As we role into Champions League match day two, the biggest teams from across Europe will inevitably get the attention. But, as the group stage progresses, a number of smaller teams will look to stake their claim to be this year’s Cinderella story. Here’s a quick look at some of the less heralded teams in this year’s Champions League and what they do, or don’t do well.
Things could not have gone better on match day one for the team from Prague. Not only did they travel to Italy and come back with a point from Inter Milan but Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund also drew, leaving the group wide open. Getting stuck in such a difficult group meant that their odds of even making the Europa League were always going to be long, but every Cinderella Story starts with a single invitation to the ball. If their match against Inter taught us anything, it’s that this team plans to remain true to itself, no matter how challenging that may be. Manager Jindřich Trpišovský has his team press the opposition early, often, and unrelentingly. Through nine games of their domestic season, this is what their defensive heat map looks like. In attack, their approach is generally to shoot early, shoot often, and then use the defense to get the ball and do it again. With such an active defense, shot quality comes second to simply burying opponents under an unending deluge of attempts on goal, even if many of those individual attempts are somewhere between speculative and downright deluded. Of course, executing that approach when you have the most talent in your domestic league is a lot easier than it is when you go up against some of the biggest teams in Europe, but as we can see from their first match against Inter, they’re sure going to try. Advancing from this group remains an extremely unlikely proposition, but if it were to ever happen, this would be the way. First the draw against Inter, and now they get to host Borussia Dortmund at a time when the team seems to be ever so slightly off the top of their game. The German side is coming off back to back disappointing 2-2 draws against Eintracht Frankfurt and Werder Bremen dropping them to eight in the Bundesliga. Slavia Praha probably won’t shock the world, but if they are going to, it helps to catch their group stage opponents at their lowest moments
It seems silly to suggest that a team that has started their season with eight wins and a loss is struggling, but sometimes it fits the bill. Sure Red Star sit tied for points at the top of the table and even have a game in hand on Bačka Topola the unlikely co-owners of the league’s best record, and yes the side sits one point ahead of bitter crosstown rival Partizan, but the stats suggest, that at least early in the season all was not quite right with this perennial powerhouse. It’s hard for Europe’s smaller teams to compete on the biggest stage if they aren’t absolutely dominant at home, and Red Star simply haven’t been. On both sides of the ball it’s been Partizan that is the stand out performer (the following stats don’t include the last two match days, which is important to note were both comfortable 3-1 wins for Red Star). On both sides of the ball Partizan have the stronger xG numbers and thus a significantly higher xG differential so far this season. This difference clearly showed itself when the two sides squared off earlier this season. It’s one of the most hotly contested rivalries in the world, and while Partizan left it until late to score their two goals, they were clearly the better team over the course of 90 minutes. Even though their domestic form suggests Red Star might not have enough fire power to threaten any of the favorites in their group, Tottenham Hotspur’s opening week draw away to Olympiakos has left the door ever so slightly ajar. A good result this week at home against the Greek side combined with a Spurs loss to Bayern would actually vault the Serbian team into second place in the group and at least give them a fighting chance in the weeks to come.
The Turkish giants have been a mainstay of the Champions League for years. They haven’t exactly threatened to do anything historic in the knockout stages, but they’ve always been a hard out for Europe’s biggest clubs, a side good for an upset or two under the right circumstances. This year, with groupmate Real Madrid getting trounced in the opener getting trounced in the opener by PSG’s backups, it at least seems to open the door for Galatasaray to pull off a shocking upset. This year’s version of the Turkish side is going to have a real hard time driving through that door. Despite being filled with players you know and are at least mildly fond of, the team simply hasn’t been very good this season. Despite the likes of Jean Michaël Seri, Sofiane Feghouli, Younès Belhanda, Steven Nzonzi and Radamel Falcao leaving viewers in a constant state of “oh yeah I remember that guy” the team hasn’t gelled together at all. Right now, Galatasaray sit in just seventh place domestically. Despite all those names, they simply struggle to score the ball. They neither create a lot of shots, 12.87 is the ninth most in the league, nor create particularly good shots, only six teams have a worse average xG per shot than their 0.07. And the sad reality for fans of Turkish football is that if you’re not good enough to dominate at home, you’re probably not good enough to shock the world and outlast Real Madrid or PSG, even in a year when Madrid are struggling. Not all underdogs are created equal, and this year, Galatasaray have simply shown no signs of being able to do the things that they’d need to in order to upend the expected Champions League order.