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UEFA Champions League themes - The five favorites (sorry, PSG), LaLiga's poor show, more

With two matchdays to go, there's still a lot to be decided in UEFA's top competition and plenty of lessons to be gleaned from the group so far.
10:42 AM ET
  • Ryan O'Hanlon

In the Champions League, Matchday Five is No. 1 in our hearts. Come Matchday Six, most groups have already been decided and very few games have any real stakes remaining. But on the second-to-last day of the fixture list, most groups remain in flux, and that's very much the case this season with only Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Ajax guaranteed spots in the last 16.

Let's take a look at the five biggest questions ahead of the final two group stage matches.

Is there a new Big Five?

For most of the previous decade, you knew who was gonna win the Champions League: Bayern Munich, Barcelona or Real Madrid, and from 2012 through 2018, those were, in fact, the only teams that won it. 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 Bayern matched up most of Germany's 2014 World Cup-winning roster with Europe's two best Lionel Messi impersonators in Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. For a while, any time these teams lost, it meant either one of two things: They'd played each other or someone else got really lucky.

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That all ended in 2019, when Ronaldo left Madrid and Liverpool beat both Bayern and Barcelona en route to lifting the European Cup. Since then, we've been in a bit of an interregnum. There hasn't been a repeat winner, only one team has even appeared in the semifinals more than once over the past three seasons and just three of the quarterfinalists carried over from 2020 to 2021.

The year-to-year chaos very well might continue -- that's the point of knockout soccer -- but four games into this year's competition, there's a clear top five ... and then there's everyone else.

According to FiveThirtyEight's predictive model, there's a roughly 80% chance that this year's winner comes out of this quintet: Bayern Munich (23%), Manchester City (22%), Liverpool (15%), Ajax (10%) and Chelsea (9%). It's hard to argue with any of that, either, considering that in league play this year, Manchester City, Liverpool and Bayern Munich have been on another level.

From a statistical perspective, the best predictor we have of future performance is a team's non-penalty expected-goal differential. Results are noisy and finishing is random, especially this early in the season. And through this weekend's matches, Bayern (plus-1.92 per game), Liverpool (plus-1.59) and City (plus-1.52) are close to lapping the competition, per the site FBref. Across Europe's top five leagues, no other team has a per-game xG differential above plus-0.85. While the results might not quite show it yet, these have been the three best teams in the world, and they're playing at, if not above, the same level of the great Barca and Madrid teams of the previous decade.

Bayern Munich last won the Champions League in 2019-20, but they're the best team in the world right now and most likely to lift the trophy this season. Stefan Matzke - sampics/Corbis via Getty Images

Then there's Chelsea, the team that's just, you know, the defending Champions League champion. Also: the team that's ahead of both Liverpool and City in the Premier League table.

Chelsea haven't quite reached the same heights as these other three, and they've only been able to hang with Liverpool and City thanks to some hot finishing: 7.2 goals more than expected, per FBref, which is a number that's both third most in Europe and completely unsustainable for an entire season. But strangely, ever since Romelu Lukaku went down with a hip injury, Chelsea's underlying performances have picked up and pushed them progressively closer to the level of Bayern and their Premier League chasers. Throw in the fact that they're managed by the one Champions League constant of the past few years -- no clubs were repeat finalists, but manager Thomas Tuchel has been there with PSG and Chelsea in each of the past two seasons -- and the Blues deserve to be lumped into this group of favorites.

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As for Ajax, well, what more do you want them to do? Yes, they play in the Dutch Eredivisie, and it's a bunch of Premier League washouts (Sebastian Haller, Dusan Tadic) and a group of prospects (Ryan Gravenberch, Antony) seemingly less impressive than the kids who pushed them to the brink of the final in 2019, but this is an even better team. They've dominated their domestic league to an absurd degree, scoring 42 goals and conceding two through 13 matches. Would any Premier League team really do better than that? Would a team of invading hyper-powered aliens from an ancient civilization whose only core value is "be good at soccer" really do better than that?

Oh, and then in the Champions League, Ajax have joined Bayern and Liverpool as the only teams to win all four of their matches so far. Only Bayern (plus-13) have a better goal differential in the competition, and only Bayern and City best them in xG differential. Borussia Dortmund are one point behind Bayern in the Bundesliga, and Ajax beat them by a combined score of 7-1 over two matches. This team is for real, and so are their chances of winning their fifth European Cup.

So, uh, no PSG?

The betting markets put PSG as the third favorites to win the whole thing, behind City and ahead of Liverpool. They're top of the table in Ligue 1. They've beaten Manchester City already. They have arguably the three best attacking players in the world (Kylian Mbappe, Messi, Neymar) on the same team. They're coached by a guy (Mauricio Pochettino) who took a way less talented Tottenham side to the finals just a couple years ago. They have a ton of depth across the midfield and the back line. Hell, they even have two world-class goalkeepers in Gianluigi Donnarumma and Keylor Navas.

On paper, it's absurd, but despite just spending something like 500 words on the xG-derived quality of various Champions League contenders, I am here to tell you that soccer is, in fact, played on grass and not college-ruled loose leaf. And when this group of expensive, uber-talented players has assembled on sod for 90 minutes so far this season, it hasn't looked great.

Neymar and PSG have muddled through their Champions League group on star power and individual skill alone. But they'll need to play like a team in the knockouts if they're to win it all. RONNY HARTMANN/AFP via Getty Images

It's worked, sure. They're gonna get out of a tough Champions League group, and they're gonna (89% chance, per FiveThirtyEight) win Ligue 1, which, reminder, they didn't do last season. But despite that, Pochettino's team only has the third-best xG differential in France, behind Nice and Lens. And in the Champions League, they've allowed more xG than they've created. They're pressing less than they were last season, taking fewer shots, allowing more shots and completing fewer passes into the penalty area. Perhaps because Messi, Mbappe and Neymar can't -- or won't -- press the ball, they've been a broken team, one that can create chances out of all the possession it has but doesn't generate extra shots from pressing and also can't keep the opposition from progressing the ball since they don't press.

Now, this could all easily change. The Miami Heat were just 8-7 through their first 15 games with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, but they made the NBA Finals in all four seasons they played together. Meshing together a bunch of ball-dominant super-duper-stars is a lot harder in real life than it is on FIFA, but we still really haven't seen it work; most of their wins have been the result of individual brilliance rather than cohesive, systematic dominance. And while PSG do have the most brilliant individuals, these other five teams all have their own stars and their own systems. You usually need both to win the Champions League.

Where did you go, LaLiga?

Despite losing -- at home -- to the representatives from everyone's favorite unrecognized Eastern European breakaway state, FC Sheriff Tiraspol, Real Madrid have all but clinched qualification to the knockout rounds. (They're 95% to advance, per FiveThirtyEight.) All that's really left is the fight for first or second place in the group, which will most likely be determined against Inter Milan on Matchday 6. But beyond Madrid? Oh boy.

2 Related

From 2008 to 2018, Spanish clubs owned European soccer, winning seven of 10 Champions Leagues and a further six Europa Leagues, while the rest of Europe combined for just seven European trophies total. Yet a Spanish club hasn't reached a Champions League final since then, a factoid that doesn't look likely to change anytime soon. Although Spain was granted an extra fifth group stage participant this season, thanks to Villarreal's Europa League title, there's a real chance Madrid will be LaLiga's only representative in the knockout rounds.

In Group B, Atletico Madrid sit third, a point back of FC Porto. FiveThirtyEight puts the odds of advancing at just about 50-50, but this week, Porto get to play against a Liverpool team that's already clinched first in the group and will be theoretically looking to optimize "health" rather than "winning a soccer game." And regardless of what happens this week -- Atleti host AC Milan -- a home win over Atletico on Matchday 6 will put Porto through.

Oh, in that case, my money's on Diego Simeone if he just needs a result on the final day, you might be thinking. Well, when the two sides met in Madrid on Matchday 1, Porto created 1.1 xG to Atletico's paltry 0.3. Neither side scored, but another game like that and Simeone will likely be prowling the sidelines on Thursday nights for the foreseeable future.

Frenkie De Jong and Barcelona were destroyed by Bayern in their earlier group stage game, yet they're still on course for the last-16 if they can beat Benfica this week. Berengui/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

In Group E, Barcelona are ... somehow in second? When the hell did that happen? Anyway, after back-to-back wins over Dynamo Kiev, they get the reverse legs of the two fixtures they lost to kick off the campaign. The final game is a weird one: away to Bayern Munich, who destroyed them in Spain but have already clinched the group. Given the gulf between the two the past couple of times they've played, Barca probably don't wanna have to rely on getting a result even against a Bayern B team, so it all comes down to this week against Benfica, who are two points back in third. FiveThirtyEight gives Xavi & Co. about a 2-in-3 chance of finishing second.

Villarreal, meanwhile, have nearly identical odds of advancing from the suddenly Ole Gunnar Solskjaer-less Group F. They're simply not a very good team: seven losses in 13 La Liga matches, on a plus-2 goal differential with underlying numbers that don't suggest anything better. But hey, they're in a group with the fourth-place team in Italy and the seventh-place team in England, so they're still alive. Good for them.

Meanwhile, in Group G ...

Who let the Europa League in here?

Shouldn't they be playing these games on Thursdays? This is the Platonic ideal of a Europa League group: a big fish from a lesser league (RB Salzburg), a French team that isn't PSG or Lyon (Lille), a midtier German side with an American on the roster (Wolfsburg) and the team that always wins the Europa League (Sevilla).

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Do any of these clubs have a shot at winning the Champions League? Probably not! But the beauty of this group is that everyone still has a shot at getting to the next round. Currently first on seven points, Salzburg have an 83% chance of advancing, per FiveThirtyEight. Despite nabbing just three points from their first four matches, Sevilla are still in with a 20% chance of making it to the last 16. Lille and Wolfsburg are tied on five points, and they've each got about a 50% chance of advancing.

Unlike some other groups where everyone is also still technically alive -- I'm looking at you, FC Sheriff and Young Boys -- all four of these teams have a realistic chance to move on. It's the only group left for which every game is going to matter from here on out. This group is terrible, this group is great; long live this group.

Will "no manager" be better than "a manager" for Manchester United?

In 2013, a group of researchers at the University of Reading conducted a study on the effects of Premier League managers on team performance. They predicted a team's expected performance based on their wage bill, then they looked at how the team actually performed with a given coach on the sideline and then they awarded the over-, under- or average performance to him.

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One of biggest overachievers? "No Manager" (aka an interim manager), whose teams outperformed expectations by 0.42 points.

Sure, it looks completely chaotic and hopeless from the outside, but with Villarreal on Tuesday, what if Ed Woodward and the Glazers were actually just trying to time the "new manager bounce" so it coincided with their most important game of the season? It's science, people!

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