With the Champions League just around the corner, Joe Mellor and Nick Haynes at Form Labs – a division of Bettorlogic – explain why they’re backing Bayern for the title and why Guardiola’s men could be the ‘pick from the English bunch’.
A lot can happen from the end of the Champions League and Europa League group stages and the knockout rounds as teams drift in and out of form. Man United look like a side transformed after a sluggish start to the season and a drop down to the Europa League may just boost their chances of silverware, while Liverpool have taken a turn for the worst and if results don’t improve drastically, there’s little chance of them repeating their Champions League triumph of 2018/19.
Champions League – Spanish dominance coming to an end?
Spanish sides had held an iron grip on this tournament, producing seven winners from 10 seasons between 2008-09 and 2017-18, including five in a row at the end of that sequence.
Of course, Real Madrid’s (18/1) dominant spell ended with the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo, while with the decline of Gareth Bale, as well as the likes of Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Sergio Ramos proving as important as ever, fresh blood is required to push them up into being favourites once more.
Zinedine Zidane is under serious pressure, but there appears little prospect of a switch in the dugout before the season’s out, with the French coach’s legendary status at the club tempering a natural tendency from the boardroom to pull the trigger early.
Barcelona (18/1) and PSG (13/1) face off against one another, both with their own teething problems. Although the Catalans are W34-D4-L1 at Nou Camp in this competition since 2013/14, an ageing squad and sub-standard signings has left their capabilities limited. The Parisians, on the other hand, will have to make do without Neymar in this opening knockout tie, while they have problems domestically for a change as they currently sit third in Ligue 1.
Bayern (3/1) have built a seven-point lead in the Bundesliga and that’ll certainly benefit them in the Champions League where they can concentrate their resources. They have a favourable last-16 draw against Lazio, while they’ve also won 16 of 17 unbeaten Champions League matches since the start of last season (whilst netting a whopping 61 goals).
The Bavarians are largely unchanged from last term, with the only major departure in the summer Thiago to Liverpool, as well as the end of loan deals for Ivan Perisic and Philippe Coutinho. Those latter two have been adequately replaced with Leroy Sane and Douglas Costa in any case, and although they need to think about long-term replacements for some of their older stars, the likes of Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski are far from over the hill in the here and now.
The other main contenders are of course Man City (7/2), fresh from extending their current record-breaking run to 15 wins across all competitions. They should be clear of the domestic pack by the time they come up against real quality, also holding a favourable knockout tie with Borussia M’Gladbach.
Worryingly for the rest of the field, Pep Guardiola’s outfit have shown an ability to cope without a recognised striker as Gabriel Jesus and especially Sergio Aguero have missed chunks of the season. Although not quite as prolific at the sharp end as in recent seasons, they’ve crucially ironed out their problems at the back with the partnership of Ruben Dias and John Stones going from strength to strength.
That could prove pivotal with the return of two-legged ties, as last term City looked the real deal when dumping out Real Madrid, before a shock loss to Lyon in Lisbon. The two-leg format certainly favours the better sides, giving them a chance to overturn a disappointing one-off performance, leaving City and Bayern as clear favourites in the betting.
Whilst those two are difficult to split, City look in good shape to go further than their English rivals. Chelsea (20/1) have started impressively under Thomas Tuchel, but the Blues remain a team in transition and are still waiting for summer signing Timo Werner to recapture his Leipzig form. Also working against the London side is an extremely tough-looking last 16 encounter with Atletico Madrid (16/1), with Liverpool (8/1) facing dangerous opponents in the shape of Leipzig (45/1) too.
Finally, Juventus (14/1) are recovering from a bad start to the season under Andrea Pirlo, with results picking up since the turn of the year. They’re dark horses and can call upon Ronaldo, though the Portuguese superstar isn’t getting any younger and there remains the suspicion that he can only carry them so far on his own. That’s certainly been the case in his first couple of seasons in Turin. He memorably netted a second-leg hat-trick against Atletico in 2018-19 to bring them back from the dead, only for Juve to be knocked out in the next round by a youthful Ajax side, while last term a second-leg brace from their star man wasn’t enough to get past Lyon.
Bayern gets our vote over City, with the returns of Joshua Kimmich and Alphonso Davies set to restore the balance to the side. Hansi Flick’s outfit haven’t been at their rampaging best this season, but with those two back in the fold for the sharp end of the season, look better equipped than the English outfit. All it could take to derail Pep Guardiola’s outfit would be an injury to break up their new centre-back partnership, whereas Bayern look to have every area of their squad covered.
Further, there’s also that lingering suspension that Guardiola tinkers with tried and tested methods too much in the knockouts, especially away from home. His last Champions League final came with Barcelona, and it’s not as though he’s lacked the resources at his current club or his time with Bayern – who won it after he left. However, City do look better equipped than Chelsea or Liverpool to go deep into the tournament, and are worth backing to be the pick of the English bunch (1/1).
Europa League – Top teams to take gold?
The Europa League might seem an unwanted distraction for many teams but now they’ve reached the knockout stages it’s a competition that starts to gather some momentum. Gone are most of the teams you’ve never heard of, and with the likes of Man Utd (13/2), Ajax (16/1) and RB Salzburg (35/1) falling out of the Champions League there is now some more competition in the tournament.
This is the 12th year since the Europa League was rebranded and the previous 11 additions have been won by clubs from just three countries as Spain have claimed seven, England three and Portugal one. Those nations have also provided seven of the 11 runners-up, with the other four coming from Ukraine, Netherlands, France and Italy. Germany are notable in their absence.
It might be thought that teams that started in the Champions League would have provided the bulk of the finalists but just eight of 22 came via that route, though most of the finalists started out among the leading favourites.
Using our Football Form Labs grading system we can compare all remaining 32 teams and also see what has happened in past years.
Of the previous 11 champions, all of them were in the top 10 highest graded teams of those remaining at the last 32 stage, and nine were actually in the top six. Furthermore, they all had a grading of at least 149 points, with nine being greater than 154. Ajax and Man Utd’s failure to get out their Champions League groups means they take up the top two spots in our gradings respectively, while Napoli (14/1), Milan (12/1), Spurs (5/1) and Roma (20/1) complete the top six. To further that, the final two sides to have a higher grade than 154 are Arsenal and Leverkusen.
We’d still be concerned of backing any of the Italian sides again this year with the last of them to triumph in Europe’s second-tier competition being Parma back in 1999. The same goes for the German sides, with the last time they won being Schalke in 1997 when the competition was a two-legged format in the final. However, Inter’s runner-up performance last year when favourites to beat Sevilla in the final will have turned a few heads, and it doesn’t look as simple as just discarding sides from those two nations, especially with AC Milan looking the sharpest they have done in recent memory.
Man Utd do have a tough fixture in Real Sociedad in the first round of the knockouts, but considering the Spanish outfit are on a current run of W3-D9-L6 when including extra time and penalties, they shouldn’t be a problem. The Red Devils are as short as 1/7 in places to finish in the top four of Premier League and with Man City looking too good at the top of the table, that certainly gives United more scope to win some silverware elsewhere.
They reached the semis of this tournament last season before losing to eventual champions Sevilla, while they won it the previous time they featured back in 2016/17. In fact, having beaten both PSG (2-1) and Leipzig (5-0) already this season in the Champions League, they’re the best side for us this year by quite some margin. To go with it, five of the past 12 champions have dropped down from the elite competition.
Leicester and Liverpool try to strengthen grip on top four
The Foxes reached their third FA Cup quarter-final in four years on Wednesday night with a 1-0 win over an in-form Brighton side, though their main focus for the season should be maintaining their place in the top four and a victory over fourth placed Liverpool here will go a long way to doing so.
Things are not all rosy in the Reds camp at the moment with them having won just two of their last nine matches to leave them just one point clear of fifth placed Chelsea, and with Spurs, Everton and Aston Villa all having games in hand, they may have a real struggle to keep in the top four unless they see a sharp turn in results.
The 4-1 defeat to Man City was a real low point for Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp as it was the first time the Merseyside club have lost three successive home league games since 1963, though it was their only defeat in 10 games against the current top-eight sides this season and despite their poor form, they certainly shouldn’t be discounted.
Liverpool’s character has been a staple of the Klopp reign so far and we’d be surprised if they were to just crumble. They’ve won six of the last seven head-to-heads, with the last three coming by an aggregate 9-1. Players like Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah are never far away from the goals, though we’d be cautious about getting behind them on the 1X2 market at their price considering the quality of their hosts.
While neither defence has been especially bad this season, they’ve been far from resolute. Rodgers’ charges have conceded an average of 1.83 goals per game at home to current top-half sides this season, while the visitors have kept just three clean sheets in 13 games against the top-11 sides this season, which is poor by their standards.
The quality of attacking talent on both sides should shine through here and we’d expect goals. Eight of the last nine head-to-heads have seen ‘Over 2.5 Goals’ land, with half of those seeing ‘Over 3.5 Goals’ come in too. The lack of an established centre-back for Liverpool will only help the case for more goals, and at a long price the ‘Over 3.5 Goals’ looks to hold the better value.
Stat of the day
- Barcelona have lost just once at the Nou Camp from 39 Champions League matches since 2013/14 (W34-D4-L1), winning 13 of 15 unbeaten knockouts.