The Group Stages are done. Thank God. They produced some superb football, but the gulf in class between the top teams and the rest of their groups was often ridiculous. Only Groups B, F, and H produced any sort of seriously interesting, nail-biting results. With that in mind, here are some thoughts on the teams left in the competition.
The whipping boys
16: Zenit St. Petersburg – they got through on six points. SIX. Meanwhile, Napoli got knocked out on twelve and Benfica on ten. There is no justice in football. The Gazsprom-owned club a awful. Their best player is subjected to viciously racist abuse by Zenit’s fans, the club captaincy has changed four times in the past two seasons as internal politicking deck their chances of success, and their defense is hideously bad. Statistically, they are the worst team to qualify from the Group Stages. Granted, the away tie in St. Petersburg in the heart of the Russian Winter will be unpleasant in the extreme. Just hold the fort, hope you don’t die of frostbite, and hammer them in the return leg. If you want an easy ticket to the quarterfinals, these are your guys.
15: Olympiacos – Olympiacos were probably the shock underdog performers in this years Group Stages, beating out SL Benfica for the second spot in Group C. Their home form is pretty good, but apart from Javier Saviola and Kostas Mitroglou, there aren’t a whole lot of standout players in that squad, and even they aren’t of the same caliber of the players they’re likely to come up against.
14: Galatasaray – They scraped by Juventus in a strange, blizzard-laden game in Istanbul courtesy of a late Wesley Sneijder goal. The squad have some genuinely strong players in their lineup, even if most of them are well past their peak – the aforementioned Sneijder, Didier Drogba, Bulut, and are led by a fairly experienced manager in scarf aficionado Roberto Mancini. However, the Italian’s form in the Champions League always left something to be desired (part of why he and Manchester City parted ways last year). Though the stands in the Turk Telekom Arena will be very intimidating, I don’t expect them to get through the Round of Sixteen.
13: Schalke 04 – I’m not really sure what to think of Schalke. In Julian Draxler, Klaas-van Huntelaar, and Kevin Prince Boateng, they have some genuinely good players. On paper, they’re one of the stronger unseeded sides left in the competition. However, they were rather meek in a group that should have been easy for them (Chelsea aside) and the manner in which they folded to a Chelsea side lacking anything resembling a decent striker suggests that they could be in trouble in the next round. On the bright side, they can’t be drawn against Bayern Munich in the next round.
12: Bayer Leverkusen – Bayer 04 Leverkusen are a weird team, and not just because they are one of only two Bundesliga teams that aren’t fan-owned (along with AFL Wolfsburg). They’re currently 2nd in the Bundesliga, having beaten Dortmund comprehensively last week to remain the closest team to a rampant Bayern Munich. At the same time, they got absolutely tonked by Manchester United in Group A, and barely made it through after losing 9-1 on aggregate to the English giants*. If the pattern holds, they’ll draw Barcelona in the octofinal, and Lionel Messi will one-up himself by scoring six goals against them in a single game. He only got seven against them over two legs last time – what a slacker. But yeah, given who they can hit in the next round (Barcelona, Real, Atletico, PSG, Chelsea) they’re probably screwed. In fact, go bet money on them being screwed.
*Are we allowed to call them giants anymore? They’re hemorrhaging debt, the squad has an average age of 900, Paul Scholes is still the best midfielder they’ve had in the last four years, are currently 9th in the Premier League, and look very likely to not make the top four this season for the first time since like 1791. In short, probably not.
The Middle (because we couldn’t think of a more epic-sounding label)
11: AC Milan – No traditional European powerhouse has started the season as badly as AC Milan – currently 1,000,000 points off the top of the table in Serie A with a squad that has played some genuinely terrible football this year, a boardroom battle between Berlusconi’s daughter and Galliani, a coach under siege from the Milanese media, and a variable absence of top-quality defenders (odd for a team that five years ago boasted Maldini, Costacurta, and Nesta) have made for a dreadful start. They scraped through Group H, drawing at home against Ajax and Barcelona while laying the hurt on Celtic to get through in second. In recent weeks, Mario Balotelli has looked to be recovering his form, while Kaka’s return home to the San Siro has gone about as well as it could have gone given the squad around him. They’ll probably have to hit one of the giants of the competition in the next round, but the manner in which they upset Barcelona at the San Siro last year suggests they will be a dangerous opponent to deal with. Their best bet to the quarterfinals is Manchester United.
10: Manchester United – their Premier League campaign is an absolute mess – currently sitting 9th and thirteen points off of league leaders Arsenal, dropping points to Newcastle, West Brom, Cardiff, and Everton, and relying on a midfield consisting of a for-the-future defender (Phil Jones) and a from-the-past winger (Giggs). Weirdly, they’re one of three undefeated sides in the Champions League, topping a hilariously easy Group A, thrashing Bayer Leverkusen 5-0 away, and surviving in Shakhtar Donetsk sufficiently to get out of the group with four wins and two draws. Just given who they can possibly hit in the second round, they’re probably through to quarters – the gulf in class between the seeded and unseeded teams is that high. If trouble occurs, it will be from a Mancini-led Galatasaray (the manager has had United’s number in past seasons) or AC Milan, if they can ever find something near consistency. They’ll get through by luck, but if they run up against any of the top teams in the competition, they’ll exit with a whimper and pray that they don’t get too badly battered by Ronaldo, Messi, Zlatan, or Guardiola (he does love to torment Manchester sides, doesn’t he?).
9: Chelsea – Have they got a ludicrously deep squad? Yes. Have they got, in Jose Mourinho, a manager who is an expert at navigating the latter stages of the Champions League? Yes. Do they have the most ridiculous set of attacking midfielders in the game? Yes. Do they have a consistent striker who can capitalize on that midfield? *glances about hopelessly* Guys? Oh, alright then. If Chelsea buy a striker in January, they’re in good shape. Given the set of teams they can possibly hit (Olympiacos, Bayer, AC Milan, Galatasaray, Zenit) I’d fancy their chances of getting through to Quarterfinals. Beyond that, all they’ve got are an aging Samuel Eto’o, a Demba Ba who’s nowhere near good enough for this tier of football, and Fernando(n’t) (T/sc)orres, who has gone through about his 5,000th cycle of being “back”, then not, then “back again”, and then not. They also don’t really have a top-level defensive midfielder in the mould of Daniele De Rossi or Javi Martinez to help balance their ludicrous amount of attacking talent.
The Dark Horses
8: Arsenal – The Arsenal/Chelsea split is a funny one. On paper, Arsenal are in better shape – Aaron Ramsey is one of the standout performers in this season’s Premier League, they navigated what was probably the hardest group, beating Napoli at home and Dortmund away to finish on twelve points, Mertesacker and Kolscielny are now a mightily strong central defensive pairing, and Mathieu Flamini has finally provided the midfield grit that they’ve missed since his departure to AC Milan in 2008. However, they probably have less of a chance of making it to the quarterfinal than either Man U or Chelsea, simply on account of the teams they can hit: Because Chelsea and United topped their groups, Arsenal will hit one of Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, PSG, or Bayern Munich. As good as they are, I wouldn’t fancy their chances against any of those five. Moreover, they’re too reliant on Giroud to provide the striking power, and if he (or Mertesacker) gets injured, the whole project could go belly-up in a matter of minutes. They’re looking better than either Chelsea or United right now, but their path through the quarterfinals is significantly harder.
7: Borussia Dortmund – at full strength, Borussia Dortmund are a devilishly tricky side to play: Jurgen Klopp has them playing fast, flowing, swashbuckling, high-intensity football – the kind that the English public dream of their club and national sides playing. Their Starting XI reads like a who’s-who of Europe’s up-and-coming footballers: Marco Reus, Ilkay Gundogen, Mats Hummels, Sven and Lars Bender (Germany), Subotic (Serbia), Lewandowski, Błaszczykowski (Poland, try spelling his name right on the first try), and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Armenia). The immense Westfallenstadion is one of the most intimidating grounds in all of Europe, with 80,000 rambunctious fans acting as a huge buffer of support for the home side: Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk, and AFC Ajax have all suffered immensely at Dortmund in the past two years. They are the hipster favourite of the past two seasons, lacking the immense commercial power of Bayern or Barcelona, yet playing in a cohesive, exciting, and rapid style. At the top of their game, they are a formidable force to behold. However, injuries have ravaged Dortmund in the past few weeks, with Hummels, Gundogen, Subotic, and Nuri Sahin all facing long layoffs due to varying degrees of nasty-sounding injuries. They’re also already ridiculously far behind Bayern in the race for the Bundesliga, leaving their small squad strained as they will try to fight back in the second half of the season. If they squad can keep healthy, they will go far in the tournament. However, beyond their starting XI, I’m hesitant to label them as serious contenders for this year’s Champions League. They’ll have to hope that the draw is favourable to them on Monday.
6: Manchester City – Manuel Pellegrini’s early tenure at the Etihad has been mixed: they’ve been frighteningly dominant at home against every team not named Bayern Munich, and frighteningly bad away against every team not named Bayern Munich (no, I don’t know how to explain this). The defense is still a bit of an issue – Demichelis has never been a particularly fast defender, and Vincent Kompany is slightly injury-prone this season. However, when they click, they’re terrifyingly good. Ask Norwich (7-0), Manchester United (4-1), Tottenham Hotspur (6-0), and Bayern (three goals conceded in the second half) about that. Pellegrini has shown himself in the past to be adept at taking small-budget teams deep in the competition, with the only two cases of Champions League debutantes making it to the quarterfinal coming in his tenures at Villarreal (2005-6) and Malaga (2012-13). If they get a favourable draw in the Round of Sixteen, they’ll easily make quarter. The squad isn’t nearly experienced enough in the late-stages of knockout football to overcome the genuine giants of the Champions League, but when they click they are a frightening prospect to behold.
5: Atletico Madrid – Joint-Top of La Liga with Barcelona, sweeping teams aside in a fashion reminiscent of Guardiola and Mourinho’s teams in 2011-12, and through to the knockout rounds unbeaten. Atletico are a dangerous opponent for any unseeded team to draw in this competition: lightning-quick on the break, one of the best strike partnerships in Europe in Spanish Internationals Diego Costa and David Villa, one of the finest young midfielders in Jorge “Koke” Resurrecion, and the best backline in the whole of Europe. In their run to the 2012 Europa League and 2013 Spanish Cup, they were noted for their ability to counterattack faster than any other team ever, courtesy largely of wide midfielder Arda Turan and The Radamel Falcao Show. This season has shown that there’s more to their game than that – recent results against Getafe (7-0), Real Betis (5-0), Real Madrid (1-0), FC Porto (2-1 and 2-0), and Austria Wien (7-0 over two matches) show that they’re increasingly adept at imposing themselves on their opponents and breaking down feisty, defensive teams. I give them a realistic chance of going deep into the knockout rounds of the Champions League this year. The only reason they finish behind the Big Two, despite being level or ahead on points in La Liga, is squad depth: namely, there isn’t any. An injury to Diego Costa, Joao Miranda, Thibault Courtois, or Koke, and the whole project probably falls apart. If they can stay healthy, fit, and rotated, there is no limit to this Atletico Madrid side. In three games against Real Madrid and Barcelona this season, they have yet to lose. Watch out for them.
4: Barcelona – In adapting to the playing style of Gerardo Martino and the recurring injuries to Best Player in the World Lionel Messi, there have been some wobbly moments for the Catalan giants in this year’s Group Stage: a 2-1 loss to AFC Ajax in Amsterdam, a brutal struggle to get past Celtic in Glasgow, and criticisms of the team’s style of play. Yet at the same time, they dominated AC Milan 3-1 at the Camp Nou and absolutely thumped Celtic 6-1 in the final game of the season without Fabregas, Iniesta, Messi, Dani Alves, or Jordi Alba on the pitch. There are still some concerns about the solidity of their defense, especially given Martino’s reluctance to give Marc Bartra the playing time he probably deserves, Gerard Pique’s insistence on suddenly going to sleep at some point every game, and Carles Puyol battling his ten billionth knee injury. However, Neymar has finally started to find his feet in Barcelona, delivering the fourth-fastest hat trick in Champions League history against Celtic and totally dominating the front line. If Messi returns injury-free in January, they will be back up there with the best. As we saw last season in the quarterfinal against Paris St. Germain, he can turn around a tie all on his own: he is that good. His mere presence in the Barcelona lineup puts the fear of God into central defenders, and with his chemistry with Neymar continuing to improve, they will find their form. Manchester City probably pose the most significant Round of Sixteen threat, but barring that they should easily reach the quarterfinals. From there, it’s luck of the draw: Bayern would probably steamroll them (as they indeed steamroll basically anybody), while PSG, Real Madrid, Atletico, or Chelsea (a long-standing bogey team for them) would probably give them trouble. Barcelona have set a new record by reaching six consecutive semifinals in the past decade. Time will tell whether they can keep that up.
3: Paris St. Germain- If you thought the Qatari-owned moneybags were going to be a diminished force after Carlo Ancelotti departed for Real Madrid (more on them later) think again. Buying Uruguayan goal machine Edinson Cavani helped, buying Brazilian wunderkind Marquinhos helped, and creating an environment where The Zlatan feels like the main man (because he is) surely helped. They brushed their group aside with ease, at times battering Benfica and Anderlecht with spectacular performances to go through with 13 points. When Thiago Silva is healthy, their defense is superb, and in Cavani and The Zlatan they have the best striking duo in Europe. They gave Barcelona a serious run for their money in last year’s quarterfinals, and look set to be a serious threat yet again.
2: Real Madrid – Cristiano Ronaldo: he’s very very very very very very very very very very very good. Gareth Bale is also very very good. They won Group B without ever pulling above second gear, fought off Juventus, hammered Galatasaray home and away, and are looking increasingly coherent in midfield post-Ozil. Ronaldo alone is in good enough form right now that he can take most teams apart on his own. In Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, and Pepe (the most terrifying central defender on earth), their defense has also looked increasingly solid. If they do falter, it will be because of injuries in the midfield, and even then Ronaldo is likely to drag them to at least the quarters or semis on his own. At this point, the only teams that could probably pin them back would be Bayern, the two other Spanish clubs, or a rapidly improving PSG. Anyone else gets in their way, and they will not enjoy the experience.
1: Bayern Munich – their freak loss to Manchester City on the final match-day notwithstanding, Bayern appear unstoppable at the moment. They became the first side to win ten consecutive Champions League matches this season, are top of the Bundesliga, have flattened at least once every team they have faced this season. Josep Guardiola is also a bonafide genius at knockout tournament football, haven taken Barcelona to four Champions League semifinals (two wins), three Copa del Rey finals (two wins), and two Club World Cup finals (two wins) in his tenure at the Catalan club. After some early wobbles when adapting to his incredibly demanding style, the Bavarians look comfortable and powerful playing under Pep. They are considered the favourites and rightly so: they look unstoppable. If you are an unseeded team in the knockout rounds, pray to every god you know that you don’t draw them.
That’s all for now! We’ll have Parts 1 and 2 of Europa League Round of 32 power rankings up soon in a best-case scenario. Thirty-two teams left in a compe-, my god, I really don’t want to do this. I don’t have time to do this! We’ll see. It might become top sixteen, or top ten, top five, general observations, or not materialize.
And to all our readers pushing their way through exam season right now: you got this.