It has been a dramatic week in the Champions League and beyond with shock results and clashes between some of the continent’s biggest teams. Now with a second of the group stage games in the can we are now at the stage where we can start to make a realistic assessment of who is likely to be in the business end of the competition.
As such, don’t consider these power rankings to be necessarily indicative of the best teams in Europe but instead of those most likely to reach the business end of the Champions League. In other words, sorry AC Milan. Here’s how the teams are shaping up ahead of the international break:
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 (–)
Their brutal week of away games against Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool may have yielded only four points and yet their status as Europe’s top team has probably been enhanced. In each match there were spells where their opponents simply could not live with Pep Guardiola’s side even if the familiar issues of chance conversion raised their ugly head. Still across those three matches City created shots worth 5.49 expected goals (xG) and allowed three star-studded attacks just 1.76 xG. That bodes well for the business end of the season.
2. Liverpool (+1)
Mohamed Salah might be Europe’s form forward right now with Sadio Mane not far behind him. Both look back to their best with a stable foundation behind them. If there is a scintilla of doubt over Jurgen Klopp’s side at the moment it is that they can be guilty of letting teams back into games they seem to be dominating; even though City upped their game dramatically on Sunday at Anfield the first 15 minutes felt rather similar to games against AC Milan and Brentford where Liverpool let a moment slip by.
3. Bayern Munich (+1)
A 2-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt spoiled their impressive start to the season but the sort of robust treatment the visitors meted out on Bayern probably is not a practical response to dealing with this all conquering attack. On Sunday a combination of loose final passes and excellent goalkeeping from Kevin Trapp denied them but the eight goals of evidence they have from the Champions League suggests those sorts of days will be few and far between.
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. Paris Saint-Germain (+1)
PSG’s simultaneously underwhelming and impressive season continued in that fashion last week as moments of magic from Lionel Messi and Idrissa Gueye took them to a win over a Manchester City side to whom they gave plenty of routes back into the match. Then they failed to muster a single shot on target in the second half of a 2-0 loss to Rennes. Their defense looks like it needs a lot more time to coalesce whilst we are still yet to see all the big three click at the same time.
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5. Chelsea (-3)
While a 3-1 win over Southampton eased any murmurs of disaffection there are still real causes for concern at Chelsea, who struggled to create any meaningful chances when all square with Manchester City and Juventus. Their defense is giving up good chances far more frequently than it did last season and that has so far not been balanced out by greater attacking impetus at the other end.
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.
6. Borussia Dortmund (-2)
A slightly clunky 1-0 win over Sporting and a 2-1 victory against Augsburg might not normally be such cause for optimism at Dortmund but the fact that they were earned without Erling Haaland (and in the former case Julian Brandt) is encouraging for Marco Rose. There are few downsides to having one of the best young strikers in the world but Dortmund had on occasion been looking a little too reliant on Haaland, not least because his understudy Donyell Malen had started slowly in the Bundesliga. A goal in the Champions League offers hope that that might be about to change.
7. Ajax (+2)
No team has a higher xG through two group stage games than Ajax, who pummeled both Sporting and Besiktas into submission. Erik ten Hag’s side seems to have options all over the pitch in what looks to be a relatively orthodox 4-3-3 executed to aplomb with players who might not be the most heralded of stars but click excellently together. In particular Steven Berghuis’ late runs from midfield could well pose a problem deep into this tournament.
8. Sevilla (-1)
It has been a rather underwhelming week for Julen Lopetegui’s side but crucially they came back from Wolfsburg with a point after Ivan Rakitic’s late goal. Their 1-0 defeat against Granada was something of a forgivable result, they only allowed three shots for their opponents though they themselves went nearly an hour between shots that drew a save from Luis Maximiano.
9. Real Madrid (-3)
A horrendous week for Carlo Ancelotti saw his side follow one of the greatest upsets in Champions League group stage history — their 2-1 defeat at home to Sheriff — with a loss by the same scoreline against Espanyol. On both occasions they created the chances to win the game but they are perhaps overly reliant on the scoring form of Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior, who account for over half of Madrid’s shots on target in the Champions League and La Liga.
10. Atletico Madrid (+1)
Though wins over AC Milan and Barcelona have them sitting pretty in both major competitions it is worth reflecting on how much of the first of those games passed by before Atleti really looked like exploiting their man advantage following Franck Kessie’s red card. In Europe in particular it feels like Diego Simeone’s side need an awful lot of time, fortune and high grade attacking talent on the pitch just to test their opponents.
11. Manchester United (-1)
Though Cristiano Ronaldo’s late goal against Villarreal kept them firmly in the mix in Group F each successive game seems to be proving the limitations of United’s hero ball approach. Against Everton they looked devoid of ideas to carve open two banks of four and for a team whose best attacking moments seem to come on the counter they have precious little idea how to stop other teams doing it to them. If they do not develop a plan soon Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might be out of a job and there are no guarantees the team will get out of their group.
Knockout stage contenders
You will note here that there are slightly more contenders for the knockout stages than there will be teams in there. Welcome to the wonder of those teams battling for second spot in the groups. There will always be someone disappointed.
12. Juventus (+1)
13. Inter Milan (-1)
One might make a convincing case that Inter, still unbeaten in Serie A and averaging three goals per game, are the better of the two Italian sides in 12th and 13th but after picking up just a point from their first two group fixtures they are firmly behind the eight ball in the Champions League and can ill afford further slip ups against Sheriff in the coming matches. Meanwhile Juventus’ resilient victory over Chelsea was perhaps not the sort they could repeat on a regular basis. But then they won’t need to for a while yet with favorable meetings with Zenit Saint Petersburg and Malmo to come. It probably will not be long until Massimiliano Allegri’s side reach the last 16.
14. Benfica (+3)
15. Red Bull Salzburg (+4)
16. Atalanta (-1)
17. Wolfsburg (-3)
18. Villarreal (–)
19. Sheriff Tiraspol (+7)
Their 2-1 win over Real Madrid was hardly vintage football from Sheriff, who gave up all the chances their opponents needed and more after their opening goal in the Santiago Bernabeu, but there were moments that showed why the Moldovan champions have proven to be such a tough out for seasoned European sides. In the 24 minutes before their opener Yuriy Vernydub’s side kept the 13-time European champions to four shots worth a combined 0.24 xG. This is a defense that can hold out the best of them, though perhaps not under the pressure that Madrid put on them.
20. Barcelona (-4)
In the mix
A few fortunate breaks and they may find themselves extending their Champions League involvement beyond Christmas. Don’t bet on it though.
21. Porto (+1)
22. Club Brugge (+9)
23. Shakhtar Donetsk (+4)
24. Dynamo Kyiv (+1)
25. Zenit Saint Petersburg (+4)
26. RB Leipzig (-7)
Jesse Marsch’s task of pipping one of Manchester City and PSG to the post in Group A seemed herculean from the outset. It might just be beyond them after their loss to Club Brugge. Their league form is beginning to turn a corner but one cannot help but feel that their best prospect now is to play catch up with the Belgians and hope they can steal in to earn a Europa League spot. Considering they would then rank among the favorites for that competition it may not be the worst of consolations.
27. Young Boys (+3)
28. AC Milan (-7)
29. Sporting (-3)
30. Besiktas (-3)
When the draw was made Group C seemed to offer the most intrigue with no obvious front runner. Everyone seemed to be in the mix for qualifying but now it would appear that Ajax and Borussia Dortmund are streaking ahead. For Sporting or Besiktas to have any real chance of reaching the top two they will have to take four points from their back to back fixtures over the coming weeks.
Slipping out of Europe
There are no bad teams in the Champions League but these will do well to extend their involvement in European football beyond Christmas.
31. Lille (-3)
32. Malmo (–)
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