Champions League: Premier League to dominate again

UEFA didn’t need a faux-pas at the Champions League draw. Already under scrutiny for the somewhat autocratic way they run European football, the governing body was left red-faced over its null and void draw, fuelling more criticism from those advocating change around the governance of the game.

Doubtless the incident increased anxiety in Nyon, for UEFA can’t have been happy that one of their blue riband clubs, Barcelona, had already been eliminated from the Champions League. Although there was a lot of hand-wringing about Barca’s decline, joining them in the Europa League play-offs were Borussia Dortmund, Porto, Sevilla and RB Leipzig. 

Their absence from the last 16 was not accompanied by the sort of dystopian narrative that Barca’s early departure from the Champions League warranted, but certainly in the case of Dortmund and Porto, two previous winners, it was something of a surprise. Both clubs have been involved in the knockout phase at least half a dozen times apiece in the last decade.

What has happened this year is that the last 16 field looks more diverse than it has done for a while. For a start, there are four teams from outside the big five leagues: Ajax, Benfica, Sporting and Salzburg. You could argue that these teams represent that group of clubs who dominate at home but struggle to compete consistently at the highest level. However you describe the position these clubs have in the modern game, it is always good to see the likes of Ajax and Benfica back in the mix. 

Ajax had an impressive group stage, scoring 20 goals and winning all six of their games. Only three clubs managed to come out with a 100% record, Bayern, who were also top scorers with 22 goals, and Liverpool were the others. They were also the only unbeaten teams. Benfica came through the group that included Bayern Munich and Barcelona, while Sporting edged out Dortmund.

Redrawing the last 16 will undoubtedly cause UEFA further headaches as disgruntled clubs complain they have been disadvantaged compared to the initial draw. Six have arguably been given harder tasks: Salzburg, Sporting Lisbon, Inter Milan, Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid. One tie remained the same: Lille versus Chelsea, which was just as well given Blues fans would have rushed out to buy Eurostar tickets after the first attempt.

The second batch of ties is actually far less interesting than the initial exercise. In Last 16 1.0, there were three “replays” of past finals: Ajax v Inter Milan; Real Madrid v Benfica; and Bayern Munich v Atlético Madrid. Furthermore, there was the opportunity to see Cristiano Ronaldo come face-to-face with Lionel Messi as Manchester United faced Paris Saint-Germain.

Not that Last 16 2.0 doesn’t have its gems. Ajax v Benfica, Liverpool v Inter and Real Madrid v Paris Saint-Germain all have the potential to be ties to savour. With four teams in the last 16, England should be well represented in the quarter-finals, with the quartet of Chelsea, Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs all capable of winning their games against teams from Portugal, France and Italy.

English clubs’ recent record – two all-Premier clashes in three seasons – suggests the league has claimed its place at the forefront of European football. It is difficult to see that situation changing in the coming months. Our last eight prediction is therefore fairly predictable: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Ajax, Chelsea, Manchester United, Juventus, Liverpool and Real Madrid. And an early forecast of the winner? City.

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