The Champions League Power Rankings
All 32 teams: from FC Sheriff to -- well, you're gonna have to keep reading to find out
Who’s the best team in the Champions League? Who’s the worst? And who is exactly in between? Heres what I think.
32. FC Sheriff
First Moldovan side to play in the Champions League group stages -- even though they’re technically not a Moldovan side. The club is located in Transnistria, a breakaway state that is unrecognized by anyone other than a handful of their other fellow breakaway states. Per Wikipedia: “Transnistria's economy is frequently described as dependent on contraband and gunrunning, with some labelling it a mafia state”. They’re also a symbol for the Champions League made miniature: minnows compared to the rest of the continent, Sheriff dominate poor Moldova because they’re owned by and named after a local corporation that seemingly has a monopoly over everything from baking bread to selling gas.
Per FiveThirtyEight’s model, Malmo would be the third-best team in ... MLS. And yet, according to Transfermarkt, their squad is worth more than double that of FC Sheriff. Zlatan Ibrahimovic played for Malmo before moving to Ajax. Thus concludes our Malmo section.
30. Dynamo Kiev
Last season, Dynamo Kiev won one game in the Champions League and lost one game in the Ukrainian league. They have a 19-year-old center back named Illia Zabarnyi, who was starting for the team as a 17 year old, and also keep an eye on 22-year-old left back Vitaliy Mykolenko and 23-year-old Viktor Tsygankov, who was second in the Ukrainian league in non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes last season.
The big offseason additions for the defending Turkish Super Lig champs: loaning in Miralem Pjanic from Barcelona and Michy Batshuayi from Chelsea. Meanwhile, Leicester loanee Rachig Ghezzal had 17 assists in Turkey last season. I don’t know either, man.
28. Club Brugge
Stuck in a group with Manchester City, PSG, and RB Leipzig. Sorry guys! Noa Lang, a 22-year-old Dutch winger on loan from Ajax from the second season in a row, put up north of 1.00 NPG+A/90 last year, and 20-year-old Charles De Ketelare didn’t look in over his head in the Champions League last season as a teen. One win would be a solid return from this group.
27. Young Boys
A fun thing: American striker Jordan Pefok has 15 goals and 5 assists in just 18 Swiss league starts. A less fun thing: This team is also coached by an American, David Wagner, who has been relegated from both the Premier League and the Bundesliga.
26. Shakhtar Donetsk
This is where we start getting into teams with a legit shot of at least making it out of the group. Kiev broke Shakhtar’s four-year streak atop the Ukrainian league last season, but Shakhtar also went undefeated (?) -- two wins and two draws -- against Inter Milan and Real Madrid in the group stages last year. They may not have the high end talent of years past, but 22-and-under attackers Tete and Manor Solomon likely won’t be on the team for much longer. There’s also someone named “Dentinho”. All hail Dentinho.
Through five games, the defending Ligue 1 champs currently have the same xG differential as Clermont Foot, who finished second in Ligue 2 last season. There’s still lots of young attacking talent throughout the squad; it just hasn’t come together after last year’s improbable title run.
24. Zenit St. Petersburg
Dejan Lovren is the captain of this team. That is all you need to know.
23. Sporting CP
In 2018, after the team failed to qualify for the Champions League, a group of angry Sporting fans broke into the club grounds and attacked players and staff. A bunch of players immediately quit, Bruno Fernandes left for Manchester United in January of 2020 ... and then they won their first league title since 2002 the following season. This summer, they grabbed Pablo Sarabia -- who is really good! -- on loan from PSG, and he could make for a tricky combination with last season’s leading scorer, 23-year-old Pedro Goncalves.
They just tied Sporting over the weekend, and the institutional success in this tournament gets them one spot higher on the list. Unfortunately, they’re also probably screwed after landing in a group with Liverpool, Atletico Madrid, and AC Milan. Watch out for 24-year-old Luis Diaz, who might’ve been the best player on the field during the Colombia–Argentina semifinal at the Copa America.
Let us remember some guys: Everton, Julian Weigl, Roman Yaremchuk, Gedson Fernandes, Haris Seferovic, Joao Mario, Nicolas Otamendi, Jan Vertonghen, Adel Taarabt. They’re 5-0-0, with 13 goals scored and just two conceded so far in Portugal, so they land atop our Iberian triptych. All of these teams could easily be better or worse than these rankings; we just need some more cross-pollination with the bigger European leagues to really get a handle on it.
Unai Emery is the Europa League master -- and funnily enough, the FiveThirtyEight model thinks their most likely outcome is a third-place finish that drops them down into the second-tier continental competition. They’ve been terrible to start the season, but the second-oldest team in the Champions League are atop my never-to-be-published Europa League power rankings. Good for them.
They’re still perfect in the Bundesliga, and it hasn’t been a total fluke either; only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have better non-penalty xG differentials through the first four matches of the season. Skepticism still seems to be the way to go here, though. They were a good-not-great team in Germany last season, and their new manager, Mark Van Bommel, spent the last year working as an assistant with the United Arab Emirates national team and only has fewer than two seasons of head-coaching experience under his belt. We’ll believe it when we see it -- more often.
18. Red Bull Salzburg
Staying on brand, Salzburg brings the youngest roster into the Champions League -- one spot ahead of the Red Bull club over in Leipzig. This feels like their weakest roster yet -- Erling Haaland, Dominik Szoboszlai, Takumi Minamino, Hwang Hee-chan, Patson Daka, and Enock Mwepu are all gone -- but their new striker, 19-year-old Karim Adeyemi, has already made an appearance for the senior German national team. Plus, with Lille, Wolfsburg, and Sevilla, they’ve got their easiest group yet. Based on these rankings, one may, in fact, infer that I like them to finally make the knockout round.
It’s only three games, but Sevilla has just been blowing everyone off the field. Despite only playing three games while others have played four, they have -- by far -- the best xG differential in Spain. Given what looks like perhaps the weakest iteration of La Liga in more than 15 years, they really do seem to have a legit shot of winning the league, but that says more about the state of Spain than the true strength of La Liga.
16. AC Milan
I have no idea how to compare Spain and Italy. I know how good the best teams in England are, I’m not confused about the top three teams in Germany, and well, PSG has that little guy who’s pretty good now, too. Would Real Madrid win Serie A? Would Inter Milan win La Liga? I really don’t know. Milan, though, have a really fun, smartly built roster of 24-and-under starlets -- plus Olivier Giroud, Simon Kjaer, and Zlatan. They can easily win Serie A this year; I’m not sure they’re not already the best team in Italy; I also have no idea what any of this means in comparison to the rest of the world!
Call this a bet on talent. Actually, think about that for a second: The optimist’s case for Juventus, the team that’s won Serie A in nine of the previous 10 seasons, is that they’re something like the 15th-best team in Europe. They were unlucky last year under Andrea Pirlo. So far under Max Allegri they’ve just been straight up bad: one point from three matches and the fifth-worst xG differential in the league. At the same time, they’ve got the 10th-most valuable roster in the competition and Allegri did take the club to the Champions League finals twice. They should figure it out.
Call this a bet on talent and coaching. This sort of feels like the end of the line for Gianpiero Gasperini and Co. At least, if it was, this is what it would look like: three points from three games and the sixth-best xG differential in Italy. Most of last year’s roster is still there; it’s just that Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata are 30 now, and Josip Illicic is 33. Over the past few years, this team has basically had at least one player who, statistically, looked vaguely like Messi every season -- first Papu Gomez, then Ilicic, then some combo of Muriel and Duvan -- and that drove their success. Maybe Ruslan Malinovskiy does it this season, maybe he doesn’t, maybe it all falls apart. But they’ve made it out of the group in two straight seasons, so we’re not writing them off yet.
13. Inter Milan
Sure? I don’t know. This is the oldest team in the tournament. They lost their star striker, their world-class wing back, and their top-5 manager. Oh, and their current plus-6 goal differential is way ahead of their plus-0.8 xG differential. And yet, Inter still has a ton of talent. While they lost their two true superstars, they really do seem to have something like two Champions League-level players at just about every position on the field -- other than in goal. They probably have the highest floor of any of the Italian sides in the competition this year, and if Lautaro Martinez makes a leap, then they might have the highest ceiling, too.
12. RB Leipzig
Yeah, it really hasn’t been good, huh? They smoked Stuttgart, but basically played two 50-50 games with Mainz and Wolfsburg and got absolutely annihilated by Bayern Munich. Compared to last year under Julian Nagelsmann, they’re pressing way more aggressively -- 7.95 PPDA this season, 10.13 in 20-21 -- and that might be because they’re been trailing so frequently, but so far Jesse Marsch’s aggressive approach has allowed for about four more shots per game for the opposition without creating anything more on the attacking end. Certainly doesn’t help a defense when you sell center backs to Bayern and Liverpool in the same summer, either. But Marsch had some success in the Champions League with Salzburg, and this RBL team is filled with young talent. I think they’ll figure it out in Germany, but the draw here is rough.
I might regret ... not putting them higher. Last time the FiveThirtyEight model liked Ajax this much, everyone who cares about these things made fun of them FiveThirtyEight ... and then Ajax made it to within one minute of reaching the Champions League final. This year, they’ve got them as the sixth-best team in the world, so I’m considering this a conservative ranking. Why are they ranked so high? They do well when they play teams from the big leagues, and then they just completely dominate the competition in the Dutch league. Last year, they scored 102 goals and conceded 23. Two years before that, the previous full Eredivisie season, they put up 119 goals and conceded 32. In other words, they’re doing pretty much exactly what you’d expect a top team to do if you dropped them into the Eredivisie.
10. Atletico Madrid
Last season, Atleti were roughly a plus-0.5-xG-differential-per-game team in La Liga. Four games into this year, that’s remained the same. They way overshot their xG last year, completely collapsed in the second half of the season, but somehow still hung on for the second title in the Diego Simeone era. I think a truer estimation of Atletico’s quality was when they got dominated by Chelsea in the Round of 16. They’ve added Rodrigo De Paul and Antoine Griezmann to that team, so there might be an uptick in underlying quality without the same success, but they seem more likely to go out in the group stages than to win the whole thing.
9. Real Madrid
In his second act as Madrid manager, Zinedine Zidane turned Real into one of the better defensive teams on the continent. He’s gone, and so too are the team’s two starting center backs for both of the Zidane stints: Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane. If you squint hard enough, you could consider David Alaba as a replacement for one, but defending -- especially in the center of the field -- isn’t really where he adds value. Oh, and they replaced Zidane with Carlo Ancelotti, who most recently led Everton to a barnstorming 10th-place finish in the Premier League. The result: an awful defense (fourth-most xG allowed in La Liga) and a high-powered attack (most xG in La Liga) that’s hinging on Karim Benzema not aging and Vinicius Junior morphing into a superstar. (Add it all up, and the xG differential is eighth-best in Spain.) The downside seems pretty high for this version of Madrid, and the upside is pretty thin. They’re fun to watch, though!
8. Borussia Dortmund
Speaking of teams who can’t defend: at least this one has Erling Haaland, and Marco Reus, and Jude Bellingham, and Raphael Guerreiro, and Gio Reyna, and plenty of other talented pieces. Marco Rose got out of a tough group with Borussia Monchengladbach last season, and this team is way better than that one. It’s just: they’ve conceded nine goals in four games already! Only two teams in the Bundesliga have conceded more, and although it’s not quite that bad -- just 5.8 xG -- they’re still, at best, a mediocre defensive side. They’re in the “can lose to anyone, can beat anyone” bucket, but with a collection of young talent like this, there’s always a chance that a bunch of them all get better at the same time and it turns into something special.
I thought Barcelona would win La Liga before the season started. They were the best team in the league last year by xG and although Messi left, Memphis Depay has been doing a Diet Messi impersonation in France for the past few years: just a ton of touches on the ball, both facilitating play in the final-third and getting a bunch of shots for himself. Getting rid of Antoine Griezmann’s contract was a long term positive for the club, but he did have 12 non-penalty goals and seven assists last season. They can fade that, maybe, if some combination of Sergio Aguero and Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho get healthy for a long stretch, but Griezmann’s departure makes them worse this season. While Barcelona are in decline, when you fall out of the top spot, you can still fall pretty far and only end up here, in seventh.
6. Manchester United
Gonna need to see if against a team other than Newcastle before I consider sliding these guys up any higher -- or even any closer to fifth. Also gonna need to see it against a team where the opposing keeper doesn’t seem to take an active role in helping you win the game. The same problems with United remain, and I think it all appeared over the weekend despite the win:
A couple high-quality shots and then a ton of randomly scattered terrible shots -- pretty much you’d expect from a team without a ton of talent but without any real plan for how to break down the other team. They’re eighth in the FiveThirtyEight model; that -- or their spot here -- won’t change until they start to consistently outplay their opponents, week in and week out. Right now, I see them as closer to ninth than fifth.
5. Paris Saint-Germain
They’ve seriously only played, what, four or five impressive 90-minute games over the past year? One leg against Barcelona, Bayern, and Manchester City, plus a game or two in the group stages. Remember: They didn’t win Ligue 1! Those games have to mean something! Plus, we still haven’t seen Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, and Lionel Messi take the field together yet. I’m pretty sure it’s gonna work -- I mean, c’mon -- but these other teams -- and yes, let’s put an emphasis on teams -- are so freaking good that it’s enough to prevent PSG from going any higher just yet.
Congrats on winning the Champions League and sitting on a tie for first in the Premier League; we’re giving you fourth. Chelsea might very well be the best team in England and actually the best team in the world. Their depth is incredible and the formation they play doesn’t really seem to have any weaknesses. It’s just that the margins between these five teams are so tight. Yes, their second half against Liverpool -- down a man at Anfield -- was impressive, but don’t forget that they were outplayed in the first half with the game at full strength. They were incredibly fortunate to end that match all square. Then, this past weekend against Aston Villa, they were outshot 18 to 12 by Aston Villa, and won the match thanks to some superb finishing and goalkeeping. None of the teams ahead of them on this list have had a game like that this season.
They’re back. Harvey Elliott’s injury over the weekend was awful. He’s only 18, but his ability to press and keep possession in tight spaces really seemed to free up Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah in a new way; with him in the lineup, the team appeared as secure and as dynamic as it’s ever been. Crazy to say it, given he was playing for Blackburn a year ago, but LFC are worse without him. At the same time, this is now basically the same roster that won the Champions League and then took down 99 points in the Premier League -- except with Thiago and Diogo Jota and Ibrahima Konate added to it. They’ve, easily, been the best team in all the matches they’ve played so far this season, and both the Champions League and the Premier League are very much in play once again. Only two teams in Europe have better xG differentials so far this season, and they’re the two teams ranked ahead of them on my imaginary list.
2. Bayern Munich
They get the nod ahead of Liverpool because they have completely obliterated both Leipzig and Dortmund already this season; we’re yet to see Liverpool do that to a team of equivalent quality. Bayern’s defense still seems like something of a question mark; it wasn’t good last season, and then they lost David Alaba and Jerome Boateng. But they’ve picked up Dayot Upamecano and despite being a Red Bull side, Nagelsmann’s Leipzig teams were always among the best defensive teams in the world. Plus, they’ve actually conceded fewer xG than Liverpool so far this season, despite allowing four goals to LFC’s one. Provided the defense can achieve even just an above-average level of competence, then this would be the only major worry: an injury to Robert Lewandowski, who is 33, seems like it would hurt Bayern more than an injury to any of the attackers among the other teams in the top five, even one of the guys on PSG.
1. Manchester City
They were the best team in Europe last year; unfortunately for them the Champions League title isn’t a season-long award. In fact, since 2017 they’ve pretty clearly been the best team in the world. Others may have wrestled away the title for a season or a few months here and there, but no other side has been able to match their consistent excellence over the past four years. The loss to Spurs to start the year was flukey -- and now, an annual tradition -- but they’ve been utterly dominant otherwise, just like they pretty much always have been. They’re the clear no. 1 team in the FiveThirtyEight model; the gap between them and no. 2 Bayern is bigger than Bayern and no. 4 Chelsea. But they’re still only given a 21-percent chance of winning the whole thing. City, of course, have learned that same lesson in the Champions League every year: No matter how much better you are than everyone else, one of them is still more likely to win it than you are.