UEFA Champions League: Ranking the 16 Teams Heading to the Knockout Stage
It's (about to be) the most wonderful time of the year. Christmas, New Year's Eve (although does it ever live up to anyone's expectations?), the January transfer window and the major increase in Champions League excitement that comes with the impending knockout stage.
We have our 16 teams who are advancing—including some pleasant surprises and major upsets—and it will certainly be an interesting competition from here on out. Here are how we see the teams stacking up going into the Round of 16. If you see it differently, as always, have at it in the comments.
For a while, the second spot in Group B looked like it could go to anyone, as CSKA, Trabzonspor and Lille all showed signs of possibility at various points in the group stage. But it was the Army Men who prevailed, largely thanks to the prolific feet of striker Seydou Doumbia, one of the tournament's leaders in scoring so far with five goals to his name.
After a loss and a tough draw to Trabzonspor tipped things in favor of the Turkish side and a loss to hard-fighting Ligue 1 side Lille, it looked as though things were over for CSKA, but a last-minute victory over Inter Milan—again, the work of Seydou Doumbia—tipped the scales in their favor.
At the Stadium Bay-Arena, Bayer Leverkusen were unstoppable, defeating every opponent in their group—a formidable range of opponents, including Chelsea and Valencia, who looked on target to be sleeper hits—for three key wins.
They haven't fared quite as well on the road, suffering losses to Valencia and Chelsea and being held to a draw against Genk, but key impact performances from winger Sidney Sam and striker Eren Derdiyok, among others, have helped Leverkusen stay in the game and try to shed their "Neverkusen" label.
Zenit St. Petersburg
The Russian Premier League champs start us off, and they've performed quite handsomely considering the toughness of the group they walked into. A hardworking and high-performing underdog in APOEL, an undefeated Portuguese Liga champ in Porto and last year's quarterfinal-reaching shockers in Shakhtar Donetsk did not make for an easy arrival to the knockout stage.
And following their first loss to APOEL, things got better for Zenit. Fearless, hard-working leader Aleksandr Anyukov led his squad through a great campaign, which found its momentum in a 3-1 upset over Porto where defensive midfielder Roman Shirokov scored a brace to give them the win.
APOEL aren't strangers to this competition by any means, but the Cypriot champions certainly had to work hard to progress to the Round of 16. They had to go through two qualifying rounds and a playoff, in which they were down but beat Wisla Kraków on the home leg to advance.
They held their own against Russian Premier League champions Zenit St. Petersburg, Europa League champions and undefeated Portuguese Liga titleholders Porto and last year's dark horse Shakhtar Donetsk to come out at the top of Group G with just one loss.
Lyon had one of the toughest groups to navigate, with impressive Eredivise champions Ajax and Real Madrid among their competitors. Real handed them back-to-back losses, but other than that, things panned out generally well for Les Gones.
Tough defensive work from Michel Bastos helped Lyon fend off Ajax's attack in the first round, and big wins over Dinamo Zagreb gave them the points to advance up the table. Most impressive of all was the performance of striker Bafétimbi Gomis in the last round against Dinamo, a 7-1 routing which saw the French international rack up a stunning four goals in one match.
Inter has been one of the most dominant teams in the Champions League over the past several seasons, winning it all in 2010 as part of a historic treble. And although the Nerazzurri haven't had the best showing in Serie A so far this season, their performance in this very familiar competition has fared a lot better.
The Nerazzurri looked formidable in the fall when they won three consecutive Champions League group stage matches and drew a fourth, finishing at the top of their group and becoming one of the first teams to secure an automatic berth. A defeat over a promising CSKA Moscow side and back-to-back wins over Lille spelled promise, with captain Javier Zanetti proving he's still got it with great leadership and some seriously class defending in the second Lille win.
Basel's Champions League campaign so far has been something of a fairy tale—one in which they turned out to be the giant killers. Although the back-to-back Swiss Super League champs weren't ones to be written off from the get-go, no one expected they would pass a Champions League heavy-hitter like Manchester United, going unbeaten against the Red Devils with a hard-fought draw at Old Trafford and a win tonight at St. Jakob Park.
Plenty of players have impressed for Basel in the competition so far, which has seen them net three wins, two draws and just one loss to a formidable Benfica. Granit Xhaka's career looks off to a good start, and tough left-back Park Joo Ho has been a force against some of Europe's top attackers. But none have wowed more than 20-year-old playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri, who wowed against Manchester United with his explosive runs up the wing and exemplary passing, setting up both Basel's goals. Expect great things from him as the competition progresses.
Olympique De Marseille
Another formidable side from Group F, the former Champions League title-holders managed to eke out a spot in the Round of 16 with an exciting victory over Borussia Dortmund. Back-to-back wins over Olympiacos and Dortmund started things off on the right foot in the OM's campaign, followed by lagging form in three matches that almost saw Borussia Dortmund overtake them in the group.
But in the end, it was André Ayew, Loïc Remy and Mathieu Valbuena who saved the day—and the OM Champions League campaign—with a spirited performance and a goal each Tuesday at the Westfalenstadion.
Like Bayer Leverkusen, Chelsea seem to get a massive lift from home field advantage. This didn't come any clearer than in October, when the Blues racked up a 5-0 victory—their largest home win in Champions League history—against Racing Genk, featuring a standout performance from Fernando Torres, who silenced the haters and scored a double that evening.
The results were less favorable abroad, but the Blues still only left the group stage with one loss against a very formidable Leverkusen. But after a resonant win in the last round of the group stage against Valencia, in which Didier Drogba netted a brace on setups from the brilliant Juan Mata, the Blues have a lot more momentum going into the knockout stages.
Whether or not they intended for this to be the case, the mission of the Rossoneri throughout this tournament has seemed to be to be as big of a nuisance to Barcelona as possible. And it's a strategy that's worked for them—they held the Blaugrana to a draw in the opening round of the group stage after Alexandre Pato burst to score in the third minute, and had it not been for a Mark van Bommel own goal, they could have won or at least held Barça to another draw in the second leg.
BATE and Plzen gave them a bit of trouble as they both held Milan to a draw in one of the legs, but overall, the team looked sharp in the group stage. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been particularly consistent, scoring in each of his appearances, although the loss of Antonio Cassano for the remainder of the season may end up hurting them a bit.
SSC Napoli went into what could probably be considered the "group of death" in this tournament against Premier League top dogs Manchester City and a very formidable Bayern Munich, and shocked everyone with their excellent performances. Walter Mazzarri's side went 3-1-2 in the group stages, defeating the other team in blue and holding Bayern Munich to a draw.
The creative power of Slovakian playmaker Marek Hamsik, combined with the front-end firing skills of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani, one of the tournament's top goal-scorers so far, have turned Napoli into an attacking powerhouse. They've gone, over the course of the group stage, from dark horse status to very serious contenders.
The Gunners have had a longer road to the Champions League than some of their Premier League counterparts, but they did a lot more with it. After leaping past an impressive-looking Udinese, with Robin van Persie's brace saving their campaign, the Gunners shook off the early-season blues to reach the top of their group.
The group stage turned out to be a great showcase not just for mainstays like van Persie, but for newcomers too. Teen sensation Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was the subject of great hype after his performance in the victory over Olympiacos in their first leg, and Yossi Benayoun scored his first goal as a Gunner in the last round of the competition. Big injuries, including the most recent hit to André Santos, may lead to struggles later in the knockouts, but Le Professeur may just have more tricks up his sleeve. We'll see how things pan out in the new year.
The Aguias had to go through a qualifying round and a play-off to make the group stage, and even with some tough draws against Trabzonspor and FC Twente, not only did they make the group stage, but were the first in their group to advance.
Benfica were one of the few clubs in the entire tournament so far to go unbeaten, surprising everyone from the get-go when they held longtime tournament rivals and last year's runners-up Manchester United to a draw, only to do so again at Old Trafford in the second leg. Cracking scoring from Óscar Cardozo and clever play from Pablo Aimar have helped elevate the Aguias to the knockout stage after a fairly long road, and more great things can be expected of them in the Round of 16.
The Bayerische had gone unbeaten in the competition until a loss today to Manchester City, but they have generally been the team to beat in Group A, which they finished at the top of fairly effortlessly. Napoli gave them trouble in the second leg against the Azzurri, but a Mario Gómez hat trick sealed things up for Munich.
Also, it's worth taking into account that their only loss in the tournament so far has been with their second string playing—no Franck Ribéry, Mario Gómez, Philipp Lahm or Manuel Neuer in goal—and against a Manchester City side that had much, much more to lose. The loss of Bastian Schweinsteiger could spell trouble in the knockouts for Bayern, but overall, they're one of the strongest teams in this tournament and could be the best contenders to knock off either of the La Liga big guns.
The returning champions haven't had as effortless of a run as their La Liga rivals, starting things off rather nightmarishly against AC Milan and periodically losing key players to injury, but they still managed to complete the group stage in resonant form, winning five consecutive group stage matches, including a nail-biter against AC Milan in which a Mark van Bommel own goal kicked off the momentum in the Blaugrana's favor.
Last night, their young B-team beat BATE Borisov 4-0. Even without Messi, Iniesta or Xavi, the next generation of La Masia alumni shone at the Camp Nou. Rafinha Alcântara, younger brother of Thiago, impressed in this match and Isaac Cuenca, the 20-year-old forward, not only impressed in the win over BATE, but has had little flashes of brilliance throughout the competition and is one of the leaders in assists so far.
Jose Mourinho's side has emerged as the team to beat in this competition, as they are the only ones to have emerged from the group stages not only unbeaten, but having won all of their matches. And Los Merengues not only won all of their matches, but five of the six were complete shutouts.
They only managed to concede two goals in the entire group stage, both to Dinamo Zagreb toward the end of the group stage when they had already qualified and had backup keeper Antonio Adán in goal, and even that was still a 6-2 win. They have a fierce, attack-heavy squad and even newcomers like José Callejón (if you can call him a "newcomer"—he's a Real Madrid academy alum) have stepped up and made their mark, in Callejón's case, with four goals—tied for the club lead with Karim Benzema.
After several consecutive seasons of playing second fiddle to Barcelona in this competition, Real Madrid are hungry to beat their rivals, and the way things are going, this is the year they could do it.