The 16-team field for the Champions League knockout stages is set. The playing field is level. Sixteen teams are eight games – four two-leg series – away from European glory.
The question we’re asking ourselves this week: Which of those 16 can realistically lift the trophy in Kiev? Which are the favorites? Which are hopeless? Which are somewhere in between?
In recent years, the knockout rounds have stamped out Cinderella stories. The gap between elite and middle class in European football is growing ever wider. The list of teams that can actually win the Champions League, therefore, is not 16 names long.
So for this week’s rankings, we’re going to tiers. We’ve ranked the 16 knockout-round participants 1-16 based on their chances at a European title. But we’ve also split them up into six categories to better assess the balance of power among them.
Below that is a similar 1-16 ranking for the best 16 sides that could enter the Europa League Round of 32. Below that is brief note on clubs absent from either continental competition who rank among the top 20 in the world. But enough with the rambling. Let’s get to the rankings you came here for:
(* = Group winner; ** = Runner-up)
Tier 1: The Favorites
1. Manchester City* — The remarkable 20-match winning streak is over. So is the unbeaten season. The last few weeks had delivered warning signs. A second-string team finally let the secret out: City, it turns out, isn’t some all-powerful being constructed by an omnipotent Pep Guardiola to destroy the football world. But even in recent scares, City has, to varying degrees, out-shot and out-created opponents. More importantly, in its five games against Champions League knockout-round-caliber teams prior to Wednesday’s, it won all five, outscored the opponents (Napoli twice, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool) 15-4, and accumulated an aggregate Expected Goals differential of 9.5-3.2 (numbers via Michael Caley). City isn’t impeccable, but it’s the best team in the world.
2. Real Madrid** — Is this crazy? Yeah, this is probably crazy. But stop seething at your computer or mobile device screen for just a second and hear me out. Remember, we’re projecting ahead here. Normally, power rankings are about the right here, right now. This is about who can win in February, and then in March, and April, and May. Real Madrid has two months, including La Liga’s winter break, to figure itself out. Zinedine Zidane still has a ton of talent with which to facilitate the turnaround. The poor La Liga form, which continued with a draw in Bilbao this past weekend, is worrying, and so was the one point from two matches against Tottenham. But this is still Real Madrid. It’s still the back-to-back European champion. Cristiano Ronaldo is still Cristiano Ronaldo. Are you really going to bet against him, and them, in a two-leg knockout-round tie?
3. Bayern Munich** — All hail King Jupp. He’s steadied the Bayern ship. The Bavarians showed they can still hang with the big boys in a 3-1 win over PSG on Tuesday, and they could have the Bundesliga more or less wrapped up by March. They’re going to be a very, very tough out.
4. Barcelona* — Still unclear what they’ll look like when Ousmane Dembele returns. Still not entirely convincing without him. But still unbeaten. And, like Ronaldo, Lionel Messi is still Lionel Messi. So Barca is still a legitimate contender. A very legitimate one.
5. PSG* — This is not an overreaction to the Bayern loss – nor to the stunning Strasbourg loss three days earlier. It’s just an acknowledgment that, well, we still haven’t really gotten a big enough sample size from PSG against the world’s best. The 3-0 drubbing of Bayern in September came amid internal turmoil at the German club. And PSG’s notable Ligue 1 clashes with Monaco, Marseille and Lyon have brought a mixed bag. The front three are excellent, and they’re the reason PSG is some bookmakers’ favorite for the European crown. But there are plenty of reasons to maintain healthy skepticism.
Tier 2: The Contenders
6. Juventus** — Juve was fairly uninspiring throughout the group stage. But it still has a machine-like quality to it that rises to the surface in big games, and was ever so apparent in a 1-0 victory at Napoli last Friday. There’s no reason the Bianconeri can’t emulate last season’s run to the final.
7. Manchester United* — It’s tough to know what to make of Jose Mourinho’s side in Europe. The Red Devils are definitely a threat. And perhaps by March – with title hopes fading, but a top-four position relatively secure – Mourinho will be throwing all his metaphorical eggs in the Champions League basket. But they’re not yet a consistent, finished article. A recent loss to Basel, and a laborious win over CSKA Moscow, showed that.
8. Chelsea** — It’s odd to say the reigning Premier League champions are a work in progress. But four months in, the second iteration of Antonio Conte’s Chelsea really is just that. On balance, over the past four months, it hasn’t looked anything like a Champions League contender. But there are hints that everything could be coming together. The front two have been prolific when played as such. N’Golo Kante is back, and the midfield is back (close) to 2016-17 levels. An Andreas Christensen-anchored back line has potential. Last year’s team never got a chance to prove how it stacked up against Europe’s best. We’ve never seen Conte’s Chelsea in a European knockout-stage game. That’s one of the more intriguing propositions heading into the Round of 16.
Tier 3: The Wild Card
9. Liverpool* — This blurb might as well just be one big shrugging emoticon. Liverpool isn’t better than the two teams directly below it, but its range of possible outcomes is wider. It’s therefore a more likely champion. The attacking quartet, whether they’re playing as a three or a four, ranks among the very best in Europe, and propelled Liverpool to 23 group-stage goals, just two behind PSG. But the back line is mediocre and depleted. Inconsistency is rampant. Inconsistency isn’t an entirely negative word, though. It implies there’s significant upside, too. Liverpool could just as easily reach the final as self-destruct in February.
Tier 4: The Semifinal Hopefuls
10. Tottenham* — Spurs, like a few of the other English sides, are difficult to judge, because judgement requires picking apart the contrast between outstanding performances in Europe and recent struggles in the Prem. You’d think the Champions League group stage performances are more predictive. But there’s also the depth dilemma, and the worry that Tottenham’s top players are running themselves into the ground. Add all that to the possibility that the impressive results against Madrid and Dortmund were more about Madrid and Dortmund than Spurs themselves, and it’s tough to see a run beyond the semis.
11. Roma* — Probably just not quite enough firepower for a deep run.
12. Sevilla** — Similar to Roma, and perhaps more so, the Andalusians are a significant step below the English sides and other big-five-league superclubs.
Tier 5: The Longshots
13. Porto** — Porto remains unbeaten domestically, and took seven points from its final three Champions League matches by an aggregate score of 9-4. It’s the best team outside of Europe’s big five leagues. But, as mentioned above, the gap between this tier and the bluebloods is widening. Porto could put up a Round of 16 fight, but probably not much more than that.
14. Shakhtar Donetsk** — The trip to Eastern Europe isn’t the vaunted one it used to be, because Shakhtar no longer plays in Donetsk. It had to vacate the Donbass Arena due to the Ukrainian-Russia conflict. But the team still has potential as an upstart. It beat Napoli to second place in Group F by ending Manchester City’s winning run on the final matchday. It won’t be winning the Champions League, but it won’t be a pushover for any group winner either.
15. Besiktas* — Besiktas entered Group G widely regarded as the worst of the four teams. It came out the other side without a single loss, and with a place in the seeded pot for Monday’s draw. It could, therefore, get a manageable Round of 16 opponent. But there’s no chance the Turks make it past the quarters.
Tier 6: The No-Shot
16. Basel** — Yes, Basel beat Manchester United. No, it wouldn’t have beaten the Red Devils – nor any other group winner from Western Europe – over two legs.
EUROPA LEAGUE CONTENDERS
The Europa League’s Round of 32 comprises 12 group winners, 12 runners-up, and eight Champions League third-place sides. The final day of the group stage is Thursday, so we can’t rank all 32 contestants, but here’s a 1-through-16 of the teams still alive – including those that will join from the Champions League.
2. Atletico Madrid
4. RB Leipzig
7. Borussia Dortmund
8. Sporting CP
9. AC Milan
10. Real Sociedad
14. CSKA Moscow
15. Athletic Bilbao
BEST OF THE REST
Finally, since these are our replacement for our typical bi-weekly power rankings, the two teams that would have had a place in the top 20 had we stuck with the normal format:
1. Inter Milan
Back to our 1-20 rankings on Dec. 21. Until then, enjoy the Champions League Round of 16 draw – Monday, Dec. 11, 6 a.m. ET, Fox Sports 1.
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