Michael Owen made the bold statement of naming Liverpool as the favourites to win this season’s Champions League on Wednesday night after just four rounds of group stage fixtures.
He had just watched Jurgen Klopp’s side dismantle Atletico Madrid at Anfield after a dominant opening 45 minutes that put the Spanish side to the sword on Merseyside.
Liverpool were comfortable 2-0 winners and sealed progression from a group also featuring AC Milan and Porto with two matches to go.
Michael Owen made the bold statement of naming Liverpool as Champions League favourites
After watching Liverpool beat Atletico, Owen believes his former club are now clear favourites
The Reds, who also extended their unbeaten run across all competitions to 25 games, have barely been troubled in Europe this season, beating Atletico twice and both AC Milan and Porto in their first meetings earlier in the competition.
Owen hailed the ‘Anfield factor’ as a major reason why he thinks Liverpool can go all the way to the St Petersburg final in May but did say Premier League rivals Manchester City and Chelsea would be their ‘biggest dangers’.
However, a graphic produced by Nielsen’s Gracenote using calculations made by their Euro Club Index ranking shows Bayern Munich have the greatest chance of European glory.
So, how does the form of the leading contenders to lift the trophy in Russia compare, what is their record in big games and which decisions have managers got right or wrong after four rounds of group stage fixtures?
But Nielsen’s Gracenote’s Euro Club Index ranking show Bayern Munich to be the favourites
European form – A+
In a word: perfect. Four games and four wins have Liverpool through to the last-16 with two matches to spare.
Klopp’s side needed a Jordan Henderson thunderbolt to see off AC Milan in the first group game after they squandered a 2-0 lead before half-time before then going over to Porto and dismantling them once again.
Braces for Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino, with a Sadio Mane strike sandwiched in between, ensured a 5-1 win at the same stadium in which recent 4-1 and 5-0 victories are very fresh in the memory.
Then came the acid test of the group with a trip to Atletico Madrid. Again Klopp’s side gave away a two-goal lead but a Mohamed Salah penalty in the second half was enough to clinch three points.
Liverpool put five past Porto and have also beaten AC Milan, as well as Atletico Madrid twice
The return fixture promised to be just as engaging before kick off but Liverpool had basically sealed the three points needed to take them through in just 36 minutes when Diogo Jota and Mane fired them in front, only for Felipe to be sent off.
As Owen said on Wednesday night there is really nowhere like Anfield as a stage for a big European night.
Klopp led Liverpool to two Champions League finals in his first two seasons in the competition with the Reds before a goalkeeper error knocked them out in 2019-20 and an injury-depleted squad couldn’t beat Real Madrid last season.
The German has beaten Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Atletico and Man City in the Champions League with Liverpool.
His side fear nobody and will fancy their chances of beating anyone in the knockout stages.
The Reds will hope to win the competition under Klopp again having lifted the prize in 2019
Klopp appears to have got everything right so far this season. He’s rotated his squad excellently between the Premier League and Champions League, often using the Carabao Cup as a breeding ground for youngsters.
He has also found a way to keep Salah, Mane, Firmino and Jota happy with their amount of game time, bringing one in and leaving another out regularly.
If there is one criticism to be levelled at the German though it is his side’s defending that has seen them give up two-goal leads twice in Europe already this season.
When things get more and more tense towards the business end of the tournament then clean sheets are gold dust.
Liverpool’s ‘heavy metal’ football is a joy to behold but sometimes they need to take their foot off the gas and protect what they have – something Klopp will be aware of heading into the knockout stages.
Form – B
Chelsea are probably where you would expect them to be at this point in the group stage but performances have not been what you would expect from the defending champions.
Thomas Tuchel’s side have won all three of their games against the group’s weaker teams – Zenit St Petersburg and Malmo – but were beaten by Juventus in Turin.
Chelsea have won three of their four group matches so far but were beaten by Juventus
However, things have not exactly been plain sailing in the three games they have won – aside from the 5-0 demolition of Malmo in matchday three.
Chelsea only narrowly beat the Swedish side 1-0 on Tuesday night away from home and were largely frustrated by Zenit in the first game of the group at Stamford Bridge, again only winning 1-0.
Three victories have left Tuchel’s side second behind the Italian giants – who have 12 points from 12 – with two games to play.
Juventus travel to Stamford Bridge next in a game Chelsea need to win to have any chance of topping the group. The Blues need just a point from their final two games to guarantee their place in the last-16.
Chelsea were at their best under Tuchel in the knockout stages of last season’s Champions League – a run of games that highlighted exactly what the German wants from his team.
They beat Atletico Madrid 3-0 on aggregate, squeezed past Porto 2-1 and overcame Real Madrid 3-1 in the semi-finals, combining strong defensive work with clinical attacking play in the German’s 3-4-2-1 system.
Chelsea were exceptional under Thomas Tuchel last season and lifted the trophy in Porto
Kai Havertz’s goal in the final against Manchester City was then enough to see them lift the trophy and put the final touch on what had been a remarkable few months for Tuchel since he replaced Frank Lampard.
But in their only real tough game of this season’s tournament they were beaten by an average Juventus side without really threatening the Italians at all.
Tuchel will be confident that was just a one off and will have no doubts in his side’s ability to retain their title.
Although he was struggling for goals before getting injured, Romelu Lukaku will always start in the big games up front.
But it appears Tuchel is still not 100 per cent convinced just who is his best attacking midfield duo – the pair that play just off of Lukaku and ahead of the two holding midfielders.
Mason Mount, Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic, Timo Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi all have been in and out of the team when fit and it could be that getting that combination right is key to their chances.
Tuchel needs to figure out who his preferred pair of attackers playing off Romelu Lukaku are
Tuchel has really nailed home a defensive shape and system that suits his players well and the wing-backs and midfield pairing ahead of the back three all know their roles.
But if there is one criticism of Chelsea it can sometimes be a lack of creativity, which could be critical in those games that are tight and nervy in the latter stages.
Form – B+
A bit like Chelsea, Manchester City have won the three games they would have been expected to so far in the group stage and look on course to qualify.
But they were beaten comfortably by Paris Saint-Germain and that defeat by a major rival for European glory will be nagging away at Pep Guardiola.
City’s problem in their search for European glory has not been beating the smaller teams, rather it’s those nip and tuck contests where they come undone.
They now face PSG at home and finish the group stage away at RB Leipzig. Those two games will be a good indicator of where Manchester City’s European credentials currently are.
Manchester City have blown away Club Brugge and RB Leipzig, but were beaten by PSG
City actually didn’t play too poorly in Paris. They created chances but just couldn’t take them before being undone by a Idrissa Gueye’s early goal and a moment of brilliance by Lionel Messi late on.
Last season they breezed through a group containing Porto, Marseille and Olympiacos before cruising past Borussia Monchengladbach in the last-16.
Then Dortmund were beaten in the quarter-finals to set up a mouth-watering semi-final with PSG.
City were stunning as they beat the French side 4-1 on aggregate, booking their place in the Champions League final against Chelsea as the one trophy that had eluded them came into view.
However, City were flat in Porto and looked shell-shocked after Havertz’s goal. They failed to find a way back into the game and saw their best chance to win the trophy so far slip away.
Messi put Manchester City to the sword in their group clash and they face PSG again next
Against PSG this time they again looked bereft of ideas as they chased an equaliser before Messi took the game away.
It will be something Guardiola is desperate to fix – and will need to – if they are to go one step further than last season.
The huge transfer issue surrounding City – aside from their £100million signing of Jack Grealish – was their failure to land a striker to replace Sergio Aguero.
City often used a ‘false nine’ on their way to winning the Premier League last year, such was Aguero’s fitness issues, but it was felt they would need a top-level centre forward to compete for the biggest prizes.
Grealish came in but a striker – they were heavily linked with Harry Kane – did not, leaving Guardiola to continue with a striker-less system.
This season in the Champions League, Guardiola has used Ferran Torres, Raheem Sterling, and Phil Foden (twice) through the middle.
City are still missing a traditional striker and have used several big names in the ‘false nine’ role
They are scoring goals and look menacing in attack but you feel if there is one area that could cost City again in Europe, when we get down to the fine margins of knockout football, it is missing a No 9.
Form – A+
Like Liverpool, Bayern Munich have been relentless in the group stages so far and have four wins from four games. They are plundering goals and tormenting defences in a group containing Barcelona, Benfica and Dynamo Kiev.
After smashing a helpless Barcelona 3-0 in the Nou Camp on matchday one, the German giants then put five past Kiev in Bavaria.
Bayern Munich have been sensational in the group stage, chalking up a +15 goal difference
They have just come off of two games against Benfica, scoring nine goals across the two games and conceding just two.
It means they are through to the last-16 with two games to spare and boast an outrageous goal difference of +15.
Bayern were dumped out on away goals by PSG in the quarter finals last season at a time where Hansi Flick’s future was at jeopardy.
There was chaos in Munich and defensively Bayern were at sea as they conceded three away goals in the first leg of that last-eight tie, which effectively rendered it over.
But it was just over a year ago in the mini-Champions League finals tournament held in Lisbon at the height of the Covid pandemic that Bayern lifted the European Cup.
They were ruthless in those knockout stages, chalking up a 7-1 aggregate win over Chelsea, blitzing Barcelona 8-2 in the quarter-finals and Lyon 3-0 in the semi-finals.
Kingsley Coman’s header was then enough to seal victory over PSG in the final.
Bayern Munich smashed Barcelona in the quarter-finals back in 2020, a landmark result
Bayern’s squad is littered with world class players at the peak of their powers. Robert Lewandowski is surely nailed on as the winner of this year’s Ballon d’Or while Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka, Benjamin Pavard, Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane are flying.
They also have an ideal blend of experienced heads like Manuel Neuer and Thomas Muller with youngsters Dayot Upamecano, Jamal Musiala and Alphonso Davies.
They look like they have everything it takes to go all the way.
Julian Nagelsmann is one of the most highly-rated young managers in world football and he has Bayern flying in Europe.
But, as proven when he tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of the game with Benfica, Naglesmann doesn’t even need to be on the touchline to lead his team to a dazzling win.
Julian Nagelsmann managed the 4-0 Benfica win from his hotel after testing positive for Covid
Nagelesmann could not attend the game in person, obviously, but still stayed in contact with the squad over the phone and led them to victory from the confines of his five-star Corinthia Hotel.
According to German publication BILD, it was Nagelsmann’s call to bring Serge Gnabry on for Benjamin Pavard in the 66th minute when the game was 0-0.
Bayern ran out 4-0 winners with all four of their goals coming after the 69th minute, proving Nagelsmann is worth every bit of the hype he’s given.
PSG have won two and drawn two of their four Champions League games so far
Form – B
A huge summer of recruitment saw the French giants move mountains to assemble a squad that could finally deliver the Champions League title that their Qatari owners crave.
Lionel Messi, Sergio Ramos and Gini Wijnaldum all arrived on free transfers, three bonafide winners who all have recent memories of winning European football’s top prize.
Mauricio Pochettino also welcomed Gianluigi Donnarumma on a free after his AC Milan contract expired while there were was a big-money deal for Achraf Hakimi from Inter Milan.
But things have not quite clicked into place yet. PSG were held to a 1-1 draw by Club Brugge on matchday one before picking up wins over Manchester City and RB Leipzig on home soil.
But they were held to a point by the German side in the return game on Wednesday night and if they are beaten by Man City next time out then things could get a little nervy going into the final game of the group.
Finishing second could also open up last-16 games against any of Liverpool, Bayern or Chelsea, which would present a huge problem to PSG’s hopes of lifting the European cup.
A dazzling performance away at Bayern last season gave PSG a big boost on their way to the semi-finals. They only just held on in the second leg to go through on away goals.
But then in the semi-finals they were awful as Man City dominated both legs and knocked PSG out.
PSG were awful in last season’s semi-finals as Man City dominated both legs and went through
The season before that, PSG were beaten in the final by Bayern after a relatively comfortable knockout phase that drew them against Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Atalanta.
There was also that humiliating exit by Manchester United in the last-16 in 2018-19, which left Neymar stunned on the sidelines.
We are still waiting for PSG to produce a dominant run of performances against top-tier opposition that will signal they are ready to go all the way.
At present, you would say there are a few teams who look more likely to go all the way.
Pochettino does deserve some credit for the way he set his team up against Manchester City in Paris.
Idrissa Gueye’s early goal set the tone for the match and yes Guardiola’s team created a lot of chances but PSG were resilient and then scored a second late on thanks to a moment of magic from Messi.
In the past it has felt like when the going gets tough the default plan was to give the ball to Neymar or Kylian Mbappe and expect him to conjure up some magic.
Mauricio Pochettino is finding it difficult to get his three attacking stars playing together
Now Messi is in town to help them out but things haven’t exactly gone to plan. The Argentine has three goals in eight appearances but is yet to find the back of the net in Ligue 1.
Pochettino is yet to find a system that brings out the best of all three while also ensuring his team are not wide open at the back and vulnerable to counter attacks.
The deeper PSG go into the tournament the more tactical nous Pochettino will be required to show. Surely he cannot play all three, who do very little work off the ball, against Europe’s top teams? Liverpool and Bayern would cut through them at will.
Who else is there?
Real Madrid are an odd team to analyse at the moment.
After the shock home defeat by Sheriff Tiraspol, Carlo Ancelotti’s side have bounced back by winning all three of their games to move to the top of their group.
But they look awfully short of defenders and are really reliant on Karim Benzema in attack.
Karim Benzema looks unstoppable but Real Madrid don’t look likely to mount a challenge
It doesn’t look like they have all the pieces in place to mount a real challenge for the European Cup.
Juventus, similarly, look like a talented group of players who are struggling to find any sort of form or momentum.
But, as they showed in their victory over Chelsea, they can beat anyone and have so much experience in their back line that they will always cause teams problems.
Meanwhile, Barcelona will do well to get out of their group, Manchester United have so many momentum swings it is hard to know how they will fare while you would not back Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid of Borussia Dortmund to go far.