Carlo Ancelotti’s side enjoyed a sensational run in Europe’s top club competition last season, beating Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool to lift the Champions League for a 14th time.
But former Arsenal and England winger Merson still has doubts over Real Madrid, telling Sportskeeda: ‘I just can’t wrap my head around what they did last season. Were they great, or did they just get lucky?
‘They were effectively out of the competition three times in the knockout stages against PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City but managed to defy the odds each time, while they prevailed in the final despite Liverpool playing better football and creating better chances.
‘It was one of the most one-sided finals I’ve seen, but they still came out on top!
‘Karim Benzema, who is deservedly the frontrunner for the 2022 Ballon d’Or, had one of the biggest purple patches of his career last time around, but can he carry on in the same vein this season?’
With Merson raising doubts over Real Madrid’s ability to retain their Champions League crown, the Gunners hero has named Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Barcelona and Bayern Munich as the favourites to win the competition next year.
‘I have a feeling we’ll see an all-English final this season because I genuinely believe the Premier League is head and shoulders above the rest of the domestic leagues in Europe,’ he added.
‘Unless the draw puts two English sides against one another in one of the knockout rounds, I do think they’ll face each other in the final.’
‘Bayern Munich might look a bit different as a team this season as Robert Lewandowski has moved on to Barcelona, but they will still be in the running for the Champions League.
‘Sadio Mane is a different player when compared to Lewandowski, but he’s a big-game player and will take them to the next level.
‘I think the former Liverpool man is my player to watch out for in the Champions League this season as he allows Bayern to use different formations based on the opposition.
‘Matthijs de Ligt’s name has dominated the back pages in recent weeks, with the Dutchman completing a big-money move to the Bavarian giants from Juventus.
‘I’m not his biggest fan if I’m being honest but he will definitely make them better at the back. Bayern Munich aren’t silly – they aren’t spending big money on the likes of Mane and De Ligt to win the Bundesliga, they will win the German top flight even if I play at the back for them next season!
‘They’ve also brought in the likes of Ryan Gravenberch and Noussair Mazraoui to revamp their squad – it’s pretty obvious they’re doing all this to try and get as far as they can in the Champions League.’
‘Robert Lewandowski’s arrival at the Camp Nou has been the biggest talking point of Barcelona’s summer, but they’ve essentially revamped their squad with the signings of Andreas Christensen, Franck Kessie and Raphinha, while Ousmane Dembele’s contract extension could also be seen as a massive coup for the Catalans.
‘One minute I hear about their debts, but the next thing I know, they snap up Lewandowski for big money! It’s extraordinary, isn’t it?
‘Something’s happening at Barcelona, do you know what I mean? People say they don’t have any money, but they keep on buying players – it’s beyond me!
‘Lewandowski is a goalscoring machine and will undoubtedly continue to bang them in at his new club, but if I were to choose between the Pole and Benzema to lead the line for my team, I’d pick the Real Madrid striker.
‘Benzema gives a lot more without the ball, so he contributes more to the team when he isn’t scoring. Don’t get me wrong, Lewandowski is a machine, but I don’t believe he brings much else when he goes through a bit of a dry run in front of goal.
‘Raphinha, on the other hand, is also a decent player despite having no pedigree in the Champions League.
‘I give Barcelona a chance because of the signings they’ve made, it might be a case of them learning to run before they walk if they get their hands on the UEFA Champions League before the La Liga title!’
‘Chelsea have already signed Kalidou Koulibaly and Raheem Sterling and if rumours are to be believed, Sevilla defender Jules Kounde is close to joining the club.
‘The likes of Kounde and Koulibaly alongside Thiago Silva as part of a back three is as solid as it gets, while Trevoh Chalobah, Malang Sarr and the likes could be termed as able deputies.
‘That backline has got it all, the only thing you can say is that neither Koulibaly nor Silva are particularly young.
‘You have to be tight at the back to win the Champions League and Chelsea have been defensively tidy under Thomas Tuchel, while Reece James and Ben Chilwell – who I regard as the best pair of full-backs in world football – can make things happen on both ends of the pitch.
‘As for their midfield, they have three solid options in Mateo Kovacic, N’Golo Kante and Jorginho, while Conor Gallagher could also be part of the first-team squad this season after a successful loan spell at Crystal Palace.
‘Sterling is a player I really admire – he makes things happen in attack. People slander him for the chances he misses, but he does really well to get into goalscoring positions and was a key player for Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.
‘I’ve put Chelsea at number three, but they can easily be one or two if their new players settle in quickly.
‘The only thing that worries me is that they haven’t got a bona fide goalscorer, but I don’t think that is much of an issue when it comes to cup competitions where they can keep it tight at the back and nick it with a goal at the other end.’
‘Liverpool are a solid team and have proved their worth consistently in the Champions League over the years and I’m not one bit surprised that they’ve reached the final three times since 2018.
‘They lost Sadio Mane to Bayern Munich and he’ll be a big miss, but it’ll be interesting to see how Darwin Nunez copes at Anfield.
‘They paid a lot of money for him and Jurgen Klopp hardly ever gets it wrong when it comes to attackers, so we’ll have to wait and see if the boy turns out to be a special player.
‘Unlike last season, Luis Diaz is on the radar this time around. When he first joined, team talks from opposition managers wouldn’t have really been about him, but now he’s quickly made the left wing his own and will find it harder to make an impact this season.
‘He’s been a fantastic addition for Liverpool and should continue from where he left off last season.
‘If you look across the board, Liverpool have world-class players in each position and boast a solid spine with Alisson Becker, Virgil van Dijk and Fabinho.
‘What doesn’t get talked about a lot is their midfield because their attackers and defenders always make the headlines, but the likes of Jordan Henderson, Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho are part of the engine room and make them tick.
‘They are the unsung heroes of the team and will once again have to be at their best if Liverpool are to compete on all fronts.’
‘I’ve gone for Manchester City and I do believe they are the best team in world football at the moment. But I do feel like something’s missing there, we’ll just have to see what it is.
‘When it comes to Manchester City and the UEFA Champions League, there is so much pressure on them to win it each year and that could prove to be detrimental to their hopes of eventually doing so.
‘In the Premier League, Guardiola and co. play gung-ho football. They could play someone like Bournemouth on a Saturday evening and smash them 5-0 with their brand of football, but when it gets to the knitty-gritty of the Champions League, they’ll get punished if they play that way, in my opinion.
‘Erling Haaland is a fantastic signing and a top goalscorer, but as I said in a few of my earlier columns, his success isn’t as much of a foregone conclusion as others are making it out to be.
‘Another potential issue for Manchester City is that they’ve lost both Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling and that could turn out to be a massive problem.
‘Add Oleksandr Zinchenko to the list and the Premier League champions are set to be without three key squad players next season, which is not ideal considering the fact that teams will look to have bigger squads this season due to the 2022 World Cup set to happen in November.
‘I have to pick Manchester City as the favourites for the Champions League this season because of everything they’ve achieved under Pep Guardiola over the years, but it won’t be easy for them.’
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