By Hezzy Benson ’26
For the first time in a while, there is no solid favorite for the Champions League. Let’s explore how things could play out in European football’s top competition.
I didn’t mention Real Madrid above- but no matter how good they can be, one has to admit this year, especially domestically, they’ve often been poor. Yes, Real just beat Liverpool, 5-2, but they also lost to Mallorca, a mid table team in La Liga, and conceded 3 in the Club World Cup final against Al-Hilal. Real looked so sloppy Liverpool somehow looked likely to beat them, too, scoring twice within the first fifteen before the fallout started. Still, Real Madrid possess a winning quality City do not have. As good as Man City can be with their possession and goal scoring prowess, Real have another level City don’t. Real can also keep the ball if they want, and with the talent they have going forward, they can zig zag around the field and completely displace the opposition. Maybe Vinsicius will end up on the scoresheet, or maybe Benzema, but most likely it’ll be both. City try to achieve something similar with Haaland, Mahrez, and Foden, but the high line they play and their lack of an adequate defensive midfielder leaves them vulnerable. What hurts them even more is how disengaged Haaland is in non-backpost runs, leaving them more open. This culminated in a disastrous goal conceded against Tottenham, where Hojbjerg- Tottenham’s defensive midfielder- was pressing outside the 18 yard line! All he had to do was slot the won ball to Harry Kane- the striker City wanted but couldn’t get- and Kane finished, as he always does. It’s yet to be seen if City can find Haaland more frequently, but with their playing style, I’m not counting on it. Manchester City are a good team, yes, but they’re not great. After a game against Leipzig where they completely dominated in the first 45 and somehow only came away with a 1-1 draw, it seems likely they’ll lose in the next couple rounds, possibly even against Leipzig themselves. In fact, my bet is they’ll finish the season completely trophyless. Sorry, City fans!
Then there’s Napoli, who are bulldozing their way to the Scudetto in Serie A. They’ve only lost once in the Italian league, and dominated Liverpool in the group stage of the Champions League, winning 4-1, and beating Juventus handily 5-1. Napoli still aren’t considered favorites, but they really should be in the conversation as well. Napoli have three world class players- Kvaratskhelia, Osimhen, and di Lorenzo, but their team is very complete. It’s a question as to whether Osimhen will still be there next season- Chelsea (who else?) have made him their number one target for the summer- but while the Nigerian is playing for Napoli, you can count on him to make something happen. Osimhen is leading the golden boot race in Italy and his finishing prowess is perfectly complimented by Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. Kvaratskhelia’s ball skills are something to behold, and if he stays in good form he’ll continue to be key for Napoli. Kvaratskhelia recently scored a stunner of a goal against Sassuolo, where he drifted inwards from the left and sent a perfect ball into the bottom corner. Can Napoli win the Champions League? It’s a question, but it’s certainly worth asking.
Meanwhile, PSG and Bayern are preparing for their second leg in the Round of 16. With all the quality both teams have, it’s slightly disappointing to see them playing so early, but really it’s PSG’s fault for faltering the way they did in Group Stage play and setting themselves up for failure. If Mbappé can win it for PSG, then they’ll advance. But he’s their only hope.
Dortmund are also leading Chelsea on aggregate now 1-0. Two years ago this would be inconceivable, but Chelsea today are a completely different team. They’ve gone from Champions League victorious to losing- and not even being able to score- against Southampton, last in the Premier League. Chelsea, the biggest spending club in the world, are now closer to the relegation zone as they are to a top 4 spot. They also have a goal differential of -2 in league play. Contrary to Benefica, Inter, and some of the other underdogs, Chelsea are actually completely hopeless due to their lack of a striker. Havertz currently plays up top, and although he’s a good player, he prefers to play off of a striker, or as a number 10. Chelsea’s lack of finishing quality will set them up for complete failure in their second leg against Dortmund. Dortmund, who possess great talent in the form of Bellingham, Reus, Süle, and Adeyemi, are stock full of options. Frankly, Dortmund could be the best performing German side this year.
So, who will really win? Last year Madrid defeated favorites Liverpool in the final, beating the odds and cementing themselves, whether we like it or not, as the side to beat in Europe. Manchester City are the Champions of England, but England isn’t Europe. They won’t be able to sleep their way to the final- and they’ll have to wake up from their trance and start finding Haaland now if they want a chance. Napoli are the near perfect yet untested side. If they come through adversity before the final and keep doing what they’re doing in the league, I’ll jump on the Napoli bandwagon. And PSG have talent with Messi, Mbappé, and Neymar (though Neymar will miss the second leg vs Bayern due to injury) but have yet to convince. This year, just like all great Champions Leagues, it’s up in the air- and all we can hope is that the best team will catch the winning prize.