The UEFA Champions League is often dominated by the biggest and richest clubs in Europe, but that doesn't mean it can't provide plenty of surprises.
European football is a breeding ground for thrills and memorable moments for fans of clubs with all kinds of profiles — from the largest, most decorated outfits adding to bursting trophy cabinets to the year's crop of newcomers.
With the 2023/24 competition down to just 16 teams in the final edition of the current format, the Champions League will once again see this season's group of hopeful teams go head-to-head with some of the world's most powerful sides.
The Sporting News brings you a look at which clubs could spring upsets and which favourites could be knocked out earlier than anticipated in a roundup of the boldest predictions for the coming knockout stage.
Bold predictions for Champions League 2024 knockout stage
The Sporting News football experts and contributors were asked to each submit one bold prediction for the 2024 UEFA Champions League knockout stage. Here is a collection of each individual's thoughts, plus a brief explanation of their rationale.
Man City won't make the semifinals of the 2024 Champions League
We start with the defending champions failing to secure back-to-back European titles. Since 1990, only one club has ever won consecutive Champions League crowns: as Real Madrid won three in a row in 2016, 2017, and 2018.
While Manchester City are deserving favourites to win the Champions League after securing last year's crown and dominating the Premier League for the past half-decade, they have shown cracks in the months leading up to this year's UCL knockout stage. Pep Guardiola has benefitted from exceedingly good injury luck in his time as don of the club, but this season, fitness concerns have riddled the squad.
Injuries to Kevin De Bruyne, Erling Haaland, and others were compounded by an uncharacteristic defensive frailty, making them more vulnerable than they have been in years. City will do well to reach deep into this competition, and the time is now to back them for a shocking — but not all that surprising — early exit.
Winner of Inter vs. Atletico Madrid will win the 2024 UCL title
Without a doubt the spiciest take of the lot, Senior Football Editor Joe Wright has tipped the winner of this extremely even matchup to eventually lift the trophy. Neither side is likely to be favored to beat too many of those left standing in the quarterfinals, so a number of upsets will be required to see this selection come to pass.
Inter have lost only one game since last season's Champions League final. Atletico breezed through their group, easily beat Real Madrid 3-1 in September, and, in Antoine Griezmann, boast the best player in La Liga through the whole of the 2023 calendar year. The winner of this "Diego Simeone derby" will be an underdog with a dangerous bite.
Bayern Munich won't make Champions League semifinals
While some believe that Harry Kane's sensational goalscoring form make Bayern Munich a Champions League title favourite, others apparently think that could be a red herring.
Bayern were the most challenging opponent Manchester City faced on their run to glory last season and, had Serge Gnabry not been trying and failing to fill the massive centre-forward-shaped hole in their team, a 3-0 first-leg defeat at the Etihad Stadium might have panned out very differently. Bayern now have that centre-forward, arguably the best one in the world and Harry Kane is scoring goals by the bucketful.
And yet, somehow, everything isn't perfect. Bayern's performances against quality opposition this season — 2-2 draws against RB Leipzig and Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen, who then beat Bayern 3-0 last week — haven't inspired confidence, while the crazy 5-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt is far from the only example of a flimsy defence. Thomas Tuchel's side should have more than enough to get past Lazio but, if the draw isn't kind, their campaign will end at the quarterfinal stage again.
Real Sociedad to eliminate Kylian Mbappe, PSG in the Round of 16
A few Sporting News writers have backed Real Sociedad to impress in Europe this season. Sitting sixth in the La Liga table as 2023 came to a close, La Real have been an extremely difficult team to beat, losing just five of their first 24 league games. Tack on an exceedingly impressive unbeaten group-stage finish, and they're an understandable chic upset pick.
PSG squeezed over the line to gain a Champions League knockout spot as La Real were unbeaten in topping Group D ahead of 2023 finalists Inter Milan. PSG do not — nor do they ever — seem capable of learning from their errors with five last-16 exits in the past seven seasons. Imanol Alguacil's well-equipped and tactically balanced side are exactly what Luis Enrique's talented Jenga set are not, with the all-important second leg in San Sebastian.
Real Sociedad will reach the 2024 Champions League final
Brad has decided to one-up Feargal's pick and take La Real all the way to the final. It certainly qualifies as a bold selection but not without merit, as Sociedad proved capable against the likes of Inter, Benfica, and RB Salzburg in the group stage.
Having suffered just five defeats all season, Sociedad find themselves asking the question: why not? It's worth mentioning that their only three losses before the turn of the year were against the big three in Spanish football: Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid. They were all by one-goal margins, as they conceded in the final minutes against both Barca and Diego Simeone's Atletico.
Get past Kylian Mbappe and company, draw a favourable side in the quarterfinals, and anything can happen. And wouldn't it be perfect to see a club whose squad predominantly grew up in hillside villages and cities of the Basque Country stick it to those campaigning for the Super League?
- Brad Cox
Arsenal to reach at least the semifinals of the 2024 Champions League
The Gunners look to have turned a corner this season after falling just short of the Premier League title last campaign. Arsenal are thought to be one of the favorites to win the competition, making this far from the hottest of takes, but backing them to reach deep into the competition in their first season back in the Champions League for some time still comes with risk.
Arsenal can go all the way. After a favourable draw in the Round of 16 and a squad that has more depth than people give it credit for, Mikel Arteta's side seem well placed to reach an unlikely semifinal or maybe even final. Having closely battled Manchester City, they've proven they can go toe-to-toe with any elite team in Europe.
Borussia Dortmund to reach the 2024 Champions League final
Many, including some of those on staff here at The Sporting News, thought it likely that Borussia Dortmund bow out amidst this season's most difficult Champions League group. Instead, they not only advanced to the knockout stage, but they topped the standings ahead of PSG, AC Milan, and Newcastle United. That has turned some heads, including Ben's, who has backed the German club to continue their impressive play and reach the title match.
Dortmund's domestic struggles at the end of 2023 belied their over-achieving, tactically pragmatic European campaign, winning a tough group with relative ease while averaging less than 45% of possession and lacking match-winners of the bygone ilk of Erling Haaland and Jude Bellingham. There were moments of brilliance and luck, such as Gregor Kobel's early penalty save in Milan or Niklas Sule's remarkable clearance to deny PSG's Kylian Mbappe.
BVB's standing as the highest tacklers in the competition speaks of the endeavour and stubbornness of a side whose defensive record was only bettered by Sociedad, and they will have home advantage in their deciding leg against PSV. While other contenders are toiling across several competitions, Dortmund can reserve almost all of their energy for this one, and their focus should be sharpened by an awareness that an unlikely triumph might represent their best chance of being involved again next season.
There will be no English club in the 2024 Champions League final
Opinions appear to be mixed on which Premier League teams will impress and which will fall short, but Thien has decided to blanket the English clubs and very boldly claim that none will have a chance at lifting the trophy. Two have already been taken care of, with Newcastle and Manchester United failing to escape the group stage, but Manchester City are defending champions, and Arsenal are considered amongst the favourites.
This season could mark a notable departure from the recent trend of English football dominance in the UEFA Champions League. The financial superiority has catapulted them to prominence, with at least one English club featuring in five out of the past six finals.
However, this year presents a very different scenario, as half of the English teams failed to progress beyond the group stage. While Arsenal and Manchester City secured relatively easier opponents in the first knockout stage, their juggling commitments in the fiercely competitive Premier League, especially in a super tight fixture list in the second half of the season, adds another level of difficulty.