Champions League: Are Man City and Barcelona Vulnerable Favorites?

Champions League: Are Man City and Barcelona Vulnerable Favorites? article feature image

Wednesday’s Champions League matchups feature two of the favorites to win the tournament — Barcelona and Manchester City — squaring up against a pair of opponents in Roma and Liverpool that are looking to stage unlikely upsets. Neither of the underdogs is likely to make a serious run at winning the tournament. But each — under the right circumstances — might be able to land an unexpected result in the quarterfinals.

Liverpool (+187) vs. Manchester City (+150), Draw (+260)

For long stretches of this season, Manchester City have looked like the best team in the world. They’re currently coasting to a Premier League title. They have a 16-point lead with seven matches left to play. They’ve scored 88 goals, 13 more than anybody else in the league, and have conceded only 21, two fewer than the next best defensive team. They’ve lost a grand total of one Premier League match. Of course, that one loss was to Liverpool, which makes things interesting.

Liverpool, under manager Jurgen Klopp, are well-aware that the usual rules for staging an upset simply don’t apply to Manchester City. Usually a surprise result from an underdog comes from a committed and conservative defensive performance combined with an extremely efficient counterattack or two. Eke out a tight 1-0 win at home and then defend for your life in the second leg on the road, before maybe nabbing a goal against the run of play late in the game to clinch victory. Liverpool, on the other hand, beat City, 4-3, in a wild shootout on Jan. 14th.

Manchester City play a unique brand of attacking soccer. They combine copious amounts of possession, 66.6% is significantly ahead of second-place Tottenham Hotspur’s 58.7, with the ability to move the ball from back to front quickly when they see an opportunity. It’s a delicate balance that depends on both David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, two extremely attacking players, in the middle of the field with only Fernandinho as real defensive cover.

The approach leaves City with a soft underbelly but makes it virtually impossible for teams to attack that weakness. Teams that pack it in defensively and hope to withstand an attack before breaking out and countering are playing right into City’s hands. They pin teams so deeply — and move them around so much — that cutting off counterattacks before they start becomes trivial. Their opponent’s strikers are left utterly isolated against City’s centerbacks, who can step up the field and intercept desperately played outlet passes with ease. Even when those balls are completed, the striker is so isolated that City generally has time to recover before the attack turns dangerous.

The problem for most teams is that other options aren’t any better. Very few teams in the world can compete with a front line of Raheem Sterling,  Leroy Sane and either Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Jesus, especially since they’re supported by the midfield creativity of Silva and De Bruyne. It just so happens that Liverpool are one of those teams.

Liverpool’s attacking front three of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane are as good as any front three in the world. Not only are Mane and Salah unstoppable in space, but Firmino is such a creative passer from the center forward position that he has managed to consistently interchange with the two wingers in order to create attacks even when outnumbered and lacking space. And Salah’s ability to both break down teams on the wing and find pockets of space in the penalty area has rendered him virtually unguardable this season. He not only leads the Premier League in goals with 29 but also has nine assists, tied for fourth in the Premier League (and first among non-Manchester City players).

Most teams have no way out when they play against City. Liverpool at least have an attack that gives them a fighting chance. In a wide-open game, where the ball is flying from end to end and Salah has the ball at his feet with centerbacks scrambling to catch up, Liverpool could conceivably win a high-scoring match. Manchester City are the better team, but nobody is having a goal-scoring season like Salah is.

Barcelona (-400) v Roma (+1200), Draw (+575)

Roma don’t have as clear an avenue to success as Liverpool does. While they occupy a similar place in the Serie A table that Liverpool does in England, they don’t have a weapon to deploy that’s nearly as powerful as Liverpool’s front three. Combine that with the fact that Barcelona plays an exceedingly controlled style of possession soccer, and it’s hard to see a plan of attack (or defense) that will allow Roma to both slow down Lionel Messi and create real scoring opportunities of their own.

Barcelona have settled into a somewhat awkward style that features Luis Suarez effectively pairing with Messi as a front two. They’re supported by Andres Iniesta on the left, and a rotating cast of characters on the right who play as not-quite-wingers. Sergio Busquets — who will be back from injury in time for the game — runs the midfield. This season Ivan Rakitic has been deployed more as a midfield partner for Busquets to help stabilize the team and account for Busquets’ slowly deteriorating range.

The team is very good at keeping the ball and maintaining their shape. Barcelona is somewhat less potent around their opponents’ penalty area than in it has been in recent seasons, but it is more stable defensively, and less likely to be exploited on the counterattack. Basically, Barca keeps the ball, and eventually Messi does something cool and then either he scores or sets somebody else up to do so.

Roma are neither a good enough attacking team to force Barcelona out of their possession game, nor a good enough defensive team to withstand it. Roma want to have the ball, their 56.1% possession is tied for second in Serie A. They need that possession because their best goal scorer is Edin Dzeko. Dzeko is having a renaissance year at 32. He has 14 goals, right in line with his 14.70 expected goals on a robust 4.71 shots per game. But Dzeko isn’t a mobile striker. He’s lethal in the box where he can find pockets of space for himself or attack headers. An attack built to revolve around that kind of striker needs time on the ball to build attacks and get Dzeko into the spaces he’s best in. That’s time that Roma simply won’t have.

And defensively Roma are simply kind of average. They may have given up only 24 goals, fourth-fewest in Serie A, but that’s because they’ve been depending on keeper Alisson to keep the ball out of the net. They’ve conceded eight fewer goals than expected goals predicts, the biggest gap in Serie A. There are seven teams in Serie A that have accumulated fewer expected goals conceded than Roma has. The Roma defensive game plan is to rely heavily on a goalkeeper to keep Messi out of the net.

That’s before factoring in that Roma’s star midfielder may not even play. Radja Nainggolan was injured Saturday, in Roma’s match against Bologna. While he made the squad, Nainggolan is still a question mark for the game itself, and even if he does play, he might be hampered by the thigh injury that forced him off the field on Saturday. Nainggolan is the heart of Roma’s midfield and their major creative force. He leads the team in assists with seven, and is second in key passes per game with 2.0 behind only heavy crosser Aleksandar Kolarov. If Nainggolan isn’t 100% it’s hard to see how Roma will be able to either build attacks or get the ball to Dzeko at the end of them.

The sad reality for Roma is that the things they do best are the things that Barcelona will be best-equipped to take away from them. The best underdogs, such as Liverpool, have a skill that they can lean on, and that matches up with the favorite’s weakness. Roma will have to do something they’re not great at — defend and counterattack — and they may have to do it without the midfielder who would lead that transition.

All odds current as of Tuesday evening.