Who will be this season’s Champions League ‘Dark Horse’?

The last couple of Champions League campaigns have seen some of the ‘smaller’ teams reach the advanced stages of the competition with the likes of Monaco, Ajax and RB Leipzig changing the recent European narrative. This season has been incredibly unpredictable so far so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a new ‘dark horse’ emerge in Europe, especially given the frailties that Barca and Real Madrid are currently facing. In this article, we look at three underdog teams that could surprise the masses and go all the way in the prestigious competition. 

Firstly, we start off with Sevilla. Although they did win the Europa League last season, they can still be classed as a ‘dark horse’ in the top tier European competition. Indeed, they currently stand at 33/1 to be victorious in Istanbul on 29th May 2021. Julen Lopetegui’s side has been impressive since the Spaniard took over in 2019. As already mentioned, they won last season’s Europa League beating Man Utd and Inter Milan on the way but also came very close to winning the European Super Cup, just losing to the impressive Bayern Munich in extra time. Their transfer window has also been promising as they have been able to bolster their squad with only a few key players leaving. Namely, we did see Sergio Reguilon and Ever Banega depart, however, they brought in the seriously talented Suso, Oscar Rodriguez and Oussama Idrissi, adding to their attacking prowess. This poses Sevilla as a threat to all European sides this season. 

The signs are there already: they have been placed in a difficult group with the likes of Chelsea and Rennes but, they currently sit second in Group E with four points and arguably having played their toughest games already. They were able to completely nullify Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and although they didn’t manage to break the Blues down themselves, they left London with a very important point. The second game week saw them host the impressive Rennes side, which most people believe will be their biggest challengers for the second qualification spot. In the vastly important game, the Spanish side managed to nick a 1-0 win putting them in a great position ahead of two games against the out-of-favour FC Krasnodar. 

Sevilla are a very difficult team to play against. They’re comfortable in possession, shown by their average of 59% this season which places them in the top five in the Champions League in that regard, this is largely boosted through the introduction of Ivan Rakitic to the team. The Croatian midfielder has proven his quality on the ball during his time at Barcelona and although he’s now 32 years old, he’s still got the ability to dictate games from midfield. Lopetegui’s men love to use width to stretch teams and get dangerous balls into the box for De Jong to finish. Ocampos, Suso and Jesus Navas from right back create dangerous overloads on the flanks causing defences to struggle positionally. So far in the Champions League, only Real Madrid have attempted more crosses into the box, 66 compared to Sevilla’s 51. This shows how much of a problem they can cause teams. Finally, their solid centre back pairing of Diogo Carlos and Jules Kounde, whom Man City tried to buy in the summer, mean that Sevilla are difficult to break down and due to their pace, they tend to easily recover during counter attacks. No team should want to draw Sevilla in the round of 16. 

Next up on the list is Manchester United. It’s difficult to call the three-time European champions a ‘dark horse’ in the European competition, however, as we all know, times have drastically changed at Old Trafford. The Red Devils haven’t managed to go past the Quarter Final phase of the competition since 2011 where they reached the final, in which they lost to Barcelona, and have looked far from impressive in recent years. The start to the 2020/21 season has certainly been strange for Ole’s men – they’ve made an awful start in the Premier League, their worst since the Moyes era in fact, but have put in two exceptional performances in the Champions League so far.

Their group has been labelled as the most difficult this season with last year’s finalists and semi-finalists (PSG and RB Leipzig respectively) being accompanied by the Turkish side Istanbul Basaksehir. Rival fans were quick to place United back into the Europa League, predicting a third-place finish in Group H behind the French and the German sides. However, heading into game week 3, United have already amassed six points and can potentially be certain of topping the group before they face their two biggest challengers in the reverse fixtures. The 2-1 win over PSG away shocked the football world; fans were certain Maguire, Lindelof and Shaw would get humiliated by Mbappe and Neymar. That did not happen, Axel Tuanzebe stepped in to replace the injured Maguire and put in an incredible performance. Indeed, the whole United team proved their worth and nullified PSG with the incredible Marcus Rashford scoring a winner in the latter stages of the game. It seems like it wasn’t a one-off smash and grab either, the ‘Tricky Reds’ put another inspired performance in against the difficult RB Leipzig. Many were expecting Nagelsmann to outsmart and tactically outwit Solskjaer, however, the Norwegian proved he deserves respect on the European stage. His men put in a brilliant performance, beating the Germans 5-0 and it could’ve been more. 

There are two more reasons why Manchester United find themselves on this list. Firstly, even the fiercest of Ole’s critics will admit he’s been superb against the so-called ‘Big 6’ in the Premier League since he’s taken over. Indeed, in the head-to-head record, his side finished second last season, which included victories over Pep’s City, Mourinho’s Spurs and Lampard’s Chelsea. It seems like those games suit United perfectly as they can sit back and strike on the counter. Their pacey forwards allow them to transition in blistering speed and surprise defences. It’s the smaller teams that sit back and defend with eight or nine men that Man United typically struggle against. The Champions League consists of the best teams in Europe – it’s unlikely that Ole’s team will face many sides that defend with two blocks of four for instance, giving them a chance over two legs in the knockout stages.

Secondly, although many United fans will be disappointed with the summer transfer window as Ed Woodward and co were unable to bring Jadon Sancho in, United now do have quality in depth. Players of very respected European pedigree such as Cavani and Van De Beek have been brought in, allowing Ole to rotate in the mid-week games and bring on explosive players such Rashford or Greenwood if needed. United’s biggest problem and potentially the biggest reason why they were knocked out by Sevilla in the semi-final of the Europa League last season is that they didn’t have enough quality on the bench. Solskjaer had to resort to the same eleven players in almost every game, leading to significant tiredness and burn-out towards the end of the season. If United’s Premier League form continues the way it’s started, it won’t be long before they’ve got nothing to fight for in the domestic competition so will be able to solely focus on the Champions League, making them a significant threat. 

The third team on our list is Atalanta. The Italian side had an emphatic 2019/20 Serie A campaign, finishing third, only five points behind champions Juventus. Since Gasperini took over as the first team coach in 2016, Atalanta have been on an uprising trajectory, improving season on season. They are now a formidable side that European teams should fear. This was partly depicted in last season’s campaign where they qualified from a tough group during which they managed to steal a point from Man City. They then annihilated Valencia in the round of 16, winning 8-4 on aggregate showing their free scoring intent. They eventually got knocked out by PSG in the quarter finals, however, they dominated large chunks of the game and only lost to two unfortunate goals in added time. Regardless, seeing Atalanta reach the semi-finals of this year’s competition would be a surprise to many – they’re currently 25/1 to win the competition and therefore can be classed as a ‘dark horse’. 

Atalanta have found themselves in a tough group this season. They’re accompanied by the 2018/19 winners Liverpool, the always tricky Ajax and Midtjylland in Group D. However, they’ve already shown what they’re about. The Italian side loves to attack and score goals, having scored 6 against Midtjylland and Ajax in the first two game weeks. Last season in the Serie A, they amassed 98 goals. More than any Serie A side in over 60 years. Gasperini loves to use the high press and get the ball to the prolific forwards: Luis Muriel, Alejandro Gomez and Duvan Zapata. The latter two got an impressive 18 goals each in last season’s campaign. In fact, they were incredibly clinical in front of goal, according to the expected goals calculations, they should’ve scored 17 goals less than they did.

The Italians have plenty of pace in their side but also love to stretch the pitch and utilise their wing backs. Mojica on the left and Hateboer on the right have been imperative to their attacks, pulling defences apart and creating space in the middle for Ilicic and Gomez to use their creativity and directness to punish the opposition. Although they did suffer a heavy defeat against Liverpool in game week 3 (5-0 at home), it was an inspired performance from Klopp’s men and Gasperini will be able to learn from this and adjust his tactics in future big games; they’ve certainly got the tactical fluidity to do so. We believe they will still qualify from the group and prove to be a challenging side to face in the latter stages of the competition. 

This season’s Champions League campaign has already seen freakish results, Real Madrid losing to Shakhtar’s depleted side or Man United beating the impressive RB Leipzig 5-0 are some of the standout ones. We expect one of the three teams analysed in this article to shock football fans and reach the advanced stages of the competition.

Let us know if you agree with our predictions or if you think another team can come out as a ‘dark horse’ this season in the comments section below! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

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