Real Madrid has won four of the last five Champions League titles. But for the first time since last decade, it will chase European club soccer’s top prize without Cristiano Ronaldo. (Getty)
The 2018-19 Champions League will come to life on Thursday at noon ET. That’s when 32 teams will be drawn from four pots into eight quartets. It’s when the group stage will get its structure.
But as of Wednesday night in Europe, we know who those 32 teams will be. So why wait to rank all 32 of ’em?
Those rankings, split into seven tiers, are below. But first, a look at the confirmed pots for Thursday’s draw:
Champions League group stage draw pots
POT 1: Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Juventus, PSG, Lokomotiv Moscow
POT 2: Tottenham, Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, Roma, Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Benfica
POT 3: Liverpool, Schalke, Lyon, Monaco, CSKA Moscow, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Valencia
POT 4: Hoffenheim, Inter Milan, Galatasaray, Club Brugge, Viktoria Plzen, BSC Young Boys, AEK Athens, Red Star Belgrade
Now, to the rankings, with pot number in parentheses, and with the 32 teams assessed and tiered based on … well, how good each of the 32 is.
As you’ll see, that task is a lot more difficult than it was last year.
Tier 1: The Elite Eight
1. Manchester City (1) — City was the best team in the world last year. That shouldn’t really be a controversial opinion. It met kryptonite in the Champions League quarters and perished, but over 50-plus games, it was a step above third-place Real Madrid, above conservative Barca, above untested Bayern Munich, above all others. The ruthless randomness of knockout competitions can strike anytime. True quality persists. The Citizens are the 2018-19 favorites.
2. Bayern Munich (1) — Bayern outplayed Madrid over two semifinal legs last spring. It returns in 2018-19 with a very similar roster – and now with a healthy No. 1 goalkeeper. It has depth and diversity of all kinds. It is also, unlike those of competitors, well-rested thanks to Germany’s World Cup flameout. And it’ll remain that way in a harmless Bundesliga. The Bavarians haven’t strengthened this summer, but transfer market reinforcements aren’t a European title prerequisite.
3. Barcelona (1) — Barca’s subsea shortcomings last season rose to the surface on one infamous night in Rome. Can second-season Philippe Coutinho and second-season Ousmane Dembele turn the Blaugrana back into a domineering juggernaut? Or will defensa y Messi dependencia continue? We don’t yet have a big enough sample size at hand to know. Either route could lead to Madrid in May. But the former is certainly preferable.
4. Juventus (1) — The early Ronaldo returns? They have absolutely nothing to do with Juve’s Champions League knockout round potency. The earth-shaking transfer didn’t take the Serie A champs far afield domestically. But it might just give them the final-third dynamism they need to get over the hump in Europe. (Or, more likely than not, it won’t; that’s how Champions Leagues work. Nobody’s title odds surpass 20 percent. Regardless, Juve is a more serious contender now than it was two months ago.)
5. Liverpool (3) — The Reds look like legitimate contenders in the Premier League and on the continent. They’re built to stage uprisings against the elite. Their defensive frailties are problems of the past. This isn’t an overreaction to last year’s run. If anything, Liverpool should be even higher than fifth.
Could Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Liverpool get back to the Champions League final? (Getty)
6. Real Madrid (1) — Madrid will have more of the ball, more control, and quite possibly more defensive security under Julen Lopetagui. It’ll likely have less attacking punch. It realistically could be better than it was a year ago. But it will almost certainly be less of a continental threat. Those two statements aren’t incompatible with each other. Bossing a league and beating the best of the best are two very different team-wide skills.
7. PSG (1) — The attacking trident remains the world’s best. Behind that the threesome? The big difference isn’t personnel; it’s manager Thomas Tuchel, who hasn’t yet earned the benefit of the doubt in European competitions. But the gap between No. 7 and No. 1 in these rankings is minimal. Perhaps as narrow as it’s ever been. The order will undoubtedly be different come February. Heck, it’d probably be different next week. You could argue the Parisians deserve to be No. 2, and I wouldn’t push back too hard.
8. Atletico Madrid (1) — By far the least likely of these eight top-tier teams to win a domestic trophy. By far the least star power. But to doubt Atletico Madrid in Europe – last year’s group stage blunders be damned – is sacrilege.
Tier 2: Lonely Spurs
9. Tottenham (2) — Definitely better than Napoli or Man United – see Monday as evidence. But without Atleti’s pedigree or PSG’s talent. Spurs, therefore, get a tier to themselves.
Tier 3: I Contendenti Marginali
10. Napoli (2) — That tier name is Italian for “fringe contenders,” or “marginal contenders.” Because Napoli, like the two Serie A teams below it, can play with superclubs on its day. It was arguably better than Juventus last season. But Carlo Ancelotti is a drastic departure from Maurizio Sarri, and there will be unforeseen pains that accompany the transition. Ancelotti lowers Napoli’s ceiling.
11. Manchester United (2) — The Red Devils are bad right now. They also should have a new manager by the time the Champions League Round of 16 rolls around. A new manager would make them less bad – and perhaps even good!
12. Roma (2) — Don’t expect an encore semifinal run. But don’t expect the sales of Alisson, Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman to be crippling, either. Monchi is working his magic. Roma will be anything but a knockout-round pushover.
13. Inter Milan (4) — Inter’s squad is intensely intriguing. Unfortunately, a first Champions League appearance since 2011-12 means a spot in Pot 4 at Thursday’s draw. So cruel ping-pong balls and a group stage exit are just as likely as a quarterfinal berth.
Tier 4: Round of 16 Hopefuls
14. Borussia Dortmund (2) — Dortmund has definitively fallen from the ranks of the contenders. The departures of Dembele and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, coupled with a string of low-risk misses in the transfer market, have left the roster starved of top-end talent. The attack, at this point, is what it is. Dortmund’s upside depends on the development of Manuel Akanji and Abdou Diallo as one of the sport’s best young central defensive duos.
15. Valencia (3) — Valencia finished three points behind Real Madrid last year in La Liga. Those two teams’ Expected Goal differentials? Roughly plus-10 and plus-46, respectively. Read into that however you please.
16. Lyon (3) — Gone are the days of six consecutive knockout round appearances. Lyon hasn’t made the Round of 16 since 2011-12, when it was bounced by APOEL Nicosia. But there’s enough 25-and-under quality here to make the “sleeper” label apt.
17. Porto (2) — Portuguese champions for the first time since 2012-13.
18. Benfica (2) — Got a scare from PAOK in the qualifying playoffs, but the gap between the two Portuguese participants is slim.
Tier 5: The Nuisances
19. Shakhtar Donetsk (2) — The eternal (Brazilian) talent drain continues. Fred and Bernard are the latest to jet off to England. Shakhtar looks as feeble as ever. But midweek Ukrainian trips will always vex superior opponents.
20. Ajax (3) — Ajax is back! Back after three years of qualifying playoff disappointment, and back with a somewhat atypical blend of promising youngsters (Matthijs De Ligt, Kasper Dolberg), prime-age catalysts (Hakim Ziyech, Dusan Tadic, Nicolas Tagliafico) and recognizable names (Daley Blind, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar). At the very least, they should be fun.
21. Monaco (3) — They’ve made a remarkable $600 million on player sales over the past 15 months, and the reinvestment has been … suspect so far. But the average age of at least 20 incomings has been under 23. So let’s give the kids some time.
22. Schalke (3) — Nowhere near as good as a second-place Bundesliga finish would suggest. But hey, it’s going to be very, very cool to see Weston McKennie playing in the Champions League.
23. Hoffenheim (4) — The Bundesliga behind Bayern last year was a mess. The performances of Hoffenheim and Schalke in Europe are going to be telling.
Tier 6: Not Relevant
24. PSV Eindhoven (3) — Chucky Lozano is a wizard, and we’re hype for his Champions League debut.
25. Galatasaray (4) — Won a four-team title race in Turkey last season behind the goals of Bafetimbi Gomis(!) … which tells you a lot about the quality of the Super Lig, and by extension Galatasaray’s squad.
26. Lokomotiv Moscow (1) — Won a five-team title race in Russia with just 41 goals – on 36.4 xG, per Understat – over 30 games. Somehow. And the Russian league ranks sixth behind the big five, so Lokomotiv snags a Pot 1 spot. Somehow.
27. CSKA Moscow (3) — Not an easy away trip, but not a knockout-round threat, either.
Tier 7: The Minnows
28. Club Brugge (4) — Earned direct qualification by winning both the Belgian league’s regular season and playoffs.
29. AEK Athens (4) — Greek champions for the first time since 1993-94. But Greek soccer as a whole is tumbling downhill. Olympiacos, for example, has been reduced to Europa League qualifiers against Burnley.
30. BSC Young Boys (4) — European soccer’s best-named club makes its Champions League/European Cup return after a 32-year hiatus.
31. Viktoria Plzen (4) — UEFA’s computers spit out league coefficient rankings that placed the Czech first division ahead of the Dutch Eredivisie, among others. Plzen capitalized and qualified directly.
32. Red Star Belgrade (4) — Took down last year’s Europa League darlings, Red Bull Salzburg, in the qualifying playoffs with a two-goal second-leg comeback in Austria. Then their traveling fans stormed the field and literally took jerseys off their victorious players’ backs:
– – – – – – –
Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.