5 Locks to Make It to the Knockout Stage of the Champions League

Jeff BellCorrespondent IOctober 2, 2012

5 Locks to Make It to the Knockout Stage of the Champions League

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    The UEFA Champions League is not for the faint of heart.

    Consider the stress endured by Manchester City fans who watched as their team blew a 2-1 lead to Real Madrid in its opening match and lost 3-2.

    Or how about the sheer talent on teams such as Barcelona and Manchester United?

    The tournament has only just begun, but many teams are already facing must-win situations if they have any hopes of advancing to the knockout round. Others are sitting pretty after opening the tournament with a victory.

    Here are five teams that are locks to advance to the knockout round and perhaps make their way to the final in Wembley Stadium next May.

1. Barcelona

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    It's no secret that Barcelona is absolutely loaded with talent.

    They have arguably the greatest player in the world in Lionel Messi. Andrés Iniesta controls the midfield while David Villa continues to fire rocket shots into the back of the net.

    Despite losing captain Carlos Puyol for several weeks due to a PCL strain, the club opened up the tourney with a 3-2 win over Russian powerhouse Spartak Moscow. Today they take on Benfica in a match they are expected to win.

    The team is led by first-year manager Tito Vilanova, but in no way does this make them any less of a favorite. They have four Champions League titles, tied for fourth most all time.

    They may give up several goals here and there as we saw against Spartak Moscow, but if the firepower of Villa and Messi holds up, this team will be contending once more.

2. Manchester United

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    The Red Devils just never seem to go away.

    Love 'em or hate 'em, Manchester United is relevant once more in this year's edition of the Champions League.

    Led by forwards Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa, Manchester United was given a huge boost by the addition of Robin van Persie, another scoring threat, who joined the team in August.

    The Club opened up the Champions League with a 1-0 win over Galatasaray. They take on the Romanian Club CFR Cluj today.

    Even with the victory, Manager Sir Alex Ferguson is stressing the importance of today's match, telling Goal.com, "Cluj defend quickly and get plenty of bodies behind the ball. The main strength is counter-attack, as they showed against Braga."

    With Rooney back in action after missing nearly a month due to a leg injury suffered against Fulham in August, the team is looking to make an impact early on in the tournament.

    Many are interested to see if they can bounce back from a Premier League loss to Tottenham this past Saturday, and a match against CFR Cluj will provide an answer.

    Either way, don't be surprised when the Red Devils find themselves in the knockout stages, looking to make some noise.

3. Bayern Munich

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    Bayern Munich is riding high after opening the UEFA Champions League with a 2-1 victory over Valencia. They are looking to finish things off the right way this year after finishing runner-up in the previous tournament.

    The team is managed by Jupp Heynckes, who took Real Madrid to their first Champions League title in over 30 years back in 1997-1998. On the pitch they are led by midfielders Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller. The defense also remains stout with Mario Mandžukić roaming around.

    The Reds take on Belarusian club Bate Borisov today before consecutive matches against Lille.

    While an opening win is always the goal, following it up with another W would put Munich in great position to advance to the knockout stages. And with four tournament titles but none since 2001, fans will expect nothing less.

4. Real Madrid

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    Real Madrid fell behind Manchester City in a critical game that opened their Group D play of the Champions League. But a late surge past The Blues gave the club a 3-2 win and a solid position atop the Group D standings.

    Goal-scoring extraordinaire Cristiano Ronaldo needs no introduction, and the team remains elite behind the solid play of midfielder Xabi Alonso and do-everything defender Sergio Ramos.

    They are managed by José Mourinho and are making their 16th straight appearance in the exclusive tournament. They are also the winningest team in league history with nine titles.

    The Whites take on Ajax of the Dutch football league tomorrow before consecutive matches against the German club Borussia Dortmund. Another game against Manchester City looms large on November 21st, but wins in the next several games can certainly take pressure off that match.

    The question now is not IF Real Madrid can make it to knockout play, it's what will they do when they get there?

5. Manchester City

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    Not many teams in the UEFA Champions League would be confident about their chances of advancing to the knockout stage after an opening game loss.

    Of course, not many teams have the talent of Carlos Tévez and David Silva.

    Despite the 3-2 loss to Real Madrid, in which Manchester City coughed up a late 2-1 lead, the team is still in position to make on impact in the Champions League.

    Doing his best to hold the opponent scoreless is goalie Joe Hart, also the starting goalie on England's national team. They are managed by Roberto Mancini and are making just their third appearance in the Champions League.

    But they are also coming off a Premier League championship and hopes are high that the Blues can continue their winning ways. They take on Borussia Dortmund tomorrow before two straight matches against Ajax.

    The biggest test will come on November 21st, when they get their chance to exact revenge on Real Madrid.

    That game will go a long way toward determining if Manchester City can finally make some noise in a tournament they've never won.