With this week’s games on the books, the dust has officially settled from the mad annual scramble that is the group stage of the Champions League. For half of the participants, the final match day spelled triumph. The remaining unfortunate contestants have been left to rue what could’ve been with regret on their minds, some dropping down to the Europa League and others making an early exit from continental competition altogether. The likes of Liverpool, Roma, Ajax and Athletic Bilbao sit as casualties of the Champions League’s opening scrum in the latest edition, underlining just how fierce the battle for qualification is.
Sixteen clubs remain, each with an eye on the ultimate prize in club football – even as there are few questions as to who the favorites are to claim the crown this time around. Matches aren’t played on paper for a reason, but the group stage has offered plenty of insight into how the tournament could shake out when all is said and done in Berlin in early June.
Not until the draw takes place next Monday will the head-to-head match-ups for the round of 16 be known. However, each of the clubs that will emerge from a lottery ball on that fateful day have a six-game body of work that they can already be judged on. League form comes into play as well, of course, though the Champions League is its own animal and doesn’t necessarily abide by the same rules.
Even as opponents will be revealed on December 15th, the tournament won’t return until February – and as such, there’s a surplus of time to debate the finer points of how teams drawn together stack up. But for the time being, consider the field as whole. With sixteen sides awaiting a moment that could determine the trajectory of their campaign in Europe’s elite competition, let’s take a look at how they compare to all the remaining horses in the race.
Following are power rankings for the Champions League’s final sixteen participants, from weakest to strongest.
16 FC Basel
Basel carry a dubious distinction with them from the group stage this term – they’re the only side to go through to the round of 16 having lost three times. The Swiss champions were also Group B’s lone club to fall to Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets Razgrad, a club that was playing in the third division less than five years ago. Yet despite these failings that make them prime candidates for the lowest ranking available, Paulo Sousa’s men do deserve some credit. Basel went into Anfield on match day six and took the game to Liverpool to secure qualification. This is the second time the Bebbis have reached the round of 16 in club history, the first instance coming in the 2011-12 campaign.
15 Schalke 04
The Gelsenkirchen side weren’t too impressive in progressing out of a relatively tame group outside of a ravenous Chelsea side. Schalke did start quite well in securing an opening day draw at Stamford Bridge, but were later hammered 5-0 by the Blues at home, conceding a total 14 times in the group stage. Key players Julian Draxler and Eric Choupo-Moting haven’t hit top form in Europe, while Kevin Prince-Boateng and Sidney Sam have been relatively disappointing. In the previous two editions of the Champions League, Schalke fell in the first knockout round, so they have something to prove this season after advancing at the expense of Sporting CP and Maribor.
14 Bayer Leverkusen
Last season, Bayer Leverkusen won a dramatic race for the Bundesliga’s fourth and final Champions League place against a hard-charging Wolfsburg. After tearing FC Copenhagen to shreds in the play-off round, the BayArena side then had the good fortune to be drawn into a wide-open group alongside Monaco, Zenit St. Petersburg and Benfica. With no clear favorite starting out, the Germans battled to second place on the back of three straight victories between match day two and match day four. Heung-Min Son was the hero as he bagged three goals, while Lars Bender anchored the midfield with impressive efficiency. Boss Roger Schmidt will be expecting more from Karim Bellarabi in the knockout stage, as thus far he’s failed to replicate his brilliant Bundesliga form in European competition.
13 Shakhtar Donetsk
Even against a backdrop of violence and disorder in the club’s home city, Shakhtar Donetsk continue to succeed in Europe. The military situation in eastern Ukraine has forced Shakhtar to move their headquarters to Kiev and play home games in Lviv, with widely-circulated images of a shell-damaged Donbass Arena shocking the world. But the notoriously plucky side overcame the difficult circumstances to reach the knockouts for the fourth time in the past five seasons. Striker Luiz Adriano was the star of the show as he eight goals in the two games against BATE Borisov, topping the group stage scoring charts with nine goals in all. Mircea Lucescu’s men have proven themselves a resilient bunch and will be a difficult opponent for any side in the round of 16.
12 AS Monaco
The Monegasque side looked primed to follow in the footsteps of fellow nouveau-riche Ligue 1 side Paris Saint-Germain under the leadership of Dmitry Rybolovlev. But Rybolovlev’s record divorce judgment in May saw his incredible investment in the club’s playing staff quickly dry up. James Rodriguez was sold to Real Madrid for some £70 million after playing a brilliant World Cup, while Falcao was sent to Manchester United on loan, providing relief from his massive wages. Monaco’s outlook was immediately shrouded in doubt just a year after finishing second in the French top flight to PSG, only for the principality outfit to perform with aplomb in the Champions League. Conceding just once in Group C play – to Benfica in a 1-0 away defeat – Monaco took first place ahead of Bayer Leverkusen, hitting the back of the net only four times themselves in total.
11 Manchester City
Since coming under the umbrella of Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008, Manchester City have looked allergic to the Champions League, their failures becoming a running joke. The Citizens finally made it out of the group stage last season with Manuel Pellegrini at the helm at the third time of asking, only to be eliminated unceremoniously at the hands of Barcelona. City looked headed for the exit door in the group stage once again this year, winless through match day four despite the superb talent on their books. However, late heroics against Bayern Munich and a famous victory in Rome saw them go through, with Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure all missing in the victory over Roma. Still, simply reaching the knockouts won’t be enough to fulfill lofty expectations at the Etihad – they’ll be expected to make a splash after getting through by the skin of their teeth.
The dominant force in Serie A over the past three plus seasons, Juventus have been generally unable to replicate their domestic ruthlessness in Europe. Eliminated in the group stage by Galatasaray under absurd circumstances in the 2013-14 edition of the Champions League, the Bianconeri were under pressure to atone in the current tournament. Former Milan boss Massimiliano Allegri indeed led the Old Lady through to the knockouts despite consecutive 1-0 losses to Atletico Madrid and Olympiakos. Juventus were by and large uninspiring on the European stage, though, seemingly plagued by a penchant for playing to the level of their opponents. Finishing second place behind Atletico in Group A will see them potentially come up against stiff competition in the round of 16, leaving a hard road ahead to the business end of the tournament.
9 FC Porto
Sure, Porto’s group wasn’t the toughest one around, but the old adage that you can only beat what’s in front of you exists for a reason. And that’s exactly what they did. The Dragoes slashed their way to the top spot in Group H by hitting 16 goals past their opponents and conceding just four times – not tasting defeat once with four wins and two draws. Heralded 24-year-old Algerian Yacine Brahimi was in scintillating form with four goals and two assists – averaging 5.2 dribbles per game – complemented by Jackson Martinez up front while Casemiro performed wonderfully in midfield. Porto are a side brimming with young talent and confidence at the moment, the type of team that many others would be keen to avoid – even if they wouldn’t admit it.
Just as the Gunners are expected to come fourth in the Premier League each season by their detractors, the North Londoners have become perennial locks for the Champions League round of 16 – but nothing more. Qualification was relatively straightforward for Arsenal in this instance, even in light of their loss to Borussia Dortmund on match day one. A 3-3 draw against Anderlecht after being 3-0 up was the only blemish on the side’s record from there on out. Fifteen straight times now Arsene Wenger’s men have passed the first hurdle in the Champions League. But the Gunners have crashed out in the round of 16 four times on the bounce, both times to Bayern Munich in the past two years. Dortmund took the top spot in Group D over Arsenal on goal difference, meaning another giant of the game could be on tap for Wenger’s troops.
7 Borussia Dortmund
Of the remaining sixteen teams in the Champions League, Borussia Dortmund must be the strangest case. The beaten finalists from 2012-13 made short work of the group stage by winning their first four games, scoring 13 times and conceding once in the process. Not even a late push by Arsenal could knock them off their perch in Group D. Yet in the Bundesliga, Die Schwarzgelben have suffered mightily. They were propping up the table in last place prior to beating Hoffenheim last weekend in what’s hands down been the most shocking storyline in football this season. Dortmund have become the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde case between continental and domestic play, underlining just how different a task succeeding in Europe is to prospering on the home front.
6 Paris Saint-Germain
Boasting some of football’s brightest stars, PSG are still searching for what would be a cathartic breakthrough to seal their place amongst Europe’s elite clubs. With two straight Ligue 1 titles in the bag, Les Parisiens are a clear force in France just a few years on from being taken over by Qatar Sports Investments. But two straight quarter-finals eliminations from the Champions League have kept the capital club from getting over an important hump in Europe, having flexed their muscles in the group stage. Barcelona held them off for first place in Group F this time around by handing out a 3-1 defeat at the Camp Nou on match day six. However, PSG did get the better of their Catalan rivals back at the Parc des Princes on match day two, giving Laurent Blanc’s men hope that it might be their year to reach the final four or beyond.
5 Atletico Madrid
Year on year, Atletico Madrid are shorn of many of their stars as a need for constant financial turnover sees them sold off to the wealthy elite. But Diego Simeone and company seem to pay that no mind, simply rolling up their sleeves and getting back to work after reinvesting. Losing to Olympiakos on match day one of the group stage seemed to forecast a downturn in fortunes after Atletico were within minutes of winning the Champions League back in May. But Los Colchoneros’ Group A rivals wouldn’t be so lucky. Simeone’s men didn’t concede a single goal after falling to the Greek giants in Piraeus, winning four on the bounce and securing a draw in Turin on match day six to win the group. Atletico certainly haven’t lost their hunger even as the likes of Diego Costa and Felipe Luis headed for the exit door over the summer.
Barcelona quite simply aren’t what they used to be – but that is to judge them by an impossibly high standard. New boss Luis Enrique saw the Catalans through the group stage with an impressive five wins, aided by eight goals from a sterling Lionel Messi along the way. The chief concern that the Spaniard faces in the dugout is having an strikingly top-heavy squad at his disposal. Neymar, Messi and Luis Suarez are a fearsome front three that would give even Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta headaches – but the side has a distinct weakness at the back that sees them lag behind other elite clubs this year. Jeremy Mathieu and Gerard Pique have performed admirably thus far, but as more difficult challengers emerge in the knockouts, Enrique’s men may well find that a lack of balance is their undoing.
Jose Mourinho hasn’t won a single piece of silverware since claiming the 2012 Spanish Super Cup – and he surely isn’t happy about it. The Portuguese’s displeasure has been reflected in his Chelsea side this term as they’ve torn everything before them to shreds, taking the Premier League by storm and finishing unbeaten in Group G. Schalke and Maribor were able to hold the Blues to draws, but the Stamford Bridge outfit were irresistible otherwise. Mourinho’s squad is one of the deepest in all of Europe from top to bottom, his pedigree in the Champions League making the London side a true contender to claim the title for the second time in club history. There’s nothing like a man on a mission at the helm to spur on a group of talented players to Europe’s top prize.
2 Bayern Munich
Swimming in riches as Pep Guardiola has been handed the pieces with which to undertake tactical masterpieces, betting against Bayern Munich these days is a dangerous proposition. There’s no question that the German giants can take down, or rather dismantle, anyone in European football on their day – look no further than their 7-1 win against Roma in one of the world’s most hostile away venues. What everybody wants to know, however, is how Die Roten will recover from their own devastating destruction back in April. With a 1-0 deficit to overturn against Real Madrid at home in last season’s semi-final, Bayern were made into mincemeat at the Allianz Arena to the tune of a 4-0 drubbing. Don’t bet on lightning striking twice, though. Last term’s elimination may serve as a motivating factor above all else, a scary prospect for anybody standing in Bayern’s way.
1 Real Madrid
Flawless is the only word that perfectly captures the essence of Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid at the moment. Los Blancos are the only Champions League side to have navigated the group stage with the maximum points tally of 18 in the current edition. Beyond that, Real Madrid have set a Spanish record with nineteen straight victories across all competitions, an incredible feat that sees them the undisputed favorite to win Europe’s elite competition for a second year running. Cristiano Ronaldo has an awe-inspiring 28 goals and nine assists in 19 appearances the Champions League and La Liga thus far, on track to have what would be arguably be the greatest single-season performance of all-time. As things stand, it seems the only thing that can stop Real Madrid’s march to glory is a loss of focus – though the likes of Bayern Munich and Chelsea will likely have their say on that matter.
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