For the first time in the Champions League, the Round of 16 will only feature teams from the Big Five Leagues - England, Spain, Italy, France and Germany - as super clubs with hefty budgets and a vanity of riches (excluding Atalanta of course) dominate the knockout stage.
Given the overwhelming pool of talent and experience on the continental stage, choosing an eventual champion might be harder to predict, but as we look ahead to Monday's draw, there are some clubs that stand out. Here are the power rankings for the Last 16.
To watch Liverpool in full flow is to be awed by its power. It has three forwards at the peak of their powers, the best pair of attacking full backs in the world, a well-balanced midfield and, in Virgil van Dijk, the central defender who has come closest to winning the Ballon d’Or in the past decade. It also has Anfield, a fortress that lives up to the cliche and makes opponents, especially on a European night, quail before they even take the field. At the moment, what could stop it? With a commanding lead in the Premier League, it might even be able to rest players in domestic games.
2. PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN
Could this finally be PSG’s year? After years of swaggering and promising much without a great deal of substance, it looks a far more complete side this season – perhaps largely because it has managed to break its debilitating reliance on Neymar. The 3-0 win over Real Madrid at the beginning of the group stage was hugely impressive, undercut only by the fact that Madrid was terrible at the time. But the midfield that night, with Marquinhos flanked by Idrissa Gana Gueye and Marco Verratti, had a bite and organization PSG has regularly lacked.
3. MANCHESTER CITY
Manchester City qualified for the last 16 easily enough, but something is not quite right at the Etihad this season. The defense is the obvious problem, with issues both in the center and at left-back. The failure to replace Vincent Kompany left City short of cover and vulnerable to an injury such as that sustained by Aymeric Laporte. With Fernandinho forced to drop into the back four, Rodri has been thrust into regular action at the back of midfield earlier than was ideal and has at times struggled. Meanwhile Benjamin Mendy’s injury problems continue to leave City without a regular left-back. Add in the injury to Sergio Agüero and a strange lack of ruthlessness in front of goal, at least when games are tight, plus a sudden susceptibility to the counter-attack and there are more question marks about City than there have been since Pep Guardiola’s first season at the club. City has the talent and the potential but for now the mechanism is not quite clicking. Laporte should be back for the knockouts, though, and that could be critical.
Barcelona is top of the league in Spain. It qualified unbeaten for the group stage of the Champions League. But somehow something isn’t quite right. Its football isn’t anything like as cohesive as it was when it was in its pomp and although it has a forward line capable of winning any game, its midfield often seems insipid, vulnerable to quick counter attacking play. Lionel Messi embodies the club’s dilemma. On the one hand he is a brilliant and increasingly minimalist footballer, doing sensational things with unprecedented consistency; on the other he does next to know running or defensive work and, if his team-mates fail to cover for him, Barca is rendered vulnerable to the sort of explosive transitions that saw it squander leads against Liverpool and Roma in the last two seasons.
5. REAL MADRID
Look at the PSG or Club Brugge games at the beginning of the group stage and you would think Zinedine Zidane has no chance of leading to Real Madrid to his fourth Champions league in just his fourth season as a manager. But that’s how Madrid is these days, beginning seasons slowly and building towards the end. The squad may be a shambles with Isco and Gareth Bale somehow simultaneously potential key players and yet equally on the brink of ostracism, but none of that seems to matter. As a runner-up, it’s a hugely dangerous side.
6. BAYERN MUNICH
Bayern Munich finished the group stage as, by some margin, the highest scorer, but the form of Robert Lewandowski and, to a lesser extent, Serge Gnabry, has papered over cracks that have been clear domestically. Bayern lies just seventh in the Bundesliga, seven points behind the leader Borussia Dortmund. Niko Kovac was dismissed as manager at the beginning of November but, after a brief upturn under his interim replacement Hansi Flick, the old problems returned. Much depends on who is appointed as the new long-term manager and how well they have instilled their ideas by the spring.
Break the bank to sign a forward and the risk is a shortfall elsewhere, especially if that forward is coming to the end of his career and a largely static presence in a game that increasingly demands constant motion. Signing Cristiano Ronaldo was one of those all-in desperation moves from Juventus as it sought its first Champions League since 1996 but the side looks less well-balanced now than it did at its peak under Max Allegri. Maurizio Sarri has only ever won one trophy, last season’s Europa League, and he is coming under pressure domestically from Inter. If this to be Juve’s year, it would take a major improvement.
8. ATLETICO MADRID
The revolution at Atletico hasn’t gone as smoothly as might have been hoped, but then it’s never easy to make wholesale changes to the make-up of a squad and to its playing philosophy. Atletico lies sixth in la Liga and was far from convincing in the group stage but there are two reasons for it to be optimistic. Players should settle as the season goes on and, more than that, its struggles have been scoring goals – just 16 in 16 in la Liga and eight in six in the Champions League. In two-legged knockout football, that matters less, and
Atletico is rare in being a big modern team that is able to defend.
9. TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
Everything might have settled down by the time the knockouts begin in February, but for now Tottenham is an unknown quantity. Something had gone stale in the relationship between squad and manager leading to Mauricio Pochettino’s dismissal in November and while performances under Jose Mourinho have been improved, they have not necessarily been entirely convincing. Dele Alli looks like being back to something like his best, adding bite and creativity to the midfield. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min offer a potent attacking threat. There are major defensive problems, bad enough that Mourinho is believed to want to replace three of the back four but with the league long gone, Spurs can focus on Europe.
10. RB LEIPZIG
Second in Germany and unbeaten away from home in the group stage, RB Leipzig is the unknown quantity among the group winners. It may not have the pedigree of certain other sides, but it should not be underestimated. Julian Nagelsmann is a highly impressive young manager, who seems to have tempered his all-out hard-pressing approach for something a little more considered. Although it managed an unexceptional 10 goals from six group games in the Champions league, Leipzig is top scorer in the Bundesliga, where Timo Werner has been prolific, scoring at more than a goal a game.
On the one hand Frank Lampard’s start to life as Chelsea manager has been hugely positive. His side has played exciting attacking football and he has been the first Chelsea manager in more than two decades successfully to integrate young academy graduates into the team. But on the other hand, his side cannot defend and kept only one clean sheet in the group stage. There has been a sense in the Premier League that teams recently have begun to work Chelsea out. It qualified thanks to extraordinarily fortuitous draws against Ajax and Valencia and, while its attacking prowess could upset anybody, it probably lacks the reliability consistently to beat big opponents.
12. BORUSSIA DORTMUND
Borussia Dortmund is in the last 16 and it is third in the Bundesliga, which says much for football’s capacity to defy explanation. Lucien Favre’s side has character if nothing else. Two weeks ago it all seemed to be going wrong. There was a 4-0 capitulation at Bayern, a shambolic performance in a 3-3 draw against Paderborn and a limp display in defeat at Barcelona, while Jadon Sancho seemed to have fallen out irrevocably with the club. But Sancho has now scored in each of his last five games and Dortmund somehow is still going and Favre is still in charge.
Napoli’s reaction to qualifying for the knockout stage was to sack its manager Carlo Ancelotti, although the reasons lie much deeper than that. Aurelio de Laurentiis has long been one of the more eccentric and difficult Italian owners and Ancelotti’s departure is emblematic of a wider malaise at a club that for the past few seasons has seemed the only team capable of challenging Juventus’s hegemony. Laurentiis has threatened to sell numerous players after they refused to comply with his order that they should go to a punitive training camp after a poor performance. Now, with Gennaro Gattuso in charge (a former player of Ancelotti at Milan) more questions will be raised on how this team will perform in the tournament. In addition, what the actual squad will look like or what the mood will be in February is anybody’s guess.
Seventh in la Liga, Valencia will probably be the group winner that every side that finished second will want to face. But Albert Celades’s side has won six of its last eight in all competitions and should have beaten Chelsea in one of the other two. It’s also beaten both Chelsea and Ajax 1-0 away, notably in the final group game when victory in Amsterdam secured unlikely progress. It’s true that its other away game ended with it giving up the only point Lille won in the group stage but still there is a doughtiness to Valencia that could upset better sides.
Seventh in Ligue Un, and having qualified with just eight points, Lyon won’t give too many of the elite many sleepless nights. It remains wildly inconsistent but the pace of the front pair of Moussa Dembele and Memphis Depay could cause opponents difficulty on the break. Rudi Garcia is a coach noted for his attacking approach but also for sudden surges and dips in form. Nothing in his time at Lyon suggests he has changed. Not also forgetting that a large majority of fans have not yet gotten over the fact he used to manage Lyon's major rival St. Etienne.
Has any team ever been more fortunate to be in the last 16 of the Champions League? Atalanta qualified despite losing its first three games and despite gathering only seven points. Had the two games between Shakhtar and Dinamo Zagreb not ended in draws, it would have gone out. And even then, it needed an astonishing amount of good luck to beat Shakhtar on the final matchday to go through. But Gian Piero Gasparini’s side is through, surfing the fairy-tale wave of its first season in the Champions League, and its aggressive pressing game could upset bigger sides, as Manchester City found at San Siro.