Champions League Preview | Group E Picks, Featuring Atletico Madrid
Quality Sport Images/Getty. Pictured: Alvaro Morata.
All four teams in Group E of the Champions League will feel they have a clear and realistic path to advance because the group has some real parity and no easy fixtures. Road trips to Glasgow and Rotterdam are sure to be difficult, and even with their downturn in recent international form Atletico Madrid can never be totally overlooked in the Champions League.
Atletico Madrid crashed out of a relatively easy Champions League group last year behind Porto, Club Brugge and Bayer Leverkusen. They had previously become a mainstay in the knockout stage and a thorn in the side of many big clubs, but the slip in defensive metrics has made them much more vulnerable to upsets like last year.
There’s nothing in their numbers this season to suggest they’ve seriously improved, and now the injury bug has bit them ahead of the start of the group stage. Thomas Lemar is out for the season, Memphis Depay, Rodrigo De Paul and Koke are all battling back from setbacks now too. They are heavily reliant on seemingly ageless wonders Antoine Griezmann and Alvaro Morata, but there’s not much ceiling in a team reliant on two over the hill forwards producing at elite levels in the twilights of their careers.
The 7-0 win against Rayo Vallecano made a lot of headlines and Atletico has been a considerably more high-event attacking side in the last 10 months, but the attack is still far from Europe’s elite at this point.
Despite my concerns about their ceiling in this competition, they are the clear best team in this group on paper. Lazio, Feyenoord and Celtic have considerably less success at the Champions League level in recent history. Atletico have the most talent and is the odds on favorite to win the group.
Lazio enter the group stage of the Champions League with a lot of questions after a poor start to the Serie A campaign. They did beat Napoli in a big upset before the international break, but they have just one win and three losses in their first four matches. Lazio combined those losses with a -1.3 xG differential, so the underlying performances don’t suggest they’re any better than last season.
They had back to back seasons of absurd finishing variance in their favor at both ends of the pitch. Last season’s numbers were so extreme that Lazio was able to sneak into the top four in Italy by conceding 11 fewer goals and scoring 10 more goals than their underlying data suggested they should have.
Their recent European record isn’t all that impressive either. Lazio failed to advance from their Europa League group last year and finished the group with a negative expected goal differential. They’ve lost their best player overall in Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, and they have one of the oldest squads in all of Italy.
I want no part of backing Lazio to advance from this balanced group at the current prices.
Feyenoord lost a key playmaker in Orkun Kokcu during the summer transfer window, but they haven’t missed a beat in the early season Eredivisie performances. Feyenoord continue to play a fun style, score tons of goals and possess the attacking quality to trouble every team in this group. Manager Arne Slot received a lot of attention from Spurs for their managerial opening for a reason, and his Feyenoord side has now made the Europa Conference League final and Europa League quarterfinal in consecutive seasons. They couldn’t get past Roma in even contests either time, but Roma for example are better than two of the three other teams in this group.
Lazio and Feyenoord were paired together in the CL group stage last year, and Feyenoord played them even over two legs and advanced from the group in the end. The one big issue is that budding star striker Santiago Gimenez will not be available for the first two group matches due to suspension.
Even despite that, Feyenoord will have him available for the two most important matches to their chances of advancing – the home and away with Lazio on match day 3 and 4.
From a soccer viewing perspective, there may not be a bigger contrast in the styles of former Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou and current one Brendan Rodgers. Rodgers took over the role and has made Celtic considerably more pragmatic. In a competition like this where they are outgunned from a talent perspective, Rodgers' tactics may be a more effective way to try to compete.
Postecoglou had his moments with this Celtic side — they outplayed Real Madrid for a half and Leizpig for an hour before collapsing late in both matches — but it never felt as though Celtic had any real chance of advancing last season.
In this group, Celtic will certainly have a chance, even if that says more about the group than the Scottish side. The problem for Celtic is the history of Scottish sides including themselves in this competition. Celtic have one win in their last 21 CL matches and they’ve failed to advance in each CL trip since 2012. The players may be different now, but the club’s level is that below the standard of a round of 16 caliber team.
They may be more pragmatic now under Rodgers, but the early returns from their domestic league don’t suggest a clear step forward.
Best Bet: Feyenoord to Advance (+160)