The Champions League group stage reaches its conclusion next week on Paramount+. With 11 places in the knockout stages already secured here’s how European football’s great powers are ranking right now:
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. Manchester City (+1)
Take your pick of any of the top four as the most likely Champions League winner. On the right day any of these teams look capable of brushing apart the other 28 in the field as City did to PSG. Though the margin of victory on the field might have been tight Pep Guardiola’s men were once more the dominant side; across two meetings with a supposed rival for the crown they have put up 4.03 expected goals (xG) while allowing just 1.5.
2. Bayern Munich (-1)
Their dropping down the rankings is not representative of any failings on their part though it is perhaps fair to question how often Julian Nagelsmann’s side have been really tested in what proved to be a weak Champions League group. Sunday’s clash with Borussia Dortmund might offer a more thorough examination of their qualities after three games in which they have not racked up the same imposing score lines they had been putting together a few weeks ago.
3. Liverpool (–)
Perhaps the most devastating attack in Europe now, every one of Diogo Jota, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and of course Mohamed Salah looks to be in devastating form when they take to the pitch. Most enticing of all, however, might be the long awaited flourishing of Thiago in recent weeks. The defense is giving up more dangerous shots than the other Premier League superpowers, but this looks like a team that will more than make up for it at the other end.
4. Chelsea (+1)
There are those games where Chelsea create all the chances in the world but never look like scoring, but Thomas Tuchel’s side are now at the stage where they are putting together an exceptionally high volume of xG — over 2.5 per match in each of their last eight games — without giving up a great volume of opportunities at the other end. Their crushing of Juventus was as comprehensive a performance as the Champions League has seen this season.
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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.
5. Ajax (-1)
As detailed last week, it was no less impressive seeing a weakened Ajax side overcome Besiktas in gritty fashion than it had been watching them crush all other opposition in their path. Sebastien Haller continues to stun the doubters whilst Dusan Tadic leads the Champions League in chances created.
Dark horses: Unlikely contenders, but contenders all the same
These teams are unlikely champions, but then so were Chelsea this time a year 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 (+1)
On a six game winning streak, Madrid pulled out two exceedingly impressive results last week, negotiating what might have been a tricky trip to Moldova in assertive fashion before coming from behind to beat Sevilla to open up a sizeable gap in La Liga. Their defense is still struggling to keep clean sheets but with Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior in the form they’re in now, perhaps that does not matter.
7. Paris Saint-Germain (-1)
Though the aggregate scores might suggest otherwise, the reality is PSG played two games against a potential rival to win the Champions League and looked inferior in both. Nearly a year in, Mauricio Pochettino’s energetic style has not clicked and it is hard to see it doing so with three off ball passengers at the top of the pitch. Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe may yet win this team some games in the knockout stages but Jamie Carragher was right in suggesting the title is beyond this team right now.
In the last 16
They may not be in the mix to win the tournament outright but they will certainly be in the knockout stages next year.
8. Inter Milan (+1)
On the continent and in Serie A, Inter just seem to have taken another step forward in recent weeks. Their 3-2 win over Napoli was a real fillip to their title hopes whilst the composure with which they ground down Shakhtar Donetsk proved this team would not be a repeat of Antonio Conte’s sides in the group stages. Through to the last 16, no one will relish a tie that pits them against a sturdy defense at one end and the Lautaro Martinez-Edin Dzeko tandem at the other.
9. Manchester United (+1)
They are of course through to the last 16, which helps, but any optimism one might have over United’s chances in the new year is surely contingent on projecting forward to where a Ralf Rangnick team might be two or so months into their project. Right now they look a fair way short of a match for top teams and scraped a fortunate draw with Chelsea. Still, with the right man in the dugout they could be a more serious challenger in the new year.
10. Sporting (+8)
Their early wobbles rather blotted their Champions League copy book but since a 1-0 defeat in Dortmund on September 28, all Sporting do is win… and in rather convincing fashion. Their zenith so far was the outstanding 3-1 win over BVB in Lisbon that earned them a spot in the last 16, a match that will certainly to enhance the reputation of Pedro Goncalves.
11. Juventus (-3)
Increasingly the six game winning run in September and October looks like a freak coincidence for a team that are playing like what they currently are: a midtable Serie A side. Certainly they were nowhere near a match for Chelsea: overrun in midfield, lacking any significant focal point in attack. Injuries are not helping Massimiliano Allegri’s side but this is not the standard Juventus expect.
Knockout stage contenders
Heading into the final round of games these teams can still qualify for the last 16.
12. Lille (+8)
Seemingly out of nowhere, the Ligue 1 champions have swung Group G to their favor. Only Chelsea have conceded fewer goals than Lille in the group stages while they have the fifth best opponent xG. At the other end Jonathan David is emerging as a major star coveted by a host of Europe’s top teams. A point in Wolfsburg — no certainty, but certainly within their power — and Lille are through.
13. Porto (+2)
14. Benfica (+6)
15. Villarreal (-1)
16. Red Bull Salzburg (-5)
Lille’s rise has been coupled with the swift collapse of Red Bull Salzburg, who could have tied up qualification on matchday four but have lost their last two games. The question hovering over Matthias Jassle’s youthful side, so dominant in the Austrian game, is whether they are sufficiently battle hardened to go the final few yards in the Champions League. The visit of seasoned European operators Sevilla should tell us.
17. Atletico Madrid (-1)
18. Sevilla (+3)
19. Atalanta (–)
20. Wolfsburg (-3)
21. Barcelona (-8)
It is a testament to the state of the Spanish game right now that all of Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla find themselves afterthoughts to the top end of Europe’s biggest tournament.
22. AC Milan (+4)
In Barcelona and AC Milan we have two traditional powers who gave it a really good go but look like they will just fall short against teams that have usurped them at the top table in European football. After their draw with Benfica Barcelona need to beat Bayern Munich. That will be enough regardless of results elsewhere, though it is easier said than done. Milan, meanwhile, need to beat Liverpool and hope Atletico Madrid and Porto play each other to stalemate. Stefano Pioli’s side have proven throughout this competition that they can test any top side but the rub of the green simply has not been with them.
Europa League bound
These teams will have European football next year but it will be in the second tier.
23. Borussia Dortmund (-11)
24. Sheriff Tiraspol (-3)
25. Zenit (–)
In the Europa League race
These teams cannot mathematically qualify for the last 16 but they can reach the Europa League.
26. RB Leipzig (+4)
27. Club Brugge (-4)
The key calculus in working out which team might get third in Group A might just be which of their opponents has more riding on matchday six. Both PSG and City know where they will end up but the former still feel like they have something to prove in their performances; it just feels more plausible that Leipzig will get something at home to the Citizens than that Club Brugge can win in Paris.
28. Young Boys (-4)
Out of Europe
These teams are guaranteed to finish bottom of their group and have been entirely eliminated from European competition.
29. Dynamo Kyiv (-1)
30. Shakhtar Donetsk (-3)
31. Besiktas (–)
32. Malmo (–)