The UEFA Champions League group stage is at the halfway point, with every team three matches deep on the long road to Madrid. The June 1 final sure seems like a long way from now, but as early as Matchday 4, teams will start punching their tickets to the knockout stage.
Some other favorites, however, are left with plenty of work to do in the final three games, while the cast of pretenders is quickly taking shape. No, a Champions League cannot be won in the group stage–and especially not halfway through a group stage–but with each team playing all of its group opponents once, there are some trends and takeaways we can glean from what we've seen.
So how does the field stack up thus far? Take a look at the standings followed by our tier rankings, grouping the Champions League's 32 teams into their appropriate levels:
Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester City, Liverpool
Barcelona and Juventus are two of three perfect 3-0-0 sides (anybody else daring to dream of a final showdown featuring Lionel Messi and Crisitano Ronaldo in Madrid?), while Premier League contenders Man City and Liverpool have both shown their quality and potential despite each suffering through a pair of narrow slip-ups. Pep Guardiola can insist that Man City isn't good enough to win the Champions League all he wants, but he's just tempering expectations after the club has fallen short in recent seasons. City, despite a loss to Lyon and requiring a comeback vs. Hoffenheim, is as good as ever, and with Kevin De Bruyne back healthy and pulling the strings, its attack has its missing link.
Liverpool, meanwhile, thoroughly outplayed PSG at Anfield, and a follow-up performance in Paris on Matchday 5 could be even more telling. Jurgen Klopp's side is a deeper, more complete one than the group that reached the final last season.
Ajax, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, Porto, Roma
Dortmund may have eked out a group-opening win over lowly Club Brugge, but it announced a statement of intent with a 4-0 shellacking of Atletico Madrid–the worst loss in Diego Simeone's tenure at the club–and only appears to be getting more dangerous under Lucien Favre. Both sides in a fine shape to go through from Group A, though, and Atletico remains one of the more balanced sides on paper, even if it didn't show on Wednesday. It wouldn't surprise if either or both embarked on deep runs into the knockout stage.
Napoli, meanwhile, already beat Liverpool, should've beaten PSG and will be a thorn the rest of the way in Group B. It's a serious threat to dump PSG out in the opening phase.
Porto is taking full advantage of its wide-open group, and Ajax impressed in securing a point at Bayern Munich, which has the Dutch power tied for first in its group. Roma is best positioned to capitalize on Real Madrid's inconsistency and struggles, and last year's surprise semifinalist could find itself atop the group if it can put together a comprehensive home performance vs. Real when they meet on Matchday 5 in the Italian capital.
Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Manchester United, PSG, Real Madrid, Tottenham
All six of these sides should be in better position. Real Madrid, the three-time reigning champion, dropped a game in Russia; PSG can't seem to hit its top gear against any elite or near-elite team; Tottenham can't hold a lead; Inter can't stake itself out to a lead; Man United is second best to Juventus in its group only by default; and Bayern has yet to find that ruthless, dominating gear, dropping points at home to Ajax and sitting in a tie for first.
All have the potential to turn it around and all but one can certainly wind up going through (only one of Inter and Tottenham will join Barcelona from Group B), but it'll take vastly improved efforts over the final half of the group stage.
Should have more to show for their efforts
Hoffenheim, Lyon, PSV, Schalke, Valencia
Lyon already beat Man City, while Hoffenheim blew a golden chance to take points off Guardiola's side as well. PSV gave Inter a scare and took a point off Tottenham, but you just wonder how different life would've been for the Dutch side had it been drawn into another group that didn't feature those two sides and mighty Barcelona.
Schalke, meanwhile, missed a chance to join Porto atop its group despite having the better of the action against Galatasaray, while Valencia's inability to turn draws into wins is hurting Los Che in Europe as well as domestically.
Benfica, CSKA Moscow, Galatasaray, Shakhtar Donetsk
There's nothing flashy about any of these sides, but they're a result away from springing back into contention–or at the very least making things interesting in their groups. CSKA has perhaps the surprise result of the competition, a 1-0 win over Real Madrid, while all four make for difficult road opponents. Benfica and CSKA both have two of their remaining three matches at home, which is something to keep an eye on.
AEK Athens, Club Brugge, Lokomotiv Moscow, Monaco, Red Star Belgrade, Viktoria Plzen, Young Boys
This is your friendly reminder that Lokomotiv Moscow was in the top pot thanks to UEFA's seeding system. With no points through three games, despite being in the competition's most wide-open group, that's pretty poor.
Elsewhere, it's already time for these sides to put their eggs in the third-place-fall-into-the-Europa-League-knockout-stage basket. The one intriguing side of the bunch, Monaco, is just starting life under Thierry Henry and carved out a draw vs. Brugge on Wednesday, but the hill to climb in a group featuring Dortmund and Atletico Madrid is too high.