Champions League quarterfinal power rankings: Barcelona, Liverpool rising

Mohamed Salah scores the second goal of Liverpool’s 5-0 first-leg rout of Porto in the Champions League round of 16. (Getty)

The Champions League quarterfinals don’t always get the eight best teams in Europe. But in 2018, they’ve come pretty darn close.

The names of six of the eight will all be on slips of paper inside fancy little orbs when the Champions League quarterfinal draw gets underway on Friday at 7 a.m. ET. The seventh and eighth participants? Their qualifications are debatable.

But the full group of eight should make for four outstanding matchups. Nobody will be outclassed like Basel and Porto and Besiktas were in the round of 16. Everybody will be in with a shout.

That’s why there is no more need for tiers. Just a need for a straight 1-8 ranking of the Champions League quarterfinalists and their title odds. So let’s get to it.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE QUARTERFINAL POWER RANKINGS

Number in parentheses is the team’s December rank among the 16 knockout round participants.

1. Manchester City (1)

Over the years, the British media has peddled two contrasting (but not conflicting) narratives when English teams have faced continental foes in the Champions League: 1. The relative inferiority of, say, the Bundesliga or Ligue 1 allowed Bayern Munich or PSG to stash all energy for the two European legs. 2. Those same teams, because of the relative lack of domestic competition, were unproven. Both were somewhat legitimate claims, but difficult to separate from each other, and therefore difficult to evaluate.

In 2018, though, they can be separated. They can be separated with regards to Manchester City. The Citizens have all but wrapped up the Premier League crown. They will be able to put all their figurative eggs in the Champions League basket come early April. They’re in a position to do so, however, because they have proven themselves. They haven’t beaten Europe’s superpowers, but they’ve been top-10 peers. They’re the best English team ever. And they’ve done nothing to suggest they aren’t Champions League favorites.

2. Barcelona (4)

Enough about Thibaut Courtois’ gaping legs. Enough about Chelsea’s failings in a 3-0 second-leg loss at Camp Nou. And frankly, enough about Barcelona’s imperfections (yes, we’re guilty here). Because Barcelona has Messi. Let’s talk about Messi.

Let’s talk about the brilliant goals, but also about the assist. As a trio, they support the argument that Barcelona is dependent on Messi, but that A) doesn’t matter, and B) might even be a good thing.

Remember, back in December, when Real Madrid was undone in the Clasico by Mateo Kovacic clung to Messi rather than halting a Barca counter? The same dynamic doomed Chelsea. Five Blues defenders were sucked to the Argentine as he broke from midfield in the 20th minute:


Messi, realizing this, waited for Ousmane Dembele to join him.


Dembele, with the time and space to take a touch, smashed a thunderbolt past Courtois.


Barcelona isn’t the flowing attacking unit it once was. And it might not be the dominant unit it once was either. But Messi still wears garnet and blue. As Diego Simeone said after Barca’s 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid earlier this month“If Messi had been wearing an Atletico shirt, we would have won.” Swap “Chelsea shirt” for “Atletico shirt,” and the statement could have applied to Wednesday night as well. And it’ll continue to apply game after game for the foreseeable future.

3. Real Madrid (2)

Real Madrid’s second-leg victory over PSG, and the various takeaways from it, were fascinating. Because in many ways, it was a one-off. The circumstances that prompted Madrid’s approach and enabled its success were unique. No matter Real’s quarterfinal opponent, it will likely revert to its proactive identity in the quarters.

But the 2-1 win in Paris served two purposes, aside from the obvious. One, it was a credit to Zinedine Zidane, who maximized his personnel in light of injuries, and turned a negative into a positive. It also showed, though, that Real Madrid has another side to it. A pragmatic, perhaps even defensive side. That’s not necessarily how Los Blancos will approach games going forward in the competition, but they know they have the option, especially if playing from an advantageous position. That could prove pivotal.

4. Bayern Munich (3)

Before Wednesday, this blurb was an ode to Thiago Alcantara, Bayern Munich’s La Masia boy who gives it a dimension it otherwise lacks. Munich’s appeal is its versatility and well-roundedness. All over the field, it has both robust physical presences and technicians. It can beat you over the top or on the floor, on the counter or in control. Thiago is a key facet of the latter part of Bayern’s system, and with him in the team – or at least available for selection – the Bavarians are a real threat to take back the European crown.

That’s why, before Wednesday, Munich was third in these rankings, and in contention for second. Then Thiago went off injured in a second-leg cakewalk against Besiktas, and there’s a bit of worry. That worry is enough to drop Bayern below Thiago’s former club, and below his former club’s archrival.

5. Liverpool (9)

The Reds are so dangerous in a two-leg tie, no matter the opponent, because when they get liftoff, they don’t just cruise through the air at a modest height; they soar. They’re capable of putting a series to bed in 90 minutes. They did so in Porto. They’ve won 10 Premier League games by three or more goals this season, and might have had an 11th against City with a bit more focus in the waning minutes.

They still employ Dejan Lovren and Loris Karius, of course, so they still carry the “wild card” label we tagged them with back in December. But outside of City and the trio that’s dominated the competition over the previous five years, Liverpool looks like the most likely champion.

6. Juventus (6)

In the most captivating tie of the round of 16, Juventus showed why it’s still a title threat … but also why it’s not quite as menacing a threat as it has been in years past. The Bianconeri were second-best for about 165 of 180 minutes against Tottenham, and weren’t just on the brink in the second half of the second leg; they were fortunate to still be within striking distance.

But they were within striking distance, and as elite, experienced clubs do in that situation, they struck. Max Allegri, whose appointment was widely regarded as a mistake, made a crucial tactical switch that confounded Tottenham for five minutes. In those five minutes, Juve turned the tie on its head, then ensured it would stay there with 20 minutes of trademark valiant defending.

That’s what the Serie A leaders can do. That’s why they are the leaders, it’s why they’re the six-time reigning Italian champs, it’s why they were 2015 and 2017 Champions League finalists. They just don’t quite seem capable of upsetting one of the four favorites. The draw, therefore, will be important.

7. Roma (11)

Roma ripped apart Chelsea for about 130 of 180 minutes in the group stage. It has also been occasionally opportunistic in Serie A. But it’s a significant step below Europe’s elite.

8. Sevilla (12)

Sevilla conquered Manchester United, and deserves credit for doing so. But you couldn’t help but feel over 180 minutes against the Red Devils that the Spanish side should have been even more convincing than it was. It had the requisite technical ability and tactical understanding to control the game against the woeful Red Devils. But it wasn’t clinical; it was athletically underwhelming; and it lacked final-third flair that it’ll need against stronger opposition in the quarterfinals. (And yes, all seven potential opponents are better than Jose Mourinho’s United.)

– – – – – – –

Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.