Ranking the Top 8 Contenders for Champions League Glory
Four games into the Champions League group stages, the winners and losers of each group are already becoming apparent. Picking a winner from the early front-runners, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether.
Many of the usual suspects—the pre-tournament favourites—have hit their stride in the opening phase. With two games to go, these teams already have the luxury of knowing qualification is assured or just a handful of points away.
Other teams we may not have expected to figure so highly have come flying out of the blocks, and they deserve to be recognised as possible candidates.
Which of the early heavyweights have impressed so far, though? Who doesn't have the legs to stay the course? Here, the top eight sides in the opening rounds have been ranked, in terms of who is most likely to be celebrating come May 2014.
8. Manchester City
In terms of the draw for the group stage, Manchester City certainly picked one of the shortest straws. Manuel Pellegrini and his players were forced to go head-to-head with the seemingly infallible Bayern Munich. A 3-1 defeat at home to the Bavarians demonstrated that the Premier League runners-up have some catching up to do.
In recent weeks, however, things have started to click for the Citizens in all competitions. They have scored 12 goals in their last two outings, destroying Norwich 7-0 before taking CSKA Moscow apart 5-2 in order to secure qualification.
Alvaro Negredo and Sergio Aguero have been the main architects of the improvement in front of goal, and the Spanish-Argentine pair will be key if the team is to upset the odds and win in 2013/14.
On top of the pile in the Premier League, Arsenal are also on course to finish at the summit of their Champions League group after springing a huge surprise on one of last season's finalists.
Aaron Ramsey's header gave the battling Londoners a vital 1-0 win in Germany over Borussia Dortmund, placing them in pole position to qualify for the next phase.
Ramsey has been immense for the Gunners this season, but one of the biggest changes has been the introduction of Mesut Ozil. The ex-Real Madrid playmaker has given Arsenal a new dimension, once more making them one of the most attractive teams to watch on the continent.
6. Borussia Dortmund
Last year's finalists have not been the same force as they were during that glorious run to the 2013 final. Indeed, defeat to Arsenal on Wednesday evening means that Dortmund trail the English club as well as Napoli as they languish in third place of Group F with two games to play.
Do not write off Jurgen Klopp's charges just yet, though. With the likes of Marco Reus, Robert Lewandowski and Nuri Sahin still wearing the distinctive yellow of BVB, those remaining clashes—the most pivotal being their next tie with Napoli—give plenty of opportunity for the club to pull itself into the knockout phase.
Once there, the Germans proved last season that they are a match for anyone.
5. Atletico Madrid
Atletico Madrid's passage through the group stage and into the last 16 was little more than a country stroll for the hottest team in Europe. Diego Simeone's team have mirrored their imperious domestic form with a perfect start to the Champions League. They are the only side other than Bayern to have started with four consecutive wins.
Strangely enough, the goals of Diego Costa (three so far) have not been as important in Europe. Atletico have shown that they can score from across the pitch. Even though nobody saw it coming, they could well be contenders come May's Champions League final.
The big question will be if Atletico can sustain that form on two fronts, with a squad much trimmer than the likes of Barca, Madrid and Bayern.
4. Paris Saint-Germain
Alongside Real Madrid, the French champions are one of the most fearsome sides in Europe when it comes to converting. PSG have bludgeoned their way to 13 goals in their four games so far, and they will be hoping to rely on the goalscoring talents of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani to carry them through the tournament.
With seven strikes, including that magnificent quartet against Anderlecht, only Cristiano Ronaldo has outscored Zlatan so far in the competition. Paris look certain to qualify from what was one of the kinder groups in the first round, and from there they have the talent to beat any opposition over two legs.
3. Real Madrid
A rocky start in La Liga has already cost Real Madrid dearly, as they have fallen to third place behind relentless Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. In the Champions League, however, the true face of Carlo Ancelotti's men has been on display.
The key behind the team's unbeaten start to the campaign—with three wins and a draw—has been a brilliant display of firepower, which makes the Spaniards the Champions League's top scorers. Cristiano Ronaldo, with eight strikes, has scored over half of his team's efforts at a startling rate of two per game.
The most successful club in European history are finding their rhythm and should not be underestimated by any stretch of the imagination.
Just a single draw against Milan denied Barcelona the chance to join Bayern and Atletico as Europe's perfect teams. However, the manner in which the Italians were dispatched on Wednesday—with Lionel Messi's double returning the Argentine to goalscoring ways—should provoke fear across the Champions League.
Gerardo Martino's team have been ruthlessly efficient since El Tata assumed control, adding a relentless pressing to Barca's famed control of the ball—all of which helps to suffocate opposition.
Messi's two goals helped his side on the way to a 3-1 win, but both Neymar and Alexis Sanchez are also playing some spectacular football to make the Blaugrana trident one of the most potent attacking trios in the world. The Catalans will be there or thereabouts come the final stages.
1. Bayern Munich
Even though the tournament is just four games old, Bayern Munich must be installed as favourites for the title. The Bavarians have started the 2013/14 campaign in perfect fashion, and as the club adapts to the reign of Pep Guardiola, it is difficult to see who can topple them.
The frightening thing is that Bayern have actually improved their Champions League performance from last year, when their opening four games yielded 10 points, 10 goals scored and five conceded.
If their form continues, Die Roten will be right on track to become the first club to defend the Champions League since the tournament was renamed.