After what has seemed like an eternity, the Champions League is finally back, with the best teams in Europe turning their attention back to this awkward and fragmented iteration of the tournament.
Half of the Last-16 matches are yet to be completed but already out of the competition are holders Liverpool, last season’s runners-up Tottenham and German giants Borussia Dortmund. The likes of Juventus, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich are all yet to to seal their places in the next round, with Friday 7th and Saturday 8th likely to provide the start to a feast of football, with the Champions League edging towards the business end of the competition.
The format of the tournament will see single -leg matches for the quarter-finals and semi-finals to make up for the out of the ordinary calendar before the showpiece event at the Estadio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica on August 23rd.
With the biggest event in club football drawing ever-closer, who are the favourites, who are the outsiders, and who will lift the trophy? Check our Champions Leauge predictions below.
The Germans have seemed to be on the periphery of winning the Champions League for so long, with their last appearance and final victory coming at the end of the 2012/13 season. Since then, they have had to watch Spain dominate the competition with England also enjoying success as well.
Bayern’s woes have seemed to come from an over-reliance on the ailing form of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, who had been incredible servants for the club despite ending their careers with the Germans as shadows of the players they were. Now though, fresh blood in the forward positions in the form of Serge Gnabry (12 goals and 10 assists in the league) and Philippe Coutinho (eight goals and six assists) alongside old faithful Thomas Muller (eight goals and 21 assists) mean that Robert Lewandowski has not been short of scoring opportunities, something he has enjoyed by smashing 34 goals in the league.
The problem for Bayern still remains the fact they have not won anything in Europe for so long. The constant exits far too early have hampered the Germans for years, with their last exit in the competition coming in a 3-1 aggregate loss to Liverpool a year ago as they barely threatened to worry the eventual winners. Now, with the side in awesome form after losing just four games in the league and with a 3-0 lead over Chelsea going into the second-leg of their Last-16 clash, the Germans know they have every chance of at last going all the way once again.
What can you say about Manchester City and the Champions League? Time and time again they are touted as the favourites only to fall far too early for a team of their quality. Last season they annihilated Schalke 10-2 in the Last-16 before they were beaten in a pulsating game by Tottenham, who progressed on the away goal. An exit in the quarter-finals last term was far too early for a club that has spent hundreds of millions on winning this very cup. It seems to be getting closer to a now or never type of situation for Pep Guardiola and the Champions League, with the City manager failing in every attempt to win the competition since he was brought on in 2016.
This August, the brunt of the expectation will fall on the mastermind off the pitch in Guardiola, and the mastermind on it in Kevin De Bruyne. The two have created an incredible partnership with the manager giving the midfielder everything he needs to create and scoring stunning goals, something he has done with aplomb. The question for City revolves around their defensive woes, with poor individual errors at the back hampering them throughout the current season. 35 goals conceded in 38 league games may not sound overly worrying, but so many of these came at vital times in big games, while poor decision making from Ederson and his centre-halves means Guardiola’s side have a very soft underbelly that if exposed, could prove disastrous.
Incredibly, the bookies have cast Juventus as real outsiders, with only Real Madrid, Napoli, Lyon and Chelsea at longer odds at the time of writing. A 1-0 deficit going into their Last-16 second-leg against Lyon may show they have to be at their best to progress, but the French side have not played mush competitive action following the premature end of Ligue 1, while the raw talent the Italians possess is will worry their opponents. However, that classic powerful Italian defence has shown cracks this year after conceding 43 times in the league. In conjunction with this, three losses in four league games saw Juventus crowned champions by just a single point over Inter Milan despite holding a commanding lead after the restart of football.
However, despite all of Juve’s troubles, the presence of one player means they are always in with a chance of winning the competition, and that player is, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo. The forward seems to always save his very best for the biggest stage, and his record of 128 Champions League goals shows that he is the man for the big occasion in Europe. Juve’s disappointing 3-2 aggregate loss to Ajax last year will have hurt Ronaldo deeply, with the Portuguese rarely tasting Champions League defeat before the semi-finals, if at all. Now, the Italians have a glorious chance of winning the competition in this revised and shortened format, with a first Italian Champions League triumph since Inter Milan in 2010 on the cards.
Despite struggling to assert themselves in Europe in recent years, Bayern Munich are the first name on the lips of many when discussing their likely Champions League winner this year. Manchester City and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona should not be discounted, but the fact that Bayern hold a 3-0 lead over Chelsea in their Last-16 game means a place in the quarter-finals is almost-assured, while they boast the competition’s top scorer in Lewandowski, with the Polish star netting 11 times already. With such a disjointed year in Europe set to climax this August, is it so ridiculous to think Bayern will at last end their hoodoo in the Champions League?