The Champions League group stage started this week, and over the past two days, the “top” 32 clubs met all over Europe to start the long arduous process to the knockout stage, which doesn’t begin until February, with the eventual final coming from Atatürk Olympic Stadium on 30 May 2020.
While Matchday 1 played out about as expected for most of the draw, there were some results that were a little unexpected, some more than others. One association had a particular bad opening day, only for their champion to redeem the entire nation with a dominant win. Another club from a much-maligned association – at least when we look at its performance during qualification – had one of the more shocking results of the week. And a couple of lower-tier clubs expected to be fighting for third in their respective groups instead find themselves at the top thanks to surprising results elsewhere.
A Bad Day for England
England made history last year when they made both UEFA finals all-English affairs. Liverpool defeated Tottenham Hotspur in Champions League, while Chelsea found the win against Arsenal in Europa League. Three of those four clubs joined English Premier League champion Manchester City in the group stage… and only Manchester City won their match even though all were favored.
Liverpool traveled to Italy for a rematch of sorts against Napoli on Tuesday, and entered the match as favorites to win. Instead, in a match that was scoreless until the 82nd minute, they lost 2-0 on two late goals from the Italians, including a goal in stoppage play from former Spurs player Fernando Llorente. If anything could be redeemed from the loss, it would be that it was on the road and that the rematch will be at Anfield on 27 November, in a match that could determine the winner of the group.
Chelsea’s Tuesday result was even more shocking. Not only were they at home against Valencia, but they were also favored by a 3-to-1 margin. They lost 1-0 on a late-ish goal from Rodrigo, failing to capitalize on numerous chances, including a late penalty miss by Ross Barkley.
Wednesday started out much better for the English squads, with the Spurs leading Olympiacos 2-0 30 minutes into their match from Athens. After surrendering a goal shortly before the halftime break, the Spurs still seemed in control until Mathieu Valbuena equalized for the Greeks in the 54th on a penalty kick, and the score would remain 2-2 for the next 30+ minutes. At least they got the point – and the early tiebreaker – with the draw as a slight underdog.
Manchester City redeemed all in a late game Wednesday, however, easily dispatching Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0. City had the best odds at victory of all the English clubs, and their win against the Ukrainian champion all but confirmed their status as early favorites to win the entire tournament – though they were in that position last year as well before flaming out in the quarter-finals against the Spurs in pretty dramatic fashion.
A Good Day for Russia
The two Russian clubs playing in the Champions League group stage entered their opening matches as underdogs. Zenit Saint Petersburg was in France playing Lyon, and was given only a 25% chance of winning the match. Lokomotiv Moscow travelled to Bayer Leverkusen as 7-to-1 underdogs against their host. Both clubs saw their days end with better than expected results.
Though they didn’t end up with the win, Zenit did manage to come away with a point in a match they were expected to lose. In holding on for the 1-1 draw in France, they also gained the early tiebreaker advantage in away goals. They also, at least temporarily, moved into having the second-best odds in Group G, having a 43% chance of advancing to the knockout round.
Zenit’s countrymen from Moscow had only a 10% chance of winning against Leverkusen, and as the fourth-worst club (per FiveThirtyEight SPI) in the group stage, they weren’t expected to do much in the tournament. But for the time being, they are at the top of Group D, ahead of European royalty Juventus and Atlético Madrid after overcoming a first half own goal and holding on to win 2-1 in Leverkusen (and securing those all-important away goals).
Potential Dark Horse Candidate?
One club had a dominant performance on Tuesday, scoring the most goals of Matchday 1. They currently lead their group, which is headlined by Liverpool. Yet after a 6-2 victory over Genk, Red Bull Salzburg is still considered the third-best club in their group, at least in odds of finishing in the top two spots are to be believed.
Despite their loss, Liverpool remains the favorite to win Group E, with a 38% chance of finishing in first. Napoli, the club that beat them, is just behind at 34%. RB Salzburg’s impressive win was still good enough to increase their odds at winning the group to 28%, and all but eliminated Genk from advancement contention (3% to advance; less than 1% to win the group). In three weeks, the Austrian champion will travel to Anfield in an attempt to knock off the champ, and if they can leave England with a point, they might just find a way to advance.
The first match of the group stage often has some odd results that have little impact by the end of the stage, but it definitely gives us some narratives to follow when European action resumes in three weeks. Combined with more action back in domestic leagues and cups, clubs will really start to round into form by Matchday 3, and even the worst club (cough cough Genk) is not necessarily eliminated even after surrendering the most goals this week.
Until next time…