The five favorites (sorry, PSG), LaLiga’s terrible performance, and more UEFA Champions League topics
Matchday Five of the Champions League is our favorite. Most groups have already been settled by Matchday Six, and only a few games have serious stakes left. However, most groups remain in flux on the second-to-last day of the fixture schedule, as is the case this season, with only Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Ajax guaranteed places in the last 16.
Let’s look at the five most pressing questions heading into the final two group stage matches.
Is there a new Big Five?
For most of the preceding decade, it was clear who would win the Champions League: Bayern Munich, Barcelona, or Real Madrid, and those were the only teams to do it from 2012 to 2018. Bayern paired the majority of Germany’s 2014 World Cup-winning roster with Europe’s two best Lionel Messi impersonators in Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. Real had Cristiano Ronaldo and a collection of decisive superstars, Barcelona paired the greatest player ever with the greatest possession structure we’ve ever seen, and Real paired the greatest player ever with the greatest possession structure we’ve ever seen. For a while, when these teams lost, it signified one of two things: they’d played each other or someone else had a fortuitous break.
All of that came to an end in 2019, when Ronaldo left Madrid and Liverpool won the European Cup by defeating both Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Since then, we’ve been in a state of limbo. There hasn’t been a repeat winner in the last three seasons, and only one club has made it to the semifinals more than once, with only three quarterfinalists carrying over from 2020 to 2021.
The year-to-year craziness may likely continue — that is, after all, the idea of knockout soccer — but four games into this year’s tournament, there is a definite top five… and then there’s everyone else.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s model, this quartet has an approximately 80% chance of winning this year: Bayern Munich (23 percent), Manchester City (22 percent), Liverpool (15 percent), Ajax (10 percent), and Chelsea (10 percent) (9 percent ). It’s hard to argue with any of that, especially considering how good Manchester City, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich have been in league play this year.
From a statistical standpoint, a team’s non-penalty expected-goal differential is the best predictor of future performance. The results are erratic, and the finish is unpredictable, especially thus early in the season. And, according to FBref, Bayern (plus-1.92 per game), Liverpool (plus-1.59), and City (plus-1.52) are on the verge of winning the competition. No other team in Europe’s top five leagues has a per-game xG differential greater than plus-0.85. These have been the three best teams in the world, and they’re playing at, if not above, the level of the great Barca and Madrid teams of the previous decade, despite the outcome.
Then there’s Chelsea, who are, after all, the current Champions League champions. Also, the Premier League team that is ahead of both Liverpool and City.
Chelsea hasn’t quite reached the same heights as the other three, and they’ve only been able to keep up with Liverpool and City thanks to some excellent finishing: 7.2 goals more than expected, according to FBref, which is both the third most in Europe and completely unsustainable over the course of a season. But, interestingly, ever since Romelu Lukaku had a hip injury, Chelsea’s underlying performances have improved, bringing them closer to Bayern Munich and their Premier League rivals. Add in the fact that they’re led by the one Champions League constant in recent years — no clubs have been repeat finalists, but manager Thomas Tuchel has been there with PSG and Chelsea in each of the last two seasons — and the Blues are deserving of a place among the favorites.
So, what else do you want Ajax to do? Yes, they play in the Dutch Eredivisie, and they have a collection of Premier League flops (Sebastian Haller, Dusan Tadic) and a set of prospects (Ryan Gravenberch, Antony) who aren’t quite as good as the teenagers who nearly got them to the final in 2019, but this is an even better team. They’ve completely dominated their domestic league, scoring 42 goals and surrendering only two in 13 games. Is there any Premier League team that could compete with that? Would a team of invading hyper-powered aliens from an ancient culture whose sole value is “be good at soccer” perform any better?
Oh, and Ajax has joined Bayern Munich and Liverpool as the only clubs in the Champions League to have won all four of their games thus far. Only Bayern (plus-13) and City (plus-10) have a higher goal differential in the competition, while only Bayern and City have a higher xG differential. In the Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund is one point behind Bayern Munich, and Ajax defeated them by a combined score of 7-1 in two meetings. This team, and their chances of winning their fifth European Cup, are genuine.
So, uh, no PSG?
PSG is the third favorite to win the tournament, after City and ahead of Liverpool, according to the oddsmakers. In Ligue 1, they are currently in first place. They’ve already defeated Manchester City. They have arguably the top three attacking players in the world on the same team (Kylian Mbappe, Messi, and Neymar). They’re coached by Mauricio Pochettino, who just a few years ago led a far less gifted Tottenham team to the finals. They have a lot of depth in the middle and on defense. In Gianluigi Donnarumma and Keylor Navas, they even boast two world-class goalkeepers.
It seems silly on paper, but after having just spent around 500 words discussing the xG-derived quality of several Champions League candidates, I am here to tell you that soccer is played on grass, not college-ruled loose leaf. And it hasn’t looked fantastic when this group of costly, uber-talented players has assembled on sod for 90 minutes so far this season.
Sure, it worked. They’ll come out of a difficult Champions League group, and they’ll win Ligue 1 (89 percent chance, according to FiveThirtyEight), which they didn’t achieve last season. Despite this, Pochettino’s side is only third in France in terms of xG differential, behind Nice and Lens. They’ve also conceded more xG than they’ve created in the Champions League. They are pressing less this season than previous, taking fewer shots, conceding more shots, and completing fewer passes into the penalty area. Because Messi, Mbappe, and Neymar can’t — or won’t — press the ball, they’ve been a broken team, one that can create chances with all of its possession but can’t produce extra shots from pressing and can’t stop the opposition from moving the ball because they don’t press.
This could all change at any time. With LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, the Miami Heat went 8-7 in their first 15 games, but they reached the NBA Finals in each of their four seasons together. It’s a much harder to put together a group of ball-dominant super-duper-stars in real life than it is on FIFA, but we still haven’t seen it work; most of their victories have come as a consequence of individual brilliance rather than unified, systematic dominance. While PSG has the most talented players, the other five teams each have their own set of stars and systems. To win the Champions League, you usually need both.
Where did you go, LaLiga?
Real Madrid have all but won qualification to the knockout rounds despite losing — at home — to the representatives of everyone’s favorite unrecognized Eastern European breakaway state, FC Sheriff Tiraspol. (According to FiveThirtyEight, they have a 95 percent chance of winning.) All that remains is the battle for first or second place in the group, which will most likely be decided on Matchday 6 against Inter Milan. But what about outside of Madrid? Oh, my goodness.
Spanish clubs dominated European soccer from 2008 to 2018, winning seven of the ten Champions Leagues and another six Europa Leagues, while the rest of Europe combined for only seven European medals. Since then, no Spanish club has made it to the final of the Champions League, a reality that does not appear to be changing anytime soon. Despite the fact that Spain received an extra fifth group stage participant this season as a result of Villarreal’s Europa League victory, there’s a good probability Madrid will be LaLiga’s only representative in the knockout stages.
Atletico Madrid is in third place in Group B, one point behind FC Porto. According to FiveThirtyEight, Porto’s chances of progressing are approximately 50-50, but this week, they face a Liverpool club that has already clinched first place in the group and will be focusing on “fitness” rather than “winning a soccer game.” And regardless of what happens this week (Atletico Madrid hosts AC Milan), Porto will advance with a home win over Atletico on Matchday 6.
You might be thinking, “Oh, in that case, my money’s on Diego Simeone if he simply needs a result on the final day.” When the two teams played in Madrid on Matchday 1, Porto produced 1.1 xG compared to Atletico’s 0.3. Neither team scored, but if Simeone sees another game like this, he’ll be on the sidelines on Thursday nights for the foreseeable future.
Barcelona is… in second place in Group E? When did that happen, anyway? Anyway, they get the rematches of the two games they lost to start the season after back-to-back victories over Dynamo Kiev. The final game is an odd one: it will be played away from home against Bayern Munich, who thrashed them in Spain yet have already clinched the group. Given the gap between the two the last few times they’ve met, Barca are unlikely to obtain a result even against a Bayern B squad, so it all comes down to this week’s match against Benfica, who are two points behind them in third place. Xavi & Co. have a 2-in-3 probability of placing second, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Villarreal, meanwhile, have roughly identical chances of progressing from Group F without Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. They’re simply not a very good team: seven defeats in 13 La Liga games, a plus-2 goal differential, and underlying statistics that don’t indicate anything better. They’re still alive, though, since they’re in a group alongside Italy’s fourth-place team and England’s seventh-place team. It’s great for them.
In the meantime, in Group G…
Who let the Europa League in here?
Shouldn’t these games be played on Thursdays? This is the Platonic ideal of a Europa League club: a big fish from a lower league (RB Salzburg), a French team that isn’t PSG or Lyon (Lille), a midtier German team with an American on the roster (Wolfsburg), and the team that has always won the Europa League (Wolfsburg) (Sevilla).
Is there a chance for any of these clubs to win the Champions League? Almost certainly not! However, the beauty of this group is that everyone has a chance to advance to the next round. According to FiveThirtyEight, Salzburg, who are now in first place with seven points, have an 83 percent chance of advancing. Sevilla are still in with a 20% chance of making the last 16 after just getting three points from their opening four matches. Lille and Wolfsburg are level on five points, with each team having a 50 percent chance of progressing.
Unlike some other groups, where everyone is theoretically still alive — I’m looking at you, FC Sheriff and Young Boys — all four of these teams have a serious opportunity to advance. It’s the only remaining group for whom every game will be crucial from now on. This group is awful, but it’s also fantastic; long live this group.
Will “no manager” be better than “a manager” for Manchester United?
A study on the influence of Premier League managers on club performance was undertaken by a group of researchers at the University of Reading in 2013. They forecasted a club’s expected performance based on its wage bill, then looked at how the team performed with a certain coach on the sideline and gave him the over-, under-, or average performance.
“No Manager” (a.k.a. an interim manager) was one of the top overachievers, with his teams above predictions by 0.42 points.
Sure, it appears chaotic and dismal from the outside, but what if, with Villarreal coming up on Tuesday, Ed Woodward and the Glazers were simply trying to schedule the “new manager bounce” to coincide with their most important game of the season? People, it’s science!