Are Atletico Madrid favourites to win the Champions League?

It was when discussing Manchester City's emergence as a Champions League contender ahead of the 10th anniversary of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nayan's ownership of the club that Txiki Begiristain, the director of football at the Etihad, let slip the name of the team that they all fear in Europe this season.

"Atletico Madrid," Begiristain said, before blowing out his cheeks and shaking his head. "They are really strong this year."

There has only been one first-time winner of the Champions League this century, with Chelsea breaking the establishment stranglehold back in 2012, but as the 2018-19 competition prepares to kick off this week, Atletico arguably have their best chance of finally ending their long, frustrating wait to become European champions.

Man City will clearly be a threat to Atletico's hopes, with Paris Saint-Germain another rapidly-growing super club also desperate to see their progress rewarded with a Champions League crown. But Begiristain's view of Atletico is shared by many within the game who have seen manager Diego Simeone quietly build a formidable side in the Spanish capital.It may even feel like a case of "now or never" for Atletico, with this season's final being staged at their Wanda Metropolitano Stadium. But Atletico's emergence as this season's most feared team is about more than the motivation of winning the Champions League on home soil.

Despite the financial difficulty of having to compete domestically with Real Madrid and Barcelona, at the same time as paying for their new stadium, Atletico have backed Simeone in the transfer market and also allowed him to keep his team intact.Antoine Griezmann could have left for Manchester United 12 months ago or Barcelona this summer, but the French forward stayed on both occasions. In the past, as they have done with Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero, David De Gea and Diego Costa, Atletico would have cashed in and reinvested the proceeds on another rising star.

But they were able to keep the 27-year-old Griezmann and also defender Diego Godin, who chose to extend his contract at the club last month, in spite of a late attempt by United to trigger his £22.5m release clause.

Nobody is leaving Atletico nowadays, and that includes coach Simeone, who could take his pick of the best jobs in Europe if he wanted.

Simeone has stayed, Griezmann and Godin have stayed, while Costa has returned and Thomas Lemar -- a £90m target for Arsenal and Liverpool a year ago -- chose to resist Premier League offers this summer in order to join Atletico for £63m from Monaco.

With Jan Oblak in goal, Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez bolstering the defence with Godin, behind Saul Niguez and Koke in midfield, Simeone has a squad that is finally ready to win the Champions League.

Atletico, who begin their Group A campaign away to Monaco on Tuesday before facing Borussia Dortmund and Club Brugge, go into the competition having won last season's Europa League prior to claiming a cathartic victory over Real in the Super Cup last month.

Having twice lost to Real in Champions League finals this decade, beating their Madrid neighbours on the big stage was a crucial moment for Simeone and his players -- especially going into a campaign in which so much is expected of Atletico by their board and supporters.

Atletico simply had to beat Real and the next challenge will be stop them winning a fourth successive Champions League in the Metropolitano.

They will always look towards Real and Barcelona as their biggest threat to Champions League glory, but with Real in transition and Barcelona having failed to reach the final since 2015, Atletico's biggest threat is likely to come from elsewhere.

City, under Pep Guardiola, are the tournament favourites and justifiably so considering the depth and quality of the Premier League champions' squad. They have a soft group to negotiate, so the injury-enforced absence of Kevin De Bruyne during the early months of the season should not prove too damagingly to their prospects.

What City lack, however, is Atletico's experience of reaching the final and winning in Europe -- albeit in the Europa League. Simeone's team is also more likely to keep it tight at the back in the latter stages, with City undone in each of the last two seasons by their defensive frailties.

Liverpool, last season's beaten finalists, must emerge from a tough group including PSG, Napoli and Red Star Belgrade before targeting a sixth European Cup, but Jurgen Klopp's men have the firepower to beat any opponent, as well as the unquestionable advantage of playing home games at Anfield.

PSG can blow any team away with their strikeforce of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani, but have their own issues to solve defensively and a quarterfinal hoodoo to overcome.

Bayern Munich will always be a threat, but may lack the top quality to win it, while Juventus will believe their time has come after adding Cristiano Ronaldo to a team that has gone so close in two of the last four years.

But Begiristain is right. Atletico have started slowly in La Liga -- with just one win from their four games -- but they are strong and their focus is on the Champions League this season. This could, and should, be their year.