Champions League Analysis: Buy Low on Barcelona; Ajax Worth Longshot Bet
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images. Pictured: Ronald Koeman
The first two matchweeks of the Champions League season are complete and Barcelona has six fewer points than FC Sheriff. As it always does, Europe’s premier club competition has brought plenty of late drama, upsets and stunning goals.
Barcelona has allowed six goals and scored none in back-to-back 3-0 defeats to Benfica and Bayern Munich. Chelsea may have ceded control of Group H to Juventus following a 1-0 defeat in Turin and Manchester United stole a late winner against Villarreal after dropping its opener to Swiss side Young Boys in stoppage time.
In the marquee Group A, RB Leipzig has zero points and as no one expected, Club Brugge is tied for first place with PSG after the Parisiens beat Manchester City 2-0 in the most highly anticipated matchup of the group stage.
Here are four takeaways from the first two matchweeks and betting notes to consider before the Champions League returns in two weeks after the international break:
Manchester City Will Never Be Cheaper to Win Group
If you haven’t gotten in on Manchester City to win Group A yet, now is the best time to do so at +100 on DraftKings.
Almost everything that could have gone wrong for Manchester City did in their defeat in Paris on Tuesday. Bernardo Silva missed a .79 xG tap-in into an empty net after Raheem Sterling hit the crossbar. City won the xG battle in the game and while game-state plays a role in that, they looked like the better team for large stretches.
PSG had a decent defensive plan but is getting zero defensive work from its front three attackers of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar. That enabled City to live in the PSG final third and easily enter into the penalty area. PSG executed a near perfect defensive game plan and still got broken open on two separate occasions that could have been goals.
Donnarumma was excellent in goal for PSG and prevented what easily could have been a game-tying goal. PSG dropped points to Club Brugge and now has two games against a desperate Leipzig team that can absolutely cause problems for PSG in transition.
City should roll over Brugge twice in the next two games and if PSG drops points again, City would only need a draw in the final matchweek to win the group.
Even if City needs a win in the penultimate matchweek against PSG, its moneyline odds will be odds on and much worse than the +100 currently offered on their group price. As important as PSG’s result was, if the game played out exactly the same again, City probably gets a result. When they meet in Manchester, the Cityzens should handle PSG.
Verdict: Until PSG shows me a repeatable game plan against Europe’s other elite sides, I’m still going to be skeptical of their chances to win both this group and the Champions League. City is still +100 to win the Group.
What to Make of Surprising FC Sheriff
I was one of the most skeptical people of FC Sheriff’s chances of even being remotely competitive in the Champions League, and I was pretty wrong on that one.
Sheriff deservedly beat Shakhtar at home in its first home game and then stole a win on the road against a Real Madrid team that was overdue for some offensive regression and was running extremely hot in front of goal to begin the La Liga season. Sheriff was +2800 pregame on FanDuel to win at Real Madrid.
Despite getting pounded on xG, Sheriff’s smash-and-grab 2-1 win is commendable and now has them at +200 to advance to the Round of 16 and still +1200 to win the group.
If Sheriff can get a result in either game against Inter coming up, you have to like their chances to make the knockout stage. Sheriff is different from most champions of lower leagues in that they are comfortable in playing without the ball and can defend deep better than most of these eastern European sides who are used to having the ball a lot domestically.
They have some fun counterattacking pieces too, as they scored all of their goals in this game. At 1-1 in the 85th minute — you could have had a +8000 on Sheriff to win that game — which they of course did in the 89th minute.
I’m still not biting on Sheriff’s group price or to advance price because all of the value is gone and this team is long overdue to get pounded and start conceding goals based on the number of chances they’ve allowed to this point.
Two wonder-goals at the Bernabeu and a win against Real Madrid is an amazing story and one of the greatest upsets in European history, but I’m not getting behind Sheriff now.
Verdict: Inter Milan’s Champions League record is pretty poor in recent seasons, but they won’t be overlooking Sheriff as perhaps the most recent opponents may have. Inter is desperate for points after a loss at home to Real Madrid and a road draw at Shakhtar. I’ll pass on backing Sheriff.
Ajax Quietly Putting Up Scary Numbers in Group C
The last time FiveThirtyEight was this high on Ajax early in a season, they finished the season about 30 seconds from the Champions League final before Spurs stole a late goal from nothing and won 3-2 in Amsterdam deep in stoppage time in the UCL semifinal.
The Soccer Power Index (SPI) has Ajax as the fourth-best team in the world. Do I believe that they are that good? No. But it’s a decent indicator of just how dominant they have been to begin the Eredivisie and Champions League this campaign.
Ajax was putting up absurd numbers last year to end the season and got soccer’d — incredibly unlucky in a low event game — losing to Roma over two legs in the Europa League Round of 16.
Had they gotten past Roma, I’m not convinced they wouldn’t have won the whole tournament. They play a dazzling press-and-possess style with tons of really good players that may not have international notoriety but mesh together well and can pass through even the best of teams.
Borussia Dortmund will be a tough test in the next two group matches, but the Sons of Gods are a near certainty to advance since they walloped both Besiktas and Sporting Lisbon in group play.
Ajax has outscored its opponents 7-1 through two matches and produced 6.8 xGF and 1.0 xGA. That’s much more dominant than Dortmund, who has only produced 3 xGF and allowed 1.3. If Ajax wins that game at home in a couple weeks, its future odds will plummet.
And even if Ajax finishes second in the group, they upset Real Madrid and Juventus en route to the semifinal in 2019 and there’s no reason they couldn’t upset some vulnerable group winners again.
Steven Berghuis, Dusan Tadic, Antony and Sebastien Haller are in flying form, Daley Blind is a ball progression passing machine from the backline and Ryan Gravenberch is one of the world’s most underrated young midfielders.
Verdict: At +4000, Ajax is priced with the 12th-best odds to win this tournament, and that’s entirely too low. Beating Dortmund and winning the group would cut their odds in half, while the odds won’t get worse if they finish second behind the Black and Yellow. Time to party like it’s 2018-19.
Barcelona in Trouble, but Not Done Yet
Dynamo Kiev’s draw with Benfica in the first matchweek is about the only thing saving the Spanish giants from being on the brink of elimination through two matches. Benfica has four points and that means the door is open for Barcelona to make it out of this group if Bayern wins its two matches against Benfica, clinches the group, then rests in the final matchweek against Barca.
Everything that could wrong for Barca did in the loss to Benfica, as they conceded an excellent Benfica goal at the start of the match, dominated the next hour but could not find a goal, then collapsed late by allowing two goals and a red card.
They should take care of Dynamo Kiev home and away, and if they win both of those, will be big favorites to advance from this group because Bayern will put out a weaker team with the group clinched on the final day.
The narratives surrounding Barcelona for the first time may be worse than the actual performance on the field. They’ve got nowhere near enough talent to win this group, progress deep into the competition or probably even win La Liga. But I think they’ll get to nine points with wins against Kiev and Benfica and I don’t think Benfica will get there after Bayern sends them back down to Earth a few times in October.
Verdict: A good spot to buy low on Barcelona to advance from the knockout stage at +175 odds.