The UEFA Champions League returns to our lives this week as the round of 16 begins. Ahead of those games, we identified four storylines to watch out for throughout the knockouts.
Love is in the air. That’s right, it’s almost 14 February, and you know what that means… the UEFA Champions League is nearly back!
Thirty-two teams have already been whittled down to 16 – and before we know it, those 16 will become eight.
Holders Manchester City ominously appear to be hitting form at just the right time (if you’re them, anyway); 14-time European champions Real Madrid have made it through to the knockout stage for the 28th straight season; Arsenal are back in the last 16 after seven years away; and perennial continental big-hitters such as Bayern Munich, PSG and Inter are all still standing.
The likes of PSV and Real Sociedad might fancy their chances of upsetting the apple cart, while rank outsiders Copenhagen will be determined not to merely make up the numbers.
It’s tantalisingly poised, and here at Opta Analyst, we’ve picked out four intriguing storylines to keep an eye on throughout the last 16 and deeper into the tournament.
A Matter of Perception
The Champions League is meant to be a competition for the best of the best. We know that’s not necessarily the case: Chelsea won it in 2011-12 while finishing sixth in the Premier League; and, going back to the European Cup days, Aston Villa placed 11th in the old First Division as they were crowned continental champions in 1981-82. In 2014-15, Borussia Dortmund topped their Champions League group while propping up the Bundesliga table (they went out in the last 16 and ultimately recovered to finish seventh domestically, but, for a while, something very strange was happening).
Anyway, fast-forward to 2023-24 and the last-16 lineup is far from a straightforward exhibition of Europe’s crème de la crème. Only four of the teams lead their respective domestic leagues at the time of writing: Real Madrid (by five points from surprise package Girona, whom they beat on Saturday), PSG (by 11 points), PSV (by 10 points) and Inter (by seven points). Another six sides – RB Leipzig, Real Sociedad, Lazio, Borussia Dortmund, Atlético Madrid and Napoli – are at least 10 points off the pace domestically. Of those six, only Dortmund and Atlético currently occupy a spot that would clinch Champions League qualification for next season; Lazio and Napoli are placed eighth and ninth in Serie A respectively.
All 16 of these clubs were in Europe last season – and with the exception of Arsenal, Lazio and Real Sociedad, they were all in the Champions League – so it’s not as though the added rigours of a continental campaign will have come as a shock to any of them. Perhaps, rather, we need to recalibrate how we perceive the competition: it is an exclusive gathering of the continent’s finest – but, to a large degree, the continent’s finest from last season. To that end, the Champions League will always be running on a delay, so to speak – an awful lot can change over the summer – but that just feeds into the enduring captivation of the game’s ultimate knockout tournament.
An English Top Scorer?
Put this one to your mates in the group chat: name the three English players to finish as top scorer (outright or joint) in a Champions League/European Cup campaign. They are: Dennis Viollet (nine goals for Manchester United in 1956-57), Mick Jones (eight goals for Leeds United in 1969-70) and Terry McDermott (six goals for Liverpool in 1980-81 – joint with teammate Graeme Souness and Bayern Munich’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge).
Ok, a player born in England has finished as top scorer since then – Erling Haaland, whose 12 goals helped fire Manchester City to Champions League glory as part of the treble last term – but that wouldn’t be an acceptable answer in our mini quiz, sorry. It’s been 43 years – perhaps surprisingly for a country whose clubs have won the tournament nine times during that period – since an Englishman out-scored the rest. There’s a reasonable chance that long wait comes to an end this season, though.
Four players are currently tied for the honour of leading marksman in the 2023-24 Champions League with five goals: Haaland, Atlético Madrid pair Álvaro Morata and Antoine Griezmann, and Rasmus Højlund of Manchester United, who’s out of the competition so won’t be adding to his total. But among the eight level in second with four goals are England’s two standout players at present: Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane.
Key men for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively, both will fancy their chances of winning the competition and, by extension, potentially scooping the ‘golden boot’ (ludicrously, UEFA don’t actually hand out a literal award).
With Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema out of the picture, Robert Lewandowski not his prolific old self and Haaland enduring an injury-disrupted campaign, the race to finish as Champions League top scorer looks quite open – although it would take something extraordinary for us to see the first non-European or South American winner since 1998-99, when Dwight Yorke finished as joint-leading scorer. Porto’s Iranian number nine Mehdi Taremi (two goals) is the strongest candidate, but he’d probably have to become supernatural ahead of facing Arsenal in the last 16 to achieve that feat.
How Can the Underdogs Succeed?
In its 31-year existence, the Champions League has arguably only produced what could reasonably be called a surprise winner on one occasion: José Mourinho’s Porto in 2003-04. That’s the exception that proves the rule: the Champions League does belong to Europe’s elite. It’s a season-long competition, though, and, even if the winners invariably ultimately come from the continent’s top crop, there’s plenty of opportunity for surprises to be sprung on the long and winding road to the final (which in 2024, for the third time in 14 years, will take place at Wembley).
In 2021-22, Villarreal under European master Unai Emery stunned Juventus and Bayern Munich to set up a semi-final showdown with Liverpool, giving the Reds a bit of a scare before bowing out 5-2 on aggregate. Three years before that, Ajax evoked memories of their heyday as a youthful side – managed by Erik ten Hag – came within touching distance of the final, only to fall victim to Lucas Moura-inspired Tottenham in the semis. Whether any team can emulate such underdog stories to the same extent this time around remains to be seen, but a couple of the last-16 participants do stand out as having particular surprise potential.
PSV are gearing up to take on Borussia Dortmund, and the runaway Eredivisie leaders arguably go into the tie as favourites, despite Dortmund beating PSG to top spot in their group. Peter Bosz’s talent-packed side came second behind Arsenal in a competitive Group B, coming from 2-0 down to win 3-2 away to Sevilla (who, admittedly, had a player sent off while 2-0 up) en route. They’ve lost just twice all season in all competitions and, incredibly, only dropped their first league points of 2023-24 last month.
PSV don’t score bags of goals – Dortmund (7) are one of only three last-16 qualifiers to manage fewer than their eight during the group stage – but in attacking focal point Luuk de Jong, they have one of Europe’s most in-form strikers right now. De Jong has found the net nine times in his last eight outings in all competitions; the aerial powerhouse has also scored just under half of his goals (12/26) this season with his head – potentially bad news for a Dortmund side who have conceded 19% of their goals in the Champions League and Bundesliga this term from set-pieces (excluding penalties).
Meanwhile, down in the Basque Country, Real Sociedad are preparing to take on PSG in just their second Champions League knockout stage appearance – and their first for 20 years. Imanol Alguacil’s men are seventh in La Liga, 11 points off Champions League qualification, but they have lost only five games in all competitions this term. Draws (10 of them, to be precise) have been their downfall domestically; they could work to their advantage in Europe, however. Indeed, they already have: they held Inter twice during an unbeaten group campaign, pipping the Serie A leaders to top spot on goal difference.
La Real are not prolific scorers: they registered just seven goals in their six group matches, drawing a blank in the final two. But they also boast a miserly defensive record: they let in just two group-stage goals, at least two fewer than any other Champions League team. And they didn’t ride their luck, either: they gave up a veritably stingy 3.81 expected goals (xG) at an average of 0.63 per game (only Manchester City conceded less). PSG scored a relatively low nine goals during the group stage; Kylian Mbappé and co. might have to be patient for a breakthrough against Alguacil’s supremely well-drilled side.
Haaland Has a Half-Century in His Sights
Haaland has made 35 Champions League appearances; he’ll have made a maximum of 42 Champions League appearances by the end of this season. He’s 10 goals away from 50 in the competition, a milestone reached by only eight players in its entire history. At the age of 23, Manchester City’s merciless goal-bot has found the net more times in Europe’s premier club competition than Ferenc Puskás, Gerd Müller, Wayne Rooney or Samuel Eto’o did throughout their entire careers in the UCL or European Cup.
You’d expect Haaland to overtake Sergio Agüero (41 Champions League goals, excluding qualifiers), Alessandro Del Piero (42) and Neymar (43) this season, and it would come as no great surprise to see him also surpass Kylian Mbappé (also 43). You don’t need us to remind you that the record-breaking 2022-23 Premier League Golden Boot winner bangs in the goals at a borderline unnecessary rate, but these numbers really put into perspective what an absolutely ridiculous trajectory he’s on.
Haaland notched 12 goals in last season’s Champions League, finishing as top scorer. Five of those came in one game, City’s 7-0 last-16 second-leg evisceration of RB Leipzig, a reminder of how, seemingly at the flick of a switch, the former Borussia Dortmund and Red Bull Salzburg man can go into goalscoring overdrive. He’s not been at his supra-earthly best in 2023-24 – injuries have disrupted his rhythm – but even at mortal levels, Haaland is amply capable of racking up the goals, and it ought to be to his advantage that City face Copenhagen in the last 16.
In any case, if Haaland keeps up his average of scoring every 84 minutes in the Champions League this term and his average playing time of… 84 minutes per Champions League game, and Pep Guardiola’s 2022-23 treble winners reach the final once more, Haaland will end the campaign with 12 goals to his name again. That in itself would take him up to 47 overall – above Del Piero, Neymar, Mohamed Salah (44), Didier Drogba (44) and Filippo Inzaghi (46) on the competition’s all-time list – but it might only require one
freakishly clinical completely normal by his standards performance to hit the 50-goal mark, passing Zlatan Ibrahimović and Andriy Shevchenko (both 48) in the process.
We must mention Monsieur Mbappé, too. PSG’s main man is seven away from joining Thierry Henry as the second Frenchman to reach a half-century of Champions League goals. Were he to hit the magic 50-mark, the 25-year-old would also become the first to do so having only played for French clubs.