The Champions League trophy feels at home at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. The last three times it left for a walk, it returned before long to Madrid. It briefly visited Milan, Cardiff and Kiev on day trips but, sure enough, ended up returning to its rightful place. Real Madrid have made history by winning the last three editions of the tournament to take their overall tally to 13, but it's not all straightforward this time.
After a summer of goodbyes, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane the most notable departures, the new Madrid have to reinvent themselves under Julen Lopetegui with Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema and Iscotaking centre stage. To be crowned Kings of Europe again in 2018/19, Real will have to overcome more rivals than ever before. Europe's five major leagues are packed with contenders, and there are clubs with the financial muscle required all over the continent. To win four in a row and five of the last six will be a mammoth task for Real Madrid. Bayern Munich in 2013 who were the last to take the trophy away from Spain, while Manchester United broke a trend by winning theEuropa League in 2017.
The reigning champions have plenty of stars and are capable of winning the title again, but Cristiano Ronaldo is missing. Lopetegui has an impressive base of players who have been there and done it all before, but he has lost his main goalscorer. Modric, Toni Kroos, Benzema, Bale, Isco, Marco Asensio and Sergio Ramos all need to have huge seasons and contribute with goals to make up for the top scorer of the last six seasons' absence. Because of their DNA Real Madrid will be a favourite for the tournament, but it won't be an easy ride.
This season should see the Catalans take a step forward. Falling in the quarterfinals in the last three seasons is, simply, not good enough for Lionel Messi and his Spanish champions. The Argentine is obsessed with conquering Europe again, as are the whole club. Leo racks up the records and accolades every year but by the end of the season it will be four years since he reigned over Europe. Their football is evolving, but they have lacked the ability to transfer domestic success over to continental triumph. They have strengthened and will be going all out to win their sixth.
With the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano hosting this season's final, there is an extra incentive for the Rojiblancos. Diego Simeone will be as demanding as ever, and their summer signings have brought depth never before seen into the club. Their level has been raised, and they kept hold of Antoine Griezmann as well. The Wanda awaits Atleti, and they want to finally go that final step and lift the trophy having lost in the 2014 and 2016 finals.
Spain's quartet is closed off by Valencia who return to the Champions League. Like Atleti, they added good depth to their squad and they have the talent to cause problems for Manchester United and Juventus in their group.
Could this be the season that the Old Lady go from being habitual semifinalists to winners? With Cristiano Ronaldo on board that is what will be expected in Turin. Champions League wins almost make up part of his DNA, and he will want to win the competition with a third club having lifted it at Manchester Utdand Madrid. Joao Cancelo, Emre Can, Leonardo Bonucci and Cristiano himself came in to add to a core that reached two of the last four finals and Massimiliano Allegri will be doing all he can to finally be crowned a European champion.
Another of the clubs who feel obliged to win the Champions League. Financial Fair Play moderated their previously unchecked spending this summer but they have a squad that, on its day, can beat anyone. With Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani leading the line, they can go blow for blow with any of Europe's elite. Though it is still his first season, Thomas Tuchel is under pressure to delver continental success.
Like PSG and Juve, the Bavarians dominate their league but fail to take that step in Europe. They have won the last six Bundesliga's but are without a Champions League final appearance since 2013. They still have that same strong spine and Niko Kovac will be hoping that the Bavarians will challenge.
The challenge from the Premier League
Pep Guardiola has taken three years to build this current side but having won the Premier League with 100 points last term they look ready to finally launch an assault on the Champions League.
Their recent European history is filled with disappointment and this year there can be no more excuses. Surely, they see this as their year.
Another strong challenger from England, Jurgen Klopp's side reached the final last year and have strengthened exactly where they needed to in the summer. Alisson Becker has arrived in goal and Naby Keita adds an engine in midfield, with Virgil van Dijk having arrived in the previous window. They spent more than any other in the Premier League this year, and will be hoping they can make that show. PSG and Napoli will make their life in the group stage tricky.
There are more though. Tottenham Hotspur under Mauricio Pochettino cannot be overlooked, while Jose Mourinho's Manchester United are capable of beating anyone if they click into place.
Inter are returning to the Champions League, Monchi's Roma impressed last season and Napoli will be hoping Carlo Ancelotti can guide them further than in recent years. There are only two places on offer at the Wanda Metropolitano and the race is about to begin with no clear favourite.
Source: Marca / Jon Prada