Champions League: Bale-powered Real aim to be kings of Europe
If Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, soccer's most expensive duo, can produce the brilliance that prompted Real Madrid to invest $260 million in, the Spanish giants could finally land their 10th European Cup this season.
The 59th season of Europe's elite club competition begins on Tuesday with Bayern Munich defending their title boosted by the signing of Mario Goetze from last season's runners-up Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona looking for a fourth crown in nine seasons.
The managerial landscape has changed with Alex Ferguson, in charge of more Champions League games than any other coach, having left Manchester United and Jose Mourinho having ended his spell at Real for a second stint at Chelsea.
Real have replaced him with another double Champions League-winning coach in Carlo Ancelotti and the Italian's job will be to make sure new recruit Bale fits into his team.
The Wales winger's world record $134 million move from Tottenham Hotspur earlier this month eclipsed the $126.60 million Real paid Manchester United for Ronaldo in 2009 and adds firepower to the side even though they have lost Germany playmaker Mesut Ozil to Arsenal.
"They are two great players and I am happy because together they will help us be a better side," Ancelotti told a news conference on Friday.
"The squad has a lot of quality and I will try to field those who are best prepared. It's one of the best I have coached."
Image: Real Madrid's Gareth Bale (L) and Cristiano Ronaldo challenge for the ball during their training session at Valdebebas sports grounds in Madrid
Photographs: REUTERS/Sergio Perez
'I will try to field those who are best prepared'
The Bale deal was the fifth time since 2000 that Real have paid a world record fee for a player but in the 13 years since Luis Figo signed for $58.55 million, a few months after they clinched their eighth European Cup, Real have lifted the trophy just one more time.
That came in 2002 when Zinedine Zidane, who cost $84 million, hit a spectacular volley to secure a 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow.
Real, knocked out by Dortmund in the 2012-13 semi-finals, face Galatasaray, Juventus and FC Copenhagen in their 2013-14 group matches and are favourites to top the section despite having had to fight for a 5-3 aggregate quarter-final victory over the Turkish team last season.
Since the Spanish club last won the Champions League, arch-rivals Barcelona have been European champions three times and for much of the last decade they have been regarded as the best team in the world.
Whether their astonishing 7-0 aggregate defeat by Bayern in last season's semis marks the end of their dominant era or merely a temporary blip remains to be seen.
Image: Real Madrid's new signing Gareth Bale is tackled by Cristiano Ronaldo while team mates Jese Rodriguez (left), Karim Benzema (second left), Pepe and assistant coach Zinedine Zidane look on
Photographs: Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Barcelona are in a group comprising three other former European champions
Barcelona, whose $75 million flagship signing in the close-season brought Brazilian Neymar in to play alongside World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, are in a group comprising three other former European champions in AC Milan, Ajax Amsterdam and Celtic.
Celtic beat Barca in last year's group stages but if the Catalans fail to advance this season, there really would be no doubt they are on a downward curve.
The man chiefly responsible for Barca's glittering recent successes was Pep Guardiola and after a year's sabbatical from soccer he is back, with Bayern who look even stronger than they were last season.
The Bavarians have reinforced their already potent attack by swooping for Goetze, who joined from Dortmund for $48.8 million, and Thiago Alcantara from Barcelona for $33 million, and it is almost inconceivable to think they will fail to advance from a group comprising Manchester City, CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen.
Dortmund have strengthened their midfield by buying Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Shakhtar Donetsk for $36.3 million and they are in a group including Arsenal, Olympique Marseille and Napoli, none of whom, like the Germans, are domestic champions.
Arsenal pulled off a late transfer coup by signing Ozil for a club record fee of $66 million.
While Arsenal and City, under new coach Manuel Pellegrini, dream of a first Champions League title, United and Chelsea seek to add to previous successes.
Image: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona and his team-mate Neymar during the warm up
Photographs: David Ramos/Getty Images
'I am really looking forward to it'
For the first time since the competition was rebranded in 1992-93, United have someone other than Ferguson in the dugout.
Former Everton boss David Moyes, who has no previous Champions League group stage experience, will lead their campaign in a section with Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad and Shakhtar.
"I am really looking forward to it," said Moyes. "I have had quite a few episodes in the Europa League which were obviously good but nothing at the level of the Champions League.
"I will do everything I can ... to get to know the teams we are playing, get to see them as often as I can and do our homework so that when we do get to the games we are as prepared as we can be."
Image: Manchester United manager David Moyes
Photographs: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Chelsea have Mourinho back at the helm
Chelsea, with Mourinho back at the helm, want to improve on last season when, as champions, they failed to progress from the group stages.
The Londoners, with Samuel Eto'o, Willian and Andre Schuerrle among their new faces, had the consolation of winning the Europa League in May but will be looking for a longer involvement this season.
Chelsea are in a group with Basel, Schalke 04 and former champions Steaua Bucharest.
Image: Jose Mourinho the Chelsea coach during a training session
Photographs: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images