Champions League Power Rankings: Defending champs Chelsea enter this season on top; Man City, PSG close behind

We’re back! On Tuesday the Champions League resumes (check out all the action on Paramount+) with 32 of Europe’s best teams battling for continental supremacy. Who is in the best shape as the competition returns? We assess the runners and riders below.

The top tier: Title or bust

These teams should be disappointed with anything less than a semi final berth and frankly even that might not be enough, such is their talent profile.

1. Chelsea (unchanged)

If you want to get a sense of how relentlessly exceptional the holders are go and watch their 3-0 win over Aston Villa, a match where the opponents did everything right and still got absolutely walloped. Chelsea have world class talent at the peak of their powers — Romelu Lukaku, Jorginho, Kai Havertz — and the depth to absorb injuries and poor performances. They almost justify a tier of their own.

2. Manchester City (unchanged)

Arguably the inverse of Chelsea, not quite that impressive yet (which is saying something when they already have two 5-0 wins to their name) but with so much obvious room to develop and improve their repurposed frontline. The return of Kevin De Bruyne may be City’s best bet at center forward but in the meantime Ferran Torres is doing an admirable job and the defense looks as menacing this year as it did last.

3. Paris Saint-Germain (unchanged)

In our initial rankings we asked how much time Mauricio Pochettino would have to meld his squad before the group stage. The answer would appear to be not a lot at all. Lionel Messi still has not made his home debut nor played alongside Neymar. Sheer weight of talent will take them far but it may have to be enough.

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Serious contenders: If things go right, why not us

It certainly is not beyond the realm of imagination that any of these teams could be lifting the European Cup in Istanbul come May, though it may require a few fortunate breaks for the tournament to go their way.

4. Liverpool (unchanged)

Any fears that it may take time for the returning cast of stars to rediscover their mojo has been laid to rest early in this season, one where Mohamed Salah has begun with his customary goal scoring vigor and in which Virgil van Dijk has immediately settled into imperious mode. There are still questions about what lies beyond the strongest 14 or so players but keep them fit and Liverpool can win it all.

5. Bayern Munich (unchanged)

They hardly burst out of the blocks but the last few weeks have really seen Bayern begin to build momentum through what might have been a tricky fixture list. RB Leipzig were swatted away in emphatic fashion with Leroy Sane enjoying a welcome revival in form now he is playing in his favored role on the left. Early reports would suggest that Lucas Hernandez and Dayot Upamecano have the making of a very solid central defensive pairing.

Dark horses: Unlikely contenders, but contenders all the same

These teams are unlikely champions, but then so were Chelsea this time a year ago. It may take a change of circumstances like the Blues had when they appointed Thomas Tuchel, perhaps a new signing or the unearthing of a new tactical plan. It’s possible, but certainly not probable.

6. Atletico Madrid (up two)

Though they left it late to win at Espanyol on Sunday it was a game that also showed the sheer weight of attacking talent that Diego Simeone can call upon with Joao Felix, Matheus Cunha and Thomas Lemar entering the fray behind the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez. Such a galaxy of attacking riches feels very un-Atletico but they have still allowed opponents the fifth lowest expected goals (xG) tally in La Liga despite their more open approach.

7. Real Madrid (unchanged)

It was only natural to doubt their attacking firepower before the season truly begun. It is much harder to do so now. Their four La Liga matches have brought 13 goals with Vinicius Junior rising to the moment early in the campaign with four. Eden Hazard may not have scored but he is improving in the knowledge that there is a young Brazilian vying for minutes with him.

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8. Manchester United (down one)

The signing of Cristiano Ronaldo certainly has Old Trafford believing that their team will be winning silverware this season even if the engine room looks a little light on quality. Their 4-1 demolition of Newcastle showed much of the good and bad of Manchester United, a side whose sheer weight of attacking talent can crush teams but who often look a bit light on protection high up the pitch when opponents counter.

9. Borussia Dortmund (up two)

They’re going to be fun, that’s for sure. Four Bundesliga games involving Dortmund have brought 22 goals, 13 for BVB. Marco Rose is getting plenty of attacking talent into his side in a midfield diamond with full backs that push up to provide service for Erling Haaland, who looks to be a walking guarantee of at least a goal a game.

10. Juventus (unchanged)

The sense of a rebuilding year is growing at Juventus after a start to the Serie A season that still has not brought Massimiliano Allegri’s side a win. Losing Cristiano Ronaldo means this side will not be as devastating as they might be in attack but Euro 2020 offered proof that a defense led by Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci can still achieve great things.

Knockout stage contenders

You will note here that there are slightly more contenders for the knockout stages than there will be teams in there. Welcome to the wonder of those teams battling for second spot in the groups. There will always be someone disappointed.

11. Barcelona (down two)

Our first team to drop entirely out of a tier because when you construct a scenario that ends with Barcelona winning the Champions League you find yourself diving into the realms of fan fiction rather than convincing sporting logic. Maybe Joan Laporta will find a billion dollars down the sofa. Maybe Pedri is the bionic footballer, capable of playing every single minute of every single game with no discernible loss in talent.

But this team has lost two world class attackers this summer and now seems reliant on Memphis Depay to be their talisman. Not even Griezmann. They will probably reach the knockout stages but no longer can you even vaguely see a scenario in which top tier talent steps out from Messi’s shadow to win it all.

12. Sevilla (unchanged)

They had a weekend game against Barcelona postponed that might have sent them above their fellow La Liga side in these power rankings. Julen Lopetegui’s side look well set for a successful season in Europe: solid in defense and with the attacking duo of Youssef En-Nesyri and Erik Lamela in fine fettle in front of goal.

13. Wolfsburg (up six)

The Bundesliga leaders, Wolfsburg have been grinding out narrow wins early in the German season with new signing Lukas Nmecha looking to be an impressive foil to Wout Weghorst. This team look to have taken on the personality of their manager Mark van Bommel: hard to beat and not fun at all to play against.

14. Inter Milan (down one)

Twice throwing away the lead against Sampdoria brought Inter’s winning start to their title defense to an early end but it was perhaps no surprise that a hot streak in front of goal early in the campaign might be balanced out by difficulties at the other end. They average 1.3 xG from their first three Serie A games (the 12th best tally in the league) so their status as the division’s top scorers comes with a caveat for now.

15. Ajax (up three)

It is always hard to judge Ajax before the start of the European campaign simply because the standard in the Eredivisie is so far from what they might expect on the continent. Still the summer weeks reflect well on Ajax — even back to an impressive run of results in pre-season — and Sebastian Haller’s scoring form is an encouraging sign ahead of their return to the Champions League.

16. Sporting (up one)

The Portuguese champions rise rather by default considering so many teams around them have staggered out of the blocks early in this season. They may not have emerged with a victory against the 10 men of Porto in the Leoes vs Dragoes derby but they had by far the better of the game in terms of shots, chances and xG. Were it not for the outstanding early season form of Benfica their position in the Portuguese league might look rather rosier.

17. Atalanta (down two)

If the question of Atalanta’s early season games was how they would cope without Serie A’s best defender from last season (Cristian Romero, now at Tottenham), the answer came back emphatically in a 2-1 defeat to Fiorentina where Dusan Vlahovic netted two penalties brought about from clumsy work at the back. Gianpiero Gasperini’s side look similarly shaky in their opening day win over Torino and may feel that the group stages have come earlier than they might have liked.

18. RB Leipzig (down four)

Atalanta are not the only success story of recent Champions Leagues who might like to hit the snooze button on their participation in this season’s competition. A 4-1 defeat at Bayern Munich’s hands means Jesse Marsch’s side are 1-0-3 early in the Bundesliga season, effervescent in attack but severely hampered at the back without Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate.

19. Villarreal (down three)

Three games in La Liga have brought three draws for Unai Emery’s side, who look seriously underwhelming in attack to start the new season. Gerard Moreno has had plenty of shots but perhaps only one of them has been high value, in three games the team as a whole have taken just four shots worth more than 0.1 xG. They may have picked up points against Espanyol and Atletico Madrid but they were seriously outplayed in both of those games.

20. Benfica (up four)

It doesn’t feel impossible anymore to imagine that the Portuguese league leaders might overhaul Barcelona and finish second in their group. It is still unlikely but Jorge Jesus’ side look to be an impressive defensive force early in their campaign, winning all five domestic games with only two goals against and holding similarly firm against PSV Eindhoven.

In the mix for top two

A few fortunate breaks and they may find themselves extending their Champions League involvement beyond Christmas. Don’t bet on it though.

21. Red Bull Salzburg (up one)

Much like Ajax, some degree of judgement has to be withheld until we have seen what they can do against better opposition than the Austrian Bundesliga offers. Equally the quality of players at Salzburg should not be in doubt with Karim Adeyemi and Brenden Aaronson primed for the sort of breakout seasons that Haaland and Dominik Szobszlai have enjoyed on this stage in years gone by.

22. Besiktas (up one)

Sergen Yalcin’s side have made an impressive start to the season in Turkey and are yet to concede a goal in their first four matches. Michy Batshuayi’s brace in a win over Yeni Malyataspor was a reminder that despite his peripatetic career path he is still a striker of considerable talent who has been consistently trusted by the Belgian national team. 

23. AC Milan (up two)

Their group may be extremely difficult but perhaps the time is right to believe in Stefano Pioli’s Serie A table toppers. A 2-0 victory over Lazio was the sort of statement result that puts teams in just the right frame of mind for a trip to Anfield with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s making a goal scoring return off the bench. Early in the Italian season they look solid in defense and with options to do damage at the other end of the pitch.

24. Dynamo Kyiv (up three)

Seven games into the Ukrainian season the early findings for Dynamo are impressive indeed: six wins and a draw, 22 goals scored and just two conceded. Viktor Tsyhankov is in a rich vein of scoring form and though he did not catch fire at Euro 2020 it seems just a matter of time before he shows what he can do at a higher level.

25. Shakhtar Donetsk (down four)

As is the case in the Ukrainian league, Shakhtar just trail Dynamo though both promise to be, at the very least, tough outs in the group stage. Pedrinho is one who could shine in the Champions League after his devastating display in the first leg of the play off against Monaco. “We respect them but we will play to qualify,” the Brazilian said of group stage opponents Inter and Madrid. “Last year we missed the knockout round narrowly and this year we want to do better.”

26. Porto (unchanged)

With the exact same record as Sporting following their draw at the weekend, Porto may yet shoot up the rankings if they get a competitive result against Atletico Madrid. After all this was a team that knocked out Juventus last season. Luis Diaz looks to be in fine form early in the campaign but they will need more to get out of a hellacious group.

Likely chasing the Europa League

There are no bad teams in the Champions League but these five will do well to achieve much more than third place

27. Sheriff Tiraspol (up two)

An almost complete unknown heading into the group stages and that itself brings value for Moldova’s first representative in the Champions League group stages. They have nothing to fear and on the basis of the qualifiers they have the quality to beat good European teams. Sheriff could be the most fun team to watch in Europe.

28. Zenit Saint Petersburg (unchanged)

The Russian champions seem to have found impressive league form recently, beating CSKA Moscow before the international break and returning with a comprehensive victory over Akhmat Grozny. Last year’s player of the year Sardar Azmoun has continued where he left off last season with five goals from his first six games.

29. Lille (down nine)

The French champions do not look remotely ready for a season of Champions League football. A 2-1 defeat at Lorient has them in the bottom half of Ligue 1. Their defense looks inviting whilst Burak Yilmaz’s remarkable 2020-21 season does not look like setting the stage for a 36 year old to emerge as one of Europe’s best strikers.

30. Young Boys (up one)

None of the minnows in this year’s group stage promise to be quite as intriguing as David Wagner’s Swiss champions. They have started their league season slowly but drew at Basel and smashed FC Zurich on their return from the international break. Their aggressive high press could spook plenty of defenses… and lead to an awful lot of pressure on their own.

31. Club Brugge (down one)

A 6-1 hammering by Gent prior to the international break sends Club Brugge slipping down these ranks even if they do still sit top of the Belgian league. Starting the campaign at home to PSG really is a reminder of how tough this group will be for Philippe Clement’s side; any points they get should be cause for celebration.

32. Malmo (unchanged)

Having scraped past Ludogorets in the playoffs, the Swedish champions have struggled to put together a run of results, losing at Hammarby before drawing at home to Norrkoping, a result that has them third in the Allsvenskan. Ahead of what threatens to be a challenging opener against Juventus things are not going that well for Malmo.

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