Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 6°C
PA Images Mohamed Salah, Lionel Messi and Raheem Sterling.
# Knockout Stages
Power ranking the 8 teams most likely to win this year's Champions League
Barcelona and Man City are the favourites to go all the way ahead of Monday’s knockout stage draw in Nyon.

8. Bayern Munich

THE BUNDESLIGA CHAMPIONS are enduring a minor disaster of a season on the domestic front, currently sitting nine points adrift of league leaders Borussia Dortmund with three games to go before the winter break.

Niko Kovač is slowly beginning to find his feet in the hot-seat — his side secured three wins on the bounce heading into last night’s meeting with Ajax — but a 90th minute equaliser from Nicolás Tagliafico saw Bayern throw two points away in a thrilling 3-3 draw.

As always, they comfortably topped their group, but Bayern look nothing close to challenging for the top prize. This season has just not gone according to plan and they are far from the European heavyweights they are normally hyped up to be.

7. Liverpool

Liverpool v Napoli - UEFA Champions League - Group C - Anfield Peter Byrne Liverpool's 1-0 win over Napoli put them through to the knockout stages. Peter Byrne

It was another memorable European night at Anfield on Tuesday, with Mohamed Salah’s silky individual finish enough to secure Liverpool’s passage into the knockout stages for the second year in a row.

Last year’s incredible journey to the final against Real Madrid set high expectations for Jurgen Klopp’s men this season, but his side only managed to put their name in Monday’s draw by a very slim margin — a close-range wonder-save from Alisson denying Napoli the most dramatic of equalisers.

The Reds’ resilience not to accept their fate after back-to-back defeats against Red Star and PSG has been admirable, and this current tide of momentum could prove incredibly valuable in a competition like the Champions League.

This time last year Liverpool were drawn with FC Porto in the knockout stages. They would gladly take them again this year, but after finishing second in Group C the possibility of meeting a serious European heavyweight like Madrid or Barcelona is a real one.

They defied the odds to go all the way to the final last season. While it would be foolish to write Klopp’s men off again, the challenge is an uphill one with the odds stacked against the Merseysiders.

6. PSG

Champions League - Paris Saint-Germain v Liverpool Liewig Christian / ABACA PSG were knocked out in the last 16 last season but look much stronger this time around. Liewig Christian / ABACA / ABACA

Finishing ahead of Liverpool in Group C, PSG will not be content with just retaining their Ligue 1 title for the sixth time in seven seasons, but will have their eyes firmly fixed on the biggest prize in European football.

Truth be told, the French champions have flopped in this competition over recent seasons and have never lived up to the expectation that they can deliver on their Qatari investment and establish themselves as a European super power.

With Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edison Cavani leading the front line and a backing cast with players like Marco Verratti, Angel Di Maria, Thiago Silva and Gigi Buffon between the sticks, the individual talent is there to achieve.

As always with PSG however, and what has plagued the side in recent years, is creating an environment for those big players and big egos to gel. Creating a coherent chemistry to succeed as a collective and not as individual components was their undoing under Laurent Blanc and Unai Emery.

This is the seventh season in a row that PSG have qualified for the knockout stages. So far this season they have scored more goals (70 in total) than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues.

Going four steps further than last season’s dismal exit in the last 16 will be the goal, but Thomas Tuchel has a mighty task on his hands to turn his side’s vast sways of talent and investment into success on the biggest stage.

5. Borussia Dortmund

Soccer 1.Bundesliga / FC Schalke 04 - Borussia Dortmund 1: 2. DPA / PA Images Lucien Favre has drastically changed the fortunes of Dortmund this season. DPA / PA Images / PA Images

The rise and rise of Borussia Dortmund this season has taken almost everybody by surprise. BVB finished third in their Champions League group last season and placed a remarkable 29 points behind Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich.

This year they have taken full advantage of the chaos at Säbener Strasse and are kicking ass in both the domestic and European front. With exciting forwards like the fit-again Marco Reus, England’s great hope Jadon Sancho and a resurgent Mario Götze, Dortmund now look like a revitalised throwback to the heydays of Jurgen Klopp. 

Lucien Favre has completely changed the fortunes of Dortmund and, even though looking a little fatigued right now and yearning for the Winterpause, they possess an intriguing combination of flair, excitement and ruthlessness to poise an outside shot at European success this year.

Dortmund went all the way to the final at Wembley in 2013, but ever since have gotten no further than the quarter-finals. Leading the Bundesliga and topping a straightforward group ahead of Thierry Henry’s dismal Monaco side, all is looking rosy at Signal Iduna Park.

4. Real Madrid

Spain Soccer Champions League Manu Fernandez Madrid have won the last three Champions Leagues but suffered a shock 3-0 defeat at home to CSKA last night. Manu Fernandez

Like their German counterparts Bayern, Real Madrid are enduring a crazy and unimaginably chaotic season so far this year. They have not coped with the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo well at all, with their poor campaign compounded by a shocking 3-0 loss at home to CSKA Moscow last night.

The result was Madrid’s heaviest home defeat in European competition and their first ever Champions League group stage loss at the Santiago Bernabéu. Funnily enough, Madrid still topped Group G despite losing home and away to their Russia counterparts and, on paper at least, on on course for a fourth consecutive European Cup.

Real became the first team to ever retain Big Ears, but the thought of any side securing the famous trophy four years on the bounce is a remarkable feat for a side still so often dismissed as not comparable with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, or the great AC Milan of Arrigo Sacchi as the greatest club side of all time.

This year’s Madrid are a different specimen to the ones of recent seasons, though. Sacking Julen Lopetegui after just four months in charge and currently fourth place in La Liga, they are still very unstable.

The remarkable success about Madrid, however, and as was demonstrated with their impressive 2-0 win away against AS Roma at the end of November, is that they are still an elite in this competition and know how to win it even when not at their very best.

3. Juventus

Imago 20181127 Imago / PA Images Juventus' purchase of Cristiano Ronaldo has fuelled their ambitions to win the Champions League for the first time since 1996. Imago / PA Images / PA Images

Juventus’ modern obsession with trying to elevate themselves alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona as the crem de la crem of European football has been fascinating to watch from the outside looking in.

Making it to two finals in the space of four years (in 2015 and 2017) shows the Italian’s potential and last summer’s purchase of Cristiano Ronaldo demonstrates their ambition to go one step further and win the Champions League for the first time since 1996.

Massimiliano Allegri’s men dominated Manchester United during their meeting at Old Trafford when Paulo Dybala’s early strike set the tone for a dominant display, one which former United defender Rio Ferdinand described as “men against boys.”

That win showed the Italian champions’ potential to take command against top sides, but their shock 2-1 defeat in the reverse fixture in Turin, when Leonardo Bonucci’s 90th-minute own goal proved ever so costly, also showed their shortcomings.

The Serie A side were already through heading into last night’s final group stage fixture against Young Boys. But even with that taken into account, their 2-1 defeat in Switzerland was a bum note to go into Monday’s draw in Nyon.

2. Manchester City

Manchester City v Hoffenheim - UEFA Champions League - Group F - Etihad Stadium Mike Egerton Manchester City finished top of Group F but looked vulnerable in both games against Lyon. Mike Egerton

A Champions League and Premier League double has not been achieved by an English side since Alex Ferguson’s Man United did the deed in Moscow just over a decade over.

Pep Guardiola will fancy his Man City’s sides chances at potentially matching the feat this season, with his side currently the bookies’ favourites to go out and win the Champions League this year.

Easier said than done, and with the Premier League champions sitting second in the league table behind Liverpool, there is much more work to be done between now and the end of May.

They succeeded in topping Group F, finishing five points clear of second-place, but showed serious faults in their games against Lyon both at home and away. The Ligue 1 side bagged all three points at the Etihad and were tantalisingly close to doing the double at the Groupama Stadium a few weeks ago.

City have rallied since that opening night defeat to Lyon in September and secured their place in the last 16 with a game to spare. Four wins from six and 16 goals along the way show’s Pep’s men to be a side on a roll in Europe at the moment.

They suffered their first Premier League defeat of the season last week against Chelsea and that 2-0 loss, like both games against Lyon, show that even a slick and impenetrable City side can be got at.

1. Barcelona

Tottenham Hotspur v Barcelona - UEFA Champions League - Group B - Wembley Stadium Mike Egerton The return of Ousmane Dembélé from injury and the purchase of Philippe Coutinho has been significant for Barcelona. Mike Egerton

With top spot in Group B already in the bag, Tuesday’s 1-1 draw at home to Tottenham does not appear the sucker punch it might have been for Barcelona earlier in the campaign.

Playing with largely a second-string team at the Nou Camp, the Catalan’s were safe in the knowledge that their place in Monday’s last 16 draw was secured and their mission to try and win the competition for the first time since 2015 was on course.

This is the 12th season in a row that Barcelona have reached the knockout stages of the Champions League, so this week’s progression is nothing more than routine.

What we can decipher from tricky match-ups against Spurs and Inter Milan, however, is that they are currently looking in shape for success further along in the competition. They have not tasted defeat in 29 Champions League games at home and that run does not look like stopping any time soon.

Fit-again Ousmane Dembélé has been a standout performer this year, with the purchase of Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho adding further firepower in the final third.

They have experienced lows, losing 4-3 at home to free-scoring Real Betis and away to Leganes, but Barcelona lead La Liga by a comfortable three points and appear the most competent and significant threat to going all the way in the Champions League as the last 16 approaches.

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Eddie O’Sullivan preview another big weekend of Heineken Cup action and dissect the week’s main talking points.

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