After a two month hiatus the Champions League is back on Paramount+ and CBS. To be frank, precious little has changed at the top table of European football but then, whenever does it? Manchester City once more bestride the winter months like a colossus, the sheer weight of talent they have across the squad allowing them to reel off a string of victories as others limp their way through the festive fixture list.
Much as City have seemingly wrapped up their Premier League title, so Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have streaked away from the competition. The former look to be the most likely side to stop Pep Guardiola winning his first European Cup in the decade. The presumptive Bundesliga champions and Liverpool exist in the highest of echelons not least because these two teams know exactly what is required to claim this prize. At both Anfield and the Allianz Arena, there is something of an institutional composure when this time of the season rolls around. These teams know what is required to cross the finishing line in Saint-Petersburg three-plus months from now.
The same cannot be said of City nor Paris Saint-Germain, for whom this particular competition has become an obsession now that they have nuked the competitive landscape of Ligue 1. The same question — is this team battle hardened enough for the business end of the European calendar — will hover over their head for however long they are in this competition. Against a Real Madrid team managed by Champions League master Carlo Ancelotti, it is up for debate just how much of PSG we will see in this competition.
At the start of the season, the Parisians sat firmly near the top of our rankings but their squad has rarely, if ever, played football as enticingly in real life as it does in the virtual world. Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are a “FIFA 22” player’s dream. In the Champions League, Ligue 1 and the Coupe de France, Mauricio Pochettino has struggled both to get them all on the pitch at the same time and to balance a side whose attacking trident offer so much with the ball and so little without it. Recent games have offered a glimmer of a suggestion that this team might start moving through the gears — not least a 5-1 win over Lille — but there will be many who reserve judgement until PSG show what they can do against the best teams.
The same might be said of Ajax, darlings of the analytics community before the competition started, now perhaps the great hope for anyone who wants to believe an underdog might make a major impact on this tournament. Their numbers are gaudy in the extreme — 102 goals scored in 31 games that have brought just three defeats — but many of those have been racked up against Eredivisie opposition. Even in the group stages of the Champions League, it might have been argued that Sporting and Borussia Dortmund were not serious tests for any team that might aspire to go deep in this competition. The jury is still out on them.
For a time Chelsea might have numbered themselves among the real contenders. They could again; at this stage last season no one had them down as winners before they swept the field. For the time being, a repeat triumph for Thomas Tuchel seems unlikely while Romelu Lukaku struggles for form and he has to come up with ways of replicating the success of his 3-4-3 system without its two most crucial components: Wing backs Reece James and Ben Chilwell. If the former returns, N’Golo Kante regains fitness and a consistent front three is stumbled upon this team could repeat last summer’s success in Porto.
Serie A may be relatively light on representatives in the last 16 at two, but both of them could represent intriguing dark horses. Inter Milan will need an almighty effort to overcome Liverpool in their first knockout round and the sheer unlikeliness of that sends them tumbling somewhat in our rankings. Still, the past few months have been kind to Simone Inzaghi’s side, who enter this competition with a top-five offense and top-10 defense in terms of expected goals (xG) across Europe’s top five leagues so far this season. The issue they have is that Jurgen Klopp’s side better them in both categories.
At the time the draw was made, many might have had Juventus’ tie with Villarreal as the most likely to produce an upset, that is if knocking off the faltering Old Lady of Italian football constituted one. Though they are certainly not yet the force of Massimiliano Allegri’s first spell in charge the Bianconeri are undefeated since the end of the Champions League group stage, their squad strengthened by the arrival of Denis Zakaria and Dusan Vlahovic, both of whom have settled swiftly into new surroundings. Suddenly, this team looks altogether more imposing with a solid defense, a midfield that can keep things ticking along and match winners at the top of the pitch. Their opponent, however, has also built a sense of momentum in the last few months, setting the stage for a high quality contest between two teams with a strong sense of identity.
That should make for a fun tie, but nothing like the drama of opponents suffocated by a sense of existential dread, desperate to just not lose, that Manchester United and Atletico Madrid have. The latter are in the midst of an identity crisis, the ferocity of past Diego Simeone’s team having somehow slipped away at home and in Europe. The fight seems to have gone out of them.
Identity crisis might be a generous definition of United’s difficulties, implying that there was some sort of governing principle about the way they play football that has disappeared. It did, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement was a very long time ago now. Ever since, they have been casting around for a big idea; Ralf Rangnick seems to have one and by many accounts that has gone down poorly in the Old Trafford dressing room.
A win might provide a welcome short-term fillip for either of these teams and perhaps convince some supporters that they could make a run at the big prize. They would have to move very fast indeed, however. Atletico, United and so many of the other clubs around them are returning to the European stage well aware of the chasm between them and the three or four teams that are leading the way.
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 (+2)
WWWWWWWWDWW. That is Manchester City’s run of form since the Champions League group stage came to an end, a period of time where they have scored 33 goals and conceded seven. In that time, almost every one of their attacking options has had a run of games where they have looked devastating, Riyad Mahrez building to a tally of 16 that is already the best he has had in a single campaign for City. Meanwhile, Raheem Sterling is back in the good books, Phil Foden continues to take vast strides on a monthly basis and Kevin De Bruyne looks back to his best. Be afraid.
2. Bayern Munich (–)
Bayern still might have City pipped for the most powerful offense in Europe. In domestic matches across the continent’s top-five leagues, they have the highest xG return at 64. The next best is Liverpool at 55.5. The twist is that Julian Nagelsmann’s side have played at least two fewer games than most non-Bundesliga sides below them.
3. Liverpool (-2)
One of the few sides in the upper echelon of Champions League contenders to have made a potentially meaningful addition to their squad this month at least if Luis Diaz’s impressive first start against Leicester is anything to go on. It is hardly as if Liverpool needed much more offensive firepower but they’ve certainly got it: Diaz is a devastating dribbler who averaged six take-ons per 90 in the group stage — the 13th highest tally — while successfully completing just over half. He could create yet more broken field for Mohamed Salah and company to thrive in.
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 (–)
If you need a sense of the ludicrously overpowered attack that Ajax have at their disposal then you could do worse than examine the gaudy numbers Dusan Tadic has been putting up under Erik ten Hag. According to fbref, the Serbian has been putting up 0.88 non-penalty expected goals (npxG) and expected assists (xA) per 90 minutes and averages 6.27 shot-creating actions. These are the sort of numbers that some teams struggle to put up. So far that form translated to the Champions League where Tadic registered the same npxG and only slightly fewer shot creating actions.
5. Paris Saint-Germain (+2)
The focus will naturally be on the front three when they face Real Madrid but PSG’s rearguard might just be their ace in the hole. In six Ligue 1 games, including tricky matchups with Monaco and Lyon, since the group stage ended Marquinhos and company only once allowed opponents shots worth more than one xG.
Dark horses: Unlikely contenders, but contenders all the same
These teams are unlikely champions, but then so were Chelsea this time a season 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. Real Madrid (–)
When we left Real Madrid at the group stages there was a sense that this was just the Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema show in attack. Certainly those two will still be crucial if Madrid are to go deep in this competition — and potentially losing the latter is a cruel blow for their tie against PSG — but Marco Asensio has at least come to the fore with crucial goals in two meetings with Granada and against Atletico Madrid.
7. Chelsea (-2)
Though Lille should not offer too much of a test, Chelsea’s long-term success in the competition might come from whether Tuchel is able to utilize the wing backs that make his side so tough to break down and so devastating in attack. Chilwell is out for the season but James will not be; his value in attack best reflected by the 0.3 xG more the European champions average per game when he is in the side.
Winning a round is perhaps the best case scenario for this teams unless something dramatic changes between now and February.
8. Inter Milan (+1)
This team might be higher if they had not been handed such an hellacious opponent. If they are to give Liverpool difficulties, then the bench may be what swings the tie in their favor; Alexis Sanchez has blossomed as the third man in Simone Inzaghi’s attack, scoring a late winner against Juventus in the Supercoppa Italia and netting the crucial second when he started against Roma.
9. Juventus (+3)
Many of Juventus’ early-season difficulties seemed to come from a midfield that contributed little in attack and defense; their revival has coincided with the improving form of Arthur, Manuel Locatelli settling into life at the club and Zakaria making an immediate impact after being signed from Borussia Monchengladbach. With Weston McKennie and Adrien Rabiot among the alternative options, Allegri has a midfield that may not be flashy but could be quietly effective.
10. Manchester United (-1)
Elimination from the FA Cup and a draw against Burnley led to another round of stories questioning Rangnick and his methods, perhaps missing the fact that though these results were disappointing, United looked a far more effective attacking proposition against the sort of defensive-minded opponents that can often frustrate them. Certainly, 52 shots across 210 minutes against Middlesbrough and the Clarets suggests they can create chances against Atleti.
Would do well to win a round
This group of largely second seeds will be delighted to have got as far as they have but this may be where their journey reaches an abrupt end.
11. Villarreal (+3)
For a time it seemed Unai Emery might not see out the Yellow Submarines’ Champions League campaign. Wanted by Newcastle but hardly pulling up trees with Villarreal, the former PSG and Sevilla boss opted to stay on at his “home.” Recent results suggest this might just have been the right decision. Immediately after pipping Atalanta to second place in their group, Emery’s side rolled off five straight wins and were marching towards La Liga’s top four with successive victories against Mallorca and Real Betis.
12. Atletico Madrid (-2)
The anti-form team heading into the last 16, Atletico Madrid were humbled by Barcelona earlier this month and the Spanish champions face quite the test just to get back to this competition next season. It is perhaps a relief for them that their game against Manchester United is much later this month. Between now and then, Diego Simeone’s side are playing sides largely in the lower reaches of La Liga, giving them a chance to build some momentum (or slip further into the mire).
13. Benfica (+2)
Perhaps the most significant boon for Benfica going into their tie with Ajax was that the January window passed by with them largely unscathed. A West Ham bid for Darwin Nunez was rejected while none of the many top clubs that covet Lucas Verissimo made a move. Still, they might wish they had strengthened a defense that allowed the fifth-highest xG tally in the group stages (admittedly much of it to Bayern Munich) for a clash with Ajax.
14. Lille (-3)
Just as the Ligue 1 champions looked to be turning a corner on a disappointing title defense, back to back losses to Brest and PSG spoiled their momentum. Of most immediate concern ahead of their games against Chelsea will be improving a defense that carried them through Group G but, with Reinildo having moved to Atletico Madrid, looks altogether less robust.
15. Sporting (-2)
If nothing else, their second trip to the knockout stages cannot possibly be as bad as their first. Probably. In their only previous run to the Champions League last 16, back in 2009, Sporting were thumped 12-1 on aggregate by Bayern Munich. Ruben Amorim’s steady, controlled side will surely not make it so easy for their opponents and with Antonio Adan in top form in goal they might at least ensure that a likely defeat to Manchester City is at least by a respectable margin.
16. Red Bull Salzburg (–)
Salzburg will certainly return to Champions League action well rested, the lengthy nature of the Austrian Bundesliga’s winter break meaning Friday’s clash with Rapid Vienna will be the first league game they have played in two months (they also beat LASK in the Austrian cup). In Noah Okafor and Karim Adeyemi they will certainly have a strikeforce ready to test Bayern Munich but their involvement in the competition will surely end here.