After weeks of qualification and months of gnashing teeth over future format changes, the most important and high-quality continental club competition in the world, the UEFA Champions League, begins group-stage play on Tuesday.
Somehow, this behemoth of a tournament almost snuck up on us, coming in on the heels of a particularly important international break, so let’s set the table for everything you need to know before matches in Bern and Seville get the ball rolling on Tuesday.
Most likely champions
There will be countless twists and turns along the way, but we already have a good idea of who the best clubs in the world are. Based on any number of factors — last year’s performance, recent form, sheer roster quality — here are the three teams I think are most likely to end up lifting the trophy in May. No surprises to be found here.
1. Chelsea. Despite having no go-to centre-forward, and despite Thomas Tuchel only taking over in February, Chelsea won the Champions League last year. Now they’ve got Romelu Lukaku and a full-season Tuchel. They haven’t been perfect out of the gate this season, but there’s not a hole to be found in this squad.
2. Paris Saint-Germain. The betting favorite for obvious, Lionel Messi-related reasons. PSG added Messi, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi, Georginio Wijnaldum and Sergio Ramos in the offseason — maybe the greatest set of transfer-window additions ever — and turned down a gaudy offer from Real Madrid for Kylian Mbappe. They are taking their biggest Champions League swing ever.
3. Manchester City. The best team in Europe for most of the last 12 months, City let the Champions League title slip through their hands with a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea and while they added Jack Grealish in the offseason, they couldn’t land Harry Kane and didn’t end up addressing their iffy forward depth at all. It would still be no surprise whatsoever if they win this tournament, but they might not be the single most likely team this time around.
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Best recent run of form
The top six betting favorites — the three teams above, plus Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester United — have all begun the season well, as one would expect. But here are four more teams that hit the ground running this August and carry both confidence and form into the Champions League battle.
1. AC Milan. Milan had a busy offseason — lots of players out, lots of players in — but the chemistry has been excellent thus far. They’ve pounded Sampdoria, Cagliari and Lazio by a combined 7-1, new addition Olivier Giroud already has two goals and six chances created, and the Rossoneri have loads of confidence.
2. Wolfsburg. We spend most of our Bundesliga time talking about Bayern, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig, but Wolfsburg confidently held onto a Champions League position for most of last season, held on to virtually every player of importance in the offseason (though they did lose manager Oliver Glasner to Eintracht Frankfurt) and have begun league play with a perfect 12 points from four matches, including a 1-0 win over RB Leipzig.
3. Benfica. After finishing a disappointing third in Portugal‘s Primeira Liga, the two-time European champion brought in Ukrainian goal-scorer Roman Yaremchuk, plus a fresh batch of midfielders, and have hit the ground running. They survived a huge challenge from a smoking-hot PSV Eindhoven to qualify for the group stage, and they’ve taken all 15 points from their first five domestic league matches. Can’t ask for much more than that.
4. Sevilla. Though their weekend match against Barcelona was postponed (and it’s harder to say a team is in good form when they haven’t played in two weeks), Sevilla looked fantastic in its first three La Liga matches, producing a league-best +1.7 xG differential per match and taking seven of nine points. And they are in a wide-open Champions League group with Wolfsburg, Lille and RB Salzburg.
Worst recent run of form
1. Juventus. Caesars Sportsbook gave the Bianconeri decent +1000 odds of reaching the final, eighth-best overall, despite the fact that they have gone out in the round of 16 for two straight years, saw their long Serie A title streak end last season and basically traded Cristiano Ronaldo for Moise Kean this offseason.
They brought back longtime success Massimiliano Allegri as manager, but have begun the domestic season with one point in three matches. And you can’t even say it’s just bad luck: Their overall xG differential is -0.93 thus far.
2. RB Leipzig. Manager Jesse Marsch was promoted from RB Salzburg after the club lost Julian Nagelsmann to Bayern Munich, and the massive amount of turnover the team has seen — Nagelsmann, Dayot Upamecano and Marcel Sabitzer to Bayern, Ibrahima Konate to Liverpool, and lots of important new pieces coming in — has led to a discombobulated start. Leipzig stomped Stuttgart on Aug. 20, but has otherwise lost three league matches, including a 4-1 blowout to Nagelsmann’s Bayern. They should find themselves at some point, but there’s no time to waste in a Group A that features both Manchester City and PSG.
3. Lille. This was destined to be a rough season for last year’s shocking Ligue 1 champs. Goalkeeper Mike Maignan went to Milan, midfielder Boubakary Soumare went to Leicester City, and the club weren’t in financial position to make proper replacements. They did beat PSG for the Trophee des Champions in August, but they’ve won only one of their first five league matches and are coming off of a 2-1 loss to Lorient. They allowed more than two goals in just two of their final 20 league matches last year, but have already done so three times this year.
4. Villarreal. One of a few teams that headed into the LaLiga season hoping to take major advantage of Barcelona’s and Real Madrid’s limited spending, Unai Emery’s squad has held opponents to two goals in three matches. That’s good! Less good: also scoring two in three matches. Two nil-nils and a 2-2 draw with Atletico Madrid have left them a bit off the early pace, and opponents are taking quite a few more shots than them (with relatively equal shot quality averages). Their UEFA Super Cup draw with Chelsea (they lost in a penalty shootout) shows they can hang with the big boys, but you still have to put the ball in the net occasionally.
Biggest wild cards
We know who the favorites are. Now let’s talk about three teams that have been a little more difficult to read. They have the money and squad to be contenders, but there are still question marks.
1. Manchester United. To last year’s Champions League disappointment and Europa League finalist, United added Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo up front and Raphael Varane in the back. They have started the Premier League season well and might have the most valuable collection of attacking talent this side of Paris… and they’re still relying on Scott McTominay and Fred to get the ball to said attacking talent. They added nothing to a thin midfield in this transfer window, and it remains unclear if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has the tactical nous necessary to not only win Group F, but also four elimination rounds in the winter and spring.
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2. Real Madrid. They’re still reliant on quite a few players (mostly midfielders) who are approaching their mid-30s. They lost two starting centre-backs (Varane and Ramos) and replaced them with only one (David Alaba). The only two teams in LaLiga that can score this season are Real Madrid and whoever Real Madrid is playing. Still, with Karim Benzema and a torrid Vinicius Junior in attack and the tantalizing Eduardo Camavinga recently added to their aging midfield, they have the raw talent to beat any single team in this field. It’s weird talking about the 13-time European champion as an all-or-nothing wildcard, but here we are.
3. Liverpool. The injury bug continues to bite. After it feasted on basically every centre-back on the roster last season, it has already come after forward Roberto Firmino (nagging hamstring injury) and, as of Sunday, emerging winger Harvey Elliott (dislocated ankle). The Reds already didn’t have the overall depth that Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United have put together, and they can’t afford as many injuries. And yet, they have 10 points after four Premier League matches, their +2.2 per match xG differential is second in the league to only City, and they have thus far extinguished last year’s transition-defense issues. Jurgen Klopp’s squad looks quite a bit like Liverpool again. You know, the 2019 Champions League winners? That Liverpool?
Favorite long shots
It’s not hard to find people complaining about the tournament’s overall predictability, but even if or when we get the results we expect, there are twists and turns along the way: Real Madrid nearly failing to advance in 2020-21, Lyon and RB Leipzig making the semis in 2019-20, etc.
Now’s the time to dream of chaos, so here are three teams that (a) have betting odds of +5000 or worse to reach the finals, per Caesars and (b) have just enough high-end talent to make a big run.
1. Ajax (+6600 to make the final). PSV has been the best team in the Eredivisie early in the season, but they couldn’t squeeze past Benfica to reach the group stage of the Champions League. But that’s fine — the old heavyweight Ajax has been looking good too. They’ve outscored league opponents 13-1, striker Sebastien Haller already has four league goals, and FiveThirtyEight’s club ratings actually give them an 11% chance of reaching the finals, same as Real Madrid and one percentage point better than Manchester United.
2. Sporting CP (+8000). The defending Portuguese champions couldn’t quite avoid being bitten by the transfers bug — they ended up sending fullback Nuno Mendes to PSG on a loan-to-buy on Aug. 31 — but they still return most of last year’s championship squad, and almost no team in this tournament has a better understanding of what they are and how they win than Ruben Amorim’s squad. They’re going to defend like crazy at one end and generate just enough high-quality chances (often via set pieces) at the other. They aren’t the most talented team in either the field or Group C, but it’s going to be hard to knock them off. 3. FC Salzburg (+10000). Both of the top Red Bull-owned squads will forever be in transition, attempting to win with the current crop of ridiculously fun, young talent before it leaves and needs replacing. RB Leipzig could certainly find its form and make a dark-horse run, but let’s dream bigger. Salzburg lost Jesse Marsch to Leipzig, forward Patson Daka to Leicester City and midfielder Enock Mwepu to Brighton, but simply plugged Matthias Jaissle into the managerial role and 19-year old German forward Karim Adeyemi into the main scoring role, and everything has continued apace. They’ve won their first seven Austrian Bundesliga matches by a combined 19-4, and they’re going to attempt to run the legs off of Sevilla, Wolfsburg and Lille in Group G. They were a tough out last year (until the last 10 minutes of a given match, anyway), and they will be one this year as well. 1. Group A (Manchester City, PSG, RB Leipzig, Club Brugge). PSG dropping Ligue 1 to Lille last year created one of the deathiest groups of death you’ll ever see, pitting the last two Champions League runners-up against each other and, in RBL, squeezing a 2020 semifinalist in there as well. RBL’s current iffy form could help to assure there aren’t any major surprises, but the group’s depth has created a fun scenario: according to FiveThirtyEight’s current odds, there’s a 5% chance Messi, Mbappe and Neymar are leading the club… to a Europa League title in May.
2. Sporting CP (+8000). The defending Portuguese champions couldn’t quite avoid being bitten by the transfers bug — they ended up sending fullback Nuno Mendes to PSG on a loan-to-buy on Aug. 31 — but they still return most of last year’s championship squad, and almost no team in this tournament has a better understanding of what they are and how they win than Ruben Amorim’s squad. They’re going to defend like crazy at one end and generate just enough high-quality chances (often via set pieces) at the other. They aren’t the most talented team in either the field or Group C, but it’s going to be hard to knock them off.
3. FC Salzburg (+10000). Both of the top Red Bull-owned squads will forever be in transition, attempting to win with the current crop of ridiculously fun, young talent before it leaves and needs replacing. RB Leipzig could certainly find its form and make a dark-horse run, but let’s dream bigger.
Salzburg lost Jesse Marsch to Leipzig, forward Patson Daka to Leicester City and midfielder Enock Mwepu to Brighton, but simply plugged Matthias Jaissle into the managerial role and 19-year old German forward Karim Adeyemi into the main scoring role, and everything has continued apace. They’ve won their first seven Austrian Bundesliga matches by a combined 19-4, and they’re going to attempt to run the legs off of Sevilla, Wolfsburg and Lille in Group G. They were a tough out last year (until the last 10 minutes of a given match, anyway), and they will be one this year as well.
1. Group A (Manchester City, PSG, RB Leipzig, Club Brugge). PSG dropping Ligue 1 to Lille last year created one of the deathiest groups of death you’ll ever see, pitting the last two Champions League runners-up against each other and, in RBL, squeezing a 2020 semifinalist in there as well. RBL’s current iffy form could help to assure there aren’t any major surprises, but the group’s depth has created a fun scenario: according to FiveThirtyEight’s current odds, there’s a 5% chance Messi, Mbappe and Neymar are leading the club… to a Europa League title in May.
Dan Thomas is joined by Craig Burley, Shaka Hislop and others to bring you the latest highlights and debate the biggest storylines. Stream on ESPN+ (U.S. only).
2. Group G (Sevilla, Wolfsburg, Lille, Salzburg). You will rarely see a more evenly matched group than this. Any of these four teams could win the group with just a couple of big results, and FiveThirtyEight only gives group favorite Sevilla a 66% chance of advancing to the knockout rounds.
3. Group C (Ajax, Borussia Dortmund, Sporting CP, Besiktas). Sporting has maybe the strongest identity in the entire field, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund have gloriously volatile upside and, as we’ll discuss below, Besiktas has one of the most incredible “Oh hey, THAT guy!” rosters you’ll ever see. Miralem Pjanic! Michy Batshuayi! Cyle Larin! A really strong and interesting team is going to get sent down to the Europa League knockouts from this group.
Your new fave players
The knockout rounds, plus marquee early match-ups like Man City vs. PSG and Bayern Munich vs. Barcelona, will give us plenty of opportunities to talk about the tournament’s best players — the Messis and Mbappes, the Robert Lewandowskis and Kevin De Bruynes. But one of the more enjoyable aspects of the group stage is feasting your eyes on two specific groups of players: the young guys on second-tier squads who will soon be commanding huge transfer fees from bigger clubs, and the veterans who have landed on those second-tier squads and found a way to keep playing in big, relevant matches.
Here are 10 such players, all from long-shot teams with betting odds of +7500 or worse to reach the final.
1. Karim Adeyemi, RB Salzburg. He’s fun, young, fast and a feature player. And he’s already capable of doing things like this for his national team.
A dream debut for 19-year-old Germany international Karim Adeyemi ⚽️🙌
— European Qualifiers (@EURO2020) September 8, 2021
In just three months, his (admittedly crowdsourced) value at Transfermarkt doubled from $11 million to $22 million. With a big few matches, it might double again.
2. Pedro Goncalves, Sporting CP. Sporting’s winning recipe: defend like crazy and hope Pote does something brilliant. It won them a league title last year, with Goncalves scoring 23 goals and creating 51 chances from what was ostensibly a midfield role (!!). He’s already got three and nine, respectively, in four league matches this year.
3. Tete, Shakhtar Donetsk. Somehow still only 21, Tete scored on a brilliant setup from full-back Viktor Kornienko in Shakhtar’s upset of Real Madrid last year, and he’s one of the more exciting chaos agents in the field. He’ll take long-range shots and make risky/bold/silly passes, and just enough of them will pay off that you have to keep watching.
4. Alex Teixeira, Besiktas. A beneficiary/victim of the Chinese Super League’s brief spending splurge, Teixeira nearly left for Liverpool in 2016, but spent his prime years at Jiangsu FC instead. He was brilliant there, averaging 12 goals and 44 chances created over five seasons, and he’s got 11 career Champions League goals to his name from his Shakhtar days. Now 31, he’s joined former Chelsea prospect Batshuayi in what is a surprisingly high-ceiling Besiktas attack.
5. Charles De Ketelaere, Club Brugge. A rare 6-foot-4 wide forward, the lanky 20-year-old is unique to watch and adept on both wings. He scored twice in last year’s Champions League, both in wins over Zenit, and he’s already got three goals and two assists in league play this season.
6. Viktor Tsygankov, Dynamo Kyiv. Tsygankov can play in both central and wide roles, and has scored at least 15 goals in all competitions for Dynamo for four straight seasons. And he’s only 23! The Ukrainian champs are picked to finish last in Group E, but they have just enough upside to make things messy for Bayern, Barcelona and/or Benfica.
7. Atiba Hutchinson, Besiktas. He’s still around and still clicking! Hutchinson made his national-team debut for Canada almost 19 years ago, and at age 38 he’s still regularly making 40-plus midfield appearances for Besiktas. And now he’s back in the Champions League for the first time in four years.
8. Adama Traore, FC Sheriff. Not the mighty Wolves winger, but the slightly older Malian winger who landed in Tiraspol in February and has already made a massive impression, scoring four times with two assists while Sheriff was climbing through eight qualification matches to reach the group stage. He scored twice during their stunning 3-0 win over Dinamo Zagreb in mid-August, and if Sheriff pulls any points out of group play, he’ll probably be the reason why.
9. Artem Dzyuba, Zenit St. Petersburg. He’s 33, he’s scored nine career Champions League goals, plus eight more in the Europa League (not to mention 30 for his national team), and he might actually be improving? He scored 22 goals during Zenit’s domestic title run last season, his most since 2015-16.
10. Jordan Pefok, Young Boys. USA! USA! USA! USA!