Champions League: Ranking the Remaining Contenders

Bobak Abdolmohammadi@@BobdolmoFeatured ColumnistApril 4, 2014

Champions League: Ranking the Remaining Contenders

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    Jon Super

    Following this week's first-leg matches in the Champions League quarterfinals, the picture is still somewhat unclear as to who will progress into the semifinals.

    Tuesday's matches saw Barcelona draw Atletico Madrid 1-1 in Barcelona and Bayern Munich draw Manchester United at Old Trafford with the same score.

    Wednesday's results were more decisive, as Real Madrid defeated Borussia Dortmund 3-0 in Spain, while Paris St. Germain beat Chelsea 3-1 in Paris.

    With the possible exception being the Madrid-Dortmund tie, all three of the other matchups are still up for grabs heading into the second-leg games next week.

    Of course, it is still unknown who will be drawn against whom in the semifinals, which will play a role in determining the likelihood of the eventual champion. For the sake of discussion, these are the rankings of the remaining eight teams in the tournament following the first-leg matches, starting from least likely to most likely to be crowned champions in Lisbon, Portugal in May.

8) Borussia Dortmund

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    Paul White

    Dortmund have endured a rocky season, going back to the announcement of Mario Gotze's departure to Bayern Munich last April. 

    Injuries, underperformance and news of Robert Lewandowski's imminent exit to Bayern have served to dampen the mood around the club that captured the imagination of football fans around the world last year.

    Even with all the disappointment of this season, it is essential to remember that their first Champions League appearance since the early 2000s came in the 2011-12 season, making this their third year in a row in Europe's premier club competition.

    It speaks volumes to the progress made under manager Jurgen Klopp that this season has been viewed as a disappointment. The vast majority of clubs around Europe would be ecstatic with a quarterfinal spot and second place in their domestic league. Of course, after winning the Bundesliga twice in a row and being Champions League finalists last year, they will be disappointed with their performance relative to the past few years.

    In this year's tournament, they will be hard-pressed to overcome Real Madrid. A three-goal deficit and no away goal means they will have to outscore Madrid by at least three goals to have a chance at progression.

    Even at the Westfalenstadion, this will be an incredibly tough task. A repeat of last year's 4-1 victory over Madrid in Dortmund wouldn't even be enough this time around. Dortmund will certainly be kicking themselves over their inability to grab an away goal, as keeping this Madrid team off the scoresheet may be asking too much of the worst defense, statistically speaking, in this year's tournament. 

    If Madrid were to score even one goal, Dortmund would need five to progress. That is highly unlikely to happen.

7) Manchester United

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    Jon Super

    United's struggles this season have been well-documented, with David Moyes quickly becoming a polarizing figure as Sir Alex Ferguson's replacement as manager.

    It has been a case of one step forward, two steps back much of the year for Moyes' men. Their form in Europe, however, has been impressive, with only one loss in their nine matches so far. 

    Granted, the loss was an extremely disappointing 2-0 setback to Olympiakos FC in Greece, but they survived largely thanks to the brilliance of Robin van Persie and Ryan Giggs in the home leg of that tie.

    Unfortunately for United, they are facing the world's best team now in Bayern Munich and will be deprived of Van Persie's services for the second leg in Munich.

    While they performed admirably in drawing with Bayern, the away leg will be immensely more difficult. Bayern has made a name on their ruthlessness at home, and United's squad is simply not at the level of them right now.

    There is no shame in this fact—Bayern Munich's squad, top to bottom, is arguably the deepest in the world. Even with players like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thiago out of the second leg, manager Pep Guardiola has a host of world-class options to plug into his lineup. Mario Gotze, Xherdan Shaqiri and Mario Mandzukic couldn't even get into the starting XI in Manchester.

    Moyes has reason for optimism heading into the second leg, yet United are placed below counterpart Chelsea because of the fact that despite being level on goals, United must go into Munich and beat Bayern or score at least twice to secure passage to the semifinals. Bayern Munich may not repeat as European Champions, but United will not be the team that eliminates them this year.

6) Chelsea

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    Michel Euler

    Jose Mourinho's return to Stamford Bridge has not been without its ups-and-downs, but he should be reasonably content with his side's performances to date.

    Defeats at home and away to Basel in the group stages were lowlights, and Galatasaray was not the most difficult matchup in the round of 16, yet Chelsea had emerged relatively unscathed until their first-round match at PSG.

    Mourinho was upset at his side's performance, especially his defense. Javier Pastore's 90th-minute goal, which owed much to some slack defending by Chelsea, to make it 3-1 could be highly damaging to Chelsea's hopes of advancing.

    They have the talent to make some noise in the second leg. In particular, Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian make up a formidable trio of attacking midfielders.

    Unfortunately, Nemanja Matic, who has emerged as a crucial component of Chelsea's lineup in the Premier League, is cup-tied and cannot feature in next week's match.

    Matic's absence highlights what will likely be Chelsea's fatal flaw—their inability to compete with PSG's highly physical midfield. Marco Verratti, Blaise Matuidi and Thiago Motta, in particular, ran Chelsea ragged and proved that PSG can function as a team without relying solely on Zlatan Ibrahimovic's individual brilliance.

    Despite Ibra's absence due to injury in the second leg, Chelsea will be hard-pressed to defeat PSG by two goals and either force overtime or progress directly. Without a legitimate striker, it will be an especially tall task. 

    The match will take place in London, which will give Chelsea fans hope, yet PSG have the clear advantage in this instance. Mourinho's inability to deploy an effective striker may just prove to be the difference between two otherwise evenly matched sides.

5) FC Barcelona

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    Manu Fernandez

    Barcelona is another side who have endured a difficult time off the pitch this year. 

    The transfer saga surrounding Neymar engulfed the club in controversy and led to the resignation of former president Sandro Rosell. Just recently, a transfer ban enacted upon Barca has threatened their reputation even further. 

    More pertinently to this year's tournament, they played a thrilling match on Tuesday with domestic rivals Atletico Madrid in Barcelona, drawing 1-1.

    The advantage now lies with Atletico, who have an away goal and the prospect of playing the second leg at home. 

    The post-Pep Guardiola Barcelona have been less threatening on Europe's biggest stage, being thrashed 7-0 on aggregate last season by Bayern Munich. New manager Tata Martino has instituted some changes in the side, which have led to some consternation from the demanding fanbase.

    Expectations at Barcelona are so high now that Martino is already facing intense pressure despite his side's involvement in all the major tournaments they are competing in this year. The fact that they have been less than convincing at times has cast some doubt over their suitability to make it to latter stages of this particular tournament. 

    The most worrying aspect of Barcelona's campaign has been their inability to overcome their direct rivals to the La Liga and Champions League titles: Atletico Madrid. In four meetings so far, they have failed to beat Atletico, only scoring twice in the process.

    This leaves Atletico with a slight advantage, as Barcelona will need to either win or have a scoring draw at the Calderon to have a chance at progression. 

    The tie hangs in the balance, yet Barcelona's struggles penetrating Atletico's formidable midfield and defense are worrisome. They will have to score in Madrid, and so far Neymar is the only man on their squad who has done that against Atletico this year.

    It would be foolish to count Barcelona out, yet they are at a slight disadvantage in this tie. It wouldn't be surprising to see a scoreless draw knock them out of the competition— just as it wouldn't be surprising for someone like Lionel Messi to drag them through with a moment of brilliance.

    This is the most difficult tie to call at this point.

4) Atletico Madrid

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    Manu Fernandez

    Atletico Madrid have been the darlings of world football this year, winning many fans with their dogged determination and reluctance to give up the fight against their far more wealthy rivals Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.

    A Diego wonder goal at the Camp Nou puts them in the driver's seat in their tie with Barca, just as they are in pole position in La Liga.

    It is truly remarkable that they have lasted this long, and much credit is due to Diego Simeone for moulding this side in his image—relentless and fiercely determined to prove they belong on the world stage.

    The most encouraging aspect of their season has been their form against the top sides, especially Barcelona and Real Madrid.

    Outside of their two losses in the less important Copa Del Rey to Madrid, they have not lost in six matches against those two sides.

    Right now, the focus will be on overcoming Barcelona next week in Madrid. The style of play Simeone has imposed has caused legitimate problems for Barcelona this year. As always, Barcelona will dominate possession (71 percent in the first-leg match), but Atletico have thwarted the ever-present danger of Lionel Messi consistently, thanks to the brilliance of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

    While losing Diego Costa to injury is a massive blow, Atletico have proved their resilience this season time and time again, and I expect they will do it once more.

    Progression to the semifinals will likely see them as the weakest team remaining on paper, yet it is dangerous to count this team out against anyone. 

    First, however, they must overcome Barcelona. I expect a scoreless draw or a 1-1 draw, with Atletico moving on after extra time.

3) Paris St. Germain

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    Michel Euler

    Zlatan Ibrahimovic's injury against Chelsea will cost him at least four weeks on the treatment table, which rules him out of the second leg against Chelsea and likely through the semifinals, should PSG make it that far.

    This piece of news significantly takes the shine off PSG's signature victory, which they hope will announce their arrival as European powers for years to come.

    However, they proved their quality without Ibrahimovic in the half-hour he was off the pitch, and they are as well-equipped as anyone to deal with an injury to their star player.

    With Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lucas Moura shining against Chelsea, and Edinson Cavani a member of the squad, the attack should be fine for the next month as Ibra recovers.

    Most impressive has been the form of the midfielders. Marco Verratti has developed well, Blaise Matuidi has become the fulcrum of the side, and Thiago Motta has been as steady as ever. With Yohan Cabaye serving as an able deputy off the bench, PSG boast enviable depth and quality throughout the side.

    Firm favorites following the victory in Paris, PSG will aim to get an early away goal and kill off the tie as they focus on wrapping up another domestic championship. The ultimate goal of owner Nasser Al-Khelaifi has been to create a team that is capable of competing with the Real Madrids and Bayern Munichs of the world, and PSG are awfully close to reaching that point.

    Should they advance, PSG will not be a desired opponent of any of the other three sides remaining. Of course, all four teams will be of extremely high-quality after making it the semifinals, but PSG will be hungry to prove their worth over two legs against a top side.

    They may be hoping to draw Real or Bayern in an effort to show the world their ultimate arrival against one of the legendary clubs. Unfortunately, the loss of Ibra will hurt against those sides, as his individual ability can swing a tie. 

    Again, PSG proved against Chelsea they are a force on the world stage. The onus will be on them as likely underdogs in the semifinals to continue to prove their progress.

2) Bayern Munich

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    Jon Super

    The defending European and world champions have history against them, as no side has ever repeated as European champions under the current Champions League format.

    That will not deter Pep Guardiola. The man who built the devastatingly effective, record-breaking Barcelona side has taken Bayern to new heights this year following his arrival.

    Of course, there seemed to be nowhere to go but down after winning the treble last year, but Guardiola has kept his troops focused and motivated to repeat the feat this year.

    Already Bundesliga champions and semifinalists in the DFB-Pokal, Bayern will be looking to overcome Manchester United in the second-leg matchup next week.

    What was originally determined by many to be the biggest mismatch in the quarterfinal round has turned into one of the closest of the four ties.

    However, with the match taking place in Munich next week, Guardiola will be highly confident of his side's progression. The only loss Bayern have suffered at home this year was to United's neighbors, Manchester City. United are not near the level of City, especially with no Robin van Persie or Juan Mata.

    Should Bayern move on, they will be favorites no matter whom they are drawn against. The dream matchup may well be Bayern vs. Real Madrid in the semifinals, as that would allow fans to watch the consensus top two contenders play two matches against each other instead of potentially once for the final.

    Guardiola and his players are confident, as they should be. If they play Real, it will be an intensely close matchup that could swing either way. Given the pressure on Bayern to win, I would not be surprised to see Madrid overcome the Bavarians either to reach the final or win the tournament.

1) Real Madrid

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    Paul White

    Real Madrid's season hit a roadblock with their back-to-back losses to Barcelona and Sevilla in La Liga. They have since responded impressively with victories over Rayo Vallecano and Dortmund, silencing doubters who had predicted more troubles for them.

    Possessors of a devastatingly effective counterattack that features the two most expensive footballers in the history of the sport, Madrid have proved an even more dangerous proposition than in years past.

    Losers at the semifinal stage of this tournament in each of Jose Mourinho's three years at the helm, Carlo Ancelotti's proven pedigree in the Champions League has given Los Blancos confidence that this will finally be the year they claim their record 10th European championship trophy.

    The most worrisome aspect of their year has been their inability to overcome Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in the league. Three losses and one draw against those two sides in La Liga may end up costing them in that competition, but they are well-equipped to overcome either side over two legs. 

    In many ways, Barcelona have been their bogey-team over the years, which may cause them to root for their city rivals Atletico in that particular tie.

    The quarterfinal tie against Dortmund should be a mere formality at this stage, even with Robert Lewandowski's return for the away leg in Germany.

    The difference between this iteration of Real and Mourinho's teams has been the switch to a 4-3-3 under Ancelotti, which has allowed both Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to occupy the flanks alongside Karim Benzema, who has been in the form of his life this year. 

    This side is as determined as ever to achieve victory in the Champions League, and with a manager who has proved he knows how to win in Europe (two Champions League victories with AC Milan), Los Blancos are my slight favorites over Bayern Munich to lift the trophy in May.