The UEFA Champions League finally resumes on Friday, and by the end of August, we’ll have crowned the winners of a tournament that started just under one year ago.
We have four remaining round-of-16 fixtures to be completed, and the winners of those will enter the quarter-finals, which start on Wednesday.
From the quarter-final stage onward, the tournament will be in single-knockout format-the two-legged, home and away ties are gone-and that adds a new, interesting element to a tournament that already represents club football’s zenith for entertainment and drama.
Here we’ve previewed the return of the Champions League in the form of a ranking, ordering each of the 12 remaining teams on how likely they are to win the competition. We set the scene for how each side’s season has gone, look at their fixtures and situation and determine how strong their title-winning credentials are.
The Blues are 3-0 down on aggregate against one of the strongest sides in Europe, Bayern Munich, after being torn apart in the first leg.
They’ll have a sharpness advantage on the Germans given they have actually played competitive football in the past month, but this comeback is beyond them.
Lyon hold command of their round-of-16 tie against Juventus, leading 1-0 on aggregate, so it may surprise to see them ranked so low-and, particularly, below their Italian opponents.
But those betting against Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. turning around this tie feel braver than those betting for it, and even if Lyon do grind their way through the second leg, their outlook beyond the round of 16 is bleak, with a possible quarter-final tie against Real Madrid or Manchester City and Barcelona or Bayern Munich likely awaiting in the semis.
Quality-wise, they just do not stack up against the rest.
Napoli feel like a big question mark.
You never know what kind of a performance you’ll get from them, and while it’s tempting to write them off on a quality basis, they do have the attributes to make a splash in the way Atletico Madrid would.
The Partenopei’s game plan will surely look similar to the one rolled out in the first leg against Barcelona-in which they had every man defending their own box at times-and if that is enough to clamber into the quarter-finals, they’ll suddenly become the team no one fancies playing.
But it’s much harder to trust Napoli to do an Atletico than, say, Atletico. They can go from beating Juventus in the Coppa Italia with a solid display to dropping points against Bologna or losing to Parma. Is it a case of rising to the big occasions? We’re about to find out.
9. RB Leipzig
It cannot be overstated how big a loss Timo Werner is to this team.
A scorer of 34 goals in all competitions for RB Leipzig this season, he will play no further part in the tournament, having signed for Chelsea in July. That’s a big blow to this team’s chances of upsetting the applecart further; he was their X-factor, the man they turned to for a priceless moment.
Werner’s departure doesn’t halt the club in their tracks; they’re still a superb unit-tactically drilled, youthful, energetic and difficult to play against. But it does perhaps take them out of that dark-horse territory, and it makes their quarter-final test against Atletico Madrid even harder.
8. Real Madrid
When Real Madrid slip into tournament mode, there’s no stopping them.
They were relentless in their drive to secure La Liga’s 2020 title, grinding through games in remarkable fashion, and they’ll be difficult to deal with if they find the same groove here.
That all said, they have a major first obstacle to overcome in the last 16. They trail Manchester City 2-1 on aggregate and were completely outsmarted in the first leg at home.
They need an epic plan, perfect execution and probably the rub of the green to get any further-and they’ll need to pull it all off without their captain, Sergio Ramos.
If they manage it, they’re one to be wary of, but they’re facing an uphill struggle to even make it to Lisbon for the quarter-finals and beyond-and that’s represented in their ranking.
It feels odd not to consider the team with the best player in the world among their ranks as a genuine Champions League contender, but it’s tough to have any faith in Barca’s ability to contend with and beat the elite in 2020.
If their dysfunctional, unreliable performances this calendar year weren’t enough to weaken your stance on them, their tendency to struggle with pressure and big occasions should do the trick. That the team’s crumbling at Anfield last season despite a 3-0 first-leg lead was not wholly surprising says it all.
They have it all to prove. It’s not the talent that’s in doubt; it’s the cohesion, mettle and fortitude.
If they can finish the job against Napoli in the round of 16 in a comfortable fashion, it may turn some heads. We need to see it first, though.
Everyone’s second team in the Champions League, Atalanta have done incredibly well to reach the quarter-final stage. Their reward for beating the odds is a glittering tie with Paris Saint-Germain, but sadly, they’ll take on the occasion shorn of one of their two best players.
Josip Ilicic, the man who scored five of La Dea’s eight goals against Valencia in the round of 16, will miss August’s footballing bonanza because of personal reasons, and that absence takes Atalanta’s chances of upsetting PSG-or anyone else further on, if they get there-down a notch or two.
They’re still the wild card of the remaining 12 teams, capable of anything and everything on their day, but expectations have been understandably tempered ahead of facing Neymar and Co.
Much of what we’ve said about Real Madrid applies to Juventus.
They’re also down on aggregate heading into the second leg, meaning they need an immediate big performance to reverse their own odds. But if they do, they’re a contender for the rest of the tournament.
Juve count Cristiano Ronaldo, the man for the biggest occasion and Mr. Champions League, among their ranks and have so much experience and steel running through the side that they’ll probably cope with the intensity of this tournament better than most.
Ranking them ahead of Real Madrid is an acknowledgement that, while far from ideal, 1-0 down to Lyon is a better position to be in than 2-1 down to Manchester City.
4. Atletico Madrid
Events and developments over the past few months have strengthened Atletico’s chances of lifting the Champions League trophy-and they already felt pretty good after dispensing with holders Liverpool at Anfield.
First, the single-knockout format favours Diego Simeone’s soldier-like defensive tactics. Digging in and grinding out three wins, rather than five, enhances their odds. Careful, mistake-free football could win the day in Lisbon.
Second, Los Colchoneros found their goalscoring touch (finally) during post-lockdown La Liga football-their goals per game shot up from 1.15 to 1.82 and involved nine different scorers across 11 games-giving them a far more potent edge than before.
Lastly, RB Leipzig’s loss of Werner makes Atletico favourites for their quarter-final tussle.
All of these factors combine to create a strong case for Atleti hitting the semi-finals at least, naturally leading to a high ranking here.
3. Paris Saint-Germain
In high-pressure, do-or-die situations, PSG’s biggest enemy can often be themselves.
Like Barca, they have a concerning history of overthinking, overcomplicating and underperforming at critical moments, making them a difficult team to trust when the lights begin to glare.
That said, maturity and assurance defined their round-of-16 second-leg victory over Borussia Dortmund, paving their path to a quarter-final against Atalanta, and it’s tempting to think they’ve turned a corner.
With Neymar fit, they have a card to play few others can match, and if Kylian Mbappe can recover from his ankle injury in time for Wednesday, the odds of victory will only shorten.
Consider PSG a major contender for this Champions League crown-provided they can stay out of their own way.
2. Manchester City
In possession of a valuable 2-1 lead heading into their second leg with Real Madrid and having finished the Premier League season on a five-game win streak, City’s outlook for the Champions League is strong.
The form they carry into August is great, with the defence looking as solid as the attack is sharp. Joao Cancelo’s growth into the left-back role is a big factor there, and in Kevin De Bruyne, they have one of world football’s true stars ready to make the difference.
They might even get Sergio Aguero back for the quarter-finals onward (should they get there), according to the Manchester Evening News, beefing up their forward line even further.
Make no mistake: The second leg against Real will be tough going, and Pep Guardiola may need another master plan to finish the job. But they’re in a tremendous position and have one of the strongest on-paper squads left in the tournament; they’re a real contender.
1. Bayern Munich
How will a full month away from competitive football affect Bayern Munich’s level?
It’s impossible to say, and if they didn’t have what some fans are somewhat crudely terming a “warm-up fixture” against Chelsea to kick off with (they’re 3-0 up on aggregate and will progress to the quarter-finals but for a disaster of epic proportions), one might have a little less faith in their chances of winning the trophy.
But that opportunity to tune up is crucial, and odds are it will only take them 90 minutes to find their groove (they only needed one game to find their feet post-lockdown). Once they’re in gear, they’re the best this planet has to offer, no contest.
The attack, spearheaded by Robert Lewandowski, is ferocious, with Thomas Muller back to his best and immense speed down the wings making them so tough to keep out. Defensively, they’re rock-solid too, led by David Alaba and brought to life by Alphonso Davies. Manuel Neuer is back to top form between the sticks too.
Bayern resume action on an 18-game win streak, haven’t lost since December and look a slick, well-oiled machine. They have 90 minutes against Chelsea to get back into the swing of things, and if they do, they’re the rightful favourites to win the 2020 Champions League.