Plenty of action remains in the Group Stage of the UEFA Champions League. But with 5 of the 6 rounds in the books, some teams have already secured a spot, and a few countries' FAs either have something to be proud of, or have a lot of work to do. Spain and Germany are in the best position, France is in serious trouble, and a few countries are still waiting on upcoming results.
As we all know, 16 teams will advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League. If my calculations are correct, 13 have already clinched a spot, and 6 teams are fighting for the last 3 spots. Here's how it works out - as always, if I've made an error, let me know in the comments or email me at email@example.com.
Advanced: Already Secured a Top Seed
Advanced: Stuck in a 2d seed or Uncertain
Still With Work to Do
A lot of things are still left to be determined on the final Match Day; nonetheless, we have enough data to draw some conclusions about which countries/FAs are on the way up, and which are on the way down (or stuck in neutral).
Barcelona and Real Madrid advancing is no kind of surprise. And even Valencia, though not on that same elite level, has been here before. But Malaga's run is a pretty big shock: they've gone undefeated in the Group Stage, and already clinched first (thanks to a superior head-to-head record against AC Milan). Getting 4 teams through to the knockout stage is a pretty big achievement, and depending on the luck of the draw, they have a good chance at getting 3 through to the quarterfinals. Above all, this pushes back against the argument that Spain is a 2-team league with a bunch of pretenders behind Real and Barca.
Sure, 4 is better than 3, but Germany's run has been equally impressive up to this point, in my mind. Dortmund wrapped up first place in the supposed Group of Death a week early, and Schalke has gone undefeated and has the inside track at first place in their group as well. In fact, the 3 German teams have played 15 matches total, and lost only once: Bayern's loss on the trip to Borisov. If we can get a win on the return leg and Schalke can remain in first, we're looking at the possibility of 3 German group winners out of 8 groups. And I don't think anyone wants to meet up with any of the 3 of us in the next round. Add this to the German sides' dominance in Europa League play, and we're up there with any league in the world right now.
Sure, it's only 1 team, but Shakhtar has really been a source of pride for Ukrainian football once again. Not only are they currently sitting in first, but their only loss came at the last second vs. Chelsea (in a match where they looked superior for long stretches). After winning the UEFA Cup (pre-Europa League) in 2009 and advancing to the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2011, these guys are no longer a surprise - they're starting to be seen as a legitimately tough match for even the best teams in European competition. Meanwhile, Ukraine has moved up to an impressive 7th in the UEFA country coefficient of pro leagues, ahead of the Netherlands, Russia, and Belgium.
And these guys better watch their back in 5th, as well. Ligue OOOOO-nnn got 3 teams into the Group Stage, but 2 of the 3 are looking likely to finish in last place. Even the current standard bearers, new-money PSG, haven't looked that great. A few years ago, the French had 2 teams in the quarterfinals, and a ton of young, hungry talent spread throughout 4 or 5 teams in the Ligue. But they've taken something of a step backwards since then.
As we'll describe below, Juventus is still alive to advance, meaning Italy could very well get 2 teams into the knockout stage. But even so, this hasn't been a great year for these guys. AC Milan struggled for a while before showing some recent signs of life, and Juventus may only be saved by the fact that their next opponent (Shakhtar) doesn't really need a win to advance. A far cry from last season, when Napolia and AC Milan both beat several top opponents and made deep runs.
STILL TO BE DETERMINED
So much depends on the next set of matches, with Benfica still having a chance to advance. Portugal got 3 teams into the Group Stage: Porto (who looked great in moving on, and who are currently undefeated), Braga (who looked poor in limping to a last-place finish, winning only once), and SL Benfica (who would advance with a win in their next match, thanks to a superior head-to-head against Celtic). Benfica faces a trip to the Camp Nou, but may be helped by the fact that Barca has already locked up first place. Still, couldn't a mostly reserve Barca side earn at least a draw and open up the door for Celtic?
The Scottish FA certainly hopes so, because it's been a while since a Scottish team made a deep run in the Champions League. And with Rangers' struggles, the SPL could use the exposure, revenue, and boost of pride that would come with an appearance in the Round of 16. Celtic's win over Barca was an instant classic, but honestly they otherwise haven't looked great; indeed, they were mostly outplayed in their Round 1 draw vs. Benfica, and if it weren't for a good save from GK Fraser Forster, they'd already be out of the competition.
Man United and Arsenal have both booked their places in the next round, though neither has appeared to be an unstoppable force. Man City crashed out again, and they have a world of problems on their hands. That leaves on Chelsea, who need a win over Nordsjaelland next match and also a Shakhtar win over Juventus to advance. Nonetheless, I wouldn't count Chelsea out yet - Shakhtar is a good team and a tough place to play, so this is still a possibility. And Chelsea has shown they can ... oh come on, you know the rest.
So, that's where we stand. Spain and Germany have dominated the competition, and those 2 countries could very well put 5 or even 6 teams into the final 8. The next Match Day is still big for a number of reasons, but it's especially huge for some leagues that badly need a boost. We'll be back a little later with the Bayern - Hannover preview. Thanks for reading.