UEFA Champions League: Early Favorites, Underdogs, Darkhorses

The 2022-23 Champions League group stage draws took center stage just over a week ago, throwing up some really interesting battles.

Last season’s runners-up of Liverpool, Rangers, Ajax, and Napoli were pitted amongst themselves in Group A, Porto, Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, and Club Brugge tried each other for size in Group B, and Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Inter Milan, and Viktoria Plzen are together in a Group C that has been branded the Group of Death.

Frankfurt, Tottenham, Sporting Lisbon, and Marseille make up Group D, AC Milan, Chelsea, Dinamo Zagreb, and Salzburg are in E, defending champions Real Madrid, RB Leipzig, Shakhter Donetsk, and Celtic make their long overdue return to the tourney in Group F.

Manchester City do battle with Sevilla, Borrusia Dortmund, and Copenhagen in Group G while Paris Saint Germain, Maccabi Haifa, Juventus, and Benfica face off in Group H.

This season’s group stage edition will begin in September. White it promises to be exciting, let’s take a look at the teams who have already been installed as the favorites, the less-fancied sides who could spring a surprise and make a deep run into the competition, and then the underdogs who have the odds truly stacked against them.

The Favorites

Real Madrid — Real Madrid start this edition of the competition as overwhelming favorites to win it, and after drawing Leipzig, Shakhtar and Celtic, expectations are understandably high.

Los Blancos have already set a record with their 14th win of the European trophy last season, and having started the season in equally scintillating form, it really would be a case of who can stop them. At the moment, they would take some stopping. They added the Super Cup to their collection of burgeoning titles some weeks ago after brushing aside Eintracht Frankfurt. They also edged out Almeria, Celta Vigo, and Espanyol to maintain a hundred percent start to 2022-23.

At odds of +850 to cart home the prize on DraftKings, you wouldn’t want to bet against them doing it.

Bayern Munich — Bayern Munich found themselves stunned after lowly Villarreal dumped them out of the competition last season. The season promised a lot, including winning a seventh title and what would have been their first since 2020.

Now, Julian Naglesmann and his staff turn their attention to another campaign after a massive revamp of their team. Robert Lewandowski, Niklas Sule, Corentin Tolisso, Tanguy Nianzou, and others have gone, but Bayern have splashed the cash and added a couple of new faces to the side.

They are firing on all cylinders as you would expect and have started the season strongly beating all of Frankfurt, Wolfsburg, and Bochum while also winning the Super Cup versus Leipzig. We like to think they will be the team to beat again, and at odds of +500 at DraftKings, it is safe to say The Bavarians are in and around the title talk yet.

Barcelona — Barca endured a torrid 2021-22 season in Europe, and it was only until legendary ex-player Xavi was called in to steady the ship that the Catalan club was embroiled in crisis.

Dumped out in the group phases of Europe’s elite competition and also beaten by Frankfurt in Europa, it was a season to forget, to say the least. The outcome had forced the club’s hand, and despite their financial problems, they have added quite an exciting number of quality players to their team. The feel-good feeling is back, and perhaps Lewandowski and co. can fire them to a sixth crown, a long overdue one since 2015.

Manchester City — Over the years, it’s been cases of near misses for Manchester City, but that could be about to change.

Beaten at the death by eventual winners Madrid last term, Pep Guardiola has set about righting the wrongs and perhaps making sure it does not elude them again this time. Erling Haaland has been an incredible piece of business by the side in sky-blue, and alas he will make a fast return to Dortmund while Copenhagen and Sevilla could have something to say about City’s path to progression this season.

Equalled record-goal hauls, goals and goals and goals is what we’ve already seen from the Citizens since losing the Community Shield to Liverpool some weeks back; surely it doesn’t get any better than this, does it?

The Underdogs

Maccabi Haifa — After a 12-year wait, Maccabi, somewhat of an unknown quantity in Europe, will bring Champions League nights to Haifa. What a time to be alive for locals.

It will be the third time ever they will make an appearance at this stage of the tournament, and the first for an Israeli side since Maccabi Tel Aviv made it in 2015. Making it to this stage is one thing, but having to navigate a group that have Juventus, Paris Saint Germain, and Benfica is surely another; you already feel for the modest green side.

Every goal will be celebrated with a maddening cheer, and any extra point they pick up will be adored despite any final results. Maccabi Haifa will surely relish their participation in here.

Viktoria Plzen — Czech champions Plzen enter this competition again as underdogs, and they do not have fond memories of the last time they were in the Champions League. Their last appearance in here was in the 2018-19 edition when they lost four of their six group games before exiting. It doesn’t even help that it is Bayern, Barcelona and, Inter they face this time around, and many have branded them goners even before they kicked a ball.

And rightly so. Any win against their group opponents will be seen as a massive cup upset.

The Dark Horses

Borrusia Dortmund — Dortmund are not so much what they used to be, having lost a number of their star players during the transfer window. The team weakened without their erstwhile star striker Haaland and defender Manuel Akanji but are always capable of making a deep run into the competition. They do have one of the best scouting systems in Europe which has seen them pick up and unearth some really exciting talents.

They’ve already started the season strong, and you wouldn’t want to discount them springing some surprises in Group G.

Ajax — Ajax, just like Dortmund, are having to start the season with a major facelift after seeing most of their team stars jump ship. No fewer than five first-team stars left the club during this summer window, with Manchester United raiding them for the duo of Lisandro Martinez and Anthony.

Bayern also took off them Ryan Gravenberch and Noussair Mazraoui, Sebastien Haller left for Dortmund, and Andre Onana went to Inter. Have they been left shorn of some really good players? Yes. Can they beat the odds despite that? They’ve been here before, and they didn’t disappoint, so still yes.

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