Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Champions League Power Rankings: The Last 16

16. Zenit

One win got Zenit out of the group

Zenit earned only six points in navigating what was a pretty favourable group, no team has ever found themselves in the second round with fewer. To do well in Europe, the minimum requirement is that you win your home games, because away games are tougher than domestically. Zenit have won none of their three ties in Russia this season which is not likely to change when Dortmund come to visit in February. Very much on borrowed time in this competition.

15. Olympiacos

Mission accomplished and nothing to lose

Greek champions in 14 of the past 16 seasons and well on their way to doing it again, Olympiacos have yet to make a significant impact on the European scene, making it to the knockout stages only twice since the turn of the century and falling at the first hurdle both times. Despite drawing probably the weakest group winners in Manchester United, Javier Saviola, Kostas Mitroglu and company will likely not change that record this year at least. Getting this far should be classed as a success itself.

14. Schalke

Weakest German side pitted against one of the favourites

Schalke have been average in the Bundesliga so far this season and face a bit of a battle to ensure qualification for next season's Champions League in what will be Germany's fourth spot. Aside from Chelsea, Schalke had a pretty weak group. They disposed of Basle with ease and struggled to a draw against whipping boys Steau. Against Chelsea they looked horribly outclassed in both games and, unless a drastic improvement is made over the winter, they can expect the same fate when they meet with Madrid in the last 16. Schalke reached the semi-finals in 2010/11 with a team consisting of the likes of Manuel Neur, Christoph Metzelder, Raul and Klass Jan-Huntelaar. The current crop does not match up with Julian Draxler and Kevin Prince-Boateng being the star names.

13. Galatasaray

Glamour names up front but so shaky in defence

Slightly fortunate to be here, the delay of their crucial tie with Juventus definitely had more of an effect on the visiting Italians than it did the hosts, but the Turkish champions under Roberto Mancini are into the knockout stages for the second year running.

Wesley Sneijder, champion in 2010 and Dider Drogba, 2012 are the two men spearheading this Galatasaray charge and both will look forward to their meeting with former boss Jose Mourinho in February. The furore around Drogba's return to Stamford Bridge will no doubt take up most of the headlines as the knockout rounds begin. Once the sentimental reunions are over with however, Galatasaray shouldn't cause Chelsea any problems. For them it came down to a win-or-go-home game with Juventus. They were poor for a lot of the group, shipping 14 goals in total, 6 at home to Madrid and even losing in Copenhagen. The atmosphere in Turkey may play in their favour for the home tie but they are far too weak defensively to go any further in the competition.

12. Bayer Leverkusen

Bayer definitely have potential for an upset or two

It' s  hard to know what to expect from Bayer Leverkusen week by week. Sami Hyypia's men definitely have two sides to them. They've taken two hammerings from United in the group stage, a 5-0 defeat in the BayArena being the worse of the two. But in contrast to this they beat Shaktar Donestk 4-0 to secure passage from the group and at home they've just won in Dortmund and are Bayern's closest domestic rivals this season, albeit seven points back.

PSG is far from the worst draw for them. I don't think they're a bad side, just prone to the odd  massive collapse. They'll either put up a stern fight to PSG and possibly beat them or else go down 9-0 on aggregate. It's one of those two.

11. AC Milan

Kaka has looked better since his return 'home'

Seven times champions of Europe, Milan are currently languishing in the bottom half of Serie A, 25 points behind leaders Juventus and just 5 clear of the relegation zone. Their European form has been good by comparison, with just one defeat (in Barcelona) in the group stage as they ushered Ajax into the Europa League on the final day with a draw. The return of the prodigal son Kaka to their ranks and the Champions League pedigree he brings may have a positive effect in the knockout stages. As should the fact that they have Mario Balotelli and are all wearing Milan shirts at the end of the day. The club is steeped in European history and, knowing that they may not be here next season, will want to at the very least advance past Atletico in the 2nd round.

10. Man United

Moyes European record so far is impressive

Any doubts over David Moyes lack of European experience look to have been allayed, United have gone about their business very impressively in European with 14 points from 18 and only 3 goals conceded. These numbers do paper over some cracks so to speak, there were some very forgettable performances, Shaktar at home and both ties against Sociedad were far from vintage Man United displays.

Olympiacos are probably the team David Moyes and any United fan would have picked given the choice. Whilst their form in the league has been pretty woeful, European football is a different story, particularly if a side has nothing left to play for on the domestic front. A midfield reinforced with extra steel in the new year would boost United's chances of advancing far in this tournament.

9. Chelsea

This is a very cool picture

Strangely lost two games to Basle but other than that, Chelsea coasted through a relatively straightforward group assignment and now Mourinho leads them into the knockout round where only twice in the since his first triumph a decade ago has he failed to reach at least the semi-finals.

There will be the emotional reunion with their 2012 hero Didier Drogba to witness first but after that, expect Chelsea to dispose of Galatasary. I think it irritates Mourinho that he hasn't yet won the biggest prize in the game with Chelsea. He may not have the squad to amend that this season (an extra striker would help) but they won't go down easily.

8. Borussia Dortmund

A return to the final may be beyond Dortmund

They had a good season last year and they're having an average one this year. It's unfair to judge them on the same level as Bayern, they haven't got anywhere near the resources and despite slipping to 3rd in the Bundesliga and being with minutes of dropping into the Europa League, Dortmund are not a club in crisis.

It would optimistic to suggest they could repeat their near-triumph of a year ago but Dortmund should advance past Zenit in the last 16. With Lewandowski, Marco Reus and now Mhikitarayan in their ranks, BVB remain a formidable opponent. No side will want to have to visit the intimidating Westfalenstadion on a European night. Just ask Real Madrid who crumpled and lost 4-1 underneath the Yellow Wall last April.

7. Arsenal

Its a different Arsenal side to recent seasons

The Premier League leaders escaped from the group of death on goal difference in the end (the third tie-breaker) and have been rewarded with a trip to Munich in the last 16 for the second year running. Strangely enough, a 2-0 win in Munich, whilst not enough to send them through, is widely credited as the catalyst which has sparked the 2013 Arsenal revival.

It was the worst possible draw for them. Again. This time however they should feel a lot more confident about their chances of beating Bayern over two legs. A collapse at the Emirates in the first leg made it pretty much mission impossible in the Allianz Arena and they nearly pulled it off. Always a great side to watch and the clash should be one to rememeber, regardless of who advances.

6. PSG

Becoming  a little less dependant on Ibra for goals would be a start

Remained unbeaten in the group stage until the final dead-rubber game with Anderlecht, the French champions are now setting their sights on going one better than last season when they fell to Barcelona on away goals.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has so far accounted for 50% of PSG's 16 goals in the competition so far. He's the most important piece in their jigsaw no doubt, but Edison Cavani will also be a threat, Lucas and Pastore also, PSG have a wealth of attacking talents that any side in Europe would be jealous of. They probably won't win the competition this year but given the money being invested, I don't think another quarter-final appearance would be enough.

5. Man City

Famous win in Munich will have given City belief

One goal away from toppling Bayern at the top of the group and securing a much much easier draw. City were always going to have their hands full with their last 16 opponent. Given their home form against their Premier League rivals, they will have absolutely no fear when Barcelona come to the Etihad.

While domestically their home form has been breathtaking and they look absolutely unstoppable, it is worth noting that they did go down 3-1 at home to Bayern in October in their only significant test at home in this competition so far. The side does lack the whole experience of 'Big European Nights' having failed to advance beyond the group stages until this year. It will be interesting to see if that proves to be a factor when they tackle Barcelona in the Camp Nou. Probably the toughest tie to call right now. City can be proud of finally making it out of the group, next year they can aim to win it and avoid ties like this so early in the spring.

4. Atletico Madrid

Newly Spanish Diego Costa is having a career season

It was slightly insulting to this club when people like Jamie Redknapp on Sky Sports pinpointed Atletico as the weak link among the top seeds in the last 16 draw. Diego Simone, who for some unknown reason has been snubbed for the FIFA coach of the year award, has built a fantastic side. A side that is currently a single goal scored off the top of La Liga and 5 points clear of 'the other team' in Madrid.

From the on-loan Courtouis in goal to Koke running the show in midfield and the menacing Diego Costa leading the line brilliantly, Atletico are a quality side and are rightly considered favourites for their tie with Milan. Twice Europa League winners in the past three years, European nights are nothing new to them and now they should have some rather more illustrious clubs to play host to over the coming months.

3. Barcelona

Neymar has eased the burden on Messi

It's not the all conquering Guardiola Barcelona team of recent times, that particular era ended over eight days last April with two demoralising defeats to Europe's new superpower (and Guardiola's new employers) Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-finals. This season, with Neymar added to the side they've been rather low key under Tato Martino, going about their business quietly and getting the results.

The fact remains, this Barcelona side is very good and still among the best two or three in Europe. They've a new challenger domestically in Atletico Madrid and the prospect of maybe losing their iron grip on the La Liga crown should spur them on to aim to conquer Europe for the fourth time in nine seasons. Lionel Messi has been absent for half of the group games (he still has 6 goals) but Neymar has recently stepped up to the plate in his absence, bagging a hat-trick against Celtic and a brace against Villarreal on Saturday. Messi will be back for the knockout games and Barca will be a force to be reckoned with.

2. Bayern Munich

Bayern are aiming to be the first side to defend the title

The champions progressed through the group stage with minimal fuss but had a scare in their final game, one more goal and they'd have found themselves in the runners-up pot on Monday's draw. Despite hanging on to win the group they were dealt a bad hand and now must face their toughest possible opponents Arsenal in the last 16. Last year, Bayern took the Gunners apart at the Emirates, winning 3-1. They faced a much tougher Arsenal side back in Munich a few weeks later and lost 2-0, clinging on by the end and advancing on away goals. They will not have wanted to be paired with what is an even better Arsenal side this time around.

This Bayern side is the best they've had since the 1970s, probably the best squad they've ever had and the best in Europe currently in terms of quality in depth. Treble winners last year, unbeaten in 40 games domestically, dominating the Bundesliga again this year Bayern have every chance to become the first side to retain the Champions League title but they first have to put right the one let-up on their journey to success last year and put Arsenal away.

1. Real Madrid

The best in the world wants the giant trophy again

Cristiano Ronaldo scored 9 times in the 5 group games he was involved in. He's got a staggering 34 goals overall for club and country this season and it's only December. He's been a man on a mission this season, there are certain things he wants to achieve and there's no lengths to which he will not go to achieve these. First up is the Ballon d'Or which should come his way in January. Following that on his wish list is La Decima, a tenth European title for his club Real Madrid.

Madrid top these rankings based on the fact that they were the best side in the group stage, winning 5 out of 6 games, the only slip being a draw in Turin against Juventus. On the way they dished out a few hidings, 4-0 to Copenhagen, 4-1 and 6-1 to Galatasaray. Come May it will be 12 years since Zidane's volley in Hampden Park won title number 9, this year's final takes place in Ronaldo's home country and you can bet he's eyeing up what he believes to be his ultimate date with destiny.

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