Champions League Preview: Let Battle Commence
Our Champions League preview looks ahead to the 30th edition of the UEFA competition since its overhaul in 1992, with all 32 teams set to do battle from the opening matchday between September 14-15.
We’ve got the usual sides, plus the return of Milan after a seven-year absence and the first-ever Moldovan – or is that Transnistrian – club in the competition. Incredibly, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi find themselves at new clubs as they try and increase their record goal-tallies, while Chelsea look to become the first English club to retain the title in the European Cup/Champions League since Nottingham Forest in 1980.
Goals, Glorious Goals
The last five Champions League seasons have been five of the six top scoring campaigns on a goals per game basis, with 2020-21’s average of 2.93 the joint-fifth highest, but some way off the record-breaking 3.24 in the unusual Covid-affected campaign 2019-20, when the latter stages were played as single knockout games in a mini-tournament in Portugal.
The top three scoring players in Champions League history will be in action again this season, with Cristiano Ronaldo (134 goals) back at Manchester United, Lionel Messi (120 goals) playing his first-ever campaign outside of Barcelona at PSG and Robert Lewandowski (73 goals) possibly playing out his final season at Bayern Munich.
Ronaldo – who could equal the all-time UEFA Champions League appearance record on MD1, levelling with Iker Casillas on 177 matches – will be looking to score for the 16th different Champions League season, but Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema have already done this. If either score in 2021-22 – for a 17th different campaign – then they’ll overtake Ryan Giggs who they currently share the record with.
Messi currently leads Ronaldo 36-35 in the “teams scored against” competition and could extend this record in games against Group A opponents RB Leipzig and Club Brugge having never played against them in the competition before. Ronaldo’s Man Utd will face three teams that he’s never scored against in the competition: Villarreal, Young Boys and Atalanta. His four appearances against Villarreal without a goal are his joint-most against an opponent without scoring in the Champions League.
Neither Messi nor Ronaldo have reached double figures for goals across the last two Champions League seasons, however. The leading scorers in this period are Robert Lewandowski (20), Erling Haaland (20) and Kylian Mbappé (13).
Haaland and Mbappé have years on their side to eventually surpass both Ronaldo and Messi’s goal totals in the competition. The Frenchman already has 27 goals in 45 appearances – the same tally as Messi after this number of matches, while Ronaldo didn’t reach that total until his 67th appearance.
Coveted prodigy Haaland has more goals (20) than appearances (16) in the competition and broke the Champions League record for the fastest to 20 goals by 10 games, doing so in his 14th match – well ahead of the previous record set by Harry Kane (24). Among players to have played 500+ minutes in the Champions League, Haaland has the best minutes per goal ratio in the competition’s history (63 – 20 goals, 1259 minutes played).
Group of Death?
There’s a Group of Death in every competition, right? Well, in the UEFA Champions League it seems that every group is difficult – it’s the cream of the crop of European football clubs. But there will always be one group that looks harder than the others.
We’re now able to put some data in the machine to tell you the exact Group of Death, thanks to Stats Perform’s new Power Rankings.
The Power Rankings are a global team ranking system, that sorts teams based on an ability score between 0-100. Updated daily, the highest rated team globally is scored 100, whilst the lowest ranked score 0. These cover over 10,000 teams, across 176 countries in 391 domestic leagues.
Group B is the toughest in the 2021-22 competition, with Spanish champions Atlético Madrid, plus European powerhouses Liverpool, Milan and Porto – all of whom have won the Champions League. The average power ranking of those four sides is 92.37.
The easiest group based on our power rankings? That’ll be Group C, containing Borussia Dortmund, Sporting CP, Ajax and Beşiktaş – an average score of ‘just’ 85.39.
Blue is the Colour (Again)?
Chelsea won the UEFA Champions League last season and will be looking to become just the third English side to win the competition in back-to-back campaigns, after Liverpool in 1977 and 1978, and most recently by Nottingham Forest in 1979 and 1980. Overall, only one side has won consecutive titles in the Champions League era, with Real Madrid’s three in a row between 2016-2018 confirming them as the dominant historical force in European football.
Thomas Tuchel will be looking for a third consecutive appearance in the final of the UEFA Champions League as a coach, after doing so with Paris Saint Germain in 2019-20 and last season with the Londoners. Only three managers have ever managed to do so in three consecutive seasons: Fabio Capello (1993-95), Marcelo Lippi (1996-98), and most recently, Zinedine Zidane (2016-18).
Much of their success in 2020-21 came thanks to a solid defence. Based on the quality of shots on target faced, our expected goals model projected that Chelsea’s Édouard Mendy prevented nearly four goals (3.8) during the tournament. This led him to a total of nine clean sheets in 2020-21, which was the most ever by a goalkeeper in their debut season in the competition.
As mentioned above, based on our Power Rankings, it seems that Chelsea’s group (H) is one of the easiest on paper, so they should be expecting to cruise through to the knockout stages. The real challenge will then begin in the round of 16 after Christmas.
211 UEFA Champions League matches between them, but still no title for either Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain. City were the losing finalists last season (1-0 vs Chelsea), with PSG losing the season before for Bayern Munich in Lisbon (also 1-0).
After defeat in the 2021 final, Pep Guardiola is still looking for a third Champions League title as a coach following his 2009 and 2011 successes at Barcelona – only three managers have ever won the European Cup/Champions League on three separate occasions: Bob Paisley, Zinedine Zidane and Carlo Ancelotti. For PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino, he came close to becoming the first Argentine coach to win either era of the competition since Helenio Herrera in 1965, when he reached the final with Spurs 2019, before losing to Liverpool.
Only Arsenal (83) have won more Champions League matches without lifting the trophy than the French side (66), while Man City could become the second-fastest team to 50 wins in the history of the competition should they pick up a victory in their 91st game on MD1 – with only Real Madrid hitting 50 wins quicker (88 games).
First Shot for Sheriff…But They’re Aiming for Longevity
Sheriff Tiraspol will take part in their first-ever UEFA Champions League campaign after successfully navigating their way from the first qualifying stage to the 2021-22 group stage.
Since their formation in 1997, Sheriff have played in 78 qualifying games for the Champions League but finally reached the main competition this season. Their journey began on July 7 against Albanian champions Teuta; just 39 days after Chelsea lifted the 2020-21 trophy in Porto. Eight games, six wins and 14 goals later, they’ll start their first-ever campaign in the competition proper with a home game against Shakhtar Donetsk.
Sheriff have played in the UEFA Europa League Group Stage on four previous occasions (2009-10, 2010-11, 2013-14 and 2016-17) but failed to qualify for the knockout stages in each season. There’s little chance of them doing it this time either, as they’ve been drawn against Shakhtar, Real Madrid and Internazionale.
Only four Moldovans have played in the Champions League since it began in 1992 – Serghei Dadu (CSKA Moscow in 2004), Serghei Covalciuc (Spartak Moscow in 2006), Alexandru Gatcan (Rostov in 2016) and Alexandru Epureanu (Istanbul Basaksehir in 2020), so expect that number to grow in 2021-21. Their defender Charles Petro could become the first Malawian to play in the competition, while Keston Julien could be the first player from Trinidad and Tobago to play since Khaleem Hyland for KRC Genk in 2011 and Sébastien Thill will become only the second player from Luxembourg to make a UCL appearance if selected.
Third Time Lucky for Malmö?
Malmö FF were another of the teams to make it through qualification to advance to the Group Stage this season. Like Sheriff Tiraspol, the Swedish side came all the way through to the groups from the First Round of qualifying, beating Riga, HJK, Rangers and finally Ludogorets Razgrad.
The 2020 Swedish Allsvenskan champions will hope to do better than in their previous two Champions League campaigns. In both 2014-15 and 2015-16 they picked up only three points from six games (W1 D0 L5 in both), with their last appearance seeing them end with a -20 goal difference – the second-worst in UCL group stage history after BATE Borisov in 2014-15 (-22). Their last match in the Champions League was an 8-0 thrashing at the hands of Real Madrid, back in December 2015 – the joint-heaviest loss in the history of the competition.
The last Swedish side to make it through to the knockout stages of the Champions League were IFK Göteborg in 1994-95, before they eventually lost to Bayern Munich in the Quarter Finals. If Malmö were to replicate this then it would come as a shock, but they do have Champions League experience sitting on their bench, with Jon Dahl Tomasson their coach. The Dane played 42 times in the competition between 1997-2005 for three different clubs and has scored more than twice as many Champions League goals (11) than his current club have (5).