Are They Who We Thought They Were? The Reputation and Reality of the UEFA Champions League Final 16

With the UEFA Champions League knockout stage kicking off this week, we examine the past and present of all 16 clubs remaining.

On Tuesday and Wednesday evening across Europe, the 16 teams that finished top two in the UEFA Champions League’s eight groups will square off in the first of two legs in the competition’s first knockout round.

This stage of the Champions League tends to reunite us with some familiar faces. This season is no different, as Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Manchester City, and PSG will all be present. At the same time, there are a fair few usual suspects missing: iconic clubs like Barcelona, Sevilla, and AC Milan are no longer with us. Also missing will be two finalists from the past decade: Borussia Dortmund (eliminated) and Tottenham Hotspur (did not qualify).

Regardless, each team, no matter how storied or upstart, is steeped in its own history,
and carries a certain legacy or reputation. We thought it would be worthwhile to look at the 16 remaining Champions League teams, their current realities, and their respective histories.

Red Bull Salzburg

Who they’ve always been: I’d advise you to become acquainted with the broad strokes of the following storyline:

FC Red Bull Salzburg was founded in 1933, as SV Austria Salzburg. Over the first 72 years of its existence, the club won the Austrian Bundesliga three times (all between 1994 and 1997), and never finished as high as second in any other season.

In 2005, SV Austria Salzburg was taken over by Red Bull. In addition to changing the club’s name, Red Bull completely rebranded the club, as it had New York Red Bulls (formerly MetroStars) of MLS, RB Leipzig of the German Bundesliga (whom Red Bull DEFINITELY DOES NOT SPONSOR), and its Formula 1 teams. Also, they’ve spent money, with pretty good effect.

A club that did virtually no winning for three quarters of a century has won 12 of the last 16 league titles. The four times they didn’t win? Second place, by a grand total of 18 points. 

Are they that right now? If you’re talking about the rich and successful version, they sure are!

Through 19 of 22 regular season games in the Bundesliga, Red Bull Salzburg have 48 points (good for a 14-point lead), and a +31 goal difference (next best in the league is +11).

Bayern Munich

Who they’ve always been: The undisputed Goliath of German football. Bayern have won nearly a quarter of all German Bundesliga titles since their inception in 1900, in addition to 20 domestic cups and six European Cup/Champions League crowns. Just about every German player of consequence winds up starring for Bayern at one time or another. This isn’t a coincidence. In Germany, vacuuming up the competition’s best players is known, less than affectionately, as “Bayerning.”

In terms of prestige, historical achievement, current dominance, and financial might, Die Bayern stands alone.

Are they that right now? Yep.

Bayern entered the 2021-22 season as nine-time defending Bundesliga champions. More than halfway through the season, they sit six points clear in first place, with a goal difference of +45. They also cruised through their Champions League group with six wins, including a pair of 3-0’s over Barcelona.

Manchester City


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Who they’ve always been: For about 130 years, Man City were a fixture, but not a force, in English football. Up until 2011, they had two top tier titles (1937 and 1968), one second-place finish since 1921, four FA cups (none since 1969), two league cups (none since 1976), and had been relegated within the previous decade.

In September 2008, City became the epitome of a whole new breed of mega-club, as Sheikh Mansour and twelve figures worth of Abu Dhabi-based financial muscle rolled into town. Their explicit goals were domestic dominance and European supremacy. Implicitly, a blind eye from the West toward goings-on in the Emirates would be appreciated.

Are they that right now? Things are emphatically not what they were over those first 130 years. They’re not even as they were when Alex Ferguson was making derisive “noisy neighbor” quotes.

Based on the standard set since the takeover — five Premier League titles, two FA Cups, and six EFL cups since 2011, with two Champions League semifinal appearances and a trip to the final in 2021 — it’s business as usual. However, while a fourth league title in five years seems a safe bet, City are ultimately going be judged on their progress in this competition.

Sporting Club de Portugal

Who they’ve always been: Sporting CP represents one third of Três Grandes — along with FC Porto and crosstown rivals Benfica — who’ve never been relegated from Portugal’s Primeira Liga since its inception in 1934.

Sporting are the third-most successful of the three, with 19 league titles (Benfica have 37, and Porto have 29), and know frustration, with two separate league title droughts of at least 17 years (1982-1999, and 2002-2021).

Are they that right now? With their first league title in nearly two decades, os Leões, cruised into the Champions League group stage. This season, they’re keeping their heads above water, but frustratingly.

Their Champions League group was dominated by Ajax, but Sporting squeezed by Borussia Dortmund into second on goal difference. For their trouble, they get to face a motivated juggernaut in Man City (who crushed them 5-0 in the first leg). Meanwhile, domestically, they’re firmly in second, four points up on Benfica in third, six back of Porto in first, with a worse goal difference than both.

So…basically, yeah.



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Who they’ve always been: Lisbon’s other big club has also never seen Portugal’s second tier.

Benfica is Portugal’s most successful club, with 37 league titles, 26 Taças de Portugal, seven Taças da Liga, and a pair of European Cups. They’ve won five of the last nine league titles, and have only once failed to win at least three league titles in a decade since the formation of the Primeira Liga in 1934.

Despite the domestic success, for more than half a century, Benfica’s experience in Europe has been marked by disappointment. According to legend, on the heels of a 1962 European Cup triumph — the club’s second in a row — coach Béla Guttmann requested a reportedly not-outlandish pay raise. The club’s board refused, at which point Guttmann left, but not before declaring:

“Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champions again.”

It’s entirely possible that “the curse of Béla Guttmann” is not real. And yet, in the almost-60 years since his departure, Benfica have gone to eight European finals — in 1963, 1965, 1968, 1983, 1988, 1990, 2013, and 2014 — and lost them all.

Are they that right now? Not quite, but not a world away.

More than halfway through the season, Benfica will be disappointed to find themselves in third, 10 points behind leaders Porto. While a league title is unlikely, a superior goal difference (+38 vs. +28) to Sporting suggests that Benfica could make up the four points to second place and automatically secure Champions League group action next year.



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Who they’ve always been: Ajax resides in an interesting place on the food chain. The Dutch champions are genuine European blue bloods and a foundational team in the European Cup and Champions League. This is, after all, the club of Johan Cruyff, Total Football, three straight European Cups (1971-73), and a Champions League win in 1995.

Around the turn of the century, it looked like Ajax’s time as even a fringe contender in Europe had passed. Make no mistake — this club simply cannot compete financially with the elites. However, thanks to veteran Dušan Tadić and young talents developed in-house — Frankie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt immediately come to mind — Ajax has stuffed the coffers (those two alone brought in €150 million in transfer fees) and contended, reaching the final of the 2017 Europa League, and the 2019 semifinals and 2021 quarters in the Champions League.

Are they that right now? The days of Ajax dominating Europe have gone, but there’s enough talent, quality coaching, and financial muscle to compete. Ajax has won six league titles since 2010, looks likely for a seventh, and is a fixture in the Champions League knockout rounds. What’s more, they absolutely romped Group C, winning all six of their games by a combined 20-5 score, and will love their chances against a beatable Benfica.



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Who they’ve always been: These days, it’s tempting to look back at the early Abramovich days as somewhat quaint.

Chelsea’s another club for whom success was a foreign concept (one top flight title, two FA Cups, and two league cups in 100 years) until it very much wasn’t. That turning point came in 2003, when Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich became the Premier League’s first megabucks foreign owner, buying the club for £140 million, and quickly spending over £100 million on new players.

We know what came next. José Mourinho. Consecutive league titles (a first by an English club in 60 years). A messy divorce with Mourinho. A Champions League final loss. More domestic success. A Champions League triumph in 2012. A second rendezvous with Mourinho. Another acrimonious split. A youth movement, a managerial merry-go-round and, finally, another Champions League win in 2021.

Chelsea have settled into a comfortable spot: an unquestioned top-four team, free of the cynical nouveau riche label. If there’s a template for Man City and PSG, Chelsea is it. Make a splash, win domestically, keep spending, break through in Europe. Even if you’re not fully blessed into the old guard, at least you’re “old new money.”

Are they that right now? Where Chelsea are today — third place, seven points out of second, four ahead of fourth — is perfectly acceptable. How they got here will annoy them. After losing just once and conceding just six goals in their first 14 games, they’ve lost twice and drawn five of their last 11.

Similarly, in the Champions League, the defending champs won four of their first five group games by a combined score of 10-0. The fifth, a 1-0 away loss against Juventus, was hardly disastrous. However, it left them needing a win in Russia against already-eliminated Zenit St. Peterburg to win the group. Chelsea scored after two minutes and held a 3-2 lead in stoppage time, before conceding a 94th-minute equalizer that dropped them to second.

Sometimes incredible, often imperfect, but in with a shot, and loads of talent to get them there. Sounds about right.



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Who they’ve always been: In 2010-11, Lille won Ligue 1 and the Coupe de France. It was the first time the club had won a trophy in 56 years.

A tumultuous, PSG-dominated decade later, Lille again found its way to the top of the league. As recently as 2018, Lille was fighting tooth-and-nail against relegation, only surviving by a single point after the appointment of Christophe Galtier as manager. 2018-19 was a different story, as Lille posted huge improvements in points (38 to 75) and goal difference (-26 to +35), and finished second. The 2019-20 season, abandoned with 10 games left, brought a fourth-place finish, and a spot in the Europa League.

Despite those improvements, it’s unlikely anyone saw 2020-21 coming. Capitalizing on a weak season from PSG, Lille dropped just three league matches last season and won six of their last eight to squeeze out the title by a single point.

Are they that right now? Based on what you’ve just read, are you comfortable declaring what exactly Lille is?

What we can say is this: While this season hasn’t been nearly as kind as 2020-21, given where this club has been — 10th in the league, safe from relegation, and theoretically in striking distance of a European spot — winning a Champions League group is a great “down year.”

Atlético de Madrid

Who they’ve always been: For much of the 20th century Atlético Madrid, along with Athletic Club de Bilbao and Valencia, made up the tier of Spanish football just below Real Madrid and Barcelona.

In the 1970s, Atleti reached a European Cup final, won the Copa del Rey in ‘76, and the league in ‘77. Under the stewardship of their mercurial owner, the late Jesús Gil, the 35 years that followed — with the notable exception of 1995-96, when they won a league/Copa del Rey double — yielded no silverware, saw the abandonment of the youth academy, and, thanks to financial improprieties, relegation. It took two years to get back up, and another six to finish higher than seventh. In 2011, however, everything changed.

Diego Simeone, a combustible Argentinean midfielder from that double-winning team and a massive fan favorite, returned as coach. It’s tough to overstate just how dramatic the identity shift has been. Under “Cholo,” Atleti have cemented their place in the domestic “top three” and won two league titles and a made pair of Champions League final appearances.

Are they that right now? They’re still pretty good, but no, they are not.

The pillars upon which “Cholismo” rests are desire, hard work, defensive discipline, and toughness. The hallmark of Simeone’s best teams is the “blowout 1-0 victory.”

Though they sit fifth in La Liga, tied in points with Barcelona in fourth, and four behind Real Betis in third, this Atleti is a far cry from the defensive grandmasters of the recent past. The old guard are gone, replaced by a core that’s extremely talented, but not ideally suited to Simeone’s style.

This season, Atleti are not only conceding like a bottom half team, they’re doing so late in games, and surrendering points. Their last two times out, they’ve conceded seven goals (four to Barcelona, and three to not-free-scoring Getafe).

On sheer talent, this team will always compete domestically and, on their day, can beat top tier competition. However, this isn’t a vintage Simeone team.

Manchester United


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Who they’ve always been: Until about a decade ago, Man United were, effectively, the Goliath of English football. Their domestic league tally (20 league titles) tops all others in England. They’ve got three European Cup/Champions League titles, their 1999 treble win is the stuff of legend, and their lineup of past legends — Bobby Charlton, George Best, Beckham, Giggs, Scholes and the “Class of ‘92,” Rooney, Cristiano, and others — rivals that of just about any other club.

During the Alex Ferguson years (1986-2013), United differed from Bayern Munich of recent years in that they didn’t win every year, but they won plenty, and contended in every competition in which they took part. In England and in Europe, few clubs have blood as blue as Man United’s.

However, United’s last eight years have brought an identity crisis that’s both unending and recurring. Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, the tough spot has been turned over to the likes of David Moyes, Ryan Giggs, Louis val Gaal, José Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, and now Ralf Rangnick, under the lackluster guidance (until a couple of weeks ago) of CEO Ed Woodward, on the instruction of the Glazer family.

Are they that right now? In the big picture, Man United remains one of the sport’s most prestigious and elite names. They have money to spend, they continue to spend it, and they keep accumulating a trove of talent. However…

It’s tough to shake the sense that this club is totally in the dark as to what it’s trying to be, and that it’s simply unprepared to compete meaningfully at the top of the Premier League or deep in the Champions League. This season, United currently sit fourth, two points ahead of with West Ham, and four points behind third-place Chelsea, but with the worst goal difference of England’s top six. They did top an eminently winnable Champions League group to set up a knockout tie against Atlético Madrid. Though Atleti are struggling in their own right, that United are staggering into this matchup on the heels of a pair of 1-1 draws against Burnley and Southampton (albeit a 2-0 win over Brighton yesterday) does not inspire confidence.



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Who they’ve always been: Say hello to Spain’s Little Engine That Could!

Villarreal, in its current iteration, was formed in 1942, but didn’t complete in league play (due to World War II) until 1947. In the 45 years that followed, the Yellow Submarine (so named because of their bright yellow home shirts) spent a total of two seasons above the third division, and none in the top tier. By the 1990s, they were an established second division team, but not threatening to break into La Liga.

Following the acquisition of the club in the late ’90s by Spanish supermarket heir Fernando Roig, Villarreal have been a fixture in the top tier (save for two one-year hiccups), regularly finishing in the top five, with a pair of top-three finishes, and last year achieved their greatest triumph when they defeated Manchester United in the final of the Europa League. Not bad for a small club, with a small stadium (just 23,500 capacity), from a relatively small district of Valencia, that is well-run, well-cared-for, but not “bankrolled.”

Are they that right now? This season, Villarreal is doing by and large what Villarreal does. Nearly two thirds of the way through the domestic season, they sit seventh, three points back of the top-four, with a goal difference worthy of a top-five team. In Europe, they gave Man United a good run in Group F, but ultimately finished second.

This is what Villarreal is: quietly competent, fun to watch, usually in the vicinity of contention.



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Who they’ve always been: Like Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Manchester United, and Liverpool, Juventus is a member of the sport’s old guard, a true blue blood.

For nearly 100 years, Juve has been controlled by the Agnelli family, who control Italian automotive giant FIAT. “The Old Lady”, as Juventus is affectionately known, has an Italian record 35 Serie A titles, including nine in the last 10 years.

This incredible run came on the heels of Italian football’s Calciopoli match-fixing scandal, which resulted in Juve’s relegation to Serie B for the 2006-07 season. That the team, then deeply embattled, was able to retain a number of its stars, return immediately to the top tier, and begin dominating after only a couple of years is a particular point of pride.

Are they that right now? Mostly, but not quite?

The 2020-21 season was the worst in a decade for Juventus — they wound up in fourth place with a +39 goal difference. With about a third of the season left to play, 2021-22 is a similar story. Juve currently sit fourth, seven points behind Napoli in third, and nine back of AC Milan in first.

If these are what count as “lean years,” your club’s existence is pretty charmed.

Inter Milan


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Who they’ve always been: No one will ever question Inter’s status as one of Italy’s top clubs, alongside Juventus and AC Milan. It’s not only the on-field accomplishments, which are considerable — 30 domestic trophies, including 18 league titles, two European Cups, three UEFA Cups, and the 2010 Champions League, as part of a treble-winning campaign — but their unique distinctions: The club with whom Helenio Herrera perfected “catenaccio” in the ‘60s. A club that has twice broken the world transfer record (Ronaldo in 1997; Christian Vieri in 1999). The only Italian club to never be relegated. The most recent Italian club to lift the Champions League trophy.

And yet, it seems like Inter is the most readily glossed over of Italy’s top clubs. Its European triumphs are not lionized like Milan’s, its domestic resume not celebrated as heartily as Juventus’. Perhaps it’s because, throughout history, Inter have shown a proclivity for missing an opportunity, or “grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory.” Or, perhaps, that no contemporary legend is fully identified with the club the way a Paolo Maldini is with Milan, or a Gianluigi Buffon is with Juventus, is held against Inter.

Are they that right now? Inter is not only one of Italy’s historically great clubs, but one that, along with crosstown rivals AC Milan, is in ascendancy. The defending Serie A champions, who currently sit second domestically, in a dogfight with Milan and Napoli, got through the group stage in relative comfort — though they won’t be pleased with a knockout round date with Liverpool.


Who they’ve always been: I hope this doesn’t get me in trouble with anyone, but… Liverpool are the Real Madrid of English football.

The Reds are the nation’s most successful club in Europe, with six European Cup/Champions League wins. What’s more, for years, Liverpool also held the English mark for league titles (since overtaken by Man United) but, like Madrid, who were frustrated for a number of years while pursuing La Decima (a tenth Champions League win), famously endured a three-decade league title drought before capturing the 2019-20 Premier League.

Finally, and most significantly, there’s no more self-reverential club in England. From the goosebump-inducing renditions of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” to the tales of famously intense “European nights at Anfield,” to the tributes and quests for justice for the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy, Liverpool’s identity and its history are inseparable.

Are they that right now? Along with Man United, Liverpool was one of the two dominant clubs in England in the second half of the 20th century. As much as United fans won’t want to hear this of their sworn rival, Liverpool — which, after the turn of the century, endured a period of mismanagement and bad ownership which ultimately hurt results on the pitch — is the template for what the Red Devils must try to become.

This year, Liverpool remains (along with Man City) at the head of English football. They trail City by nine points, but are technically within striking distance, boast the best attack and one of the top defenses in the league. They were similarly outstanding in the Champions League group stage, winning all six of their games and cruising by an 11-point margin.

With Mo Salah and Sadio Mane healthy and firing, Liverpool has to be considered one of the favorites in this competition.

Paris Saint-Germain


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Who they’ve always been: The youngest of Europe’s mega-clubs, PSG came into existence in 1970, after the merger of two local clubs. Over four decades, they won two league titles, seven Coupes de France, three Coupes de la Ligue, and a Cup Winners’ Cup. During this time, they were as likely to finish outside the top 10 (10 times) as they were top two (eight) and, in the 1990s (along with most French clubs), faced financial ruin.

Then, 2011 happened. Qatar Sports Investments (with its 12 figures worth of cash) and Nasir al Khelaifi (with his own PR agenda) purchased the club from French media giant Canal+ and — stop me if you’ve heard this before — set about turning an unremarkable club into a power.

PSG has since won seven of nine league titles and six each of the Coupe de France/de la Ligue, and featured an incredible lineup of superstars: Zlatan Ibrahimović, Thiago Silva, Edinson Cavani, Dani Alves, Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, Lionel Messi

PSG are France’s Man City, but with more Bayern-esque domestic dominance. 

Are they that right now? More or less. Last summer brought the prestige acquisitions of Messi and Sergio Ramos, the captains of Barcelona and Real Madrid. More than halfway through the season, they’re virtual locks to win the league and, in the Champions League, though they finished second in their group, were never in danger of not advancing.


For all of that domestic success and incandescent star power, PSG, like Man City, have failed to capture their owners’ petro-billions-fueled white whale. Two years ago, PSG made their own breakthrough and reached the Champions League final, but were undone by Bayern Munich. Getting over that hump is all that matters. Mostly. 

There is an additional frustration.

Mbappé — the best French player since Zinedine Zidane — has made no secret of his desire to one day move on and play for Real Madrid. He’s in the last six months of his contract, and speculation is rife that that move is coming this summer.

Despite an abundance of cash and the eagerness to splash it around, PSG is not a fixture at the top table. No stack of money, no matter how tall, buys the stature that fuels dreams like Mbappé’s.

Real Madrid


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Who they’ve always been: There’s no more self-reverential institution in world football. If you’re unaware of Real Madrid’s majesty and superiority, just ask them — they’re happy to clue you in.

This is a club that basks in its status as a glamor institution in a capital city. This was the first club to embrace the European Cup as the competition of consequence. To this day, Madrid would trade multiple (probably several) league titles for one Champions League crown. This is the club of the Galacticos. This is where internal drama that would derail just about any other club barely registers.

Are they that right now? After an incredible run, in which they racked up four Champions League titles in five years with Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, and Zidane leading the way, Los Blancos have settled into an uncharacteristic period of calm.

They impressively overturned Barcelona to win the 2019-20 league title, post-COVID shutdown. This season, they’re an exceedingly safe bet to cruise to another title. And, with the likes of Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, and Toni Kroos still around, they’re not starved for star power. And yet, with Ronaldo, Ramos, and Zidane all gone, and no megabucks replacements yet brought in, it’s felt for a minute that the “real” Read Madrid is MIA.

Not to worry! If reports are to be believed, this coming summer will bring to fruition a plan that club president Florentino Perez has been incubating for four years, and the latest Galactico, Kylian Mbappé, will be Bernabéu-bound.

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