The Champions League is billed as the international club soccer competition that brings together the 32 best teams from all corners of Europe. But over the past few years, the tournament has grown increasingly predictable. It now looks more like an event in which 29 teams compete across nine months to decide who gets to lose to three incredibly wealthy clubs from Spain and Germany.
The world’s three top teams — Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona — have lifted every one of the last five Champions League trophies. The 2017-18 Champions League, which had its draw Thursday, appears to be no different at the onset. FiveThirtyEight’s club soccer predictions have these three teams as the favorites, each with a roughly 1-in-6 chance of winning the tournament.
On the other hand, that also means there is a roughly 50 percent chance that someone new will win the Champions League this season. But even if a dark horse breaks through, we can safely assume that it won’t be from Cyprus or Azerbaijan.
Not only have the same three teams dominated the Champions League final, but the same big leagues have likewise dominated the group stages. The four top leagues in FiveThirtyEight’s global club soccer rankings –– England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A — sent 14 teams to the group stages last year, and 12 of them qualified for the 16-team knockout phase. Since 2012-13, an average of 11 clubs from the big four leagues have qualified for the knockouts.
This year’s Champions League draw seems to offer further evidence of big money dominance. The four top leagues managed to qualify 15 teams for the group stages1 — which means that nearly half the clubs in the Champions League hail from just four countries.
Of the 15 teams from England, Spain, Germany and Italy, 14 have a better than 50 percent chance of making the knockout phase, according to the FiveThirtyEight model. Only Tottenham, from the English Premier League, comes in lower (at 41 percent) — and by no coincidence, Spurs were drawn into Group H with two of the top six teams in FiveThirtyEight’s rankings, Real and Dortmund. Among the remaining 17 clubs (those not members of the top four leagues), only four have a better than 50/50 shot of making the knockouts: France’s Paris Saint-Germain, which is ranked fourth in FiveThirtyEight’s global rankings, and French league champion Monaco, as well as Portugal’s Porto and Benfica — all of whom made it through group play last season.
So who has the best chance to break the run of Bayern, Real and Barca?
Among the seven with the next best odds of winning the Champions League in the FiveThirtyEight model — PSG, Juventus, Dortmund, Manchester United, Manchester City, Monaco and Napoli — only Manchester United has won a Champions League this century. Those seven have a combined 36 percent chance of pulling it off this time around. But even if a relative outsider doesn’t win it all, the finals should be within reach. In the past five years, Juventus and Dortmund have reached the final but fallen short.
That’s the thing about a knockout tournament: With so few games, outcomes can easily turn on a run of form or a bit of luck. The Champions League may be increasingly stratified, but its structure means that at least a dozen or more quality teams have reason to dream. Beyond the obvious sides that have big money — such as PSG, which invested about $530 million in wages and fees to acquire Brazilian superstar Neymar from Barca — or recent finalists like Juventus and Atletico Madrid, Thursday’s draw has given four teams, from two relatively soft groups, particular cause for hope.
Group F: Napoli and Manchester City
Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli finished last season just 5 points short of a scudetto with a massive plus-55 goal difference. No club in Italy bested it, and across the top four leagues, only Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Tottenham had a higher one. Expected goals tells a similar story — Napoli’s plus-44 expected goals difference was bettered only by Barca, Real and Manchester City.2 In the previous Champions League, Napoli was eliminated by Real, the eventual champions.
So far, the Italian club has managed to keep its entire starting 11 intact despite interest from top English sides in players like Piotr Zielinski and Kalidou Koulibaly. This stands in contrast to Napoli’s rivals Roma, which lost star forward Mohamed Salah to Liverpool. By holding together a team that was one of the world’s best last year, Napoli put itself in position to benefit if the draw was friendly, and it was.
City, meanwhile, has used its financial power to solve squad issues at fullback, spending about $165 million on Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo. Also, the main reason that City had an elite expected goals difference but could not translate it into goal difference in league play last season was the very poor performance of goalkeeper Claudio Bravo. With new $48 million keeper Ederson, City should not concede so many more goals than expected goals this year.
Drawn with Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine and Feyenoord of the Netherlands, Napoli and City are favorites in the group, according to the FiveThirtyEight model — with 14 percent and 20 percent chances, respectively, of reaching the semifinals. Neither club has achieved European glory in decades, but excellent squads and a favorable draw should give fans some optimism.
Group E: Sevilla and Liverpool
The sides that met in the Europa League final two seasons ago have found themselves in by far the easiest Champions League group. With Spartak Moscow of Russia and NK Maribor of Slovenia in the other two slots, Group E is the only group without a single team from FiveThirtyEight’s global top 15. Because Sevilla and Liverpool managed only fourth–place finishes in their leagues last season, neither has more than a 1 percent chance of winning the Champions League trophy. However, Liverpool added Salah, whose production numbers last season compared favorably to superstars like Robert Lewandowski and Cristiano Ronaldo.3 Sevilla has not added any signings as expensive as Salah, but the return of Ever Banega, one of the best creative passers in the world, should help the Spanish side.
Because of the highly favorable draw, both teams are strong favorites to get out of the group, and it would take only a short run of form from there to reach the semifinals. Sevilla and Liverpool each have about a 10 percent chance of making it that far.
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.”