Champions League fact or fiction: Man United are among favorites, Real Madrid won’t escape the group


This year’s Champions League compressed group stage is a pedal-to-the-metal sprint — three straight midweek contests, two weeks off, then three more midweek affairs. The odds are shifting and swaying constantly, and they will do so again next week. One-third of the way through, let’s step back and see what has and hasn’t changed, fact-or-fiction style.

FACT. Comparing FiveThirtyEight’s Champions League projections from after the draw was made to this week, we find that a few teams have either taken care of business or benefited from others’ failure to do the same.

Biggest increase in odds of advancement to knockout rounds, per FiveThirtyEight:

— Manchester United: up 45 percentage points, from 49% to 94%
Shakhtar Donetsk: up 31 percentage points (28% to 59%)
Lazio: up 20 percentage points (36% to 56%)
— Sevilla: up 17 percentage points (75% to 92%)
Atletico Madrid (from 67% to 82%), Porto (46% to 61%) and Club Brugge (29% to 44%): all up 15 percentage points

United’s form through two matches has been devastating. They are one of four teams with a goal differential of at least +5 so far. (The others? Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester City.) Granted, Bayern’s 4-0 win over Atletico was all sorts of impressive, but after beating PSG in Paris last week, United absolutely pummeled RB Leipzig — defending Champions League semifinalist and current Bundesliga leaders — by a 5-0 mark on Wednesday.

Against Leipzig, United played the organized, no-quality-shots defense that earned them a Champions League spot last season — something they lacked at the start of Premier League play in September — and got a lovely goal from a just-onside Mason Greenwood in the 21st minute. After sitting back and remaining organized for most of the second half, they unleashed counterattacking hell on RBL, scoring four goals (three from Marcus Rashford) in a period of 18 minutes towards the end.

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United have transformed Group H’s Group of Death status into a two-way death battle for the moment. Obviously they need this form to continue, but as things currently stand, they’re in great shape to win the group, while the loser of next week’s PSG-Leipzig battle is staring Europa League qualification in the face.

Real Madrid has hurt itself the most

FICTION. Zenit St. Petersburg has, but Los Blancos are close.

Biggest decrease in odds of advancement to knockout rounds, per FiveThirtyEight:

— Zenit St. Petersburg: down 38 percentage points, from 56% to 18%
— RB Leipzig: down 26 percentage points (65% to 39%)
— Real Madrid: down 25 percentage points (78% to 53%)
FC Salzburg: down 21 percentage points (38% to 17%)
Paris Saint-Germain: down 17 percentage points (84% to 67%)

No one had a more disappointing first 170 minutes of the Champions League than Zinedine Zidane‘s squad. They gave up three first-half goals to Shakhtar last week and failed to equalize during a late charge. They then gave up two Marcus Thuram goals in the first 60 minutes at Borussia Monchengladbach and looked to have no answers whatsoever until goals from Karim Benzema, three minutes before stoppage time, and Casemiro, three minutes into stoppage time, salvaged a point.

They remain in last place in Group B, but thanks to the 0-0 draw between Shakhtar and Inter, no one in the group has more than four points and Real’s slate is still reasonably manageable if they figure out how not to fall behind by multiple goals in every match moving forward.

While three of eight groups already have two teams with odds of 90% or greater to advance, per FiveThirtyEight, and three more have one over 90% and another over 60%, Group B is an absolute mess. All four teams are between 36% (Gladbach) and 59% (Shakhtar).

Inter Milan, the second-best team in the group on paper, has failed to take advantage of Real’s struggles. They generated 3.5 xG to Gladbach’s 1.5 last week, but came away with a 2-2 draw. This week, they completely shut down Shakhtar and produced a 1.8 to 0.1 xG advantage, only to leave Donetsk with a scoreless draw despite some extremely high-quality chances for both Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez.

Inter’s failings have kept the door open for not only Real, but also the group’s two underdogs.



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The Champions League is a game for the veteran teams

FICTION. The kids have been awesome so far.

Sixteen players have scored at least two goals so far, and while that list does include some elderly gentlemen — Barcelona’s 33-year-old Lionel Messi, Manchester City’s 30-year-old Ilkay Gundogan — it also features nine plays aged 23 or younger. Rashford (22) leads the way with four goals, while some of the game’s youngest stars have showed up in a major way: Borussia Dortmund‘s Erling Haaland, Atletico’s Joao Felix, Man City’s Ferran Torres, PSG’s Moise Kean and FC Salzburg’s Dominik Szoboszlai are all 20 years old and in possession of a pair of goals.

It goes beyond goals, too:

— PSG’s Kylian Mbappe (somehow still 21) is tied for the assists lead with two.

— Mbappe, Szoboszlai, BVB’s Jadon Sancho (20), RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku (22) and Liverpool‘s Trent Alexander-Arnold (22) are among the 19 players with at least five chances created.

— Alexander-Arnold, Szoboszlai, RBL’s Dayot Upamecano (22), Salzburg’s Mohamed Camara (20), Ajax’s Perr Schuurs (20), Shakhtar’s Dodo (21) and Atalanta‘s Cristian Romero (22) are among the 17 players with at least 17 ball recoveries.

— Szoboszlai, Haaland, Juve’s Dejan Kulusevski (20) and Barcelona’s Trincao (20) are among only 11 players with at least four possessions won in the attacking third.

— Mbappe, Salzburg’s Enock Mwepu (22), Midtjylland’s Jens Cajuste (21) and Shakhtar’s Tete (20) are among 12 players with a take-on success rate of at least 50% in at least 10 attempts.

Szoboszlai might have been the most productive player in the tournament so far, and no matter what the category, you’ll find quite a few players who aren’t yet able to drink legally (or at least rent a car) in America just yet.



Frank Leboeuf says Juventus look lost in midfield after their 2-0 defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League.

The Premier League will get four teams into the knockout rounds for the fourth straight year

FACT. FiveThirtyEight gives all four Premier League participants — Liverpool, City, United and Chelsea — at least a 93% chance to advance. City is at 98%, and the only points these four have dropped at all came in Chelsea’s home draw against Sevilla. While there’s still time for a collapse, there is at the moment an 80% chance of all four advancing to the knockouts and only a 2% chance that two or fewer make it.

What they do when they get to the knockouts, we’ll see. The last three years have seen a wide array of fortune. In 2020, Premier League teams occupied one-quarter of the knockout slots but advanced only one team to the quarterfinals and none to the semis. In 2018, the league advanced five teams but got only two to the quarters and one to the semis.

In 2019, meanwhile, the Premier League basically ran the competition, advancing all four teams to the quarterfinals and occupying both finals spots. The group stages are a chance for a league to show collective strength — and the Premier League has that in droves at the moment — but the knockout rounds add a healthy dose of randomness to the proceedings.

La Liga’s eight-year streak of getting 3+ team into the knockout rounds will end

FICTION, but it looked like fact well into Tuesday’s matches.

La Liga appears stuck in the past a bit, and not only because Barcelona is still giving Messi, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba a lot of minutes.

While attacking is on the rise and scoring is up in Europe’s other major leagues, it’s all down in Spain: per 90 minutes, goals have fallen from 1.24 per team to 1.07, shots from 11.3 to 10.3, shots on goal from 3.9 to 3.5 and xG from 1.4 to 1.2. While Serie A has nine teams averaging at least two goals per match, the Premier League has eight and the Bundesliga has four, only two La Liga teams hit that mark, and none average more than 2.0. One of them is Atletico Madrid.

Let me rephrase: Diego Simeone’s Atletico is leading the league in scoring!

A lack of goals alone doesn’t mean the quality of play is low, of course. Atletico, Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Sevilla, league newcomer Cadiz and others are all playing dynamite defense, allowing both low shot quality and low shot quantity.

The Champions League has thus far shown us that this isn’t only because of quality defense, however. There’s also a lack of tactical answers.



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Sevilla is in great shape to advance because of said defense, but they’ve scored only once in two matches. Atletico got completely outclassed by Bayern and couldn’t prevent Salzburg from generating a run of high-quality chances in the middle of Tuesday’s match in Madrid. Meanwhile, in response to deficits against both Shakhtar and Gladbach, Real had few answers beyond sending hopeful crosses into the box or attempting long bombs. Through 70 minutes on Tuesday, Gladbach had generated more xG in seven shot attempts (1.31) than Real had in 17 (1.24).

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Luckily for both Madrid clubs, as their matches passed the 80-minute mark on Tuesday, both Gladbach and Salzburg ran out of gas. They were attempting to spring forward into counterattacks as they had all game, but their legs weren’t following and their collective first touch made it seem like they were playing in metal boots. Within 10 minutes, Atletico had scored to go up 3-2, and Real had scored twice to tie Gladbach. Pure talent, experience and endurance had won out, if only barely.

These respective rallies changed the league’s odds of Champions League success quite a bit. As things now stand, Barcelona has a 99% chance of advancing (again per FiveThirtyEight), Sevilla is at 92% and Atletico is at 82%. Real Madrid has work to do (53%), but has a fighting chance to pull it off. Mashing these odds together, we see that the league has a 40% chance of advancing all four teams to the knockouts and a 48% chance of advancing three. While the league has enjoyed only two semifinal appearances in the last three years, its streak of having lots of teams in the round of 16 will at least continue to survive.

Real Madrid-Inter Milan is the biggest match of Matchday 3

FACT, followed closely by RB Leipzig-PSG.

Indeed, group hierarchies have mostly been established at this point. It will now take a couple of solid upsets to prevent Bayern and Atletico from advancing from Group A, Chelsea and Sevilla from Group E, or Barcelona and Juventus from Group G; per FiveThirtyEight’s odds, Groups C (Manchester City and Porto), D (Liverpool and Atalanta) and H (Manchester United and PSG) have established favorites too.

We still need quite a bit of clarity from the blurry Group B, however, and while a match between Real Madrid and Inter — two of only eight clubs to have won the European Cup/Champions League multiple times — will always seem pretty big, this one’s huge. The teams will meet in Madrid on Tuesday, then play again at San Siro when Champions League play resumes at the end of the month.

Depending on how things play out, a very good team could end up with lots of work to do in its final two matches. Of course, this means that Group B’s other match next week is also quite big.



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Biggest matches of Matchday 3:

— Group B: Inter Milan at Real Madrid on Tuesday. Both teams have a 53% chance of advancing, per FiveThirtyEight. That obviously skews dramatically if one team pulls off an outright win.

— Group H: PSG at RB Leipzig on Wednesday. The last time these teams played, PSG was running circles around RBL in the Champions League semis. If RBL wants any chance of getting back to the late stages, they’ll need a very different result this time.

— Group B: Borussia Mönchengladbach (36% chance of advancing) at Shakhtar Donetsk (59%) on Tuesday. Shakhtar’s odds could skyrocket with a win and an Inter-Real draw.

— Group D: Liverpool (93%) at Atalanta (62%) on Wednesday. Liverpool has a 73% chance of winning the group, but the Reds’ lineup remains in flux, and Atalanta can even those odds significantly with a strong performance.

— Group C: Manchester City at Olympiacos on Tuesday. A disappointing performance against Porto diminished Olympiacos’ odds significantly — they’re now at only 33% to advance — and they’ll need a significant upset to get back on even terms.

— Group F: Club Brugge at Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday. BVB began the tournament with a dud at Lazio, but their win over Zenit, and a diminished Lazio squad’s draw in Bruges, gave them second life. A home win over Brugge would put them in excellent shape.

The Golazo Show format? It works.

FACT. Though the title is rather schticky, the CBS Sports Network’s “NFL RedZone, but for Champions League” format of bouncing back and forth between six matches going on at once is both a logistical feat and a great way of keeping up with a lot of goings-on at once. The degree of difficulty on this is high, but I’ve enjoyed it far more than I expected to.

Manchester United are going to win the Champions League while finishing seventh in the Premier League, aren’t they?

FICTION. They’re going to win it while finishing 12th.

Actually, whom are we kidding? That’s FICTION, too. Bayern’s winning this thing, again.

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