The knockout phase of the Champions League is upon us again. No doubt there will be many two legged tussles that will enthrall football supporters across the world.
There are now 16 teams vying to be crowned champions of Europe on May 30 in Istanbul.
However, only 5 have a viable shot at hoisting the trophy. Here they are.
The holders are in fine form as they seek to defend their title. So far, The Red’s performance in the Premier League has been outstanding, dropping only two points in 26 games. The only time the Merseysiders have not won a league game is a 1-1 draw away to arch rivals Manchester United last October. This campaign, across all major competitions, the Reds have only lost once (to Napoli).
Liverpool’s form should ensure one of the earliest title victories in English football history. Ominously, they have dominated the Premier League without hitting top gear. They grind out results, often getting the job done without being overly flamboyant.
There surely is more to come from the triumvirate of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
Mane has returned from injury after missing four matches with a damaged hamstring. Fabinho and Joel Matip have also returned from injury lay offs, leaving Jurgen Klopp the envious problem of being able to choose from a full squad.
New signing Takumi Minamino has been added to the squad, following his move from Red Bull Salzburg.
If there is one hope for their Champions League rivals, there has been more chances to score against them compared to last season. This is despite only conceding once in the past eleven league games.
Liverpool will be one of the most feared teams in the competition, and at +400 are favorites to repeat.
City are a club in shock, reeling from UEFA’s decision to ban them from Champions League football for two years.
Yet it’s a ban that might serve as an extra motivation to win the Champions League this year.
They have started their campaign well, with an unbeaten run in the group stage winning four of their games.
There have been no additions in January. Left back Angelino has moved to RB Leipzig on loan.
Defensive injuries and frailties have derailed their bid to win a hat trick of league titles. City have conceded 29 goals so far this season, already six more than for the whole of 2018/9. They have also lost six Premier League games, two more than last season.
The fitness and form of centre back Aymeric Laporte will be crucial to City’s chances of European glory. A knee injury has sidelined the 25-year-old Frenchman since last August. And he is only just feeling his way back.
More positively, City are the highest scorers in the Premier League with 65 goals. In recent weeks, there have been signs that City have got their mojo back. Kevin De Bruyne has been in superb form, with 16 assists this season, as well as contributing seven goals.
Offensively there is no doubt that Pep Guardiola’s men can be a handful for anybody. Yet if they are to be crowned champions of Europe for the first time, they will have to tighten up at the back considerably.
Zinedine Zidane had faced criticism is what has been an up and down season for Los Blancos. But they are still top of La Liga.
After a stuttering start to their Champions League campaign, losing to PSG 3-0, and nearly losing at home to Brugge in a 2-2 draw, Madrid turned themselves around.
Madrid have been mean defensively this season, only conceding 16 goals in 24 La Liga matches.
While this has attracted some criticism that the team is too conservative, it’s a doggedness that will serve them well as they aim to be European champions for a record 14th time.
Ferland Mendy has settled in well. He now has made the left back spot his own displacing Marcelo. Fede Velverde has been a revelation in midfield.
Karim Benzema leads the scoring chart with 18 goals in all competitions. Yet the next highest scores are Rodrygo and captain Sergio Ramos on seven each.
Eden Hazard has been plagued by injuries since his move from Chelsea, appearing in only nine La Liga games, and scoring just once. An ankle injury has kept him out since last November. However, he is set to return before the second round clash with Manchester City.
Madrid will need Hazard’s spark in order to balance defensive strength with attacking verve.
Barcelona raised the eyebrows of the football world with their decision to sack Ernesto Valverde, replacing him with Quique Setien midway through the season. Setien’s appointment is thought to have spread optimism throughout the squad. They have won their last three La Liga games. Barca will be looking to eradicate the flakiness which has dogged their last two campaigns–beginning with the second round clash with Napoli.
They took three goal advantages in their quarter final and semi final second legs against Roma and Liverpool respectively, only to lose both ties.
Setien perhaps could push Sergi Roberto into a midfield four, releasing Nelson Semedo at right back. It’s a system that makes them far more solid. It was a huge tactical error from Valverde not to employ that formation in the 4-0 second leg defeat to Liverpool last May.
The Catalans have modified their squad after the January window. Kike Sevario, Sergio Akieme and Ray Manaj have come in for Carlos Alena, Jean-Clair Todibo and Moussa Wague.
Last summer’s signing Frenkie de Jong appears to be finally making progress after an unspectacular start to life in Spain following his move from Ajax.
Setien has allowed the Dutchman more freedom in his advanced role in the midfield three.
Antoine Greizmann has also had a mixed start to his career at the Nou Camp. Yet he has been showing signs that he is making an impact, with eight goals in all competitions since December. The Frenchman is playing in a more central role due to an injury to Luis Suarez.
Of course when you have Lionel Messi in your team you always have a chance of winning any game.
Many of Barcelona’s main players, including Messi, are ageing. They will be desperate to add another Champions League medal to their collections before time is called on their careers.
It has been a memorable European journey so far, hitting seven against Tottenham at White Hart Lane. They also scored six in Serbia against Red Star Belgrade.
Its the sort of form that makes Bayern one of the favourites to win the competition this year, adding to their five European crowns.
Loan signing Alvaro Odriozola from Real Madrid has been added to the squad. Yet its been anything but a straightforward season so far. The club parted company with Niko Kovac in November after a 5-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt.
And while they are currently top of the Bundesliga, they are not running away with it as has happened in many recent seasons.
RB Leipzig are only a point behind Bayern, and Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Monchengladbach are only four points adrift in third and fourth respectively.
Caretaker manager Hansi Flick has made a positive impact on the team. Bayern have looked sharper and quicker under his leadership, and they have the joint meanest defence in the Bundesliga.
Thomas Muller started the season as almost a bit part player, but Flick has brought him back out from the shadows, and he has become an important player again.
Jerome Boateng has also benefited from Flick’ reign, when it looked like he would be sold on at one point.
The form of Robert Lewandowski has been remarkable. In all competitions the Polish striker has scored 36 goals in 31 games. He has 10 in five games in the Champions League.
Bayern will be a threat to anyone in the knockout phase.