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It Might Finally Be Someone Else’s Turn In The Champions League

European soccer’s “big three” — Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich — have combined to win the past six Champions League trophies and seven of the past eight. But this season, these clubs aren’t quite as dominant as they used to be, and there’s just a 31 percent chance that one of them will win it all this year, according to the FiveThirtyEight Soccer Power Index. The door is wide open for a new champion. So who will walk through?

The SPI projections identify five other clubs with at least a 5 percent chance of lifting the trophy. But while it seems that change is coming to the Champions League, don’t expect a Leicester City-style underdog run. None of the five clubs that could knock off Barcelona, Madrid and Bayern quite qualifies as an “underdog.” Two contenders — Liverpool and Atletico Madrid — have appeared in three of the past five Champions League finals, losing all three. Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City have never reached a Champions League final but boast massively expensive squads paid for by unfathomably wealthy owners.1 Even Tottenham Hotspur ranks among the world’s 10 richest clubs, according to Deloitte’s estimates.

So we are not exactly seeing a revolution in European soccer. Rather, it appears that the gap has narrowed between the big three and a larger elite — the next five to 10 best clubs in the world. Still, the Champions League is more wide open than it has been in recent memory. Each of these five teams has a real chance to break the big three’s lock on the trophy.

Tottenham Hotspur

Chance: 5 percent
SPI: 83.6 (11th)
Status: Up 3-0 on Borussia Dortmund going into second leg

Tottenham is statistically the weakest club on the list. It also features one of the thinnest squads of the clubs remaining, having pressed youth team players like Oliver Skipp and Kyle Walker-Peters into service in key matches this season. With no signings at all made in the past two transfer windows, Spurs are not built to weather an injury crisis and compete against the world’s best teams at the same time.

Health is Tottenham’s chief concern. Striker Harry Kane has returned from injury, but the club is still missing two key midfielders, Dele Alli and Eric Dier. Without either, Spurs have struggled to turn over opponents in midfield as the press of manager Mauricio Pochettino requires — Dier and Dele are the team’s only midfielders averaging more than 3 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes.

Dele in particular is key for Spurs, as he manages to produce as both a ball winner in midfield and a shot creator. No one in the Premier League with similar defensive numbers comes close to Dele’s shot production. Lucas Moura, Dele’s Tottenham teammate, comes in second in expected goals plus assists among players with at least 2.5 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes, and but the gap between them is huge.

The most offensive of the defensive-minded

2018-19 Premier League leaders in expected goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes among players with at least 2.5 tackles and interceptions

Name Team Tackles + Int per 90 xG +xA per 90
Dele Alli Tottenham 3.013 0.556
Lucas Moura Tottenham 2.805 0.399
Abdoulaye Doucoure Watford 3.175 0.377
Sead Kolasinac Arsenal 2.935 0.370
Gylfi Sigurdsson Everton 2.619 0.349
Felipe Anderson West Ham 3.727 0.340
Ayoze Perez Newcastle 3.515 0.337
Jordan Ayew Crystal Palace 3.303 0.327
Ander Herrera Manchester United 6.099 0.287
Matt Doherty Wolverhampton 3.462 0.282

As of March 4, 2019

Source: Opta Sports

If Tottenham can get Dele and Dier back — while keeping just about everyone else healthy — there is enough talent in this squad to make a run.

Atletico Madrid

Chance: 9 percent
SPI: 87.2 (6th)
Status: Up 2-0 on Juventus going into second leg

Diego Simeone’s club has been here before. But with the big three weakened, the formula that has brought Atletico to the brink of a trophy in the past could now take it over the line. The statistical indicators are all the same, and the team has maintained its lockdown defensive style. Atletico has conceded the fewest goals in La Liga (17) and the second-fewest expected goals (24) despite allowing opponents the majority of possession (51 percent). The club has managed continuity despite the fact that Simeone has overhauled his midfield personnel, as Rodrigo replaced Gabi at defensive midfield and Thomas Lemar joined from Monaco to support Saul Niguez as a hybrid wide/center midfielder.

What Atletico will need to go deep in this tournament is a second goal-scorer. Antoine Griezmann remains the club’s star forward, but he has had no support this year. The expensive signing of Diego Costa has turned into a bust; he has managed just 14 shots and one goal in nearly 1,000 minutes. But in the winter window, Atleti pulled off a coup by signing Alvaro Morata on loan from Chelsea. The Spanish forward had put up big underlying numbers for the Blues but disappointed with his finishing, converting just 16 Premier League goals from more than 21 expected goals. But for Atleti, he already has scored three goals and assisted one in less than 400 minutes. If Morata can maintain his shot production and the goals return, he and Griezmann should be a formidable strike pairing to set in front of that defense.

Liverpool

Chance: 10 percent
SPI: 92.8 (2nd)
Status: Tied 0-0 with Bayern going into second leg

Liverpool faces a much more dangerous second-leg match than Spurs or Atletico. The Reds solidly outplayed Bayern in their first match, but Liverpool’s forwards, particularly Sadio Mane, struggled to finish their chances. Now Liverpool needs either a draw or a win in Munich.

The key question for Liverpool is its ball progression. This season, Liverpool has been highly effective at moving the ball up the field, ranking second in progressive passes and runs in the Premier League behind Manchester City.2 But the club has spread the responsibility around. No Liverpool player is in the league’s top 10 in progressive passing. Naby Keita, Xherdan Shaqiri and James Milner rank 11th, 16th and 17th, respectively. Liverpool recently drew 0-0 against rivals Manchester United and Everton in two matches during which Keita didn’t play at all and Shaqiri and Milner made only substitute appearances in midfield (of 18 and 27 minutes respectively). Manager Jurgen Klopp needs to find more ways to get two of Keita, Milner and Shaqiri on the pitch in big matches to carry the load. Again, this is a doable task. Liverpool’s quality is there if it can just get through a high-stakes match next Wednesday.

Paris Saint-Germain

Chance: 16 percent
SPI: 91.6 (5th)
Status: Up 2-0 on Manchester United going into second leg

PSG has an unbalanced roster. After an unprecedented spending spree in 2017, manager Thomas Tuchel ended up cobbling together a midfield this season by converting one of his defenders, Marquinhos, to the position. But it has hardly mattered. So long as PSG can at least contain its opponent’s attack, Kylian Mbappe and company will do enough on their end: It took only one chance in the first leg against Manchester United for Mbappe to change the game, outpacing the defenders at a sprint by several yards. Mbappe has married his incredible speed to a quickly improving perception of space, and his production has been unreal. So far this season, he’s outproducing even Lionel Messi, who has defied age with one of his best seasons in the past five years. Even accounting for the easier opposition the French striker faces in Ligue 1, Mbappe’s production has been incredible.

Mbappe is having a Messi-like season

The best seasons in the big five European leagues by expected goals per 90 minutes plus expected assists per 90, 2014-19

expected per 90 minutes
Season Name Team goals assists goals + assists
2018-19 Kylian Mbappe PSG 0.998 0.363 1.360
2018-19 Lionel Messi Barcelona 0.720 0.541 1.261
2014-15 Lionel Messi Barcelona 0.785 0.474 1.259
2015-16 Lionel Messi Barcelona 0.763 0.459 1.222
2017-18 Neymar PSG 0.634 0.539 1.173
2015-16 Luis Suarez Barcelona 0.820 0.349 1.169
2015-16 Neymar Barcelona 0.624 0.534 1.158
2014-15 Luis Suarez Barcelona 0.652 0.503 1.155
2014-15 Cristiano Ronaldo Real Madrid 0.830 0.321 1.151
2018-19 Robert Lewandowski Bayern Munich 0.837 0.289 1.125
2017-18 Cristiano Ronaldo Real Madrid 0.900 0.219 1.119
2017-18 Lionel Messi Barcelona 0.697 0.419 1.117
2015-16 Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang Borussia Dortmund 0.875 0.240 1.114
2016-17 Lionel Messi Barcelona 0.691 0.416 1.107
2015-16 Cristiano Ronaldo Real Madrid 0.868 0.239 1.107

As of March 4, 2019

The big five are the Premier League (England), Ligue 1 (France), La Liga (Spain), Serie A (Italy) and the Bundesliga (Germany).

Source: Opta Sports

With Neymar expected to return in April, Mbappe should have his primary creative support back in time for at least one leg of the quarterfinals (so long as PSG does not falter against United). The pair of them rival Messi and Luis Suarez as the best attacking duo in the world, and if Tuchel can maintain a structure behind them, Neymar and Mbappe are easily enough firepower to win the Champions League.

Manchester City

Chance: 24 percent
SPI: 94.2 (1st)
Status: Up 3-2 on Schalke going into second leg

Here is the favorite. With a one-goal lead going into a home leg against Schalke, City is strongly favored for the quarterfinals. Once there, Pep Guardiola’s side continues to look like the most well-rounded in Europe. The only thing that can hold City back seems to be injuries. The club went into a tailspin when both Fernadinho and David Silva were injured in December. These two midfielders, both 33 years old, remain the guts of the club. Silva leads the Premier League by a wide margin in progressive passing, with more than 5.4 progressive passes and runs per 90 minutes, and only Eden Hazard is also over 5.0. Fernandinho seems even more central to City’s success: He stands 12th in the league in progressive passing and leads the team in both tackles and interceptions. Guardiola has yet to figure out a successor to either player in the squad or a true replacement when either of them is unavailable.

With its dominant underlying numbers, a weakened field and an easily winnable round of 16 match, City is just 540 minutes away from a Champions League trophy. If Silva and Fernandinho can just be healthy from April on, the Citizens should be the Champions League favorites.

Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich are hardly out of it. But PSG and City rate ahead of them, and Liverpool likely will move up if the Reds can get by Bayern. With the traditional powers of European soccer increasingly wobbly, one of these other clubs could, with the right mix of quality play and good fortune, be the team to finally knock them off and lift the trophy.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

CORRECTION (March 4, 2019, 7 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a group of five teams, including Liverpool, had not won the Champions League before. Liverpool won the competition in 2005.

Footnotes

  1. City’s owner, Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is a high-ranking member of the Emirati royal family, and PSG is a subsidiary of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund.

  2. A progressive pass or run is defined as a pass that advances the ball at least 10 yards beyond its furthest progression in the move or into the 18-yard box, and a progressive run must progress the ball similarly and eliminate a defender with a successful dribble.

Michael Caley is a writer whose work has been featured at The Economist, ESPN, the Washington Post and elsewhere. He is the co-host of the “Double Pivot Podcast.”

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