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UEFA Champions League Power Rankings: Ajax leapfrog Paris Saint-Germain as Manchester City stay top


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With the halfway mark in the group stages passed the leading lights in the Champions League are growing ever clearer. Here’s how the 32 clubs stand in terms of their likelihood of winning the whole thing:

The top tier: Title or bust

These teams should be disappointed with anything less than a semi final berth and frankly even that might not be enough, such is their talent profile.

1. Manchester City (–)

They may not have maximum points from what is one of the toughest groups in the Champions League, but Pep Guardiola’s side continue to burnish their reputation as one of the best sides in Europe, if not the best. A meeting with Club Brugge that had proven to be a banana skin for PSG and RB Leipzig was a rout for City, who now have the highest expected goals (xG) tally in the group stage, a sign of an attack that is ticking along at an extremely high gear even without the center forward it was thought they needed.

2. Liverpool (–)

If City offered up any reason for a change in the top three then Liverpool would be top immediately. They look so menacing in attack and, if Jurgen Klopp is to be believed, they have an overwhelming number of players who might just be the best in the world in their position; Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk are only two of perhaps half a dozen. Games against AC Milan and Atletico Madrid suggest they have not yet got into the habit of killing off games that are there for the taking, but those wins at least proved that Liverpool can dig themselves out of holes of their own making too.

3. Bayern Munich (–)

It is the measure of this side that 70 minutes into a game against as rigid a defensive outfit as Benfica you can check the score and find yourself pondering whether Bayern might be wobbling for once. Then a few minutes later they have handed out another paddling, thumping a really good opponent 4-0. They look like the team of a few years ago and Leroy Sane looks like the player of a few years ago, perhaps even better. 

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Serious contenders: If things go right, why not us?

It certainly is not beyond the realm of imagination that any of these teams could be lifting the European Cup in Istanbul come May, though it may require a few fortunate breaks for the tournament to go their way.

4. Ajax (+3)

Prematch, we argued that all Ajax needed to really burnish their case as potential contenders was a win against one of Europe’s bigger sides. They certainly got that, a thrashing of Borussia Dortmund that was a feast for footballing neutrals. There are so many outstanding performers that highlighting just one seems unreasonable, however Dusan Tadic merits particular praise. His every pass seems to put his teammates in a better position to score. No wonder he already has 1.63 expected assists (xA) from three games, by far the leading mark in the tournament. The next best (Meschack Elia of Young Boys) has taken nine games to reach 1.41 xA.

5. Paris Saint-Germain (-1)

It’s still just a tad underwhelming, isn’t it? PSG seem to be in real danger of slipping into a category alongside Manchester United, teams that have the individual quality to bail themselves out but who you simply cannot trust in against bigger opposition. They seem to have an unwelcome tendency of taking their foot off the gas when in good positions; in 129 minutes in which they have held the lead in this competition, they have created shots worth just 1.37xG.

6. Chelsea (-1)

There is certainly the outline of a top tier European side in Chelsea, one that we saw in full view earlier in the season, but for now nothing is quite clicking perfectly. The attack looked good against Malmo, but at the cost of injuries to Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner. The defense is not holding teams out as consistently as it used to, again with the exception of Malmo. It may not take much to propel this team up the rankings, but nothing is clicking just yet.

Dark horses: Unlikely contenders, but contenders all the same

These teams are unlikely champions, but then so were Chelsea this time a year ago. It may take a change of circumstances like the Blues had when they appointed Thomas Tuchel, perhaps a new signing or the unearthing of a new tactical plan. It’s possible, but certainly not probable.

7. Real Madrid (+2)

The winning machine rumbled back into gear against Shakhtar Donetsk, aided by the invigorating play of Vinicius Jr., who may just have taken the leap. He has two goals and two assists from his three Champions League games this season; continuing a trend that began to develop last season of the 21-year-old delivering in big games for Real Madrid. One might assume he picked that up off Karim Benzema, the old master who looks as effective now as ever.

8. Juventus (+4)

Have Juventus reached a turning point? Massimiliano Allegri would argue not, but four straight 1-0 wins at least suggests that a defense that looked leaky a few weeks ago has returned to what one would expect from Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. They are going to be crucial to the Old Lady in Paulo Dybala’s absence, but with the end of that particular issue in sight, expect a further upswing in Turin.

9. Manchester United (+2)

It is all getting a bit predictable as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side continue to dig themselves out of holes in increasingly dramatic fashion. It is not a recipe for winning tournaments, but it also should not go unacknowledged that Manchester United were the better team for large stretches against Atalanta. And eventually, if they keep pulling rabbits out of hats, you have to start factoring in a bit of magic into your calculations.

10. Borussia Dortmund (-4)

The defeat to Ajax was all the more frustrating for Dortmund due to the way they simply capitulated in the second half. Unlike United or PSG, they do not seem to relish adversity but instead collapse inwards. That is understandable from their youngsters, but senior players such as Mats Hummels went missing on Tuesday.

11. Atletico Madrid (-3)

Only really dropping down because Porto’s success means their passage to the knockout rounds could be dependent on one match in Portugal. There was much to admire in the way they fought back from two goals down against Liverpool, not least a hugely impressive display by Antoine Griezmann, who appears to be getting his groove back away from Barcelona. On the front foot, they look to be a far more effective side, will Diego Simeone continue that approach in Europe?

Knockout stage contenders

The battle is certainly heating up for a spot in the last 16, these are the teams who are still just about in the hunt.

12. Red Bull Salzburg (+3)

One of seven unbeaten teams left in the competition, Matthias Jaissle’s side look to be cruising to the knockout stages after years of near misses. A youthful side seems to have no fear on this stage with Karim Adeyemi particularly excelling and midfielder Noah Okafor hitting a brace in a convincing win over Wolfsburg.

13. Inter Milan (–)

14. Sevilla (-6)

15. Villarreal (+3)

16. Benfica (-1)

17. Porto (+4)

18. Atalanta (-2)

19. Barcelona (+1)

Their victory over Dynamo Kyiv looked rather more dramatic on paper than it might have needed to be, the only goal coming from Gerard Pique in a match where Luuk De Jong and, bizarrely, Sergino Dest might have done more with the chances presented to them. That 1-0 win was like a funfair hall of mirrors version of what one might expect from Barcelona: Plenty of possession, patiently building towards good chances and a rather solid gate guarding the back door. It was progress, at least.

20. Sheriff Tiraspol (-1)

In the mix

These sides ought to be right on the cusp of the battle between second and third but the Europa League is looking more likely for them than the knockout stages.

21. Wolfsburg (-4)

22. Zenit Saint Petersburg (+3)

They will probably have to settle for a Europa League berth, but they are certainly proving to be a tough nut to crack for the big guns in their group. After Romelu Lukaku scored late for Chelsea on Matchday 1, it was Dejan Kulusevski who spared Juventus’ blushes on Wednesday. A solid defense and an attack that can really click into gear against lesser opponents, keep an eye out for them on Thursday nights in the new year.

23. Club Brugge (–)

24. Sporting (+5)

25. Lille (+6)

They could probably do with testing opposition goalkeepers more frequently — their eight shots on target puts them 25th among group stage sides — but they remain in the mix in Group G because of how hard they are to score against. Opponents have a combined 3.33 xG from their meetings with Lille, the ninth-best mark in the group stage. However, with two games on the road to go, it will be a tough ask for them to reach the knockouts.

26. Dynamo Kyiv (-2)

27. Young Boys (–)

28. Shakhtar Donetsk (-5)

29. RB Leipzig (-3)

30. AC Milan (-2)

After two games in which they more than held their own against better opponents, it must have been infuriating for Stefano Pioli to see his side offer so little away to Porto. Zlatan Ibrahimovic refused to concede hope of qualification — “the world has not fallen because we lost today” — and a win at the San Siro next month would change the complexion of the group. But they will have to be far, far better.

Slipping out of Europe

The end is nigh for these teams.

31. Besiktas (-1)

32. Malmo (–)

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