Champions Cup: Saracens once again the team to beat in Europe

Saracens begin their Champions Cup campaign with a trip to Northampton's Franklin's Gardens. David Rogers/Getty Images

It is difficult to overstate Saracens' dominance in the Champions Cup over recent years.

Mark McCall's side have grown accustomed to mixing with Europe's elite at the business end of the competition. The Londoners have navigated the pool stage in each of the past six seasons, making the semifinals every year since 2012 and playing in three of the previous four finals.

Two of those showpiece games, the last two, have been won. In short, McCall has built a continental dynasty at Allianz Park, and it shows no sign of crumbling any time soon.

Saracens travel to Northampton Sunday to kick off a campaign they hope will end in Bilbao in May, with the trophy being held aloft for a third successive time.

They make the trip while sitting top of the Aviva Premiership, with a squad bolstered by some astute summer signings -- Liam Williams and Christopher Tolofua to name only two -- and a 55-24 victory over Saints already in the bank.

So, can anyone stand in Saracens' way?

On paper, yes. Northampton have improved immensely since that humiliation at Twickenham on the Premiership's opening day, and boast arguably England's in-form player in Courtney Lawes.

Last season's beaten finalists, Clermont, also find themselves in Pool 2 with the champions and Saints. They have made a slow start to the Top 14 season but possess a squad to rival any in Europe, while one of their key men, Wesley Fofana, is nearing a return from injury.

Clermont finally added a second Top 14 title to their trophy cabinet in June following years of near misses. They will be keen to break their duck in Europe now, having lost each of the three finals they have contested.

The Ospreys could be the team that suffers in Pool 2. The Welsh region reached the PRO12 semifinals last term, but since then the wheels have come off.

Steve Tandy's side have won just once this season, while off-field distractions -- Scott Baldwin's lion bite, Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb's decisions to leave next season -- have only added to their woe.

"It is pretty exciting but I know everyone sees, 'Oh my God, Ospreys are going up against these guys'," Tandy admitted to ESPN.

However, he is not resigned to defeat before the European season has even begun. Ospreys start at home against Clermont Sunday, and if they are able to sneak a win then, Tandy believes, anything is possible.

"You go with the bookmakers, you go with the pundits, [and] everyone will write us off," he added. "We will definitely be fourth favourites. That is something we have got to be comfortable with.

"At the end of the day it is something we are going to be excited about and if you can knock Clermont over, first game, then opinion may change."

Elsewhere, Leinster -- four-time winners and semifinalists in two of the last three seasons -- look to have a battle on their hands to make it out of Pool 3, which also includes Premiership champions Exeter, the PRO14's in-form side, Glasgow, and Vern Cotter's expensively-assembled Montpellier.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen has admitted his side must rise to a "great challenge" if they are to emerge from the group. "Our opponents, all three are dangerous," he said.

Glasgow enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2016-17 as they made it to the last eight for the first time in a decade. Having won six from six so far this term, confidence is high at Scotstoun.

"Everybody had that little experience of qualifying last year -- for us that wasn't enough," Warriors fullback Stuart Hogg said. "We learnt a hell of a lot going down to Saracens in the knockout stages and that little bit of experience can stand us in good stead going forward this season."

Scarlets are another side looking to make a mark in Europe having won the PRO12 title last May. Bath, Toulon and Treviso stand in the way of Wayne Pivac's side and a first quarterfinal appearance since 2007.

"That is the next challenge for us," Pivac said. A victory over Toulon, and draw with Saracens, last season suggest that the side from West Wales are indeed ready for an assault on the latter stages.

"We believe we are good enough, on our day, to match with any of these sides," Pivac added. "For us it is going to be the consistency and making sure we get as many of our top players available."

Of the remaining quarterfinalists from last season, Wasps kicked off this year's competition with defeat at Ulster -- adding to their woes, while Munster have been drawn in a packed Pool 4 alongside Castres, Leicester and Racing 92. Toulouse did not even qualify.

"Last year stands for nothing," Munster captain Peter O'Mahony said. "It is a difficult, difficult competition to win. You've got to be on form. You've got to be lucky with injuries. You've got to get a couple of breaks and most importantly you have got to play well and it is hard to get all of those things right."

Saracens, and Toulon before them, have been able to put those key facets together year after year. It will not be easy to do it for a third season running, but as we prepare for another enthralling European campaign the defending champions are once again the team to beat.