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Contenders

Ranking the 10 teams most likely to win the Champions League

Pep Guardiola’s Man City are the team to beat once again.

10. Napoli

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IT HAS been a season to forget so far for the reigning Serie A champions, as illustrated by the fact that they are now ninth in the table.

As it stands, they look a shadow of the team that achieved that unlikely triumph last season.

So what has gone wrong? Well, they lost two key figures in the summer. The manager, Luciano Spalletti, who is now coach of Italy, guided them to their first league victory since the Diego Maradona-inspired 1989–90 season. And Kim Min-jae, the world-class centre-back who Bayern Munich bought for €50 million in the summer.

The significance of two other departures cannot be dismissed either — both Hirving Lozano (€15 million to PSV) and Eljif Elmas (€25 million to RB Leipzig) each played over 40 games last season.

Their failure to adapt to the title win has been obvious and they are in danger of becoming the Italian equivalent of Leicester City.

Spalletti’s successor Rudi Garcia only lasted until November before being replaced by ex-Watford boss Walter Mazzarri.

So to see them lift the Champions League trophy this season would be a major surprise.

Then again, they still have world-class talent in their ranks like Victor Osimhen, the striker who has been linked with several top Premier League clubs, and Georgian attacker Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (named best young player in last season’s Champions League), who was similarly key to their title win.

9. Dortmund

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Another team that should be considered a dark horse of the competition at best.

They were agonisingly close to winning the Bundesliga last season, slipping up in a draw with Mainz on the final day as Bayern pipped them to the title.

Since then, they have lost their best player, Jude Bellingham, sold to Real Madrid for an astronomical €103 million fee.

Their form has subsequently suffered to a degree — they sit fourth in the Bundesliga, 15 points off leaders Leverkusen.

Yet it would help if they could get Jadon Sancho back to the type of form he showed before joining Man United, and they also acquired another ex-Red Devils player, Marcel Sabitzer, for €19 million from Bayern in the summer.

Despite the aforementioned caveats, they have impressed in Europe thus far. They were drawn in what was certainly the most difficult group, alongside PSG, Milan and Newcastle, yet managed to finish top regardless.

They will consequently be favourites to reach the quarter-finals at least, as they face Eredivisie leaders PSV Eindhoven in the round of 16.

8. Atletico Madrid

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One of those teams that almost always seem to be in the hunt in the business end of the competition.

In the last 11 seasons, they have only twice failed to escape the group stages, with two final appearances and one run to the semi-finals during that period.

They certainly cannot be accused of lacking stability or identity — head coach Diego Simeone has been in charge for over 12 years now and his team’s cynical, pragmatic approach has gained as many admirers as detractors.

They were seldom troubled in the group stages, winning four and drawing two against Celtic, Feyenoord and Lazio.

Although La Liga has been more of a struggle — they are in fourth place, 13 points adrift of table toppers Real Madrid.

They are a team with no real superstars. Antoine Griezmann — currently the competition’s joint top scorer on five goals along with teammate Alvaro Morata, Rasmus Højlund and Erling Haaland — is probably the closest player to fit into that category.

But they do have several solid, experienced pros, well capable of handling themselves at the elite level — footballers like Koke, Saúl Ñíguez, Axel Witsel, Rodrigo De Paul and Jan Oblak don’t always stand out in games, but they are the type of disciplined, reliable, tactically intelligent footballers that are integral to Simeone’s invariably robust and effective system.

7. Barcelona

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There is no getting away from the fact that it has been a bad season for Barcelona so far.

Domestically, they are already 10 points off leaders Real Madrid.

Despite guiding them to their 27th title last season, coach Xavi doesn’t appear to have been afforded much leeway and the Barcelona legend has announced he will step down at the end of the season.

While rivals Real Madrid have been able to splash out on Jude Bellingham, the financially stricken Catalan outfit’s transfer business was noticeably less spectacular.

They sold Ousmane Dembélé for over €50 million to PSG, and their most noteworthy summer incoming was a free transfer — Ilkay Gundogan from Man City. Although they also spent €40 million on the January transfer of Brazilian teenager Vitor Roque.

Consequently, their chances of winning the Champions League appear slim. That said, a team in turmoil triumphing in the competition is not unheard of — Chelsea sacked André Villas-Boas as manager in March 2012 — two months later, Roberto Di Matteo, whose last managerial job was a brief stint at Aston Villa in 2016, guided them to European glory, proving you don’t necessarily need an elite-level coach to go all the way.

6. Inter

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They were, of course, overshadowed by Man City’s treble winners, but it’s easy to forget Inter were a game away from winning the Champions League last season. They should not be written off this time around and have maintained their good form as they sit atop Serie A, seven points clear of second-place Juventus.

Simone Inzaghi has only been in charge since 2021 but has already established himself as one of the top managers in Europe.

Inheriting Antonio Conte’s title-winning side, the former Lazio boss retained his predecessor’s 3-5-2 wing-back system but is widely regarded as a less tactically rigid and more adventurous coach.

There are certainly teams with better squads — key performers like Lautaro Martínez, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Matteo Darmian would likely struggle to get into some of the starting XIs of teams mentioned on this list.

Nonetheless, Inzaghi has consistently shown a knack for getting the best out of players, so Inter can’t be discounted this year, having come through the group stages with relative ease, finishing second to Real Sociedad on goal difference but eight points clear of Benfica in third.

Advancing further won’t be easy, however, as they have been paired with Atletico Madrid in the round of 16.

5. PSG

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It feels weird to describe Qatari-owned PSG as underachievers. They have won nine of the last 11 Ligue 1 titles and have a final and semi-final appearance to their name in the last four Champions League campaigns.

Yet given that they have spent the last few seasons paying lavish amounts to some of the best footballers in recent history, their continual inability to win the Champions League is surprising, to say the least.

They look on course to claim another league crown this year, as they are 11 points clear at the top.

But one of the biggest problems in recent seasons has been disarray behind the scenes and a sense that superstars and their accompanying gigantic egos have been accommodated at the expense of morale and team ethic.

That ostensibly should be less of a problem with a host of big names departing in the summer, including Lionel Messi, Neymar, Sergio Ramos, Julian Draxler and Marco Verratti.

Yet whether deeper problems persist remains to be seen. They certainly haven’t been shy in splashing the cash, with recent arrivals including Randal Kolo Muani (€80 million), Bradley Barcola (€45 million), Gonçalo Ramos (€65 million), Ousmane Dembélé (€50.4 million), Lucas Hernandez (€40 million), Manuel Ugarte (€60 million), Hugo Ekitike (€28.5 million).

Thomas Tuchel has been arguably the only coach so far of the PSG Qatar project that has appeared to have somewhat of a handle on the star-studded squad, and even he only lasted two years. Whether Luis Enrique has the force of personality to survive this notoriously fraught environment for much longer remains doubtful, as so many other highly rated coaches have failed to do in the past.

It’s similarly telling that the most recent PSG boss to exceed three years in the job is Georges Peyroche, the longest-serving manager in their history, who lasted three years and seven months in the first of two stints between November 1979 and June 1983.

4. Arsenal

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Arsenal at the moment feel like a club on the up and the best equipped they have been to challenge for the Champions League since the peak years of the Arsene Wenger era.

Mikel Arteta has built an exciting young squad, playing a style that is both exhilarating to watch and consistently effective.

There are, of course, still plenty of question marks. 

The Gunners have never won the Champions League/European Cup. Their last European triumph was the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994.

This year is the first time since the 2016-17 season that the North Londoners have even qualified for the Champions League and 2010 is the last time they got beyond the round of 16. It’s a fairly dramatic decline, given that they previously set an English record of 19 consecutive qualifications for the competition, a tally only surpassed by Real Madrid.

Nonetheless, they next face a winnable two-legged tie against Porto and have one of the strongest squads left in the competition, with Declan Rice among the most in-form midfielders in Europe right now.

But the biggest problem, the lack of a world-class striker, may end up hurting them at the very highest level, and they have already shown signs of inconsistency at times this season.

Moreover, challenging on two fronts — the Premier League and Europe could prove difficult, especially if they get injuries to key players, which is exactly what happened with William Saliba’s extended absence proving pivotal last season.

3. Bayern Munich

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There is no doubt that Bayern boast several world-class performers, including Harry Kane, Jamal Musiala and Dayot Upamecano.

However, at the moment, the wheels are threatening to come off.

The German side have won 11 consecutive Bundesliga titles since 2013, but that trend looks in danger of ending.

The comprehensive 3-0 loss to Bayer Leverkusen at the weekend left them five points behind Xabi Alonso’s table toppers.

Their unconvincing campaign so far comes after almost failing to win the Bundesliga title last season and suffering a disappointing 4-1 aggregate loss to Man City in the Champions League knockout stages.

And Thomas Tuchel is now a man under pressure, with the weekend’s tepid loss arguably the most damaging of his reign so far amid reports he has fallen out with defender Mattijs de Ligt.  

The fact that they are so high on this list despite such underwhelming form is an indication of the relative weakness of most teams this year more than anything else and the small number of sides that look genuinely capable of prevailing.

However, Tuchel still has no shortage of talented players to work with and remains one of the most tactically astute coaches of his generation.

He has already pulled off one unlikely Champions League triumph with Chelsea, so it would be foolish to rule out Bayern this time around notwithstanding their conspicuous flaws.

2. Real Madrid

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Real Madrid looked very strong at times last season, easing past two English opponents in the knockout stages, Liverpool and Chelsea, before suffering a 5-1 aggregate humbling at the hands of Man City.

Yet they have surely grown stronger since then.

Their €103 million summer signing Jude Bellingham looks to be worth every penny.

Sometimes regarded as a defensive midfielder, Bellingham has thrived in a more attacking role this season.

With 16 goals from 21 matches, he is currently La Liga’s top scorer.

The 20-year-old England international scored twice in their emphatic 4-0 win over title-challenging Girona at the weekend but then went off injured with a sprained ankle.

The former Birmingham City youngster is set to be sidelined until March, meaning he is expected to be unavailable at least for the first leg of their upcoming knockout tie with TB Leipzig.

But even without Bellingham, Real Madrid should be a force to be reckoned with. 

No team has a richer history in the competition, which they have won 14 times, most recently in 2022.

The majority of their squad therefore know exactly what it takes to achieve glory in the Champions League.

In addition, they are a team in form as Carlo Ancelotti’s men hold a five-point lead at the top of La Liga, and breezed through the group stages, winning all six of their matches including two victories over Italian champions Napoli.

Very few sides remaining look capable of stopping Man City, but Real Madrid are one of the few that it is possible to envisage upsetting the Etihad outfit.

1. Man City

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Pep Guardiola has played down Man City’s chances of winning a double treble, putting the likelihood at around 0.1%, however, most neutral observers would see the chances of it happening as being significantly higher.

You could make a case that they possess the best goalkeeper (Ederson), centre-back (Ruben Dias), defensive midfielder (Rodri), attacking midfielder (Kevin De Bruyne) and striker (Erling Haaland) in world football.

There have been signs of weakness this season. They initially struggled to adapt to the departure of important players like Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez, as well as injuries to key men such as De Bruyne and John Stones.

Nonetheless, as the business end of the campaign approaches, they remain very much in the Premier League title hunt and coasted through the Champions League group stages, winning six games from six.

It would be a major shock if they don’t get by Copenhagen in the round of 16, edging them to within three ties of retaining the prize.

That said, for a couple of seasons now, it’s felt as if they were the best team in Europe, but a combination of bad luck and some needless tactical tinkering (dropping Rodri for the final against Chelsea) by Guardiola meant they had to wait until last year to lift the prestigious trophy in what was their first major European honour of any kind since the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1970.

So once again this year, it feels as if it is City’s competition to lose.

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