Twenty-four days on from the Champions League final, the 2015/16 edition begins in Yerevan.
FC Pyunik (Armenia) v SS Folgore-Falciano (San Marino) won’t sound like the most natural successor to Juventus v Barcelona in the competition schedule, but both are domestic champions, albeit ones who must navigate four rounds of qualifiers to stand a chance of drawing either 2014/15 finalist.
There are four first-round double headers in total. Gibraltar’s Lincoln Red Imps face Andorra’s FC Santa Coloma and Northern Ireland’s Crusaders oppose Estonia’s Levadia Tallinn also on Tuesday, followed up by Faroese champions B36 Torshavn meeting Wales’ The New Saints on Wednesday.
Since the current qualifying structure came into place in 2009/10, just one of the 11 first qualifying round victors survived the second (Luxembourg’s Dudelange stunning Red Bull Salzburg in 2012/13) and they went out a round later. So no round-one starters have ever reached the final qualifier, let alone the group stage.
That explains why none of these dreamers presently feature in the Champions League winner market which, despite the trophy last being retained by AC Milan in 1989/90, is headed by holders Barcelona, who are [4.2] to do it all again.
A transfer ban means that they will begin their defence with the same squad – besides Xavi, who left for Al-Sadd – but newcomers will be allowed from January and Sevilla right-sider Aleix Vidal has already been signed as one of those.
Second favourites status is shared by 2014/15 semi-final losers Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, who are available to back at [6.2].
Neither have completed any pulse-raising business yet. Real purchased Porto right back Danilo and reclaimed midfielder Casemiro off them, while Bayern replaced Pepe Reina (who joined Napoli) with Stuttgart’s Sven Ulreich and landed RB Leipzig midfielder Joshua Kimmich in a deal struck in January.
Last season’s runners-up Juventus are rather harshly assessed as [23.0] joint-eighth favourites, the perception appearing to be that their journey to Berlin was a fluke.
However, they have done arguably the most eye-catching early summer spending of any Champions League club in recruiting Sami Khedira, Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala, though the departure of Carlos Tevez and almost certainly Andrea Pirlo too are a blow. Then again, it was Alvaro Morata, not Tevez, who scored in both legs of the semi-final and the final.
Despite the absence of any high-profile signings to date and their round-of-16 flop in 2014/15, Chelsea are by far the most fancied of the Premier League contenders at [9.4], a price that makes them the fourth favourites overall.
The similarly transfer-quiet Manchester City, who have never ventured beyond the round-of-16, follow them at [18.0], with Manchester United and Arsenal’s respective Memphis Depay and Petr Cech moves not enough to lift them from the bottom of the Anglo pile at [22.0].
2014/15 quarter-finalists Atletico Madrid and Paris St-Germain trail both of them at [23.0], with the rest of the field 70.0 or longer.