Champions League Picks | Breaking Down Group C
SSC Napoli/Getty. Pictured: Matteo Politano.
Group C has a clear hierarchy with Spanish runners up Real Madrid and Italian champions Napoli as the two heavy favorites to advance to the knockout stage. Madrid made a run to the semifinal last year before losing to eventual champions Manchester City, and Napoli’s dream season ended in a shock loss to AC Milan in the quarterfinal.
Union Berlin have consistently punched above their weight as a club in Germany and the Portuguese sides have had a lot of success in this competition of late, but there’s a clear gap in overall squad talent here.
Real Madrid are off to a perfect start in La Liga with four wins in their opening four matches. Late goals against Celta Vigo and Getafe propelled them to those wins through goals by new superstar signing Jude Bellingham. Bellingham has made up for the loss of goals from Karim Benzema’s departure for now, but there’s real questions about how sustainable his goal production is. Bellingham has scored five of Real’s eight goals this season and he had just eight in 29 90s in the wide open Bundesliga for Dortmund last year.
Madrid will also not have Vinicius Junior healthy for the first group stage matches. I’m not sure that they are the best attacking side in this group without Benzema or a suitable striker replacement. A forward pairing of Joselu and Rodrygo isn’t going to produce at high enough levels to warrant the current market rating on Los Blancos.
In the two matches against decent opposition, they managed just 0.9 xG against Bilbao and 1.4 xG against Celta, with half of that coming from a penalty. The midfield is vastly improved with Bellingham and more youth and athleticism now, but Real Madrid are a vulnerable favorite. As good as they’ve been in CL knockouts, their group history is not nearly as dominant in recent years.
Napoli have dropped points in their last two Serie A matches to Lazio and Genoa, which is raising concerns that the magic of their Scudetto run last year may be running out. Napoli did lose some of its depth in the summer transfer window and manager Luciano Spalletti departed the club. As long as Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Victor Osimhen are leading the attack for Napoli though, they will be an excellent attacking side and a threat in the Champions League and Serie A.
They conceded twice to Genoa on the road on Saturday, but they conceded less than 1 xG in their first three Italian matches and look just as good defensively this season as last year. That’s despite losing Kim Min-jae in a major sale to Bayern Munich.
It was the dominant win at home against overvalued Liverpool in the Champions League last season that put the world on notice of how good this Napoli side really was. They’ll host Real Madrid in the second match of this group stage, likely without Vinicius Junior, and that will be an excellent spot to back the Italian champions.
Their midfield with Piotr Zielinski, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Stanislav Lobotka remains quite well balanced and functional too, so I’m not overreacting to a few bad results in Serie A. Osimhen is the best player in this group and Napoli has comparable underlying numbers to Real Madrid overall.
Braga have had some decent success and performances in the Europa League in recent seasons, but this is a big step up in quality for them. They also don’t really have the underlying numbers to back it up. Braga had the fourth-best underlying numbers in Portugal last season and they were considerably worse by xG difference than the big three of Benfica, Sporting Lisbon and Porto.
They qualified for this competition because Sporting had terrible variance all year long and finished outside the top three, which opened the door for Braga to claim this spot. There’s nothing in the underlying data to suggest that they’re performing any better this season because they have a +1 total xG difference through four league matches.
For comparison’s sake, Porto and Benfica have a +5.2 and +5.8 total xGD already. It’s hard to see any real upside for them in this group, especially since Union Berlin are a difficult Pot 4 team with an excellent defensive system that is difficult to break down.
Union Berlin were in the second division of Germany a few years ago, and now they’re in the Champions League. They were very fortunate to finish top four on the back of incredibly good finishing, but the defensive numbers in the Bundesliga are elite.
We’ll see how effectively those numbers translate into an elite European competition – Union have struggled defensively when facing Leipzig and Bayern for example — but away matches to Union could be excellent underdog spots in this group stage.
This is the exact kind of team I’d expect to potentially surprise in this type of competition, but the group may prove too difficult given the two top tier European teams.
Best Bet: Napoli to win the group (+200 or better, +230 via FanDuel)