And just like that, as September reaches only its midway point, we are one-third of the way through the Champions League group stage. The 2022-23 European soccer season is a particularly relentless ride, thanks to the World Cup, and big teams that have started slowly in league play now have holes to dig out of in the Champions League too.
Let’s talk about the most noteworthy shifts and stories from the first two matchdays of Europe’s biggest club competition.
In terms of winning the big prize, not much has changed through two weeks. FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index gave seven teams at least a 5% chance of winning the Champions League before group play started, and all seven teams’ current odds are within 3 percentage points of where they started. But from an “It’s the journey, not the destination” perspective, the group stage can always be a bit of a roller coaster. Simply advancing to the knockout rounds is a huge deal for a number of teams, and lots of teams’ odds of doing so have changed pretty drastically — for a few, more than once — thus far.
Let’s take a look at each group’s major inflection-point matches so far. In terms of teams’ odds for advancement to the knockout rounds (per SPI), each of these produced a cumulative change of at least 20 percentage points for the two teams involved.
Liverpool 2, Ajax 1
– Liverpool up 14 percentage points, Ajax down 17
In the end, Napoli and Ajax have basically traded places. With their shocking domination of Liverpool and eventual win over Rangers — it took a red card and a couple of penalties before they could finally earn the advantage in Glasgow — Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli have established themselves atop the group. SPI now gives both Liverpool and Napoli a 71% chance of advancing, while Ajax, a team SPI has loved for quite a while, are still at 56% thanks in part to their impending two shots at Napoli.
The Ajax that came to Anfield, however, would have odds far worse. Liverpool outshot Ajax by a 24-3 margin during their 2-1 win (xG: Liverpool 2.1, Ajax 0.3), and only a brilliant Mohammed Kudus goal, at the end of one of Ajax’s few brilliant possessions, kept them close. It was an incredibly passive match from the Dutch champs, and they will have to assert themselves far better against Napoli to have a chance.
Club Brugge 4, Porto 0
– Brugge up 32 percentage points, Porto down 33 (most impactful match to date)
Bayer Leverkusen 2, Atletico Madrid 0
– Leverkusen up 17 percentage points, Atletico down 16
Two groups seemed particularly up-for-grabs from the draw: Groups B and D. Here, everyone started with odds of advancement between 28% (Brugge) and 66% (Atletico), a much smaller range than most groups, and the odds have lurched quite a bit after three of four matches. Leverkusen were in serious trouble after a loss to Club Brugge but scored an enormous (and pretty attractive) home win over Atletico on Tuesday. Atleti still remain in solid shape, however, in part because Brugge all but eliminated Porto with a stunning blowout we will discuss below.
The current odds of advancement: Club Brugge 75%, Atletico 60%, Leverkusen 48%, Porto 18%. There’s still time for a few more plot twists — and Leverkusen could also improve their odds by finding better form in league play and therefore improving their power rating — but it’s already been a wild ride.
Bayern 2, Inter Milan 0
– Bayern up 7 percentage points, Inter down 15
When you’ve got a Big Scary Group situation — especially one with three demonstrably good teams and one that is pretty far back from the others — your goals are pretty simple to describe (and difficult to accomplish): win at home against the other heavyweights and don’t drop any points to the minnow. This has held up in three of four matches thus far. Neither Barcelona nor Inter dropped points to Viktoria Plzen, and Bayern beat Barca in Munich on Tuesday. The only exception: Bayern vs. Inter.
Despite bumpy league form, Bayern went to the San Siro last week and took care of business, pulling an early goal from Leroy Sane, outshooting Inter by a 22-9 margin and eventually putting things away 2-0. That has defined the group stage pretty clearly: Bayern’s odds of advancement are nearly 100% and will remain that way unless they drop points to Plzen and lose to Inter at home.
Inter, meanwhile, have to break serve, either by winning in Barcelona or by Barca dropping points to Plzen.
Eintracht Frankfurt 1, Marseille 0
– Eintracht up 12 percentage points, Marseille down 18
Sporting CP 2, Tottenham Hotspur 0
– Sporting up 15 percentage points, Spurs down 11
Group D has even topped Group B from an inflection standpoint. We started out with Spurs at 73% to advance and the other three teams all between 37% and 53%, but every match has caused a lurch of some sort.
Marseille’s loss to Spurs erased their margin for error, and a home loss to Eintracht nearly finished them off. (Their advancement odds are now just 9%.) Their loss has primarily been Sporting’s gain. Ruben Amorim’s squad, currently seventh in the Primeira Liga, have saved their best performances of the year for the Champions League. Against both Eintracht and Spurs, they absorbed early pressure, cut transition opportunities and dominated the late stages. All three of their goals in Frankfurt came in the 65th minute or later, and both of their goals against Spurs were in the 90th or later.
Through all the surprises, we now have a pretty straightforward picture: Sporting and Spurs are at 90% and 73%, respectively, to advance, while Eintracht (27%) need help and Marseille, with that 9%, need a miracle.
Like Napoli and Ajax, we’ve seen two teams trade places on the totem pole in Group E. At the start of group play, SPI gave Chelsea a 68% chance of advancing from this tough group, while Salzburg were at 61%, Milan at 58% and Dinamo Zagreb a distant 13%.
Dinamo’s home upset of Chelsea has ended up far more costly to Chelsea than beneficial to the victors. The Blues fired manager Thomas Tuchel afterward, and in Graham Potter’s first match in charge — a frantic affair in which both teams had at least 114 possessions and Salzburg packed in like Red Bull teams rarely do (successfully) — a late Noah Okafor goal on one of only four Salzburg shots snared a pretty unjust 1-1 draw.
The result: In terms of odds, Chelsea and AC Milan — who will now play each other twice — have traded places; Milan are three points up on Chelsea and at 73% to advance, while Salzburg are at 62%, Chelsea 44%. And despite the upset win, Zagreb remain back at 21%. If Chelsea can rebound from here, things are probably fine, but the margin for error is gone.
This group felt extremely straightforward at the start — Real Madrid were the obvious favorites (82% to advance), while a struggling RB Leipzig (54%) would battle Celtic (52%) for second. Shakhtar, with their ultra-young roster hit hard by attrition (for obvious reasons) and without a ton of matches under their belt, would struggle. As it turned out, RBL’s form was even worse than we thought, and Shakhtar were ready for a fight. The team from Donetsk (which is playing its UEFA home games in Poland) landed some absolute haymakers in a 4-1 win over Leipzig, and that blurred the overall qualification picture.
Two eventually easy wins for Real Madrid — 3-0 over Celtic (with all goals in the last 35 minutes) and 2-0 over RBL (both goals in the last 10) — mean they will almost certainly advance with ease. But after Shakhtar snared a rather statistically unjust draw with Celtic on Wednesday, second place is now a three-way battle. Celtic, RBL and Shakhtar, with the latter’s three-point cushion, are all between 28% and 36% to advance. RBL have time to rebound, but their Oct. 5 home match vs. Celtic is a virtual must-win.
One group has gone completely according to plan. Manchester City (95% to advance at the start of group play) disposed of Sevilla (30%) with ease; Borussia Dortmund (68%) thumped Copenhagen (7%); Sevilla and Copenhagen drew; City eventually eased past Dortmund thanks to a wonder-goal from former BVB star Erling Haaland; and here we are: City are now at virtually 100% to advance, BVB are at 81%, and the long shots are much longer.
The main drama for Group H was clearly going to be Benfica vs. Juventus. PSG (95% to advance at the start) was the obvious heavyweight, and Maccabi Haifa (2%) was the obvious minnow. Juventus flashed some quality after a rough start in a 2-1 loss to PSG, but the loss didn’t mean much as long as they showed well at home against Benfica on Wednesday.
They did not. Juve looked good for about 10 minutes and took an early 1-0 lead thanks to an Arkadiusz Milik header, but Benfica proceeded to dominate the next 70 minutes or so and took home a 2-1 win. Benfica have looked spectacular under former PSV head Roger Schmidt and now have a six-point cushion over Juve and a 92% chance of advancing, per SPI. Juve basically need to rack up two wins against Maccabi and knock off Benfica in Lisbon — and perhaps take a point from PSG as well — to crawl back into the picture.
League form matters
We tend to use the European competitions to make all sorts of definitive statements about the power of a given league, but so far a team’s form within its given league has been far more predictive. Each of Europe’s top four leagues (England‘s Premier League, Spain‘s LaLiga, Germany‘s Bundesliga and Italy‘s Serie A) is averaging between 1.50 and 1.63 points per game at the moment, but if you split the teams out differently, you find a pretty clear correlation.
Teams currently in the top four in these four leagues: 11 wins, 1 draw, 2 losses, 2.4 points per game
Teams currently fifth to eighth in their league: 4 wins, 1 draw, 7 losses, 1.1 PPG
Teams currently 10th or worse in their league: 2 wins, 1 draw, 5 losses, 0.9 PPG
We’ve seen some pretty varied form for Champions League teams within each of these powerful leagues. Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur are doing well in the Premier League, but Chelsea and Liverpool are sixth and seventh. Bayern is wobbly but still third in the Bundesliga, while Dortmund is fifth, RB Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt are 10th and 11th and Bayer Leverkusen is a dismal 17th. Real Madrid and Barcelona are cruising through LaLiga play, while Atletico is seventh and Sevilla is 16th. Napoli and Milan are looking good in Serie A, while Inter is sixth and Juventus is eighth.
It’s not exactly rocket science to note that the teams doing well in one competition are doing well in another (and the ones that aren’t, aren’t), but it sure does kill some of our narrative urges. (There’s always an exception, however, and at the moment it’s Sporting CP, which has looked fantastic in two Champions League matches but has dropped eight points in six matches in Portugal.)
Biggest surprise thus far: Club Brugge
Here are the five teams that have seen the largest overall increase in odds of advancement over the first two matchdays:
Club Brugge: +47 percentage points (from 28% to 75%)
Sporting CP: +37 percentage points (from 53% to 90%)
Napoli: +34 percentage points (from 37% to 71%)
Benfica: +28 percentage points (from 64% to 92%)
Shakhtar Donetsk: +24 percentage points (from 12% to 36%)
If some of the teams from Europe’s big four are struggling, then the door is open for teams from other leagues at the moment. It probably isn’t a surprise that two Portuguese teams (Sporting and Benfica) have positioned themselves to take advantage or that Ajax and Salzburg, who have done damage in recent Champions League tournaments, are in position to do so again.
The most surprising surge to date has come from Club Brugge. Carl Hoefkens’ side surged late in 2021-22 to overtake surprising Union St. Gilloise for their fifth Belgian league title in six years, but that form hasn’t translated to European success. This is their fifth straight year in the Champions League group stage, but thus far they had mustered only four wins, three third-place finishes (each of which was followed by an immediate round-of-32 knockout in the Europa League) and a fourth-place finish in last year’s PSG-Manchester City-RB Leipzig horror group.
This year has been a completely different story. First they took down Bayer Leverkusen 1-0 in Bruges thanks to a set-piece goal from 19-year-old defender Abakar Sylla. This wasn’t a dominant showing by any means (Leverkusen attempted 14 shots worth 1.1 xG to Brugge’s nine shots and 0.5 xG), but this is a very mature team — nearly half of Bruges’ Champions League minutes thus far have gone to players aged 28 or older — and they saw out the win.
In Porto, they turned on the style and everyone got involved. Recent Barcelona addition Ferran Jutgla opened the scoring by drawing and converting a penalty, then set up a charging Kamal Sowah with a falling assist to make it 2-0 quickly after halftime. Andreas Skov Olsen quickly made it 3-0 after a long cross from Bjorn Meijer, then Casper Nielsen set 17-year-old Antonio Nusa free on a lovely counterattack that put the match away.
Shots: Porto 15, Brugge 13
xG: Brugge 3.0, Porto 1.6
xG per shot: Brugge 0.23, Porto 0.10
Post-shot xG for shots on target: Brugge 3.6, Porto 1.0
While Porto did enough to deserve a goal, Brugge’s attack was revelatory. Everyone got involved, and if Nusa had been off target with his late goal, recent addition Roman Yaremchuk was there to clean up the miss.
I’ve found myself watching quite a bit of ESPN+’s Jupiler Pro League offering over the past year or so; it’s like if someone said, “I enjoy the attacking nature of the Bundesliga, but could you make things more chaotic? And perhaps slightly more hostile, too?” It’s a rush, and Club Brugge are the best purveyors of this chaos at the moment. But the team itself is also a fascinating mix of old and new. Veterans like midfielders Denis Odoi (34) and Hans Vanaken (30) and goalkeeper Simon Mignolet (34) play alongside thrilling up-and-comers like Jutgla (23) and Skov Olsen (22) and the teenagers (Meijer, Sylla, Nusa).
Their work clearly isn’t done — back-to-back matches against Atletico Madrid could quickly bring them back to earth — but the Porto win was huge and well-deserved. Another result or two could put them in the final 16 of Europe’s biggest competition for the first time since the 1990-91 European Cup.
European soccer has a bit of a predictability issue at the moment, and to be sure, that’s still an issue — advancement odds might have shifted pretty significantly, but odds of winning the title sure haven’t. But there are always fun stories to find on the journey, and Belgium‘s best team is writing a pretty thrilling one at the moment.