UEFA Champions League enter the Round of 16

Manchester City look to keep their repeat title hopes alive and become the first back-to-back UEFA Champions League champions since Real Madrid won three straight from 2015 to 2018. // Photo courtesy of Adam Davy Associated Press

The early matches of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League Round of 16 have concluded and many teams have stamped their claim to  the most coveted trophy in European soccer. As always, there are a variety of underdogs looking to etch their name in history as Cinderella stories while the veteran stalwarts compete to add to their storied legacies. Manchester City and Real Madrid have been favorites for the Champions League since last year’s edition ended with Manchester City hoisting their first Champions League trophy in team history. 

City have continued their strong form in this year’s competition by winning all six of their group stage games despite both legendary midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and superstar striker Erling Haaland missing significant time due to injury. City carried their excellent group stage play  into the Round of 16, taking down Copenhagen 3-1 with  goals from midfielders Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and De Bruyne. Their strongest rival, Real Madrid, has also shown great form thus far, winning four out of their six group stage games. They are led by exciting young midfielder Jude Bellingham, who joined the club in the summer. Real Madrid have won the coveted trophy 14 times, the most in Champions League history. Madrid showed  their pedigree in the competition by taking down RB Leipzig 1-0 thanks to a deadly strike off the foot of midfielder Brahim Díaz to send them to the  quarterfinal.

Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) should also be considered favorites, but their group stage performances have left much to be desired. They barely qualified for the Round of 16 on goal difference. Despite their shaky form, PSG will always have a chance thanks to having arguably the best player on the planet, forward Kylian Mbappé. Mbappé has performed excellently throughout his career in the Champions League since he announced him to the world at AS Monaco, but he hasn’t been able to lift the trophy. This year will be PSG’s last chance to win the Champions League with Mbappé thanks to him announcing that he will be joining Real Madrid after his contract expires at the end of the season. PSG will hope to capitalize on their last opportunity and finally bring the premier European trophy to Paris.

Outside of the favorites, many teams have dreams and the ability to win the Champions League but need some help. Leading the pack in this group are Bayern Munich. Bayern had championship aspirations   heading into the season but this season has not gone to plan. Bayern added striker Harry Kane to an already prominent attacking force, but the team has failed to show their true quality, despite Kane securing 35 goals and assists  in just 29 games over all competitions. Barcelona is another historical powerhouse showing signs of not being able to keep up with the top teams. Barcelona has struggled in the league, falling far behind Real Madrid. 

The club has also gone through a lot of destabilization due  to a lack of financial stability and their manager and club legend Xavi Hernández announcing that he will leave the club at the end of the season.

A new age of teams has emerged throughout Europe to challenge  the established powerhouses. The younger teams that have talent but lack the experience include Napoli, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund. Both Napoli and Arsenal exceeded expectations last season in their domestic league, finishing first and second in the Italian and English  leagues respectively. Dortmund also had a strong title charge but collapsed on the final matchday to limp into the Round of 16. All three of these teams are exceptionally talented but lack the experience that is critical  in the competition.

Finally there are the tournament’s Cinderella stories that cannot expect to be here next season, but must capitalize on their opportunity to make a deep run in the premier European competition. These teams include Lazio, Atlético Madrid, PSV Eindhoven, FC Porto, FC Copenhagen, Real Sociedad and RB Leipzig. All of these teams performed exceptionally well to crack  the Round of 16 but will be facing an uphill challenge to make it further. 

The Champions League is one of the most anticipated competitions in the world and will lead to high-level  soccer being played across the following rounds. Teams will have to be at their very best through every single match to lift one of club football’s most coveted  trophies.