacked last season, while Nemanja Matic adds balance to midfield, giving Paul Pogba the freedom to be the dominant player he can be. Most importantly, they have Jose Mourinho, a manager who has won the Champions League with two weaker sides in Inter Milan and Porto. Mourinho knows how to win in Europe, and is one of few elite managers who will be right at home playing the underdog against Real.

Manchester City may seem like a strange choice for title challengers in this competition considering their relative inexperience in the Champions League but their squad depth and manager definitely make them a contender. They were also quite unfortunate to lose to Real Madrid in the semifinal of the 2015-16 Champions League.

City should have gone further in the competition last year but their defense was too inconsistent. The signings of Benjamin Mendy, Danilo and Kyle Walker should make them stronger defensively while also contributing to the style of soccer that Pep Guardiola wants to play.

They also have some of the most exciting attacking players in the game in Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane and David Silva. Guardiola has also won the Champions League twice, and has a good understanding of the Spanish game. No victory would be sweeter for the former Barca man than one over Real Madrid.

The third team on our list, and possibly the one with the best chance to beat Real, is Bayern Munich. The Bavarian giants are always in contention when it comes to the Champions League and last year they were a little unfortunate to go out of the competition.

They took Real Madrid to extra-time but were undone by some dubious refereeing that saw Arturo Vidal unfairly sent off and Cristiano Ronaldo score at least one offside goal. Bayern most recently won the competition in 2013 when they overcame Borussia Dortmund to lift the trophy.

In Carlo Ancelotti, they have one of the most successful Champions League managers of all time, and the only manager to have won the title on three separate occasions. His experience in the competition is certain to make Bayern strong contenders and they will look for revenge should they meet Real in one of the knockout rounds.

We can’t ignore Barcelona, who still have the individual quality to beat anyone, despite the loss of Neymar, not to mention the administrative disfunction that has left the team severely lacking in midfield depth, while a new-look PSG will also be a threat, even if their lack of high-caliber league opponents makes it hard to judge exactly how strong they are.

Still, Real enter the tournament as favorites, and with good reason. Zinedine Zidane is now in his second full season. In his first one and a half, he’s won two Champions League trophies and one La Liga title. While the quality of the players at his disposal obviously helps, Zidane’s man-management, and ability to get his Galacticos to add up to more than the sum of their parts has been hugely impressive.

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The midfield trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric is the best in the world, while Isco has emerged as one of Europe’s premier playmakers. As a result of injuries and suspensions to Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, Zidane has yet to have to decide which of those three, if any, he drops for Isco, but that decision could prove pivotal to Real’s success this season.

But based on Zidane’s masterful rotation policy, which has also gotten the best out of Marco Asensio, quickly emerging as a bona fide star, it’s hard to bet against him getting the balance right. If he does, Real will take some stopping.