Well there can’t be any Champions League winners or losers in the sense of results—not yet. The group stage is done and dusted, and the first round of fixtures between the surviving 16 teams (drawn up early Monday morning) won’t be played until February.
This does not mean, however, that there can’t be the appearance of winners and losers. As in, it’s tough to feel good about Schalke, who’ve been struggling to keep both European and domestic competition in hand this season (at 13th in the Bundesliga, they’re currently closer to the bottom of the table than the top). They’re matched up against Manchester City, who we’ve run out of superlatives for, and who have won two of the previous three Champions League meetings between the two teams. We start there.
Loser: Schalke 04
Again, Domenico Tedesco’s men are the only team in the final 16 within spitting distance of relegation in their domestic league, where they’ve managed only 14 points from their past 14 games. On the big stage they finished second behind Porto in a favorable Group D that also featured such European royalty as Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow. And still, Schalke struggled to find goals.
So they’re not exactly the form side left in the competition, although it is remarkable that they’ve made it this far, despite losing talents like Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer over the summer and replacing them with … not much. Still, history is against them—Schalke’s past three campaigns in Europe have all ended in the round of 16. Their biggest, most recent success? An appearance in the semifinals in 2011, which incidentally, was the last time Pep Guardiola won a Champions League title.
Winner: English Soccer
This is the requisite acknowledgement that after three months of group-stage action, all four Premier League teams have done the business—Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Manchester United are all through. However—
Loser: Manchester United
Shall I list the reasons chronologically? Or alphabetically? Jokes aside, United’s 2018 thus far has been a sapping saga of narrowly escaping crisis, by the skin of Luke Shaw’s uncomfortably perfect teeth. The team is predictably unreliable, which is a fancy way of saying bad. They sit sixth in the Premier League, 19 points off the top, with a goal differential of exactly zero. This past weekend, in a depressing display against Liverpool, they allowed 36 shots, the most in any one Premier League game this season. Following the 3-1 loss, they’ve now allowed more goals this campaign (29), than they did all of last season (28).
Meanwhile PSG have lost only once in all competitions this season (to Liverpool, in September), and scored 17 goals through Champions League group play, looking particularly ominous near the end of it with wins over Liverpool and Red Star Belgrade. It’s not really that complicated, though—PSG have a genuinely scary front three of Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, and Edinson Cavani, and United have only second-choice defenders to throw at them.
Winners: Ajax and Lyon
Hear me out. Or actually, hear Michael Caley (and his helpful graphic) out.
One of the big stories of this season. Barcelona and (especially) Real Madrid are worse than they've been in a decade. Opens up the Champions League like crazy. pic.twitter.com/Tg3tkMiEpN— Michael "Chopsy Mug" Caley (@MC_of_A) December 12, 2018
Our dearly departed Ryan O’Hanlon wrote about this earlier in the season, but Barcelona and Real Madrid (along with Bayern Munich) are as vulnerable as they have been in recent memory. This is great news for young teams brimming with talent like Lyon, who’ll be facing Barcelona, and likewise younger teams that run a lot, like Ajax, who’ll be facing Real Madrid. Of the remaining teams, only City (43) has won the ball back more times in the final third than Ajax (39). Lyon, who are still unbeaten in the Champions League this season despite conceding the most goals of the remaining teams (11), also managed a 2-1 win over City in group play. Each may just be good enough to to take down the better side.
Winner: The Neutral
City is paired up against the weakest side; Ajax and Lyon face off against long odds; and the two alternative picks, AS Roma and Porto, are facing off against each other. What’s left are mouth-watering matchups that all seem to be happening a stage or two too early in the competition. Juventus vs. Atlético Madrid—perhaps the Other Madrid Team can exact revenge on Cristiano Ronaldo! Tottenham vs. Borussia Dortmund—likely this round’s most explosive tie, scoring-wise, and a chance for Mauricio Pochettino’s men to lengthen their two-win CL streak against the Black and Yellows to three. And Liverpool vs. Bayern Munich! … Liverpool vs. Bayern Munich.
Losers: Later-stage Matchups
Really, this is just another opportunity to talk about Liverpool vs. Bayern Munich, which on the face of it, should be at least a quarterfinal, if not a semi. Bayern are third in the Bundesliga, and are getting a little old, but they’re still one of the most fearsome complete sides in Europe, while Liverpool are one of its trickiest, and are on an unprecedented run of form to boot. They are still unbeaten in the Premier League, and off to their best-ever start—yet they still lead City by only a point. This adds an extra layer of drama to their last-16 tie: Do they push on through to the later rounds to improve on last year’s second-place finish in Champions League? Can they balance an extended European run with their domestic title challenge?
In any case, you’d expect Jürgen Klopp to be out to change how it was in 2013, when his Dortmund side was bested 2-1 in the Champions League final by Die Roten. This will be the one to watch.
And failing that, the one to DVR, and avoid all push notifications.