Champions League Team-By-Team Guide: Bayern still the best bet

Bayern Munich – 3.953/1 to win the Champions League

I recommended European champions Bayern as my best bet to win this year’s tournament in the ante-post preview at 5.79/2, but even though they have since shortened to 3.953/1, I wouldn’t put you off backing them if you haven’t already. They haven’t been at their sparkling best in the Bundesliga, but I believe those kinks will be ironed out by February.

Bayern have missed the intensity and nous of the injured Joshua Kimmich in midfield, and the balance he provides with the more attack-minded Leon Goretzka, but Kimmich should be back by February. Rampaging left-back Alphonso Davies, who sparkled in last season’s Champions League, has already returned from a spell on the sidelines.

Bayern topped their group with room to spare, and they smashed Atletico Madrid 4-0 along the way. Yes, they take risks with their high defensive line, and they aren’t keeping many clean sheets, but they have the weaponry to outgun any opponent. Robert Lewandowski, Kingsley Coman, Serge Gnabry and Thomas Müller are all match-winners, and when you have the likes of Leroy Sane and wunderkind Jamal Musiala in reserve, you’re in good shape.

A kind draw against Lazio has reinforced my belief that Bayern are the team to beat. On that basis, it’s also worth backing Robert Lewandowski to be Top Goalscorer at 3.65. He took that accolade last season, and although he is three goals behind Alvaro Morata, Erling Haaland, Neymar and Marcus Rashford, he could make up at least some of that group before the quarter-finals begin.

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Wait and see about City…

Manchester City – 5.49/2

As is always the case with Manchester City, we won’t know if they are a real threat until they are placed in the crucible of a quarter-final or semi-final. As usual, Pep Guardiola’s side breezed through the group stage, dropping just two points.

City have a talented squad and an incredibly gifted coach, but all too often the Catalan overthinks the big Champions League matches, and moves away from what has been largely successful in the Premier League. Some deride that as a lazy cliché, but the evidence from his time at Bayern and City is irrefutable. He hasn’t reached a single UCL final since he left Barcelona, and that’s a poor record given the resources at his disposal.

At 5.49/2, City are too short for a team that all too often self-destructs in the knockout stages. I expect them to overcome Borussia Mönchengladbach in the last 16 (reasoning to follow) but after that, the real tests of City’s mentality begin.

Leipzig will push Liverpool hard

Liverpool – 7.87/1

Given the loss of key players to long-term or mid-term injury, you can argue that Jürgen Klopp has done a terrific job to keep the Liverpool ship on course. The Reds are in the mix to retain their Premier League title, and although they had one or two shaky performances in the group stage (they were awful at home to Atalanta), they won their section with a game to spare.

Mohamed Salah has maintained his incredibly high level of performance, scoring 13 goals across the Premier League and Champions League in just 16 appearances. Diogo Jota has been a turbo-charged addition to the forward line, and he should be back from injury before the last 16, as should midfield orchestrator Thiago.

The main thing holding me back from recommending Liverpool as winners at 7.87/1 is that they got a really tough draw. RB Leipzig will push them hard over the two legs, and while Liverpool will rightly be favourites to progress, it won’t be straightforward.

If you like PSG back them now

PSG – 14.013/1

They did it the hard way, but Paris Saint-Germain made it through to the last 16 as group winners, and have an eminently winnable tie against Barcelona, a chance to avenge the famed Remontada of 2017. Since that horrific collapse at Camp Nou, PSG have matured and grown, a process that helped them reach last season’s final.

After a poor start to the group stage, PSG found heroes when they needed them, and they showed a grit and determination they aren’t often associated with. They hung in there in wins over Leipzig and Manchester United, as Neymar took centre-stage in both games, and they breezed past Istanbul Basaksehir in strange circumstances to clinch top spot.

There are undoubtedly some concerns. Kylian Mbappe hasn’t often hit the heights he is capable of this term, the midfield can be a bit static and lacking in creativity, and there have been too many off-colour displays in Ligue 1. Off the field, the relationship between coach Thomas Tuchel and sporting director Leonardo is far from smooth.

However, there is quality throughout the spine of the team, and last season’s run to the final has seen these players prove to themselves that they are genuine contenders to win the tournament. They should overcome a dysfunctional Barcelona, so if you’re going to back PSG to win the UCL, do it now. If you want to be a bit more conservative, perhaps back them to reach the final at 3.259/4.

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Too many doubts over Juve

Juventus – 14.013/1

As many Italian football experts predicted (including our very own Dave Farrar), it’s been a tricky start to life under new boss Andrea Pirlo for Juventus. While Pirlo was as smooth a midfield operator as you could wish to see, his first steps as a professional coach haven’t quite been so graceful.

Juve have made an unbeaten start to the Serie A campaign, but they have drawn five of their first 11 matches, including stalemates against lesser lights such as Crotone, Hellas Verona and Benevento. In the Champions League, they have benefitted from a weak group that included Dynamo Kyiv, Ferencvaros and a misfiring Barcelona.

You can never rule out a side that has Cristiano Ronaldo, and there’s a nice mix of youth and experience in the Juve squad. However, I can’t get excited by Juve’s price of 14.013/1, and although many people think being drawn against Porto was a kindness, it could actually be an awkward tie for a team that isn’t firing on all cylinders.

Real may be value

Real Madrid – 16.5

Having flirted with disaster, Real Madrid found a way to avoid the first group-stage failure in the club’s storied history. They delivered the goods in wins at Inter Milan and at home to Borussia Mönchengladbach, banishing a pair of careless defeats to Shakhtar Donetsk to the dustbin of history.

Real are a tough team to assess. They were abject against Shakhtar, and in home defeats against Cadiz and Alaves in La Liga. However, when the pressure has been truly on against elite opponents, they have found a much-needed extra gear.

They recently ended the long unbeaten run of city rivals Atletico, they won El Clasico at Camp Nou, and they passed multiple tests of character in the group stage.

Atalanta could be tricky opponents, but if the likes of Fede Valverde and Eden Hazard return from injury, and Luka Modric continues his age-defying level of performance, Real seem fairly priced at 16.5.

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Too early for Lampard’s Chelsea

Chelsea – 20.019/1

Chelsea’s Champions League challenge ended in ignominious fashion last term, as Bayern Munich wiped the floor with them over two punishing matches. The Blues have learned a lot and spent a lot since then, and they won their group in fine style by smashing Sevilla 4-0 in Spain.

However, a rock-hard draw has dampened the optimism surrounding Chelsea’s chances. Atletico Madrid will provide the stiffest of challenges, as Liverpool found out to their cost last term. These two games against Diego Simeone’s side will tell us a lot about just how much Frank Lampard has been able to develop his team, and if they can edge out the Spanish side, they’ll feel they can take on anybody in the quarter-finals.

There is a lot to like about Chelsea. They have a deep squad, a plethora of attacking options, a far more sound goalkeeper than before in Edouard Mendy and a vastly experienced defensive leader in Thiago Silva. However, this still feels like a project in its early stages, and I can’t see the Blues going all the way, even if they do overcome Atletico.

Barca unbackable…even at 20/1!

Barcelona – 21.020/1

Barcelona’s Champions League challenge ended in utter humiliation last season, as they went down 8-2 to eventual champions Bayern. The question we need to now ask is: have they improved since then?

I would say they haven’t. Ronald Koeman’s bizarre reign could be over by the time the last 16 begins, and he has so far presided over a dreadful start to the season. Lionel Messi is trying his hardest to paper over the cracks, but it feels like the kind of task that even Sisyphus wouldn’t swap for. Barca are fragile in defence, unbalanced in midfield and they still can’t get the best out of Antoine Griezmann on a consistent basis.

I doubt Barca will even get past PSG, but they certainly won’t win the tournament.

Domestic success may take its toll on Atletico

Atletico Madrid – 22.021/1

Just as Chelsea will have groaned at seeing themselves paired with Atletico Madrid, Diego Simeone will hardly have danced a jig when he saw the draw. However, the Argentine is used to trying to beat the odds, and his team has made tangible progress this term.

Despite the recent derby defeat at Real Madrid, Atletico are well placed in the La Liga title race, and they have been outstanding defensively, conceding just four goals in their first 11 league games. Jan Oblak has rubber-stamped his claim to be the best goalkeeper on the planet.

There is quality in attack too. Joao Felix has sparkled at times at home and abroad, Luis Suarez brings experience and…ahem…bite, while “The Conqueror of Anfield” Marcos Llorente and the returning Yannick Carrasco have caught the eye.

Atleti have a tough tie against Chelsea, and they might be distracted by the genuine opportunity they have to win La Liga for the first time since 2015. At 22.021/1, I can’t quite get on board with Simeone’s side.

Too much uncertainty surrounding Dortmund

Borussia Dortmund – 24.023/1

These are uncertain times for Borussia Dortmund. Coach Lucien Favre was dismissed following the 5-1 home defeat to Stuttgart, a result that saw senior players like Mats Hummels openly criticise his tactics. The interim promotion of Favre’s assistant Edin Terzic should see a return to a more proactive, physical approach, a style that is perhaps more in-keeping with what BVB fans expect.

Star striker Erling Haaland should be back by the time of the last-16 clash with Sevilla, and they will need him against stubborn opponents. Dortmund have a clutch of gifted players, but I have ongoing concerns about goalkeeper Roman Bürki, and every so often the team throws in a collective horror show.

The clash with Sevilla feels like a real toss-up, so I can’t back Die Schwarzgelben to win the tournament, especially as I don’t think they’d be able to overcome teams like Bayern or PSG.

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Sevilla do not appeal

Sevilla – 42.041/1

Having once again won their beloved Europa League last season, Sevilla were determined not to go anywhere near that tournament this season. They avoided that fate with room to spare, taking advantage of a fairly weak group to finish as runners-up behind Chelsea.

Sevilla are tough, and they are well coached by Julen Lopetegui. However, they miss the enterprising play of Sergio Reguilon at left-back (he’s now at Spurs) and the genius of Ever Banega in midfield. Sevilla have a tricky draw against Borussia Dortmund, and even though they made plenty of changes for the 4-0 defeat to Chelsea, the manner of that defeat was concerning.

Lots to like about Leipzig

RB Leipzig – 44.043/1

Although I backed RB Leipzig to qualify from a tough group before the tournament started at 5/4, I must admit I didn’t think they’d be able to beat Manchester United in a must-win game on Matchday Six. It felt like the match at the Red Bull Arena was perfectly set up for a United side that likes to counter-attack, but Leipzig simply overwhelmed their opponents in the opening stages, and never allowed United to counter-punch effectively.

Angelino has been a revelation as a wing-back, there is strength-in-depth in defence, Marcel Sabitzer and Kevin Kampl are tougher than they look in midfield, and Leipzig have lots of players that can hurt the opposition in attack. Dani Olmo, Christopher Nkunku, Justin Kluivert and Emil Forsberg have all contributed goals to the cause, while more conventional centre-forwards like Yussuf Poulsen do the donkey-work to create space.

The true star is 33-year-old coach Julian Nagelsmann, and after falling short against Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool when he was Hoffenheim boss, he now has another chance to pit his wits against one of German football’s most successful recent exports. Don’t be distracted by Nagelsmann’s fancy/awful suits or the 5-0 defeat at Old Trafford – Leipzig will give Liverpool a thorough examination.

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Reasons to doubt Gian Piero Gasperini’s side

Atalanta – 60.059/1

Atalanta were the darlings of the Champions League last season, the swashbuckling adventurers who diced with footballing death over and over again. They had just one point after four group games last term, but made it all the way to the quarter-finals, where PSG eventually overpowered them.

This term, Atalanta have had highs and lows. They were humiliated at home by Liverpool, losing 5-0, but then they won at Anfield in impressive fashion. In a must-not-lose Matchday Six encounter with Ajax in Amsterdam, they showed impressive maturity and control to win 1-0.

However, I have three reasons to doubt Gian Piero Gasperini’s side. The first is that creative genius Papu Gomez seems determined to leave in January after a bust-up with Gasperini. His loss would be a painful blow. Real Madrid might be too streetwise and experienced for La Dea over two legs, and I still have grave misgivings about the Italian team’s defending. Gasperini has switched to a more risk-averse strategy of late, but I still think the heart of the defence is Atalanta’s Achilles heel.

Porto may progress

Porto – 160.0159/1

Porto were remarkably resilient in the group stage, which shouldn’t be a surprise when you think of how coach Sergio Conceicao has made them incredibly competitive during his tenure. After a 3-1 defeat at Manchester City that saw them take the lead and have a big chance at 1-1, Porto kept clean sheets in their other five UCL matches, and won four of them. It helps to have grizzled 37-year-old Pepe still gluing everything together at the back.

Being drawn against Juventus isn’t exactly ideal, but it could have worse, and Porto will look to take advantage of a side that is still settling down under Andrea Pirlo.

madrid freeze highlights a big worry

Borussia Mönchengladbach – 160.0159/1

Gladbach have exceeded expectations by reaching the knockout phase, but as much as the group stage showed how Marco Rose’s men could cause Manchester City a problem or two, it also showcased their frailties.

Die Fohlenelf blew Shakhtar Donetsk away twice, winning by an aggregate score of 10-0. Alassane Plea, Lars Stindl and Marcus Thuram all showed what a threat they can be. However, Gladbach were atrocious in their final game at Real Madrid, freezing completely on the big stage, and they showed their naivety as they blew late leads against Real in Germany and Inter Milan in Italy.

Manchester City will make lots of chances against this Gladbach defence, and the Foals will hit this hurdle hard.

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Lazio look too fragile for this

Lazio – 190.0189/1

Lazio got the toughest possible draw, and it would be a massive surprise if they dethroned the European champions. The Romans nearly didn’t get this far at all – going into their final home game against Club Brugge, they only needed to avoid defeat, but they twice blew a lead and saw their depleted opponents (they were reduced to ten men for the closing stages) strike the crossbar with the final meaningful touch.

Ciro Immobile is a superb goalscorer, Sergey Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto are productive midfielders for totally different reasons, but there is a fragility about Simone Inzaghi’s side. They have the worst defensive record in Serie A’s top half, and they have been well-beaten this term by Atalanta, Sampdoria and Udinese.

It feels like Lazio are seriously punching above their weight, and I suspect they’ll barely lay a glove on Bayern.

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