UEFA Champions League 2012-13: Predicting the Final 16 Teams
With two out of six games down in the Champions League group stages, things are starting to take shape and a picture emerging as to which teams will progress.
With this in mind—and club football currently undergoing a World Cup qualifier induced mini-break—we take this opportunity to analyse who the likely qualifiers will be for the round of 16.
|2||Paris Saint-Germain FC||2||1||0||1||4||2||2||3|
|3||FC Dynamo Kyiv||2||1||0||1||3||4||-1||3|
|4||GNK Dinamo Zagreb||2||0||0||2||0||4||-4||0|
Portuguese teams have quietly been making a good name for themselves in European football over the last decade. If evidence of this is needed, the very fact that there are currently more Portuguese sides than Italian represented in Europe's premier competition speaks for itself.
Foremost among these are Porto and their European success—having captured the Champions League and two UEFA Cup/Europa Leagues under Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas Boas in the last 10 years—has laid the foundation for this strength.
So far, they top Group A with maximum points and no goals conceded, so Vítor Pereira's men could not have asked for a better start. With an undefeated domestic record as well, the Dragões are looking strong this year and should top the group.
The last of the big spenders? With financial austerity measures set to hit football too in the form of the Financial Fair-play regulations, coach Carlo Ancelotti may have got in just under the wire with his summer spending spree.
But despite the presence of the colossus that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the team, PSG have not had it all their own way so far this season. Their loss to Porto in the Champions League sees them tied with Dynamo Kiev for second place in the group, and they trail Marseille by three points in Ligue 1.
It was always likely to take the team a little time to settle, though, and in the end, their quality should be too much for the Ukrainians. In Ancelotti, they have a manager who has been there and done that in the Champions League before, so this steady hand should guide them safely through to the next round.
|3||Montpellier Hérault SC||2||0||1||1||3||4||-1||1|
Another year in which Arsenal sell big-name players, another year where others step up to the plate. Arsene Wenger's skills at nurturing new talent have never been in much doubt and the emergence of players like Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is further evidence of this.
Rival fans will also say it's another year where the Gunners have got a comparatively easy Champions League draw.
But you can only play the cards you're dealt, and Arsenal have been tight and aggressive so far. Wins home and away see them sitting pretty at the top, and if they can get a win in Germany in their next game, it'll be all but job done.
The Germans will have been left frustrated by Montpellier's final minute equaliser in their last Champions League game, but four points from two games is still a decent return.
Klas Jan-Huntelaar is the obvious danger man for Schalke, and when combined with the intimidating atmosphere of the Veltins-Arena, they'll make it very tough for Arsenal in their upcoming encounter.
Like the Londoners, Schalke would be in a very strong position should they win the match, but even a draw will keep them in second at the group halfway stage. They should have too much both Montpellier and Olympiacos in the final run-in.
|4||Zenit St Petersburg||2||0||0||2||2||6||-4||0|
The Rossoneri have had a torrid start to the season. Having lost almost an entire starting 11 of players through transfers or retirements during the summer, Milan have understandably struggled to bed in a new side so far this term.
Despite their lowly 11th place in Serie A, though, there are signs that they may be on an upward curve. A 1-0 defeat to Inter in the Derby della Madonnina was ill-deserved, and in the Champions League, they'll take heart from having survived a scare against Zenit. Having led 2-0 early on, the Russians pulled it back to 2-2, but coming through this type of match with a 3-2 victory will be encouraging.
When I previewed the group here, I spoke about how an October away game in St. Petersburg could be Milan's biggest challenge, but Malaga have now emerged as the main rivals in Group C. The next game, away to the Spaniards, will be key to determining the group winners, but Il Diavolo should scrape into the top two regardless.
Much like Milan, Malaga are coming off a difficult summer with high-profile players leaving to consolidate their debts. But the Spanish club have come through it seemingly stronger than ever, winning their first two Champions League games and sitting third in La Liga—ahead of Real Madrid.
Their game against Milan will be the toughest European test yet, particularly with the Italians desperate for a victory to kick-start their stuttering season.
With Zenit looking thus far unable to turn their top players into a cohesive team, though, both Malaga and Milan should go through—it just depends on the order.
|1||Real Madrid CF||2||2||0||0||7||3||4||6|
|3||Manchester City FC||2||0||1||1||3||4||-1||1|
They may have struggled in La Liga so far, but Real's thrilling and hard-fought victory over Manchester City sees them looking strong at the top of Group D. Cristiano Ronaldo is proving as irresistible a force as ever, and his brace in El Clasico will not have hurt the never-wavering confidence of the man.
But they have their two toughest away games yet to play in the Champions, including a trip to Dortmund in their next game. If they can survive that game unscathed, they'll be in a commanding position. But with Group D so strong, even a team like Real are not a sure-fire qualifier.
Should do enough, though.
The second qualifier in Group D is the hardest to predict of any of the 16 berths for the second round of this year's Champions League. Dortmund fans will see theirs as a much stronger position than City's, but it's difficult to imagine a team with the players Roberto Mancini has at his disposal failing to qualify two years in a row.
Real and Dortmund's clash in the next two rounds of fixtures will see at least one team drop points and this gives City a chance to catch up. Remarkably, if they can capitalise home and away against Ajax, they'll be in good shape with two games remaining.
Nevertheless, they will need to play up to their full potential if they're to register wins against Madrid and away to Dortmund.
Probably the most controversial thing I will do over these pages is predict that Juventus will finish top of Group E—ahead of reigning European champions Chelsea.
The assertion is based on the sleeping Turin giant's incredible undefeated run in Serie A, together with a fantastic performance at Stamford Bridge. Juventus were the better side in London, and only a deflection and an isolated piece of individual brilliance stopped them from claiming victory.
They followed that up with a lacklustre draw at home to Shakhtar Donetsk, which makes their current position fairly unimpressive. But with no side in Group E having registered maximum points, Juventus are still in close contact with the top two.
A team does not go undefeated for well over a year in Serie A without being special, and Juventus look set to show this to the wider European audience.
Chelsea actually look a more dynamic team this year than the one that won the Champions League last year. The introduction of Edin Hazard has given them much-needed creativity in midfield, but there is also a slight hint that it may have come at the expense of defensive solidity.
There's little doubt that Chelsea will emerge from Group E, and they may well top the group. But it will difficult for them to get a win in Turin unless they find answers for midfield runners they were unable to cope with in London.
Chelsea and Juventus will go through in some order regardless.
|3||FC Bayern München||2||1||0||1||3||4||-1||3|
FC Bate Borisov
Group F—and more specifically, Bate Borisov—has so far provided the biggest upset of the Champions League with a 3-1 victory over last year's finalists, Bayern Munich.
It could be looked at as an isolated incident, the type of freak result that sometimes happens in Europe, but Bate now have two wins out of two in the Champions League this year. The prevailing wisdom is that normal service will be resumed when they visit Valencia in the next round, but the Spaniards are languishing down in 14th in La Liga and lost their first European match this year against Bayern.
So Bate are in the pound seats. If they keep their heads, they're on course for Champions League history.
Munich were shocked in Minsk two weeks ago, but won't have turned into a bad team overnight. They have back-to-back fixtures against Lille, who seem to be the group's weakest side, and if properly completed, they could well be sitting pretty in a month's time.
Having bested Real Madrid last year and outplayed Chelsea in the final, the Germans will be looking for some measure of revenge this year. It will be a measure of the team's mettle if they can bounce back from the bitter pill of a penalty shootout final defeat to go one better. But the group shouldn't cause them too many sleepless nights despite the recent hiccup.
|4||FC Spartak Moskva||2||0||0||2||4||6||-2||0|
The first Champions League campaign in the post-Guardiola era, and it remains to be seen if the magic of previous years is still at 100 percent. Still, it would be a major feat for Tito Vilanova to turn the players he has into anything other than a world-class team.
If anything, the only disappointment from Guardiola's managerial career is that he had Europe's best team for five years without becoming the first side to retain the Champions League.
Flying high in La Liga and two wins from two in the Champions League, all appears to be business as usual at the Camp Nou. But they've benefited from Real's lack of form this year domestically, and Athletico are keeping pace.
They're still the favourites for the tournament, but it will be fascinating to see how they fare as the tournament progresses.
Currently down in third spot in the group with only a point to their name, Benfica are a better side than their position would suggest. Second-place Celtic have two games against Barcelona coming up, and it would be a big surprise if they came away with even a single point.
So Benfica can make hay against a reasonably weak Spartak Moscow team and go into the final fixtures in a clear second place. Like Porto, Benfica are part of a resurgence in Portuguese football, as was demonstrated against Manchester United and, to some extent, Chelsea last season.
|1||Manchester United FC||2||2||0||0||3||1||2||6|
|2||CFR 1907 Cluj||2||1||0||1||3||2||1||3|
To drop out in the group stage last season was a major disappointment for a club like Manchester United, but it was down more to Alex Ferguson's constant tinkering rather than a lack of quality.
If United keep even a little more focus this year, they should progress with ease.
With Robin Van Persie settling in well, United have a world-class, old-fashioned centre forward for the first time since Van Persie's countryman, Rudd Van Nistelrooy, was at the club. Their defence is still shaky with the sheer quantity of injuries mounting, but their attack has the potential to be the finest in Europe.
It was tough to pick between Cluj and Braga (even Galatasary could get back into it), but in going to Portugal and picking up a 2-0 win, Cluj look like the more likely runners-up.
It's always tough to go to Turkey and get a result, but the pattern of fixtures works in Cluj's favour. It may well allow them to go to Old Trafford in December with qualification already assured. Even if not, they could benefit from United playing a weakened side having already secured top spot.
Circumstances favour the Romanians here.