Ranking UCL and Europa League Knockout Ties from Most to Least Interesting
As the most unpredictable year of our lifetimes draws to a close, there is still much to look forward to and more unpredictability along the way. Something I look forward to every spring is the knockout rounds of the UEFA Champions and Europa League. Not only is predicting each result tough to do (especially prior to the conclusion of the January transfer window), but predicting which ties will be entertaining can be difficult as well. Two big names doesn’t guarantee the best football, but it does increases the reasons why casual fans of the sport or diehard fans of other clubs would watch. A sudden injury, suspension, rise, or dip in form could drastically alter this list, but on the precipice of the new year, here is each European knockout tie ranked from most to least anticipated.
I have separated them based on competition because in truth, most fans would rather watch any Champions League fixture than Europa league should their club not be involved in the latter competition. However, I am still of the belief that completely ignoring the Europa league deprives you of some interesting matches.
UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties
1 PSG vs Barcelona
Neymar is Barcelona’s prodigal son. He once formed a lethal attacking trio with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez that won Barcelona the Champions League in the 2014–15 season. That feels like eons ago now, and Barcelona are in much worse shape against a PSG coming off of a finals appearance in the 2019–20 Champions League. Two massive clubs with history together going head to head is undoubtedly the main event of the Round of 16.
Prediction: PSG advances
2 Liverpool vs RB Leipzig
This is a clash of polar opposites given Liverpool’s extensive football history while RB Leipzig was founded in 2009. A similarity between the two is how effective their transfer policies have been, with neither side having gotten much transfer business wrong in recent years. RB Leipzig are still trying to cope with Timo Werner’s departure to Chelsea, but still have enough attacking talent to trouble Liverpool’s injury-riddled defense. Liverpool’s front 3 of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane was worthy of winning the Champions League in the 2018–19 season and is capable of repeating the feat this time around.
Prediction: Liverpool advances
3 Chelsea vs Atlético Madrid
This matchup could alternatively be labeled the Diego Costa derby, if the Brazilian turned Spanish (in terms of official FIFA nationality) didn’t have his contract terminated two days ago. Diego Costa burst into the word football stage through Atletico Madrid, but found life tougher in London. That brought him back to Spain, with both sides having changed a lot since that initial transfer. Now the goal scoring burden lands on young Joao Felix. While Frank Lampard is leading a young Chelsea team to some exciting heights, they haven’t accomplished too much yet with this core. Meanwhile, Diego Simeone has been to Champions League finals before albeit always on the losing side. Neither club will be happy exiting at this stage, but something has to give.
Prediction: Atlético Madrid advances
4 Real Madrid vs Atalanta
Atalanta were one of the Cinderella stories of the Champions League last season, but they haven’t gone away quietly once the clock struck midnight on that campaign. They are consistently a force to be reckoned with in Serie A, so they’ll be a handful for Real Madrid. Real Madrid have almost become synonymous with the Champions League due to their record 13 victories in said competition, but since Cristiano Ronaldo’s exit to Juventus they haven’t been quite the same. Eden Hazard hasn’t filled that void as expected, and Madrid scraped through the Group Stage. This matchup is on a knife’s edge and you won’t want to miss it, although the general public is still learning about just how fun Atalanta is to watch. That’s why they drop to #4.
Prediction: Real Madrid advances
5 Bayern Munich vs Lazio
With all due respect to Lazio, Bayern carries this tie to the #5 slot. Bayern is the reigning European champions and talent wise still the strongest club in the competition. It’s up to the field to knock the Bavarians off their perch, and a plucky Lazio side are the next ones with the opportunity to do so. Lazio flatter to deceive, knocking on the door of a Serie A title challenge but often crumbling as Juventus powered forward to another league title. It’ll likely be a similar story against the dominant German club. Lazio are improving, but I don’t think too many people would pick them to dethrone Bayern.
Prediction: Bayern advances
6 Borussia Dortmund vs Sevilla
While both of these clubs are bigger than casual fans would give them credit for, neither of them are quite in the tier of current world attention than the likes of Barcelona, PSG, Bayern Munich or Liverpool for example receive. That caps their ranking in this list at #6, but it’s still a pretty even matchup. Sevilla’s claim to fame is their Europa League success, which hasn’t translated in the Champions League arena. Borussia Dortmund feature some of the most exciting young players in the world such as Erling Braut Haaland, Jadon Sancho, Giovanni Reyna, and 16(!) year old Youssoufa Moukoko. Watch this matchup if you want to see the beginning of some great careers unfold.
Prediction: Dortmund advances
7 Manchester City vs Borussia Monchengladbach
On paper, it seems like Manchester City’s luck with Champions League draws continued as they drew an opponent that is only experiencing their third ever season in this competition. However, Gladbach have been battled tested, surviving a difficult group with Real Madrid and Internazionale. Will that be enough to surpass the immensely talented Manchester City team? I wouldn’t rule them out. After all, City are currently struggling in the Premier League given their lofty standards. That could mean though that the Citizens will focus more on this competition.
Prediction: Manchester City advances
8 Juventus vs Porto
Porto are the only club to advance from the UEFA Champions League group stage this season outside of the top 5 leagues in Europe, which is a factor as to why this matchup is last on this section of the list. But it’s also because of their opponents. Juventus won their group through an impressive victory over Barcelona, and Cristiano Ronaldo is hungry for a first Champions League victory at this club, having won it both at Manchester United and Juventus. I can only see one winner in this matchup, whereas I can see some scenarios where the underdog comes out on top in most of the others in the Round of 16.
Prediction: Juventus advances
UEFA Europa League Round of 32 ties
1 Manchester United vs Real Sociedad
At the time of writing, Manchester United is 2nd in the Premier League and Real Sociedad is 3rd in La Liga Santander. Few would have predicted either to hold their respective domestic league positions at the start of the season. It’s a shame one of their Europa League campaigns has to end at this early stage, but it’ll make for a thrilling tie.
Prediction: Manchester United advances
2 Arsenal vs Benfica
It may feel like I’m sleeping on Porto, but Europa League is the competition where Portuguese teams like Benfica are more likely to enjoy success in. However, Benfica is coming up against a Jekyll and Hyde Arsenal side. It depends on which Arsenal side shows up. Will it be the one that won the FA Cup last season, or the one that’s languishing in the bottom half of the Premier League and got knocked out of last year’s Europa League by Olympiacos. Either way, it’ll be fun to watch.
Prediction: Arsenal advances
3 Ajax vs Lille
Both of these hotbeds of football talent feature attractive attacking styles. From a North American perspective, Mexico’s Edson Alvarez will likely lineup for the Dutch side while Lille will rely on the goal threat of Canadian phenom Jonathan David.
Prediction: Lille advances
4 Roma vs Braga
I used to love watching Roma primarly because of the brilliance of Francesco Totti, and since his retirement they’re starting to lag behind some of their Italian rivals. Braga can relate as they’ve had to settle with “best of the rest” behind Portugal’s Big Three of Porto, Benfica, and Sporting. As of now, Braga are in better form, but this can go either way.
Prediction: Braga advances
5 Villarreal vs RB Salzburg
Villarreal’s hot start to the La Liga season is starting to cool off, but they have to regain some of that momentum against an RB Salzburg team that always seems to be unearthing new talent. Salzburg are the dominant force of Austrian football and have made some deep runs in the Europa League recently, so while Villarreal are favorites, underestimate them at your own peril.
Prediction: Villarreal advances
6 Napoli vs Granada
Napoli is no stranger to European football, but Granada are still getting used to these surroundings. That’s an indication that we are getting to the stage of the list where only one team is really a draw for neutrals in the Europa League, but Hirving Lozano and the rest of the Napoli squad will have to work hard to advance here.
Prediction: Napoli advances
7 Milan vs Red Star Belgrade
This is probably the best Milan team we’ve seen in the better part of a decade, and that alone vaults this matchup to #7. Red Star Belgrade have history, but in the here and now, there can only be one winner in this tie and it’s the Rossoneri.
Prediction: Milan advances
8 Tottenham Hotspur vs Wolfsberger
Same deal as with AC Milan. People will watch this because of players like Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min, with all due respect to the Austrians.
Prediction: Tottenham advances
9 Leicester City vs Slavia Prague
Leicester aren’t just living off the most improbably league victory in our lifetime. They’ve rebuilt their roster, with only Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel the main contributors left from the memorable 2015–16 Premier League campaign and it’s pretty talented. Slavia Prague are sneaky good as well, but this should be where the road ends for them.
Prediction: Leicester advances
10 Rangers vs Royal Antwerp
Neither the Scottish nor Belgian leagues garner much attention outside of the United Kingdom and Benelux respectively, but whichever team advances from this tie have the hint of a giant killer in the making. I’m leaning towards Rangers, an exciting team to watch that is set to break up Celtic’s monopoly of the Scottish Premier League and they can hang with the best of them in the Europa League.
Prediction: Rangers advances
11 Bayer Leverkusen vs Young Boys
Without Kai Havertz who moved on to Chelsea in the summer, Bayer Leverkusen rely on players like Jamaican Leon Bailey for their offensive output. Young Boys were a challenge for Roma in the group stage, but other than that not much to see here.
Prediction: Leverkusen advances
12 PSV vs Olympiacos
With DaMarcus Beasley’s presence in CBS’s coverage of the Europa League, it’s slightly harder to forget about PSV Eindhoven. They are Ajax’s closest challengers in the Eredivisie, and they face the same Olympiacos side that, as I mentioned before, knocked Arsenal out of the competition. I don’t think that’ll be enough to draw too many neutrals or for the Greeks to mount another deep European run.
Prediction: PSV advances
13 Shakhtar Donetsk vs Maccabi Tel Aviv
I just have one question for Shakhtar Donetsk: How the f*** do you beat Real Madrid twice and not advance to the Champions League Knockout Stage? Your consolation prize: you get to beat this Israeli club. Congratulations.
Prediction: Shakhtar advances
14 Hoffenheim vs Molde
Hoffenheim produced some great players like Niklas Sule (which, like most talented players from Bundesliga clubs, was signed by Bayern Munich), but their squad right now isn’t much to write home about. Every Europa League has an under-the-radar team that springs an upset in the knockout stage though, and I have a feeling it could be the Norweigan side Molde.
Prediction: Molde advances
15 Dinamo Zagreb vs Krasnodar
While even the most diehard FIFA, PES, and Football Manager players probably don’t care about either of these two clubs, Dinamo Zagreb are one of the most inform teams in the Europa League. So there’s that.
Prediction: Zagreb advances
16 Club Brugge vs Dynamo Kyiv
Does anyone know a fan of either of those two clubs? Good luck to each of them in this tie. At least USMNT player Ethan Horvath is starting from Brugge. That’s all I have to say on the matter.
Prediction: Club Brugge advances
Let me know your thoughts. Do you agree or disagree with the order of this list? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter @IvanOrnelas2. Happy New Year, football fans (or soccer if you prefer)!