Only two matchdays are now left in the group stage of the 2015-2016 UEFA Champions League, and things are really starting to draw closer to a decisive conclusion. Three of the 16 teams spots in the knockout draw have already been claimed with victories this week, and two of the 32 teams are now mathematically eliminated from reaching the next round. Rather than looking back at the past matchday too much, we’re going to focus forward more this week as we examine which teams are likeliest to still be competing after matchday six.
Real Madrid punched its ticket to the Round of 16 with a 1-0 home victory over Paris Saint-Germain, thanks to the kismet of a goal by Nacho soon after subbing in for Marcelo. With 10 points in four matches, Real is guaranteed to finish no lower than second in Group A. Now eyes turn to Sweden, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic returning home on November 25 as PSG takes on Malmo. The French squad will claim the other spot in the next round with a victory, needing two or more points to go through. A draw against Malmo would cause PSG to require another point from the final home match in early December against Shakhtar Donetsk, but either way there is no reason to expect that Zlatan and company will fail to claim all three from the Swedes. However it shakes out, there is no conceivable reason to think that PSG won’t be joining Real in the knockout stage.
EXPECTED FINISH: Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Shakhtar Donetsk, Malmo FF
Absolutely nothing is settled yet in Group B, with three points separating first position from the cellar. CSKA Moscow seems like the least likely to advance, with only one home match remaining against Wolfsburg and a trip to Eindhoven on the last matchday. Manchester United seems like the safest bet to claim at least one of the two spots in the next round, with seven points and the only positive goal differential in the group. But PSV Eindhoven gave them trouble when they traveled to the Netherlands, and despite the recent run of form the Red Devils are susceptible to a stumble… or at least a draw. One thinks that Wolfsburg might also be able to fight out a draw in Moscow. So on the final matchday, with United headed to Germany and CSKA heading west to face the Dutch side, we could see the English giants relegated to the Europa League.
EXPECTED FINISH: PSV Eindhoven, VfL Wolfsburg, Manchester United, CSKA Moscow
By beating Galatasaray in Lisbon on Tuesday, Benfica can finish no lower than third, ensuring that their European journey will continue into 2016. They next head to Kazakhstan to face an Astana side that has managed to hold both Galatasaray and Atletico Madrid to draws at home. Can the Portuguese squad break that spell? They’ll have to gain at least a point to keep pace with an Atletico side that plays at home in Span against Galatasaray and has a chance to go top of the group with a win and a Benfica defeat or draw thanks to a superior goal differential. Benfica does get to host Atletico on the final matchday, so if they end up with 10 points apiece after five matches they will have already both qualified. As much potential as Galatasaray brings to the competition, the Turkish side was dealt a deceptively tough draw and is unlucky to see its European sojourn continue not in the octofinals but instead in the Europa League draw.
EXPECTED FINISH: Atletico Madrid, Benfica, Galatasaray, Astana
The pair of draws that graded Group D on the fourth matchday effectively sealed the deal for Manchester City and Juventus. The Sky Blues have a guaranteed spot in the Round of 16, while Juventus needs just one more point to assure advancement and can fall no lower than third. If the Italians gain just a draw next matchday when they host Manchester City in Turin, both teams will completely seal the deal. Sevilla and Borussia Monchengladbach are effectively fighting one another for the Europa League spot out of the group in three weeks, and their rematch will take place this time in Germany. Sevilla won 3-0 at home on the first matchday of the group stage, and despite the travel they will likely be able to return home with at least a draw. That should be enough to guarantee a continuance of the European season, despite the rough draw.
EXPECTED FINISH: Manchester City, Juventus, Sevilla, Borussia Monchengladbach
Defending champion Barcelona is in pole position in the group, a 3-0 win over BATE Borisov on Wednesday securing a place atop the group with 10 points after four matches. The Catalans next take on Roma at home before facing Bayer Leverkusen in Germany. Even with only two points, they are guaranteed of first place and a better draw in the Round of 16, and just two points is highly unlikely. Roma gets to play the Belorussians at home rather than on the road, and they are already sitting a point ahead of Leverkusen in the table. It all comes down to how each play against Barcelona, and how many goals that each ends up conceding. Ultimately Italy is likely to get a second team in the knockout stage this season, and Bayer is going to have to console itself with a likely deep run in the Europa League — if they choose to take it seriously.
EXPECTED FINISH: Barcelona, Roma, Bayer Leverkusen, BATE Borisov
I don’t know what is wackier… that Bayern Munich only has nine points after four matches, or that Olympiakos is the OTHER team in the group that has nine points at this point in the group stage. The Bavarians humiliated Arsenal at home, toying with the Gunners to the tune of a 5-1 defeat that mimicked the hopeless state that Brazil found itself in against a German side staffed by so many of these Bayern stalwarts 16 months ago. After earning a promising defeat against Munich on the third matchday, Arsenal now finds itself back at the bottom of the group and needing a full three points against Dinamo Zagreb to reach even the Europa League. The Croatians aren’t likely to cede continued European opportunity without a fight, though, and the Londoners will need to recover quickly lest they concede even a draw. Here’s guessing the three weeks does them well, and Arsenal at least acquits itself into the lesser draw.
EXPECTED FINISH: Bayern Munich, Olympiakos, Arsenal, Dinamo Zagreb
Willian saved Chelsea from sacrificing a chance at a win at home over Dynamo Kyiv, and now the Blues are guaranteed to at least play in the Europa League when the group stage concludes. Porto still sits three points ahead of the flagging English side, however, and there is every chance that Dynamo can still get past them in the table with a home match against Maccabi Tel Aviv still providing a goal-padding opportunity. Given how Chelsea has played, they could still draw in Israel to give Maccabi its first-ever point in European competition and then fall at home to Porto to open the door for Kyiv. Would it surprise you with the way Jose Mourinho’s club has played this year?…
No? Well, to be fair, I’m not surprised either. Look for the Ukrainians to squeak past the Londoners and into the Round of 16, as England’s season continue to flame out in European competition.
EXPECTED FINISH: FC Porto, Dynamo Kyiv, Chelsea, Maccabi Tel Aviv
The only perfect team remaining after four Champions League matchdays isn’t one of the traditional giants of Europe but rather a nouveau riche contender that, like a PSG, has spent its way into a shot at making waves in the competition on an annual basis. I speak, of course, about Zenit St. Petersburg, which won 2-0 on the road at Lyon to take full points from its fourth straight match in the competition. The loss didn’t technically eliminate Lyon, but the math certainly doesn’t work in the French side’s favor. If Lyon can’t beat Gent next week, they will have no shot at even a Europa League berth, and the Belgians will be hosting Zenit on the final matchday with a prayer of reaching the Round of 16. Valencia is the more likely team to finish runner-up, but none of the other teams in Group H look like they have a chance of even drawing against the Russians. Artyom Dzyuba, Hulk, and company have a legitimate shot of finishing as the top seed entering the next round with a 6-0-0 record.
EXPECTED FINISH: Zenit St. Petersburg, Valencia, Gent, Lyon
What This Means for the Round of 16 Draw
With these projections, the eight champions would be:
- Zenit St. Petersburg
- Real Madrid
- Bayern Munich
- FC Porto
- Manchester City
- Atletico Madrid
- PSV Eindhoven
The eight runners-up from the group stage would be:
- Paris Saint-Germain
- VfL Wolfsburg
- Dynamo Kyiv
Based on the UEFA rules for determining pairings for the first knockout stage — no playing another team from the same country, and no playing the other qualifying team from your group — the Round of 16 might look something like this:
- Zenit St. Petersburg v. VfL Wolfsburg
- Juventus v. PSV Eindhoven
- Manchester City v. Paris-Saint Germain
- Real Madrid v. Olympiakos
- Barcelona v. Benfica
- Bayern Munich v. Dynamo Kyiv
- Atletico Madrid v. Roma
- FC Porto v. Valencia
Of course, there are still 32 matches left to play before we can even determine definitive pools. But were this to be the way things shake out, it would make for one hell of a bracket, with nary a dud in the bunch. Real Madrid might have the easiest time… and that’s with a huge qualifier, given how Olympiakos has played.