Tuesday, June 6, 2023

UEFA Champions League Power Rankings: Liverpool, Bayern Munich lead the way ahead of round of 16 draw

The last-16 are set in the Champions League but who are the favorites to be lifting the trophy in Saint Petersburg next May? Ahead of Monday’s knockout draw (on Paramount+ and CBS Sports HQ) here’s our ranking of those still standing in Europe’s top club competition.

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. Liverpool (+2)

Throw a blanket over any of the top three. They could all win the title come May 28 and all have had standout moments during this competition. Liverpool jump to top spot on this occasion simply for the assertive way in which they took control of what was, on paper, the hardest group in the competition. That they wrapped up a 100 percent winning record from their six games with a heavily rotated side that impressively overcame AC Milan — who needed to win to qualify — suggests a depth of quality that Jurgen Klopp’s squad is not always credited with.

2. Bayern Munich (–)

Another side to go unbeaten during the group stages, though the reality is the only serious upper tier European side Julian Nagelsmann’s side have faced this season might just be Borussia Dortmund last week. Still, they did an impressive trade in swatting aside weakened opposition; the way in which they routed Barcelona home and away suggests they are not a team who will slip up on their way to the latter stages of this competition.

3. Manchester City (-2)

Defeat to RB Leipzig put something of a dampener on City’s group stage campaign even if there was little at stake in the 2-1 loss. Against tougher opposition, they as good as matched Bayern’s leading expected goals (xG) tally, registering 17.07 to the Bavarians 17.09 and will surely kick into gear straight away in the new year.

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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 (+1)

They may not have the star names of many below them in these rankings but there are few teams as complete as Erik ten Hag’s. In their strongest XI, everything seems to click together naturally, the overlapping full-backs shielded by midfield anchor Edson Alvarez while Antony and Dusan Tadic dart infield. David Neres offers welcome depth to the frontline but one might fear what a raft of injuries could do to their chances. 

5. Chelsea (-1)

Thomas Tuchel is certainly concerned about where Chelsea are after their group stage ended with three goals conceded again. Last season, the Blues were a machine who could strangulate games once they took the lead, now their manager is bemoaning their inability manage a game. “It’s as easy as the basics,” he said. “The basics need to be pushed onto a higher level while we are in the lead.”

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 (–)

They perhaps have not caught the eye this season due to a rare lack of high wattage big names (or the tribulations of past years at this stage) but then Carlo Ancelotti’s sides are usually the sort of smoothly impressive team that excels at this competition. Similarly, Thibaut Courtois is quietly excelling, according to Opta metrics he has the second most goals prevented (a metric that assesses actual goals conceded against xG) in the competition this season.

7. Paris Saint-Germain (–)

One swallow does not make a summer and similarly PSG have not just clicked because Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe played well in a rout of Club Brugge. After all performances like that one were supposed to be the norm, not the exception, for this star studded rosters. It does at least raise an intriguing performance as to whether Mauricio Pochettino’s side might be at their most balanced and effective when one of the big three — so reticent to track back and press — is not in the XI.

Possible quarterfinalists

Winning a round is perhaps the best case scenario for this teams unless something dramatic changes between now and February.

8. Manchester United (+1)

In many ways nothing has changed from what we said about Ralf Rangnick’s side last week. For now, plenty of progression is required. We know that they have one of the most talented squads in Europe. It is fair to assume that in replacing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with a man who has a clear vision for how teams should play, they have upgraded in the dugout. The unanswered question is what position in Europe’s hierarchy that might move them up to.

9. Inter Milan (-1)

There has been much to admire in Inter’s results and performances this season, even in defeat to Madrid in the opening round of group stage games. However, Tuesday’s loss at the Santiago Bernabeu brought them back down to earth with a thud. Crucially, they will go into the round of 16 without the suspended Nicolo Barella, whose foolish punch will rob Simone Inzaghi of a key midfield cog. 

10. Atletico Madrid (+7)

Though the scoreline looked emphatic, there was a great deal of fortune in Atleti’s win over Porto, one that took them to the knockout stages, and Diego Simeone will know there is much to do to make this side a force in the last-16. The raw ingredients are there and another bright performance by Antoine Griezmann on the biggest stage augurs well. Now to fix that defense.

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. Lille (+1)

Three wins from three is quite the way to round out the group stages, earning Lille top spot in Group G and with it perhaps a more favorable draw. They will miss Jonathan Ikone if, as expected, he joins Fiorentina before the knockout stages resume, though in Timothy Weah, Angel Gomes and of course Jonathan David, there is plenty of youthful attacking talent to deploy in the last 16.

12. Juventus (-1)

They may have topped Group H at the last, but even a 1-0 win over Malmo was deeply disappointing for Juventus. Paulo Dybala struggled to assert himself against one of the Champions League’s weakest opposition, Moise Kean scored one but wasted plenty more, typical of a side struggling for much in the way of attacking punch. Plenty of the second seeds will be praying that they draw Massimiliano Allegri’s side.

13. Sporting (-3)

Results against Ajax rather blotted Sporting’s copy book, but there was much to like in the performances elsewhere in Group C, not least an impressive destruction of Borussia Dortmund in a 12-game winning run. If this side stays together into the new year, than a midfield of Joao Palhinha and Matheus Nunes offers impressive balance and the sort of solidity that could allow Pedro Goncalves and Pablo Sarabia to excel further up the pitch.

14. Villarreal (+1)

There is much to admire in Unai Emery’s side getting the result they needed on the road, particularly in the trying circumstances that a postponed match in Bergamo presented, but it does not mask the fact that Villarreal’s away form has been pretty poor for the most part this season. If that does not change between now and the spring, then their involvement in the Champions League will be brief.

15. Benfica (-1)

Though they look tough to beat defensively, Jorge Jesus’ side hardly set the group stage alight in attack, scoring in just three of their group games and registering the lowest xG tally (seven from six games) of any side to make the last 16. Darwin Nunez looked impressive — ranked sixth in carries into the penalty area — but Benfica as a whole may not have the attacking quality to really test top opposition.

16. Red Bull Salzburg (–)

As the first Austrian side to escape the opening group stage since Sturm Graz in 2000-01, Red Bull Salzburg have already achieved a great deal and any team with the likes of Mohamed Camara, Jerome Ongenue and Karim Adeyemi ought not to be discounted from further success in this competition. However, those players, talented though they are, have precious little experience of what life can be like at the cutting edge of the Champions League. They may be in for a tough wake-up call.

Europa League qualifiers

17. Borussia Dortmund (+6)

18. Porto (-5)

19. Sevilla (-1)

20. Atalanta (-1)

21. RB Leipzig (+5)

22. Barcelona (-1)

23. Zenit Saint Petersburg (+2)

24. Sheriff Tiraspol (–)

Out of Europe

25. AC Milan (-3)

26. Wolfsburg (-6)

27. Club Brugge (–)

28. Young Boys (–)

29.  Dynamo Kyiv (–)

30. Shakhtar Donetsk (–)

32. Malmo (+1)

32. Besiktas (-1)

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