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Champions League: Power Rankings
Who's going to win this thing? Let's look at the contenders.
So, the Champions League came back this week, and it’s time to do some ranking of the top 12 strongest sides in the competition. Apologies to the other 20 teams who didn’t make the cut here. I’m sure there are interesting things to be written about all of those clubs, but not today.
And yes, the thing I really want to write about is Graham Potter taking over at Chelsea and that will be coming very soon, I promise. For now, rankings.
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12. Inter Milan
Why they can win it: their cross-town neighbours might be building for tomorrow, but this Inter side is ready to compete right now. Simone Inzaghi maintained the levels under Conte and now Romelu Lukaku is back to pick up from where he left off, so this should be a better team, right?
Why they won’t: Inter’s start to the season hasn’t been nearly as bad in the xG as the table, conceding about twice as many goals as expected. They still haven’t been great. They were pretty decisively outplayed by Bayern and in a tough group, you’d have to say they now look unlikely to qualify for the knockout stages.
11. Tottenham Hotspur
Why they can win it: Antonio Conte knows exactly what he wants out of this team. And he’s getting it, even if he can’t appreciate this for five minutes without calling all of his players shit. The highly structured 3-4-3 is in action, and they’ve filled all the obvious holes in the transfer market this summer. Not all of it has been integrated just yet, but they’ve got depth across the pitch and should be well positioned to maintain their standards across a long season.
Why they can’t: Lads, it’s Antonio Conte. Everyone knows he has a poor track record in this competition, making it beyond the Round of 16 only once (and that was nearly a decade ago). There is something of a view that his approach, which prioritises strict tactical training and drilling patterns for every action on the pitch, isn’t suited to playing high-level football every three days. We’ll see if that happens again this time. But this is the strongest Spurs team in theory since the Mauricio Pochettino heyday, and they were but one game away from lifting the trophy back then, so who knows what’s possible.
Why they can win it: It’s very early, but Napoli currently have the best expected goal difference in Serie A. Luciano Spalletti has this team cooking so far, looking to dominate possession and work their way into the final third with Victor Osimhen leading the line (though left winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has stolen the show so far). The outstanding performance against Liverpool was fitting with their club form. Their already interesting collection of midfielders has seen the addition of Tanguy Ndombele, who can potentially recover from a tough time at Spurs to remind everyone why he was so highly rated in the first place. They might actually have something here.
Why they can’t: They’re not exactly filled with Champions League experience and know-how, are they? They look to have bought well, but this is still a big leap we’re asking of them. Don’t be shocked if they make a decent run of it, though.
9. AC Milan
Why they can win it: Milan are finally relevant in these conversations again. Elliott Management might be one of the most brazenly evil investment firms around, but they did an impressive job righting the ship here to sell it off to RedBird Capital. Milan have become a model of how to run a football club, pairing smart analytics people with traditional football know-how.
Manager Stefano Pioli is not an ideologue, and last season’s title win was primarily won by conceding the joint-fewest goals in Serie A. They had one of the youngest squads in Italy’s top flight last season and should keep improving.
Why they can’t: Milan had to overperform xG a little to win Serie A last year, and Inter were probably the strongest side overall.1 Their early returns this season have also been a little overpowered, with Rafael Leão in particular on a finishing hot streak. As mentioned, this is a young squad built to peak in a few years' time. They’re a club going in the right direction and I expect to see more of them in this tournament going forward, but it might not be their time just yet.
8. Atlético Madrid
Why they can win it: Atlético Madrid’s xG difference per game through the last few years:
The narrative has varied wildly in that time, but in the last three years especially they’ve essentially always been at the same level. People have claimed Diego Simeone’s project is coming to an end at various times, but I think that’s nonsense. He gets what he gets out of whichever players he has. This year, he’s most notably added Axel Witsel, while Alvaro Morata has returned. It’s not their most exciting window ever, but I don’t think it’ll matter too much. They’ll be the same as ever, and capable of causing a problem to any team.
Why they won’t: That consistency also seems to represent a hard cap on their performance levels. I don’t think they’re likely to take it up a notch and be able to outplay any of the top sides that knocked them out in recent years. No one wants to play them, but they might have to settle into a role as a spoiler for any richer team they face.
Why they can win it: Does replacing Thomas Tuchel with Graham Potter “reset” this team? It’s plausible that a lot of the problems will now magically go away. And what you’re left with is a core of players who won the Champions League just over a year ago. The late additions of Wesley Fofana, Denis Zakaria and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should fill some of the most obvious holes in this squad. Potter is a bright coach who should provide a pretty smooth transition from Tuchel. In writing this paragraph, I feel like I’ve placed Chelsea too low.
Why they won’t: This is a weird team. Potter needs to find a clear way of progressing the ball through midfield and into the final third to create chances because that hasn’t been there with Tuchel. Maybe that’s fine now that James can play at wing-back (Potter is also a back three advocate). They’ve looked awfully light in midfield when N’Golo Kanté isn’t fit, so a lot is riding on Zakaria to plug this hole. They’re the one club I could most easily move around on this list.
Why they can win it: Liverpool's case is that essentially nothing matters in the group stages as long as you qualify, and then all that counts is your form in the campaign's second half. This weird bifurcated season could give everyone a good chance to reset during the World Cup. If some injuries clear up and a month away from Jürgen Klopp has everyone feeling fresh and ready to go, Liverpool could certainly look back to their best when it really matters in this competition.
Why they won’t: Well it’s not exactly been liquid football so far. If you asked me before the start of the season, I would’ve probably had Liverpool second on this list. Since then, we all know what’s happened. Maybe Liverpool’s problems aren’t as easy to fix as I think. Maybe the midfield and injuries aren’t the only problems. Maybe Virgil van Dijk has just lost a step, and Darwin Núñez is a bust. If that’s the case, you can forget about winning the Champions League.
Why they can win it: Bayern are better than everyone else in the Bundesliga, but you knew that. Their xG difference is miles stronger than anyone else’s in Germany, but you’re hardly surprised there, are you? This is Bayern. Otherwise, there’s a fair case that Julian Nagelsmann could have this team playing closer to his ideals after a year of working together. Swapping Robert Lewandowski for Sadio Mané can be debated in terms of quality, but there’s no question it makes the forward line more fluid and interchangeable in the way Nagelsmann likely wants. Last season was Bayern managed by Nagelsmann, but this season might be Nagelsmann’s Bayern, if that makes sense.
Why they won’t: Bayern were not great in the knockout stages last season, getting stuck by Energy Drink Salzburg before blowing them away in the second leg, then really struggling to solve the problem posed by Villarreal. The two big signings, Mané and Matthijs de Ligt, are both to replace leaving players rather than truly strengthen, while other big money has been spent on younger players. The bet you’re making about Bayern is really about Nagelsmann improving this squad more than the players themselves being better. It didn’t feel that way last season, so Nagelsmann is going to have to show he’s been working towards something.
Why they can win it: People have questioned the long-term wisdom of Barcelona’s summer spending, but we only care about the short term here, and right now it looks pretty good. They currently have a better xG difference in La Liga than Real Madrid. Robert Lewandowski is scoring goals, but we haven’t even seen the best of most of the others yet. Xavi did a very impressive job getting this team to play his style of football very quickly last season, and they could really have something if the new players elevate the side as hoped.
Why they won’t: Yes, Barcelona have defended well under Xavi, but do you trust those defenders? Jules Koundé is good, but who’s playing next to him? Andreas Christensen? Eric Garcia? Ronald Araújo? Jordi Alba is very old while Álex Balde is very young. New left back Marcos Alonso has never totally convinced me, while Héctor Bellerín needs to show that he’s fully returned to his form of a few years ago to be a Barça-level full back. Is Sergio Busquets going to shield the back four? None of this has mattered under Xavi so far because the pressing and structure has been good enough. But are we sure it won’t matter at any point? I am not.
3. Paris Saint-Germain
Why they can win it: Job number one was to keep Kylian Mbappé, and they did it. The second job was to act like a grown-up football club, and they might be doing it? We’ve been here before, but new manager Christophe Galtier should make PSG tough to beat and disciplined without the ball, which will naturally help them in the later stages of this competition. Obviously, that’s not the natural approach in Ligue 1, but he’s there to get them to adapt in the Champions League. Don’t overthink it here. PSG need to be organised and disciplined defensively, then just give the ball to those three amazing attackers when they have it. That’s effective knockout football.
Why they won’t: Do I need to say it? We’re relying on everyone staying totally switched on and checked in here. The dressing room atmosphere at the club has been abysmal for years and, while it might feel good during Galtier’s honeymoon period, are we sure everything will remain strong during the toughest parts of the season? I think there’s a real chance it can, which is why they’re so high, but no one would want to bet the house on it.
2. Real Madrid
Why they can win it: They don’t need me to answer that question for you because they just did it. If you’re a true believer in the power of history, the weight of the shirt, winning mentality, all of those things, Real Madrid are your bet. On top of that, their two big transfer additions are good. Antonio Rüdiger gives them more flexibility at the back, allowing them to move David Alaba over to left back at times and reshape the defence in different ways. Aurélien Tchouaméni is already impressing people and can improve Real on the ball without sacrificing the defensive work Casemiro used to bring. The core of young talent is getting older. But for the most part, Madrid just intend to run it back.
Why they (probably) won’t: Real Madrid made a joke of xG in their Champions League run last season. They “lost” all of their knockout ties in the metric while still winning the trophy anyway (though they had a very hard draw). These things can happen over seven games. In putting them second, I’m expecting that the performances will improve. If not, lightning will need to strike twice.
1. Manchester City
Why they can win it: Stop looking at me like that. I know everything that’s happened before. I’ve written at length about it. I’ve had them as favourites to win this competition just about every year since they really got going, and I’m not changing my mind now. They’re simply the best team in Europe. They’ve added a complete wrecking ball upfront to turn their biggest weakness into their biggest strength. They have everything. I couldn’t imagine putting any other club at number one.
Why they (maybe?) won’t: Yeah, yeah, Pep Guardiola can’t stop overthinking it. I’m not someone who thinks this is just selection bias. He does have a habit of dramatically changing what’s worked at a short moment’s notice in big games like that and it often backfires for him. He’s never worked with a group of players for such a long time before, so can there be enough trust now to move past this? I don’t know. But even if he makes suboptimal choices, they’re still my favourites to win the whole thing.