The Champions League is back with the 32 teams that entered the competition’s group stage now whittled down to 16 for the first knockout round. The stock of each contender has been assessed, but it’s only now that credentials will be truly tested. Only the very best teams will make their way through the knockout rounds.
Chelsea are the defending champions and there is a sense this season’s Champions League winner will once again come from the Premier League, but Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain also stand a good chance of going all the way. We look at the five frontrunners and two outside bets.
Many expected a tactical revolution when Julian Nagelsmann was appointed Bayern Munich manager last summer, but the 34-year-old has instead opted for evolution. Indeed, the Bavarians still play in a 4-2-3-1 shape, although Nagelsmann has experimented with Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry as wing backs.
Bayern Munich carry a formidable attacking threat, scoring 22 times in just six Champions League games this season – no team has scored more. This is even more impressive considering four teams (Inter, Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester City) have all averaged more shots per 90 minutes than Nagelsmann’s outfit (17.5).
While Chelsea have faltered in their efforts to mount a Premier League title challenge this season, Thomas Tuchel’s team remain a formidable force in a knockout format. Defensively, only Bayern Munich (7.0) and Liverpool (7.2) have conceded fewer shots per 90 minutes in this season’s Champions League than the defending champions (7.3).
When it comes to average share of possession, no team in this season’s Champions League betters Chelsea who have claimed 65.6% of the ball per match. In attack, Romelu Lukaku’s struggles continue, but Tuchel has so many options that the Blues cannot be discounted from retaining their continental crown.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have found their best form in the Champions League this season, winning six out of six in a difficult group that included AC Milan, Atletico Madrid and Porto. Only Inter and Real Madrid have averaged more shots per 90 minutes than the Reds (17.8), illustrating the attacking threat they present with the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.
Inter await Liverpool in the round of 16 in what promises to be a compelling tie, but the 2019 Champions League winners will look to beat the Italian champions at their own game with a lot of vertical movement and rapid attacks. If Inter are to stand any chance of beating Liverpool, they will need to control the centre of the pitch where Klopp has struggled for options at times this season.
Last season saw Manchester City fall at the final hurdle in the Champions League. Since then, though, Pep Guardiola’s team has grown even stronger with City currently on a run of 12 wins and one draw from their last 13 Premier League fixtures. The English champions are the third-top scorers (18) in this season’s Champions League and have underlined their continental credentials with wins over RB Leipzig and Paris Saint-Germain.
However, Manchester City have already lost twice in the competition this season, failing to keep a single clean sheet in six group games. This defensive record will have to improve if Guardiola is to lift the Champions League trophy for the first time since 2011 or it could cost City in the knockout rounds.
As soon as Lionel Messi completed a stunning switch to Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona last summer, the pressure was cranked up on the Qatari-owned club to go all the way in the Champions League. Of course, this pressure was already there for a club that has made continental dominance its stated goal, but anything less than Champions League glory will be considered a failure for Mauricio Pochettino and his players.
For a team with so much attacking talent, though, PSG have struggled to impose themselves on opponents this season. The French side have averaged just 9.7 shots per 90 minutes in the Champions League – only seven teams have averaged less – and have also allowed 16.7 shots on their own goal per 90 minutes. Pochettino has still to strike the right balance and a last 16 meeting with Real Madrid will be a true test of their credentials.
It was only three years ago that Ajax came within seconds of reaching the Champions League final and the Dutch giants are making their mark on the European game once more. Erik ten Hag’s team play a dynamic, forward-thinking brand of football that has caught the imagination of many. It could carry them a long way in the tournament.
Ajax have scored 20 goals in just six matches with Sebastian Haller the top scorer in this season’s Champions League. Antony has shone on the right side of ten Hag’s attack with Ryan Gravenberch one of the brightest young central midfielders around. A last 16 tie against Benfica gives Ajax a good chance of making the quarter finals at the very least.
Something has changed at Juventus. This season has been a difficult one for the Old Lady with Max Allegri’s team eight points off the pace at the top of Serie A, but the January addition of Dusan Vlahovic, one of the best young goalscorers around, and Denis Zakaria, a top-level midfield anchor, has given them renewed purpose.
With Vlahovic leading the line and Zakaria providing structure in midfield, Juve look to be a better balanced outfit. Paulo Dybala and Alvaro Morata appear more comfortable playing off a frontman like Vlahovic with Manuel Locatelli and Weston McKennie liberated by the presence of Zakaria behind them. Juventus might be a stronger opponent than was the case only a few weeks ago.