Europe’s Top Clubs Go Head To Head: Champion’s League Returns

Jose Breton for AP Photo
Jose Breton for AP Photo

For some, February means love. For others, it means football. The Union of European Football Associations Champions League (UCL) returned on February 13, bringing high-stakes matches to a television near you.

2024 has been a jam-packed year for soccer around the world. In January, top African and Asian stars left their clubs to compete in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) and Asian Cup, which are biannual continental competitions. This summer, the European Championship will take place. Additionally, some nations will send top players to the Summer Olympic Games in Paris, France.

In between other competitions, most domestic leagues are in the midst of red-hot title races Now, the UCL will crown the champions of Europe. Group stages already occurred from September to December 2023. There were eight groups of four clubs, and the top two from each group advanced to the Round of 16.

In each knockout stage, teams will play two legs—one at home and one away—and the aggregate score will be used to determine who advances (whoever has more goals after both games). This continues until the final, which is a single-game championship.

A surprising number of big clubs are missing from this year’s elimination rounds. AC Milan, Manchester United and Benfica were among those to bow out in group stages. Liverpool, Chelsea, Juventus and Ajax all had underwhelming 2022-23 campaigns, causing them to miss out completely.

Still, the competition will be enthralling. These are the head to heads.


Manchester City vs. Copenhagen

City, who lifted the UCL trophy for the first time in their history last year, will return with a favorable draw. Copenhagen unexpectedly emerged second in their group ahead of Manchester United and Turkish giants Galatasaray, but their journey will most likely stop here.

City stumbled a bit early on in the Premier League, and they sit in second behind Liverpool (though with one less match played). However, midfielder Kevin de Bruyne and striker Erling Haaland are back from extended bouts with injury, and they look as good as ever. Twenty three year-old winger Phil Foden is on fire, and reigning UCL Player of the Season Rodrigo provides a steady presence at defensive midfielder.

Missing this year are former captain Ilkay Gundogan and right winger Riyad Mahrez, who left for Barcelona and Saudi Arabia, respectively, but City will be fine. Their ambitions this year are far beyond the round of 16.


Real Madrid vs. Red Bull Leipzig

Real Madrid, the most dominant force in the history of the competition, look to add their 15th trophy this year. Leipzig, on the other hand, were only founded in 2009, and this is only their fourth appearance in team history in the knockout rounds.

Last year, Leipzig played City in the round of 16, where they lost 8-1 on aggregate. This year does not promise to be much better. Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) loanee Xavi Simons has made waves for the team, who sit fifth in the German Bundesliga. But Leipzig sold Josko Gvardiol and Dominik Szoboszlai over the summer, leaving them lacking power.

Real Madrid, who last won in 2022, bring a mix of old and new ballers to the competition. Legends of the game Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are still at it, while exciting young Brazilians Vinicius Jr. and Rodyrgo provide a dizzying attack on the left and right.

Real’s biggest story of the year is Englishman Jude Bellingham, who arrived from Borussia Dortmund over the summer. Bellingham is putting up one of the best seasons in Europe, helping replace Karim Benzema, who left for Saudi side Al-Ittihad.


Internazionale Milan (Inter) vs. Atletico Madrid (Atletico)

This is arguably the best matchup of the round. Inter went red hot in last year’s UCL, putting up a valiant fight against City in the final. They have continued their form and currently sit at the top of the Italian Serie A. Atletico are fourth in Spain’s La Liga and have an experienced squad ready to compete with the best.

Inter are headlined by Lautaro Martinez, an instrumental part of Argentina’s starting 11 and one of the best strikers in the world. Frenchman Marcus Thuram has been a strong addition to the side. Alongside Italians Nicolo Barella and Alessandro Bastoni, among others, another deep run cannot be ruled out.

Atletico and Antoine Griezmann will not go down easily, though. The French national has rejuvenated his career with his move back to the Spanish club and has looked like one of the world’s best players this season.


Napoli vs. Barcelona (Barca)

Napoli, who won Serie A last year for the first time since the days of Diego Maradona in the 1980s, lost earlier than they would have liked in the UCL. They have struggled with form this year, but they possess talent capable of damage.

Nigerian Victor Osimehn is back from AFCON just in time to pair with Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. The attacking duo will cause problems for Barca, who have been underwhelming themselves, riddled by financial issues and other outside noise.

Barcelona’s talent is, however, undeniable. Dutchman Frenkie de Jong and Spaniard Pedri are top midfielders, and they are now joined by Gundogan. Robert Lewandowski will look to channel some vintage performances to give the Catalan club a spark up front. 16-year-old academy product Lamine Yamal has been a success story, recently netting twice against Granada.


Bayern Munich vs. Lazio 

Bayern have won the Bundesliga 12 straight times and last won the UCL in 2020. This year, they are being miraculously challenged domestically by Bayer Leverkusen, who sit 5 points clear in the league. To be clear, though, this is a testament to Leverkusen and coach Xabi Alonso rather than a knock on Bayern.

Bayern are a surefire contender this year. They added all-time English great Harry Kane, who has been on a scoring rampage. He is joined by German stars Jamal Musiala, Joshua Kimmich and Leroy Sane.

Kane left Tottenham for Bayern with one thing in mind: winning trophies. He’s going to do everything he can to make sure that happens. They should make quick work of a Lazio side searching for form in Italy.


Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) vs. Real Sociedad

Kylian Mbappe, soccer’s biggest young star, will reportedly move to Real Madrid, and he looks poised to move on a free transfer this summer. This could be his last hurrah with PSG, a tenure that has had its ups and downs.

Winning the French Ligue 1 every year is a given for the Parisian club, and not nearly enough to convince Mbappe to stay in his home country. PSG have added French stars Randal Kolo Muani and Ousmane Dembele, but it remains to be seen whether they can help move the needle in Europe, which has been a struggle at times.

Nevertheless, PSG should not have trouble with Real Sociedad, who are having a mediocre year in La Liga. Their main challenges await in future rounds.


Arsenal vs. Porto

Arsenal have been on form lately in the Premier League. Declan Rice’s transfer fee of up to $137.5 million broke the record for an Englishman over the summer, and he’s playing well in midfield. Twenty two year-olds Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli make an exciting duo on the wing, and William Saliba will look to prove himself on a big stage in defense.

Arsenal, however, are in the Champions League for the first time since 2017, while Porto have more experience, captained by 40-year-old Pepe. The Portuguese side will be no easy task for Arsenal, who are yet to be challenged after drawing an easy group.


Dortmund vs. PSV

Not many expected Dortmund to make it out of the group stages. The German club finished top of a group that included PSG, AC Milan and Newcastle. It would be easy to count the talent factory out, but their form in Europe has been strong. PSV are cruising in the Dutch Eredivisie and will hope to give Dortmund a run for their money.

Manchester City and Real Madrid’s first legs kicked off at 3:00 p.m. EST on February 13, and the competition will run through late June. The storylines brewing mean there is a lot to look out for.

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Mason Wolverton
Mason Wolverton, Copy Editor
Mason Wolverton is a junior reporter entering his second year on staff and first year as Copy Editor. Mason runs cross-country and track for our school. In his free time, he enjoys reading and hiking with his dog, Crosley.

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