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Jack: Ranking the final 16 in the Champions League

Kristian Jack
12/11/2013 5:58:42 PM
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For someone who doesn't understand the game, the idea of the sport's most important club competition taking 70 days off during the season would be ridiculous.

Yet, that is how long we must now wait for the next games to be played in the Champions League.

When we see it again it will look much different and the teams could be playing much different.

From a tournament where teams must play six group games to prove they belong in Europe's sweet sixteen it evolves into a straight two-legged knock-out competition. Get through six more games and you will be in the final in Lisbon on May 24.

It sounds simple but it is far from that.

Arsene Wenger will repeatedly tell you that the Champions League is two tournaments in one. And he is correct.

The first one is about survival and down to how difficult your group is. Only once the second one begins, can you start to think of playing in a final for the right to lift the European Cup, but to get there teams must jump the hurdles of knock-out football where a team's chances of qualifying can be decided in a moment.

Ahead of the draw for the last 16 here is a look at the teams from strongest to weakest.

1. Bayern Munich - The reigning European champions have a great opportunity at becoming the first team to claim the European Cup in back-to-back seasons since the great Milan team of 1989-90. No team has done this under the Champions League format yet Pep Guardiola's team look to have all the pieces in place to buck the trend. A loss in the final match against Manchester City aside (when topping the group was virtually secured) the German side had an excellent group campaign featuring five impressive wins, including a demolition of Manchester City at the Etihad. They will be the team no group runner-up will want to play.

2. Real Madrid - It is hard to believe it has been almost 12 years since Real last made it to the final. Can Carlo Ancelotti do what Jose Mourinho couldn't and give the Spanish giants an elusive 10th European crown? Form in La Liga earlier this season was mixed but in Europe they have been excellent and will be better for the stern tests caused by them in both games against Juventus. Unlike last season, when Borussia Dortmund topped their group, Cristiano Ronaldo and company will avoid the group winners in the last 16. Back-to-back semifinal losses to brilliant German sides in the last two years has halted their challenge but if they can avoid Bayern over two legs this season they will have a great shot at glory.

3. PSG - It is hard to believe that a team who have spent so much money in the last two years remain under the radar but that is the case with Paris Saint-Germain. Quietly, they have gone about putting together a team full of quality and character. It is what served them very well last season, when they were narrowly defeated by Barcelona in the quarter-finals, but if those two teams met today over two legs I would take the French champs. Last season - just their second in this competition since 1994-95 - was all a bit new for PSG but now they seem primed for a real challenge. In Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic they have obvious difference makers but it is in midfield, with Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi, where they can take a stranglehold of key games.

4. Barcelona - We have still yet to see how Barcelona can bounce back from the drubbing they took at the hands of Bayern in last year's semifinal. A group with Milan, Ajax and Celtic was a reasonable challenge but the Spanish champions were far from their best in those three away games (winning just one) and until they come up against a legitimate contender in this competition we won't be able to know just how much of a threat they are to win this competition. Of course, any team with Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta in it deserves respect, and no one will want to be drawn against them in the last 16 but whether they will bring fear to the three clubs ahead of them depends on the health of Messi.

5. Manchester City - The highest group runner-up on the list will be desperate to avoid the three teams above them on this list as they look to progress in their first-ever Champions League knock out campaign. Manuel Pellegrini's men used the Champions League games as a true showcase (Bayern at home aside) to show the improvements they have made since the Chilean took over from Roberto Mancini. They will want to avoid Real Madrid, Barcelona and PSG but the truth is those teams will want to avoid City as well. If the spine of Kompany, Toure and Aguero remains healthy then look out.

6. Atletico Madrid - If people are sleeping on PSG then they are unconscious on Atletico Madrid. Having only played one season of Champions League football in the last 16 campaigns, the seedings were heavily against them but they breezed through Porto's group, playing as well on the continent as they did domestically. Into the last 16 as a group winner they are now primed for a serious challenge and do not be surprised if they do what Borussia Dortmund did last season and win the hearts of many by making a serious run at the Cup.

7. Borussia Dortmund - It has been a tale of three Champions League seasons for Jorgen Klopp's men. Two years ago they were fancied by many to do damage but finished last in their group. Last season some thought they were still too inexperienced but they topped a group over Real Madrid and then beat the Spanish team again in the semifinals. Now, in year three, expectations are high again and the German side have fallen in between year one and two in terms of consistent performances. They were very impressive in a win at Arsenal before losing to them at home and they were average at Marseille on Wednesday yet a late winner, coupled with an Arsenal loss, hands them the crucial top spot in Group F.

8. Chelsea - Any team in this competition with Jose Mourinho as manager has a chance. Jose is obsessed by the Champions League, just like club owner Roman Abramovich, but he will have to perform some magic to get this current crop of players back to European glory. "We are not amongst the favourites to win," Mourinho admitted this week. Clearly. In a relatively easy group, Chelsea made hard work of qualification, twice losing to Basel when their team was exposed on the counter-attack against a high defensive line. If any group winners need a comfortable last 16 draw to help build confidence and momentum it is Mourinho's men.

9. Arsenal -  When the draw was made a Mesut Ozil-less Arsenal (that is an awful thought for their fans, isn't it?) were picked to be eliminated by some. In the end they should have won the group and were minutes away from doing so. Dortmund's dramatic late winner in Marseille, sent Arsenal to second and once again they will be looking at a potential nightmare draw on Monday. In less than five minutes they went from avoiding every team in the top 10 on this list to now looking at getting one of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, PSG, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid. Massive difference.

10. Manchester United - David Moyes may feel his team is amongst the favourites to win the competition but, for me, they are tenth out of the 10 teams who could have a shot at lifting the Cup in Portugal. That makes United's chances an extreme long shot. Against Real Madrid last season they showed they can be organized against a technically superior side and they will have to be at their best defensively in this competition, while finding their superior home form, if they want to make strides past the quarter-finals. At their current state, the Group A winners will likely get a runner-up who they can beat in the last 16 (cannot play Man City) but after that it will get very difficult for the English champions.

11. AC Milan - Milan are far from a good side but what they have is experience. It has been too long since they were described as a super power but it was only two years ago when Pep Guardiola, then manager of Barcelona, admitted he was deeply worried about being drawn against the Italian side in the last 16. That will remain the same this season. Max Allegri's team will be underdogs against any last 16 opponent but by February (much like last season) will be playing much better than now and with their defence, and Mario Balotelli, they will be a team few group winners will want to face.

12. Galatasaray - We all know by now how the Turkish champions reached this stage and the goal scored by Wesley Sneijder on a field fit for cows will be told by many for years to come. Not many people expected them to advance ahead of Juventus, in a group also featuring Real Madrid, but a side who takes four points from two games against Juve needs to be respected, no matter what the conditions were. Last year they reached the quarter-finals and that will be their aim this season. Don't expect them to be rolled over.

13. Bayer Leverkusen - Every season a group winner or three is beaten in the last 16 by a runner-up and Leverkusen could easily make a run towards the last eight. They struggled against Manchester United in Group A but played with no fear at Old Trafford early in the campaign and continue to play well in the Bundesliga. If they can keep up their domestic form, and avoid a giant in the draw, they could progress but won't be helped by having to avoid United, one of the weakest group winners.

14. Schalke - The German team progressed through a difficult group with Chelsea and Basel and, much like Bayer Leverkusen, will be thankful not to have to play Bayern Munich (or Dortmund) in the last sixteen. It will still be tough for them to beat any of their potential round 16 opponents.

15. Zenit - The Russians backdoored their way in after a dismal 4-1 loss to Austria Wien on matchday six. Thankfully, Atletico beat Porto to help them through but that proved to be a great result for many of the group winners who will much rather play Zenit over two legs than Porto. Russia in February is not a trip you want to take but if you have to the competition you face there should be fine.

16. Olympiacos - The Greek champions have reached the last 16 for the third time in the last seven seasons and that is a significant achievement in itself. A wonderful home win over Benfica was the difference between the last 16 and a spot in the Europa League this time around and that victory showed how difficult it is to play them in Greece. Kostas Mitroglou has become a household name in Europe and gets another opportunity to show what he can do on Europe's biggest stage. With the group winners all looking strong it is tough to see them moving on in the next round but, as Wenger said, a new competition could lead to a number of surprises within the knockout stage.

Let us know who you think can win it, your dark horse and who you want your team to draw in the next round.

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