Uncertainty hangs over the Champions League knockout stages, in more ways than one

With the Champions League returning this week, Jamie Braidwood previews the knockout stages, as well as identifying the clubs who will be viewing this season’s competition as a must win.

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Clubs like Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain will be desperate to add this season’s Champions League to their trophy cabinet.

It’s back. The Champions League is back, and you have every reason to be excited.

Over the past few seasons the competition has delivered upon its premise of being the best in club football. We’ve had thrilling games, dramatic comebacks, and all played at the highest level of quality. In recent years the Champions League knockout rounds have produced Liverpool and Tottenham’s stunning semi-final victories, Roma’s sensational victory over Barcelona, as well as Barca’s historic comeback against Paris Saint-Germain. There have been few other moments in football during that time that can claim to match such suspense and unpredictability.

That said, it is only now when the Champions League gets interesting. The knockout stages almost feels as if it is an entirely different competition to the group stages, which concluded almost nine weeks ago. It feels like such a long time ago and a lot has happened since. Barcelona have changed managers, Borussia Dortmund have signed Erling Haland and, on Friday, Manchester City were banned from the Champions League for the next two seasons after being found guilty of breaching UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, a punishment which dramatically brings into focus their need to win the competition for the first time this season.

But it’s not just City whose seasons hang in the balance, whose entire short-term plans depend on reaching Istanbul for the final on May 30. Uncertainty hangs over several of Europe’s top teams and, with the exception of one, it is difficult to predict who will go all the way. There are several sides who expect to reach the final of course, but many are facing challenging spells in their respective periods of transition.

An early exit for either Real Madrid and Barcelona, for example, would only heighten talk of summer spending sprees and squad clear-outs, if they are not being planned already. A crisis is never far away at Spain’s top two sides, but with the two rivals battling it out with each other for La Liga supremacy and both already knocked out of the Copa del Rey, one of them faces the very real possibility of a season without winning a major trophy. If that happened to Real, it would be their second trophy-less season in as many years.

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After a season with no major trophies, Zinedene Zidane will be eager to bring Real Madrid their 14th Champions League trophy – his fourth as their manager.

Juventus and Bayern Munich are judged by similarly high standards, but both face uncertainty over their head coaching positions. Mauricio Sarri is already under pressure in his first season in Turin, while Bayern have already pulled the plug on Niko Kovac’s debut campaign, and would face a Chelsea/Roberto Di Matteo situation if they went all the way under temporary boss Hansi Flick. Both clubs are desperate for continental success, having accomplished all they can at home by dominating their domestic leagues in recent years.

PSG are in a similar position. The French giants have dominated Ligue 1 for years but have come up empty in Europe. With stars Neymar and Kylian Mbappe consistently linked with moves away, could this be the club’s last opportunity to achieve their ultimate ambition with both the Brazillian and the Frenchman at the club?

Manchester City are also facing a closing window of opportunity,  which has been made all the more clear given the week’s developments. They are now effectively in a one-and-done situation with Guardiola and several key players unlikely to be around in 2022 when the club are set to be allowed to return to the competition.

Ajax’s unlikely run to the semi-finals last season also serves as a reminder that, for certain teams, success in the Champions League can have negative implications. Borussia Dortmund and Red Bull Leipzig have the talent in their ranks to do an Ajax, or an AS Monaco in 2017, but both should be aware that the opportunity to win it all may not come around again for some time.

Ajax and Monaco had their squads stripped to the bone following their semi-final runs, and Dortmund are unlikely to keep Jadon Sancho, and perhaps even Haland, this summer, while Red Bull Leipzig could also have valued talents like Timo Werner or Dayot Upamecano picked off by circling clubs should they prove their worth on the biggest stage. Both need to seize the opportunity now. The same would apply to Lyon or Atalanta, should they defy the odds and make an unlikely challenge.

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With Jadon Sancho looking extremely likely to move on in the summer, Borussia Dortmund will want to get the most out of him in Europe for the rest of the season.

Tottenham under Jose Mourinho and Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone both have the capability and experience to spring a surprise, but maybe not this season given their current squads and domestic form, while Chelsea and Valencia both showed in the group stages that they can pack a punch. Napoli, who are 11th in Serie A, are unfavoured, but are the only team to go to Anfield and not lose in the past 12 months.

Which brings us onto Liverpool, the defending champions, the winner of 25 out of 26 Premier League matches so far this season and a side who, under Jurgen Klopp, have never lost a two-legged tie in a European competition. Klopp’s team are clear favourites to win back-to-back titles but it is worth remembering that until very recently, it was seen as almost impossible to win consecutive Champions Leagues. Of course, that was until Real Madrid made a mockery of that belief and won three on the spin from 2016-2018.

So there we have it – the Champions League is back and never before has it seemed this uncertain or unpredictable. But at the same time, European football’s elite competition has never seemed so uncompetitive or mattered to so few.

That is because for the first time in the competition’s history, the Champions League knockout stage will be competed by teams exclusively from Europe’s top five leagues. There are no representatives from Holland, Portugal, or indeed Scotland. No challenge will come from Russia, Turkey, or Ukraine.

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With no competitors outside of Europe’s top five leagues in the knockout stages, this season’s Champions League could kickstart calls for changes in European competition.

It is a subject which has been much discussed over the past few seasons, as European football’s elite clubs and leagues have grown stronger, richer and more powerful than ever before.

As discussed, the Champions League itself has benefitted from that. The competition has never been so entertaining, but it is unquestionable that it has come to the detriment to those left outside of it. The Champions League has always featured the world’s best players, but the pool of elite talent has never been so concentrated within a selection of a dozen top clubs. It is why in recent seasons, the group stages have been so straightforward, as fewer clubs have the resources to compete, let alone do an Ajax or a Monaco and reach the final four.

It also seems that the gap between the best and the rest is growing – but only in one direction. Rumour has it that several of Europe’s top clubs want UEFA to expand the Champions League even further. They want more games during the campaign, specifically more games between the biggest clubs. It is hard to read between the lines and not think that we are heading towards the creation of a ‘European Super League’.

None of this is intended to dampen your excitement for what is about to come. I, as much as anyone, cannot wait for my Tuesday and Wednesday nights to be filled with high-level football drama for four of the next five weeks, but I say it as a word of caution, to be wary of the competition we all love to watch, and the direction it’s heading in.

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