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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Ranking the Champions League last 16 contenders – and explaining what defines them

The Champions League anthem has faded into the background since the group stage was wrapped up in December, but it’s time to crank up the volume again.

Europe’s top club competition has returned.

Sixteen teams remain and the knockout stage is where the fun really begins. But what are the key match-ups? Who are the dark horses? Where will each tie be won and lost?

Allow The Athletic to provide the definitive breakdown for you.

Let’s start by outlining exactly who is still in the competition — and, more importantly, who is best placed to go on and win it.

To do this, we can use Opta’s Power Rankings — a global ranking system containing more than 13,000 clubs rated between zero (lowest) and 100 (highest) — to look at the strength of each team and compare their chances of progression to the quarter-finals.

Unsurprisingly, holders Manchester City are the strongest club on the planet, having solidified their status this season as the champions of the Club World Cup. 

There is little more that you can say about Pep Guardiola’s side as they continue to trample on anyone who dares to stop them on the domestic and European stages. Only Real Madrid — the second-highest-ranked team remaining — could match City’s record of gaining maximum points from the group stage. City’s 18 goals in six games made their attack the most potent of any side in the first phase of the competition, and they qualified for the knockout rounds with two games to spare.

With that in mind, you have to feel for City’s opponents, Copenhagen, who are the lowest-ranked side left in the competition. A match-up between the team with the highest points total and the one with the lowest is the most lopsided affair of the round. 

City may take particular satisfaction in studying the Danish club’s win over Manchester United, for the sake of schadenfreude if not tactical lessons. But Copenhagen do boast one of Europe’s brightest young stars, Roony Bardghji, who may use the two-leg tie to broadcast his technical prowess to the continent’s biggest clubs.

That said, a swift exit would allow Copenhagen to return greater focus to the Superliga, where they sit third in a close title race behind Midtjylland and Brondby.

By contrast, PSV Eindhoven’s clash with Borussia Dortmund represents the smallest difference in team strength between two sides in the round of 16, according to Opta’s Power Rankings.

PSV have been steamrolling the Eredivisie under Peter Bosz, winning 19 and drawing two of their 21 league games to lead second-placed Feyenoord by 10 points. Bosz is uncompromising — his direct, high-energy style has made PSV the most potent side in Europe’s top seven leagues and no team has created more than their 3.0 expected goals (xG) per 90 this season.

That way of playing is shown in The Athletic’s playing style wheels, which compare each side’s defensive, possession, progression and attacking metrics across the top seven European leagues according to UEFA coefficients.

As you can see from PSV’s low ‘patient attack’ (six out of 99), Bosz’s side do not take a high volume of attacking-third touches per shot, nor do they blindly shift the ball from side-to-side in possession (‘circulate’, 43 out of 99). Instead, they focus on directness in attacking areas, coupled with a suffocating press (‘intensity’, 90 out of 99) that allows them to camp out in their opponents’ third (‘field tilt’, 95 out of 99).

One thing Bosz will need to remind his players of is the step up in quality on the European stage. PSV’s 4-0 loss to Arsenal saw them go toe-to-toe with Mikel Arteta’s side but they were repeatedly exploited on the counter-attack.

“Me and my coaches studied them. What is it that they do differently to us? The answer is that they are outstanding in the opposition box but also their own,” Bosz told The Athletic in a recent interview. “They get a lot of players behind the ball as soon as possible. They do it with 10 or 11 but we only do it with six or seven and then the distances are bigger. It’s the transition.”

Dortmund, Bosz’s former club, know a thing or two about transitional football. While they haven’t been at their free-flowing best under Edin Terzic this season, the return of Jadon Sancho has given them a much-needed injection of creativity and directness. Dortmund have won four of their five Bundesliga games in 2024 after a run of six games without a win in all competitions before their winter break.

Dortmund must be given credit for topping a Champions League group containing Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan and Newcastle United, managing three clean sheets from six games. However, their defensive permeability has been clear this season, with 1.5 xG conceded per game only good enough for the 10th-best defensive record in the Bundesliga.

Given PSV’s relentlessness in attack, Dortmund’s defence might have work to do. Either way, expect a slugging contest between these evenly-matched sides.

From the closest tie to the highest quality, according to Opta, as last season’s beaten finalists Inter Milan face Atletico Madrid.

Inter are in even better shape this time around. A 1-0 win over Juventus last weekend opened up a four-point lead at the top of Serie A, before a similarly momentous victory against a resurgent Roma protected it, extending their unbeaten run to 17 in the league. 

Under Simone Inzaghi, Inter have become a prolific cup team, winning the 2021-22 and 2022-23 editions of the Coppa Italia, as well as the 2021 and 2023 Supercoppas. A combination of excellent form and knockout know-how, along with a rock-solid 5-3-2 shape, makes them a very tough side to beat, reflected in their ‘chance prevention’ score of 98 out of 99 in their playing style wheel.

On the ball, Inter can mix it up more effectively than most. In Serie A this season, not only have they averaged the joint-most passes per sequence — indicating tidy, considered build-up play — but they have also launched the most direct attacks. 

Within their transitional system, able to charge up the field with rip-roaring wing-backs and channel-running forwards, their dynamic midfield duo of Nicolo Barella and Hakan Calhanoglu bring balance. The former combines creativity with destructive defensive play, while the latter has blossomed into a tempo-setting, pinpoint passer from deep, allowing them to sustain the pressure in more territorially dominant games. 

One player they will have to keep an eye on, however, is Antoine Griezmann — arguably La Liga’s most consistent performer this season. No player has been involved in more sequences leading to goals in Spain, racking up 14 goal contributions from an elusive, slightly deeper role.

Griezmann’s touch map this season illustrates the problem that Inter could have when it comes to tracking his movement, particularly if he can continue to link with Rodrigo De Paul and Koke to help overload their opponent’s three-man midfield.

Griezmann’s invention from deep had allowed Alvaro Morata to focus on what he does best, taking around 11 per cent of his touches inside the box this season and firing 22 headers on goal. The 31-year-old only needs one more goal to equal his record tally for a season but is likely to miss at least the first leg against Inter with a knee injury.

This might jump out as a cagey, cancel-each-other-out kind of tie, but both sides are producing varied attacking football while displaying their usual defensive grit. 

Expect big atmospheres, ebb and flow, and a fascinating tussle for control.

One more thing about Atletico — they are the only team to have beaten Real Madrid, their cross-town rivals, in any competition this season.

Now five points clear in La Liga after beating closest challengers Girona on Saturday, having sailed through their Champions League group, Real Madrid’s transition to life after Karim Benzema could not be going much smoother. 

A box-crashing Jude Bellingham has largely been responsible for that, his “motorbike” runs into the penalty area fuelling his 16-goal tally in La Liga from his busy midfield role.

But Madrid continue to shape-shift, as the graphic below highlights. In Bellingham’s last five games, he has been all-action against Mallorca, a final-third receiver against Almeria, a deeper build-up constructor at Getafe, a left-sided support for Vinicius Junior in the latest Madrid derby, and a drifting forward against Girona. Madrid will be hoping that a sprained ankle won’t keep Bellingham out for Tuesday’s tie, given his continued influence in Carlo Ancelotti’s attack.

Ancelotti is yet to name an unchanged line-up this season. His tactical tweaks across a versatile midfield, alongside a motivated supporting cast of talented fringe players, are helping keep Madrid fresh.

Joselu to the rescue with a brace in that Getafe game, while Brahim Diaz played himself into contention for this knockout tie with a dazzling dribbling performance against Atletico. His ability to play on either side or receive the ball in tight spaces and tip-tap his way into the penalty area is another string to Real Madrid’s low-block-breaking bow. 

They will face RB Leipzig, who occasionally struggled to keep a strong foothold in group-stage games against Young Boys and Red Star Belgrade. After holding a 54 per cent field tilt advantage in their 2022-23 Champions League run (which ended in the round of 16), that figure plummeted to 38 per cent this time around. That isn’t a case of Manchester City, who were also in their group, stacking the statistical deck, either — Leipzig had the lower field tilt in five of their six group games, only enjoying an advantage in a 3-1 win over Red Star at Red Bull Arena. 

Even more worrying is their lack of trademark forward pressing — they are winning just 3.7 possessions in the attacking third per game. Only five teams managed fewer high regains per game in the group stage, and Leipzig also had the sixth-lowest pressing intensity (16.1 passes per defensive action, PPDA).

There is hope, however, in the magic feet of Xavi Simons, who has been holding his own goal-of-the-season competition since his loan move from Paris Saint-Germain. From a curling effort at Union Berlin to keepy-uppies and a spinning shot at Leverkusen, Simons, 20, will bring the inspiration behind a promising strike partnership in Lois Openda and Benjamin Sesko that is slowly clicking into gear.

Pardon the pun, but this has been a transitional year for Leipzig. Although their Champions League form doesn’t offer too much in the way of encouragement, an ability to hit sharply on the break — as they did efficiently at the Etihad — gives them a glimmer of hope.

Many people might think it is a foregone conclusion that Arsenal will make it past Porto with ease, but Sergio Conceicao’s side are the more experienced in the competition in recent years.

Porto have made it through to the Champions League knockouts for the third time in four seasons, with their success built upon a strong defensive foundation led by Pepe, their 40-year-old captain.

With the seventh-best defensive record across Europe’s top seven leagues (0.9 xG against per 90 minutes), Arsenal’s recently profligate attack will have to be firing to break down Porto, but a compromise must be reached in possession.

Porto are used to having a lot of the ball in the Primeira Liga, with their average of 62 per cent possession being higher than any side in Portugal. As you can see from their playing style wheel below, Porto like to circulate the ball (83 out of 99) to work good openings in attack — with their average ‘central progression’ rating (50 out of 99) highlighting that they are equally adept at using their wingers or full-backs to cross.

Conceicao’s men are unlikely to have that same territorial dominance against Arsenal, so they might need to adapt.

As PSV found out, teams who have gone toe-to-toe with Arteta’s side have found themselves undone more easily than those who sit in a deeper block and look to frustrate. 

Porto are not counter-attacking in their style, but their strength in wide areas — helped by the attacking talent of Brazilian duo Galeno and Pepe — could expose an Arsenal back line that does have its weaknesses in full-back areas.

As the second-weakest remaining side in Opta’s Power Rankings, Lazio are unlikely to trouble Bayern Munich across two legs. This is the first time that Lazio have reached the Champions League knockout round since 2020-21, when they were drawn against… Bayern Munich.

A simple look at the Serie A table would suggest that Lazio are unlikely to pose a sustained threat to Bayern’s defence, as Mauricio Sarri’s side sit in eighth place, five points away from fourth spot.

Ciro Immobile is not the undisputed starter he used to be and Lazio’s chance creation is among the bottom half of Europe’s top seven leagues (37 out of 99).

Lazio have the eighth-best xG per 90 (1.2) in Serie A and they scored seven goals across their six Champions League group-stage games — no team scored fewer in qualifying for the knockouts of this year’s competition. 

The positive view would be that the Italians have a squad stacked with experience, with regulars Adam Marusic, Manuel Lazzari, Felipe Anderson, Luis Alberto, and Immobile all aged 30 or older.

The negative take is that Sarri simply has an ageing squad that cannot play with the same intensity as other elite sides. Among those remaining in the competition, only Atletico Madrid have fielded an older average age (29.8 years) than Lazio (29.5).

The powerhouse of Bayern Munich lies in wait. Thomas Tuchel’s side may have stuttered in the Bundesliga after a pivotal loss last weekend to table-topping Bayer Leverkusen, but Bayern bulldozed their way to the last 16 as the only unbeaten team in Group A.

It is difficult to look beyond the dynamic attacking duo of Harry Kane and Leroy Sane when discussing Bayern’s output this season. No player in Europe’s top leagues has scored more than Kane’s 24 goals, and no player has more assists than Leroy Sane (11) — that tells you pretty much everything you need to know.

Bayern frequently flirt with crises in any given season, but with a favourable last-16 draw, it will be difficult to imagine an outcome different from three years ago.

From one of last season’s league champions to another, Napoli still have much to prove in what has been a more tumultuous campaign to date. 

Advancing from Group C ahead of Braga and Union Berlin did not prove to be much of a fuss, but a woeful start in Serie A led to a swift end to Rudi Garcia’s tenure in November. The team’s performances have been ​​even worse under his replacement, Walter Mazzarri. While Garcia’s Napoli had an average xG advantage of 1.9 to 0.9 across a dozen Serie A matches, the former Watford boss has almost entirely seen that level out to a 1.2 to 1.0 across his 11 games in charge. 

Any team fielding Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia should not be easy to overcome, but Barcelona will fancy their chances, despite their own down year. With Xavi stepping away from his managerial post in June after two and a half years, can his side send him out on a high note?

Barring an incredible Champions League run, Xavi’s final season will end without a major trophy. With their Supercopa de Espana and Copa del Rey campaigns ended and a sizable gap between them and table-topping Real Madrid, the manager will be more fondly remembered for his playing exploits. Robert Lewandowski has seen his scoring rate slow to 10 goals from 22 La Liga appearances, and he managed just one goal in the group stage. 

It isn’t all bad beyond, mind you. This year’s Barcelona are taking more shots, hitting the target more frequently and registering a higher xG per game than they did when they won the title in 2022-23. Ilkay Gundogan’s big-game mettle will be heavily leaned upon given the number of youthful attackers playing the bulk of minutes behind Lewandowski.

Spanish hopes do not end there. Real Sociedad are everything you expect from a high-achieving La Liga side — patient in possession, brimming with technical quality, slick and inventive in the final third — but they are also fuelled by a feeling of intense local pride. 

Anoeta will be rocking when La Real welcome PSG to host their second-ever Champions League knockout tie. Along with 17 homegrown players, manager Imanol Alguacil — the biggest super-fan of all — is certain to make it a night that San Sebastian won’t ever forget.

Alguacil has transformed the first team in his six-year stint as coach, and although they have lost the magic of David Silva and the cutting-edge of Alexander Isak in recent campaigns, they continue to churn out academy graduates who play their way.

His team don’t just keep the ball well, they press high and are experts at disrupting the play. No La Liga side has allowed fewer opposition PPDA this season, and only Getafe have committed more fouls in Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues this season, many of which are tactical to block the counter-attack. Their rating of 94 out of 99 for defensive ‘intensity’ outlines the issues that they can create with their high press.

PSG face a stern examination of their possession game, particularly if they fail to take an advantage into the second leg away from home.

Luis Enrique’s side have more than enough quality to compete — Kylian Mbappe has scored 30 goals in 29 games this season and is a prospect unlike any other that this youthful Real Sociedad side have faced. Kang-in Lee, Warren Zaire-Emery and Vitinha add to an exciting new-look side.

One major focus under Luis Enrique has been creating more open space for Mbappe to run into rather than involving him further back during their build-up. PSG take 39 per cent of their touches in the right third, an advisable idea when you employ Ousmane Dembele and Achraf Hakimi. Mbappe has thrived without sharing leading-man status, but no other PSG player has scored more than six goals in this season’s Ligue 1. 

As a result, the blueprint to eliminating PSG feels concerningly simple: have your defence clog PSG’s right channel and right-central half-space to slow Hakimi’s progress and force a switch of play towards Mbappe in a less dangerous area of the pitch.

With apologies to Randal Kolo Muani and Goncalo Ramos, Luis Enrique’s system is designed to funnel the ball towards Mbappe. This has made them a far less intimidating foe than the bygone iterations fielding the sport’s demigods. Three teams advanced to the knockout stage by winning only two of their six group matches: Copenhagen, PSV and PSG, in their weirdly mortal new era.

European success, as always, is the goal for the French champions, but this might not be a simple step in their latest attempt to take Europe’s most coveted crown.

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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