Every season, the entire footballing globe gathers to witness a remarkable cup competition, but this is no ordinary competition; it is the Champions League, a competition that gives center stage to the protagonists who will rule Europe. The UEFA Champions League has been reduced to its final 16 rivals for Europe’s premier club trophy, although one day later than expected. Many of the usual suspects have advanced, but for the first time since 2003–04, no Blaugrana colors will be seen in the knockout rounds.
Between the end of the draw and the start of the knockout games, a lot can happen. Clubs will be eager to bring in reinforcements during the January transfer window, which could change their calculus. However, assessing the contenders is still a useful exercise. It enables us to take a broader look at those who made it through the group stage and how they stack up—and are expected to stack up—against the remaining competitors. With that in mind, here are the top five candidates for the title this season.
Though Liverpool should still beat Inter, and though they will never openly acknowledge it, the Reds would have preferred to keep their initial draw after being drawn with Red Bull Salzburg. Having said that, Jurgen Klopp’s team is one of the best in the world right now and assuming they don’t have another mid-season slump like in 2020-21, they should be able to defeat the Italian champs.
Their only source of concern is the AFCON, which will result in the departure of several key players, including Salah and Mane. Although they should recover well before the start of the knockout stage, it would surely disrupt the rhythm that Klopp and his team have established in recent months. As a result, it will be intriguing to observe how Liverpool handles this eventuality and pulls itself out of this seeming crisis.
Whether it was Villarreal, Sporting, or any of the other four conceivable opponents in the last 16, Manchester City would have been confident of progress. The form they are now demonstrating, particularly the 7-nil thrashing they delivered in the most recent Premier League matchday, should serve as a wake-up call to the rest of their opponents. As it stands, they will go to Lisbon for the first knockout round of the European season, as Pep Guardiola’s side looks to build on their success from last season and win the competition for the first time.
It’s not as if there aren’t any looming threats, and given that lesser-known clubs like Monaco, Tottenham, and Lyon have been responsible for City’s demise in prior seasons, Pep Guardiola and co. should be wary of taking anything for granted. There is always the possibility of the unexpected happening, something they are all too accustomed to.
Bayern Munich would have favored their chances of upsetting Atletico Madrid regardless of the draw, but there is no doubt that Red Bull Salzburg is a better draw for Julian Nagelsmann in his first European knockout fixture as a manager in Bavaria. Bayern should have far too much talent and experience for their Austrian opponents to handle in the new year, and it would be one of the biggest surprises in recent competition history if the Bavarians did not make it to the finals this year, and if things continue as they are, they may even sweep the competition.
There are valid concerns about Bayern’s defense and its capacity to withstand an attack from modern football’s top, but since they won six of six games in the group stage, there isn’t much to be concerned about. Its two-game annihilation of Barcelona may have said more about its crisis-hit opponent, and there is a distinct tier of opponents Bayern will want to avoid this early in the campaign, especially with likes of Kimmich side-lined due to injury.
Paris Saint Germain:
Despite a great transfer window, the Parisians remain dogged by various uncertainties. A major portion of this could be attributed to the worrisome number of injuries they’ve sustained. Ramos, who they signed in order to bring in a leader in the back, has been out with an injury for a long period. However, the depth that it has attained has rendered the absences mostly insignificant. Finishing second in the group, though, throws up a world of tough possibilities for a club that is very much Champions League title or bust, and it will immediately increase the pressure on Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé, and co. to produce.
While there is a large bias that would work both in and against Chelsea’s favor, considering that they are the current holders of this trophy, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that if they manage to be at full strength for the crucial matches, then it would be very hard for the rest of the contenders to stop them from reclaiming the crown of Europe.
The only issue that has some people worried is Chelsea’s recent slump in form, and then there are those games where they create all the chances in the world but never look like scoring. As they stand, they would not be able to survive a match-up against the likes of Bayern Munich. Only Kante’s return might save them from a mauling at the hands of a terrible foe.