The first legs of the Champions League round of 16 ties are done and dusted and with it we are getting a clearer picture of who is likely to still be around at the business end of the competition. Big names including Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have work to do to reach the quarterfinals; if they are successful in doing so they will likely find themselves in the hat with at least three English teams after impressive wins for Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea put them within touching distance of the last eight.
Here are the most likely winners of the Champions League with glory on the horizon.
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The top tier: Title or bust
These teams should be disappointed with anything less than a semifinal berth and frankly even that might not be enough, such is their talent profile.
1. Manchester City (–)
Without living up to their own lofty standards City ripped through Sporting, all but guaranteeing themselves a spot in the last eight with a 5-0 win. The loss to Tottenham that followed in the Premier League might offer opponents something of a blueprint — drawing the press before hitting fast balls into the space behind the high line — but it will take a special performance indeed to both execute that plan and stop this devastating attack from scoring a hatful of goals.
2. Liverpool (+1)
Their attack will probably capture the headlines but what carried them to a 2-0 win over Inter Milan was a defense that could translate a lot of pressure around their penalty area into no shots that Alisson had to deal with. Couple that with a new found depth that can allow Klopp to swing games in his direction and you have perhaps the only team that might have a persuasive case to make for starting a tie against City on an even footing.
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 May, though it may require a few fortunate breaks for the tournament to go their way.
3. Chelsea (+4)
Things are far from perfect at Stamford Bridge, where Romelu Lukaku is at risk of becoming a $135 million outcast and the attack still looks a little clunky without the first-choice wing backs. And yet against Lille they looked like a team rediscovering their old blueprint of defensive solidity as they held Jonathan David and company at arms’ length in a comfortable 2-0 win.
4. Bayern Munich (-2)
The talent is undeniably there and the core of this squad has coalesced into a winning team late in this season. And yet there seems to be something a little insubstantial about Julian Nagelsmann’s side, not least a tactical approach that can on occasions seem a bit too clever by half, as in playing with almost no defense against Red Bull Salzburg. They will surely get through that tie but their tendency to overcomplicate may cost them in rounds to come.
5. Paris Saint-Germain (+1)
PSG could yet leap up these rankings if they hold on to their advantage from the first leg against Real Madrid, a curious match in which they found themselves more dominant both than they would have expected and than they would have wanted. Mauricio Pochettino’s men are devastating in transition, but not until Neymar’s introduction did they really look like they might break down the packed ranks of defense in front of them. If they get to future rounds might this be used against them?
6. Ajax (-2)
The winning streak is gone though there were signs of plenty of the good stuff in a 2-2 draw against Benfica where they once more put up gaudy advanced metrics, not least those 2.11 expected goals (xG) off just 11 shots. There was a sloppiness to their performance in Lisbon that perhaps reflects the fact that they have rarely been tested this season; if they get through in Amsterdam seeing their errors punished as they were on Wednesday may do Erik ten Hag’s side the world of good in the long run.
Winning a round is perhaps the best-case scenario for these teams unless something dramatic changes.
7. Juventus (+2)
They might have made it easier for themselves after Dusan Vlahovic’s early goal but if you had offered Massimiliano Allegri and his depleted squad a 1-1 draw before the game they would surely have taken it. By the time they face Villarreal again next month their defensive numbers should have swelled whilst Paulo Dybala could be back in the side; that team ought to have enough to win at home and might even be able to get through another round.
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8. Atletico Madrid (+4)
9. Manchester United (+1)
We’re doing these two together because I can’t see how anyone can really understand what on earth that game means for the standings of these teams against the rest of Europe. After all for the best part of 80 minutes Manchester United looked like a group of tourists who had taken a few too many wrong turns on the way to the Prado. One brilliant goal from Anthony Elanga, possibly the only cool head in the traveling party, does not undo that.
Equally Atletico had United at their mercy. They could have killed this tie, particularly in a second half when Ralf Rangnick refused to change a side that could get nothing right. Diego Simeone’s side used to be defined by its killer instinct but throughout this tournament Atleti have let good moments slip them by and handed opportunities to teams they have the quality to beat. Whoever gets out of this tie it is hard to see them going all that far.
10. Real Madrid (-4)
Carlo Ancelotti has rarely named such a baffling side in a European game. The three-time winner of this competition sent out a team that seemed paralyzed by fear at the Parc des Princes, one that just hoped to stem the tide and return to Madrid with the tie still alive. To their credit that is broadly what they did, a 1-0 deficit is not irretrievable, but the manner in which they went about their business had tongues wagging in the Spanish capital.
Equally Los Merengues are hardly the most devastating force in the tournament — they rank 11th since the start of the group stage for expected goals per game despite a fairly favorable schedule — and will have to leave the gaps in behind that PSG will be craving. Ancelotti might have miscalculated here.
11. Villarreal (–)
A battling result against Juventus that looked harder to achieve after Vlahovic’s early goal, one which came with a blaring neon sign pointing in Raul Albiol’s direction, reading “run in behind this guy.” Unai Emery is of course willing to play with a low defensive line and it is easy to imagine Villarreal doing to Juventus what they just tried to do to them, nicking an early goal on the road and clinging on for dear life. Europa League history shows they can do so.
12. Benfica (+1)
In twice coming from behind Benfica showcased their battling qualities in an impressive performance against Ajax, one where they looked the more likely winners as the match wore on. “We had the better chances in the second half,” said Jan Vertonghen. “In the end, the game could have gone either way. Ajax were very good in possession and we were very good at playing into the space that was created as a result. All in all, this is an acceptable result to take to Amsterdam.”
13. Red Bull Salzburg (+3)
Matthias Jaissle’s side are still strong underdogs before their trip to Germany, understandably so. Better shooting from Bayern Munich’s frontline must almost be a given for the second leg whilst another high quality performance by Philipp Kohn in the Salzburg goal can’t be taken for granted. However this tie is certainly not done yet; as the Bavarians pushed for an equalizer last week they left gaps that Salzburg very nearly exploited. If they can hold tight at the back for long enough those fissures might appear again.
At the end of the road
Barring an unlikely set of results in the second legs, we’re about to wave goodbye to these teams.
14. Inter Milan (-6)
Inter are certainly not the 14th best team of the 16 left in the Champions League but the 14th most likely to win the competition sounds about right after a bruising 2-0 loss to Liverpool. Had Virgil van Dijk not been so exemplary then the Ivan Perisic-Edin Dzeko tandem might have paid off or Lautaro Martinez could have got away in behind. If there is hope for Simeone Inzaghi it is the knowledge that his side can get into dangerous positions against the Reds, the question is whether they can improve sufficiently in attack without leaving gaps for Mohamed Salah and company to exploit.
15. Lille (-1)
Though several players, most notably Renato Sanches, returned from Stamford Bridge with their reputation enhanced, Lille never really got close to Chelsea in a 2-0 defeat that leaves them highly unlikely to advance to the last eight. If they are to have any hope of scoring the two or more goals they need to qualify they will have to become more discerning in their shot selection, not one of their 15 shots on goal was worth 0.1 xG or more.
16. Sporting (-1)
Last time out we suggested that things could not possibly get worse for Sporting compared to the 12-1 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich they suffered on the only previous occasion they reached this stage of the competition… Well… Ermm… Let’s not take that for granted just yet.
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