The path to Istanbul is set and perhaps for the first time we have a clear sense of who could be hoisting the trophy in June (remember you can catch all he action on Paramount+). The quarterfinal and semifinal draw is below, scroll down to see our favorites for the tournament.
- Real Madrid vs. Chelsea
- Inter Milan vs. SL Benfica
- Manchester City vs. Bayern Munich
- AC Milan vs. Napoli
- AC Milan or Napoli vs. Inter Milan or SL Benfica
- Real Madrid or Chelsea vs. Manchester City or Bayern Munich
The top tier: Title or bust
These teams should be disappointed with anything less than a semifinal berth and frankly even that might not be enough, such is their talent profile.
1. Napoli (+2)
There is a sense of destiny around Naples right now. Serie A is in the bag and suddenly the path to the final is wide open, a fairly ordinary domestic opponent in the last eight and then the winner of Inter Milan and Benfica. A season that paused for Argentina to win the World Cup since Diego Maradona led them could conclude with the city where he attained iconic status celebrating European glory. Not that Napoli needed a favorable draw in the first place.
With the caveat of variable difficulty factors over the group stages, the expected goals (xG) table for the tournament so far offers a clear sense of where Napoli should stand in the European pantheon. A fair way out in front are City, then comes Napoli followed by another sizeable gap to the rest of the field. That is quite something when one could argue that Luciano Spalletti's team have not really faced a bad team, unless one is being harsh to Rangers. Everyone they have met, at home and abroad, has simply been taken to the cleaners. It is hard to see anyone stopping them from reaching a final.
2. Real Madrid (+2)
The semifinals will make for an almighty test of Carlo Ancelotti's side, who are showing precious little in La Liga to convince you that they are European champions in waiting, but they can be extremely confident of getting that far with Chelsea up first. But perhaps that merely reflects a team that picks and chooses its moments, that will be using its domestic minutes to rotate and freshen up.
After all, in Europe they look really, really good. There is a case to be made that their second leg win over Liverpool was actually more impressive than their first, a game where for 70 minutes every ricochet, hit and hope and 50:50 duel seemed to favor Madrid. In the Santiago Bernabeu, however, the holders understood what kind of game they needed to play to maximise their chances of qualification. Aided by the absence of Liverpool counterparts, Madrid's midfield throttled the contest, keeping the pace of the game at a more sedate level while reserving the right to strike for goal at a moment's notice. Perhaps more so than any match on their way to the title last year, this felt like a dominant performance from one of the best sides in Europe.
3. Manchester City (-2)
At the outset it's worth noting that Manchester City might have the most impactful star left in the field, a player who has outperformed his xG for so long that even sizeable regression would make him one of the best finishers the game has ever seen. Erling Haaland might have brought tactical complications that have been exposed in the Premier League but, as he proved against RB Leipzig, he makes City an even more formidable Champions League contender.
However this is the Champions League, the door is flung open to random chance on the European stage and it might be that this season once again Rodrygo or Mousa Dembele happens. This is a draw that blazes in flashing neon "something mad is going to happen". Will Pep Guardiola go rogue on his return to Munich? Which Madrid player could turn the tie in the last minute?
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 June, though it may require a few fortunate breaks for the tournament to go their way.
4. Bayern Munich (-2)
If Julian Nagelsmann's side are the chaotic volume scoring, volume conceding team they often appear to be in the Bundesliga then there is almost no way that they can charm their way past Manchester City, probably Real Madrid and presumably Napoli. The authority with which they controlled their round of 16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain has been the exception, but then again their domestic competition is not one that is set up for the sort of considered possession football that they are well suited to.
Last season Bayern had the underlying metrics of a potential champion, this year there has been a drop. The scoring shortfall, from 2.6 xG per game to 1.6, was probably to be expected when Robert Lewandowski departed but they have already given up more xG to their opposition in eight Champions League games this term than they did in 10 last. The field has arguably taken a step back from 2021-22 but so have Munich.
Dark horses: Unlikely contenders, but contenders all the same
This team is an unlikely champion, but then so were Real Madrid at this time in 2022. It may take a change of circumstances, or a new tactical plan, or simply Karim Benzema having the season of his life, but it's possible. It's certainly not probable, but stranger things have happened.
5. Benfica (--)
Still we remain in the dark about how good a team Benfica are. Unless you feel particularly strongly about PSG it seems fair to say that they simply have not been tested. Their unknowability is what really marks them out for dark horse status; the battering they handed to Club Brugge was impressive in the extreme and there is talent young and old in Goncalo Ramos, Joao Mario and David Neres. What that coalesces into against top tier opposition is intriguingly out of reach for a while yet but a favorable draw means they have to be considered likely semifinalists. From there on out, who knows?
Well done for getting this far
Maybe the draw hasn't been kind to these teams. Maybe they have reached the upper limits of their talent ceiling. Either way the end is fast approaching for these teams.
6. Inter Milan (+1)
Their 1-0 aggregate win over Porto will live on so briefly that even in writing this I am starting to wonder if it was maybe Sporting that Inter beat? Maybe Deportivo La Coruna, actually? Porto, really, you're sure? And Romelu Lukaku scored the goal? If you say so, chief... If there was a talking point to emerge from the second leg it would be how long Simone Inzaghi's side managed to keep their opposition at arms' length, not until the late salvo of shots from Mehdi Taremi and Marko Grujic did Andre Onana really get tested. They're serving ok defense and ok attack and that might just be enough if Benfica are not as good as they seem to be. It seems unlikely however.
7. AC Milan (+1)
Milan were a lot better than Tottenham over their two legs and Stefano Pioli's back three did a solid job of shutting out Kane, but boy did they make it hard for themselves at the other end. Given their control of territory and possession they should have had plenty more than the 23 shots they took over the two legs, not that it might have made much difference, so timid was their finishing. That carried on into Serie A, where they drew 1-1 with Salernitana on Monday. Milan gave Napoli some headaches when they met earlier in the season before losing to a late Giovanni Simeone goal. Since then, the Serie A leaders have streaked ahead, the Scudetto holders have taken a step back. The end of the road is in sight, you suspect.
8. Chelsea (-2)
Slowly but surely, things are improving at Chelsea, the better results lagging some way behind the improved performances but emerging just before the pressure on Graham Potter became unbearable. Now the Blues look like a team whose template could give them a puncher's chance with a good draw, their manager's cautious approach to possession meaning they have had one of the Premier League's best defensive records since the World Cup. The issue is they have anything but a good draw. They're getting better but they are a long, long way from the level of their opponents.