Skip to content

Champions League preview: 4 teams that could surprise

Sep 15, 2013, 3:00 PM EDT

Schalke 04's Draxler celebrates a goal with team mate Kolasinac during their German first division Bundesliga soccer match against SC Freiburg in Freiburg Reuters

With the Champions League group stage set to begin play on Tuesday, the world’s biggest annual soccer tournament is back in our lives on the big stage.

To get the content started, we look at four teams who aren’t favorites that could potentially make noise this season.

Last year, Malaga, Valencia, Shakhtar Donetsk and Schalke shocked many and not only progressed into the knockout stage but Malaga and Schalke actually won their groups ahead of teams such as Arsenal and AC Milan.

Malaga’s run to the quarterfinals actually vaulted manager Manuel Pellegrini to a big stage, where he landed the job at Manchester City.

So who this year could surprise the world under its brightest spotlight?  The gaps between top, mid-tier, and bottom are quite large, so surprises may be hard to come by.  But we here at ProSoccerTalk enjoy the banter as always, so we dive in:

1) Schalke 04

This season, success from the German club wouldn’t be nearly the surprise it was last season, but they still haven’t garnered the world-renowned respect they possibly should.  They went undefeated in group play last season, beating Arsenal 2-0 on the road and maintaining a bend-don’t-break attitude that led to three draws but the goose egg in the loss column.

Maybe the reason last season’s surprise group stage run made almost no noise is because they proceeded to fizzle out against Group H runners-up Galatasaray in the first knockout round, losing 2-3 at home in a disappointing second leg.

This season, they’ve vastly improved, landing a coup by signing one Kevin Prince-Boateng from AC Milan.  It was rumored, unsurprisingly, that Boateng had offers from many top clubs but Schalke turned his head the most and the midfielder with both holding and attacking skills will be a force in the middle.

They brought in attacking options as well to support the aging but still reliable Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.  Schalke signed Adam Szalai from FC Mainz, and partnering with young star Julian Draxler (pictured, right) on the wings, this German club is a good bet to come out of a group with Chelsea, Basel, and Steaua Bucuresti.

source: Getty Images

Can Rafa Benitez lead Napoli to European success?

2) Napoli

Somehow a Pot 4 team despite numerous European appearances in the past few years, naturally the Serie A club created a terrible Group of Death with Arsenal, Marseille, and last year’s runners-up Borussia Dortmund.

Having finished 2nd in Italy last season, Napoli brought in Rafa Benitez to replace the departed Walter Mazzarri who left for Inter.  The former Chelsea manager completed a run of absolutely brilliant transfer business, making this squad much-improved on an already successful base.

Benitez sold Edinson Cavani to PSG for a hefty price, and used the cash to buy players like Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Albiol, Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens, and Pepe Reina.

The overhaul has worked to perfection so far, as Napoli have begun the Serie A season with three wins in three, on a total goal differential of 9-2.  Higuain has two, Callejon has two, and – perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Napoli’s market moves – incumbent attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik has four.

Despite a worst-case-scenario draw, Napoli have the tools to make a Group of Death splash and ruin the Champions League for Arsenal or Borussia Dortmund.

3) Bayer Leverkusen

Not the strongest German team to ever grace the Champions League, but with a good draw, Bayer could make some group stage noise.

Led by German international Lars Bender and striker Stefan Kiessling, they’ve started the Bundesliga season scorching hot, with wins over quality opponents in Wolfsburg, Monchengladbach, and Stuttgart, and their only loss coming to Schalke.They added Korean striker Heung-Min Song from Hamburg, and invested a fair bit of money in him, and he’s rewarded them with two goals and an assist in six matches so far.

Their group is interesting – Manchester United is the only top-tier team in the pack, leaving presumably the second spot open for the taking.  However, Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad are no pushovers, and thus it will be a battle.

4) Anderlecht

American Sacha Kljestan has gotten his Juliper Pro League season off to a roaring start, and he brings that with him into the Champions League Group C.  Kljestan has 4 goals in 7 league matches so far, a hefty tally for a defensive midfielder.

Anderlecht are a wild card this year, drawn into a really weak group – possibly the weakest one of the tier.  Their Pot 1 team Benfica is a weak Pot 1 side, and only PSG look like a lock.  It’s tough for any Pot 4 team to ever make noise, so Anderlecht have their work cut out for them no matter where they end up, but this is an intriguing scenario for the Belgian side.

They’re led by red-hot Argentinian striker Matias Suarez, who at 25 years of age is just entering the prime of his career.  He has a whopping six goals and six assists in Anderlecht’s seven league matches so far, and he will look to bring that success into Tuesday’s match with Benfica in Portugal.

So who do you have advancing in the 2013/2014 Champions League? We’ll have much more coverage here on ProSoccerTalk of the upcoming group stage openers on Tuesday, including a complete preview, group analysis, and predictions.  Stick around!

Latest Posts
  1. Steven Gerrard questions Liverpool’s desire. Has he got a point?

    Oct 2, 2014, 1:02 PM EDT

    FC Basel 1893 v Liverpool FC - UEFA Champions League Getty Images

    Gerrard: “I thought we were too soft all over the pitch. I thought they wanted it more, which is very disappointing.”

  2. VIDEO: PST Extra – Will United miss Rooney? Previewing Chelsea vs. Arsenal

    Oct 2, 2014, 11:54 AM EDT

    Chelsea v Arsenal - Premier League Getty Images

    The PST Extra crew sit down to discuss Rooney’s red card and break down Chelsea vs. Arsenal.

  3. Kevin Strootman’s move to Manchester United back on?

    Oct 2, 2014, 11:10 AM EDT

    Kevin Strootman AP

    Will “the Dutch Roy Keane” end up at Old Trafford after all?

  4. Next step: Las Vegas soccer stadium moves forward, but there’s a catch

    Oct 2, 2014, 10:22 AM EDT

    Professional Soccer Las Vegas AP

    Vegas stadium deal moves one step closer to fruition but a rather large stumbling block has emerged.

  5. Lionel Messi heading to PSG, Chelsea? Not so fast, say Barcelona

    Oct 2, 2014, 9:33 AM EDT

    FC Barcelona v Club Leon - Joan Gamper Trophy Getty Images

    Messi continues to be linked with Europe’s richest clubs. Barca have something to say about that…

  6. New York Red Bulls, MLS, dismiss reports that club is for sale

    Oct 2, 2014, 9:04 AM EDT

    Red Bull Arena 2 Getty Images

    Garber: “Both the owner and management team in Austria and New York are as committed as ever to MLS, the club and their fans.”

  7. England squad announced: Clyne, Shelvey called-up; Shaw demoted

    Oct 2, 2014, 8:41 AM EDT

    West Ham United v Southampton - Premier League Getty Images

    Clyne gets first call up; Shelvey, Gibbs back in, while Shaw, Chambers help U-21’s out.

  8. $88 million Edinson Cavani linked to Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United

    Oct 2, 2014, 7:49 AM EDT

    France Soccer League One AP

    Uruguayan forward reportedly unhappy at PSG, but can a PL club afford him?

  9. Europa League Preview: Everton head to Russia, Spurs host Besiktas

    Oct 1, 2014, 11:10 PM EDT

    Aston Villa v Everton - Premier League Getty Images

    To expect a walk-through against Krasnodar would be a mistake and one the Toffees could pay dearly for.

  10. Asamoah Gyan sees straight red card, accuses opponent of racial abuse

    Oct 1, 2014, 10:28 PM EDT

    FBL-ASIA-C1-AL AIN-AL HILAL Getty Images

    It’s been a rough go of it lately for Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan.

  11. Dani Alves says England is his next stop – Where will he end up?

    Oct 1, 2014, 8:45 PM EDT

    Will we be seeing Dani Alves in Paris next season? Getty Images

    Alves is ready to move to the Premier League. So what clubs might he fit in?

  12. New England Revolution ink partnership deal with Sporting Clube de Portugal

    Oct 1, 2014, 7:58 PM EDT

    Courtesy: Sporting Clube de Portugal Courtesy: Sporting Clube de Portugal

    A great deal for the Revs, who will be able to add Sporting players on loan much like NYCFC can add Manchester City players.

  13. Report: Diego Maradona nearing deal to manage Palestinian National Team

    Oct 1, 2014, 7:02 PM EDT

    Diego Maradona Holds a Press Conference In Rome Getty Images

    Maradona pledged his support for the Palestinian cause back in 2012.

  14. Three things we learned after Liverpool’s latest defeat, this time vs. Basel

    Oct 1, 2014, 6:14 PM EDT

    FC Basel 1893 v Liverpool FC - UEFA Champions League Getty Images

    Liverpool’s struggles continue. Here’s three things we learned as they remain winless in four.

  15. Galatasaray fans light up Emirates Stadium with flares in Arsenal match

    Oct 1, 2014, 5:51 PM EDT

    Danny Welbeck, Alexis Sanchez

    Take in a top-flight football match anywhere in Turkey and you’ll be hard-pressed not to see at least a few flares among the fans.

  16. UEFA Champions League roundup: Arsenal cruise, Liverpool lose, Real Madrid win

    Oct 1, 2014, 5:11 PM EDT

    FBL-EUR-C1-LUDOGORETS-REAL AP

    After eight games on Wednesday, here’s what happened around Europe.

  17. Arsenal 4-1 Galatasaray: Welbeck’s hat-trick leads 10-man Arsenal to victory

    Oct 1, 2014, 4:53 PM EDT

    Danny Welbeck, Alexis Sanchez AP

    The Gunners provided one of their most stunning performances of the season on Wednesday, dismantling Group D opponents Galatasaray 4-1.

  18. FC Basel 1-0 Liverpool: Streller sinks Reds in Switzerland

    Oct 1, 2014, 4:42 PM EDT

    FBL-EUR-C1-BASEL-LIVERPOOL AP

    Lackluster Liverpool now level on points with Basel, face Real Madrid in next two matches.

  19. Hat-Trick Hero: Danny Welbeck nails three in thumping of Galatasaray

    Oct 1, 2014, 4:15 PM EDT

    FBL-EUR-C1-ARSENAL-GALATASARAY Getty Images

    “He scores when he wants. He scores when he wants. Danny Welbeck, he scores when he wants.”

Featured video

PST Extra: Will Man United miss Rooney?