Champions League 2021-22 Power Rankings: PSG, Real Madrid & Man Utd outside the top five ahead of last 16
The knockout rounds of Europe’s premier club competition are about to begin, but who are the current favourites to lift the trophy in Istanbul?
After just over two months away, the Champions League is back, with the final 16 teams gearing up for the knockout stages.
Chelsea are the defending champions, and despite some big names falling at the first hurdle, including Barcelona, AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund, there are still more realistic contenders this time around than in any previous iteration of the competition.
So, who are the favourites, and which teams are set for European disappointment?
#16 Red Bull Salzburg | Last time: 16th
For the first time in 21 years, there is an Austrian side in the knockout rounds of the Champions League, though Salzburg have it all to do in the last 16 after being drawn against Bayern Munich.
The youngest side in the competition were able to keep hold of star striker Karim Adeyemi in the January transfer window, but the Germany international’s presence is unlikely to be enough to overpower the six-time European champions.
#15 Sporting C.P. | Last time: 15th
Sporting surprisingly qualified for the knockout stages at the expense of Borussia Dortmund, as manager Ruben Amorim continues to impress with the Portuguese champions
A last-16 meeting with Manchester City, however, is likely to bring an end to their competition.
#14 Lille | Last time: 14th
French champions Lille topped their group, only to be paired with Chelsea – the most difficult opponent they could have drawn from the unseeded pot for the last 16.
Their recent 5-1 defeat against Paris Saint-Germain suggests they will struggle to compete with Europe’s elite, with the form of star striker Jonathan David unlikely to be enough to land a quarter-final berth.
#13 Benfica | Last time: 13th
With just three wins from their last nine matches, and interim manager Nelson Verissimo now in charge, the mood around Benfica has changed plenty since they earned their place in the last 16 at Barcelona’s expense back in December.
As such, it is difficult to imagine them taking out an impressive Ajax side.
#12 Villarreal | Last time: 11th
Villarreal have shown some good form since securing their place in the knockout rounds, losing just once in La Liga since the first week of December.
Their last-16 tie with Juventus, however, looks far more testing now after the Bianconeri’s January transfer business in January. As such, the Europa League champions will need to raise their performance level once more to progress.
#11 Inter | Last time: 12th
Inter are in the knockout rounds of the Champions League for the first time in a decade, but the last 16 may well be as far as they go after being paired with Liverpool.
Though the Nerazzurri competed well with Real Madrid during the group stages, they fell to defeat both times, and Simone Inzaghi will need to learn lessons from those games if his side are to have a chance against the Anfield outfit.
#10 Atletico Madrid | Last time: 10th
After the highs of winning La Liga last season, this has been a campaign to forget for Atletico Madrid so far, with the Rojiblancos finding themselves outside of the top-four positions in Spain at present.
Diego Simeone’s side have won just two of their last nine league matches, and though a meeting with Manchester United is not as daunting as it might have been in years gone by, they are in worryingly poor form going into the knockout stage.
#9 Manchester United | Last time: 9th
The Ralf Rangnick era at Manchester United has not got off to the start many were hoping for when the German was hired back in December, with the Red Devils outside the Premier League’s top four after a run of inconsistent performances.
That said, Atletico Madrid are not as formidable as they once were under Diego Simeone, and with Cristiano Ronaldo having saved his best performances for the Champions League this season, they cannot be written off just yet.
#8 Juventus | Last time: 8th
Juventus may have topped a group that also contained Chelsea but the first half of their season was underwhelming, to say the least.
The arrivals of Dusan Vlahovic and Denis Zakaria in the January transfer window have, however, revitalised Massimiliano Allegri’s side, and there are those inside the Allianz Stadium who now believe they can go all the way in this season’s Champions League.
#7 Real Madrid | Last time: 6th
Real Madrid were already furious to have been paired with Paris Saint-Germain following the fiasco that was the last-16 draw, and things could be about to be made even more difficult if Karim Benzema cannot prove his fitness ahead of the first leg.
Los Blancos are seemingly running away with the title in Spain this season, but knocking out the most expensively assembled squad in the world without their star striker might prove a bridge too far for Carlo Ancelotti’s side.
#6 Paris Saint-Germain | Last time: 7th
PSG remain something of an enigma, as Mauricio Pochettino’s team continue to storm ahead in Ligue 1 without anyone actually believing they are playing that well.
However, their performance, and particularly that of Lionel Messi, against Lille last weekend suggested that things might be about to come together, and they will need to carry that form through their tie against Real Madrid if they are to avoid an early exit.
#5 Ajax | Last time: 5th
The official ‘dark horses’ for this season’s Champions League are Ajax, and they will be expected to make it past Benfica in the last 16
Erik ten Hag’s side won all six of their group matches, and have only failed to record a victory in just five matches this season, scoring at least five goals in a game on 11 occasions as they edge closer to another Eredivisie title.
#4 Chelsea | Last time: 4th
Having failed to top their group, Chelsea were thrown a lifeline when they drew what most perceived to be the weakest of the seeded teams in Lille.
The Blues have endured a difficult winter, but the defending champions should be able to put that behind them and progress to at least the quarter-finals.
#3 Liverpool | Last time: 3rd
Though Liverpool’s form through December saw them lose ground in the Premier League title race, they are still among the very best teams in world football and rightly among the favourites to win a seventh European crown.
The January addition of Luis Diaz only strengthens that claim, with Mohamed Salah and a triumphant Sadio Mane now returned from the Africa Cup of Nations, the Reds will be imposing opponents for any side, starting with Inter in the last 16.
#2 Manchester City | Last time: 2nd
As has been their way for a number of years under Pep Guardiola, Manchester City have had a winter to remember, racking up win after win to put themselves within touching distance of defending their Premier League crown.
The Champions League, however, remains their Holy Grail, and though they should make it past Sporting with ease, how they are performing through the spring will likely decide whether they can finally reach the top of the mountain.
#1 Bayern Munich | Last time: 1st
Having won all-but-three games since the October international break, nobody will want to face Bayern Munich in the knockout rounds as they aim for their second European title in three years
Expect Red Bull Salzburg to be swatted aside with the minimum of fuss in the last 16, with it likely requiring at least one monumental performance from an opposition side to take out Julian Nagelsmann’s side.