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. Klinsmann confirms Brad Guzan will start Confederations Cup playoff in goal

    Sep 2, 2015, 6:56 PM EDT

    Guzan Getty Images

    Tim Howard looked good for Everton last weekend, but the U.S. coach says it’s too close to the Mexico game to make a change.

  2. Ashley Cole is quickly being phased out at Roma

    Sep 2, 2015, 5:42 PM EDT

    Cole Getty Images

    The former Chelsea defender is no longer listed on the team’s website and was left out of both the club’s domestic and European squads.

  3. Dortmund’s Kevin Grosskreutz will move to Galatasaray immediately despite transfer mishap

    Sep 2, 2015, 4:29 PM EDT

    Grosskreutz Getty Images

    The paperwork was late, and FIFA rejected the deal, but the two sides still wish for it to be completed.

  4. Zlatan Ibrahimovic confirms he turned down AC Milan this summer

    Sep 2, 2015, 3:40 PM EDT

    Zlatan Getty Images

    The San Siro wanted Zlatan back, but he is happy in France.

  5. Ex-Manchester United striker Berbatov spurned Aston Villa for Greek club

    Sep 2, 2015, 2:46 PM EDT

    Berbatov Getty Images

    Villa had a very quiet Deadline Day, but they tried to make a splash.

  6. Mark Noble wins red card appeal; West Ham still charged for reaction

    Sep 2, 2015, 2:07 PM EDT

    LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 29: Mark Noble of West Ham United at Chadwell Heath on June 29, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by James Griffiths/West Ham United via Getty Images) Getty Images

    After the match, Noble said it was a tackle that happens “10 times a game” and that he felt it didn’t even deserve a yellow card.

  7. U.S. U-23 versus England U-21 preview: Young Yanks face Premier League cast at Deepdale

    Sep 2, 2015, 1:15 PM EDT

    MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 14:  Cameron Carter-Vickers of Tottenham Hotspur U21 holds off Manu Garcia of Manchester City U21 during the Barclays U21 Premier League match between Manchester City U21 and Tottenham Hotspur U21 at The Academy Stadium on August 14, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images) Getty Images

    After finishing second in its group thanks to a 3-1 win over the Netherlands, Herzog’s Yanks toppled England’s U-20 team this summer. Now: the U-21s.

  8. Spain’s Del Bosque says De Gea’s Euro spot in trouble without playing time; Speaks on Chelsea’s Costa

    Sep 2, 2015, 12:31 PM EDT

    Manchester United's goalkeeper David De Gea of Spain arrives at Soccer City training facility for a Spanish soccer team concentration meeting in Las Rozas, near Madrid, Spain, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015. The day after De Gea's multi-million euro move to the Spanish capital was called off, Madrid pointed the finger at United, issuing a lengthy 10-point statement claiming officials at Old Trafford held the deal up with their delays, but United hit back at their old rivals by publishing a counter-statement on Tuesday evening. (AP Photo) AP

    “He needs to be professional and move on from this episode,” Del Bosque said of the Manchester United keeper.

  9. Arsenal’s Ozil says he’d play in Olympics; Joachim Low doubts it very much

    Sep 2, 2015, 11:29 AM EDT

    FBL-WC-2014-MATCH45-USA-GER Getty Images

    Unified Germany hasn’t medaled since 1964 in Tokyo (Bronze). East Germany won gold in 1976.

  10. No Arsenal big Deadline buy? Wenger says price for Martial “sums it up all the way”

    Sep 2, 2015, 11:12 AM EDT

    LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 09:  Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal reacts on the touchline during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and West Ham United at the Emirates Stadium on August 9, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images) Getty Images

    “The Financial Fair Play today is too complicated to be efficient,” said the Premier League’s longest-tenured manager. “There’s a need to simplify the process.”

  11. European qualifiers preview: Netherlands, Spain, Germany in unusual positions (full schedule)

    Sep 2, 2015, 10:38 AM EDT

    (L-R) Arjen Robben of Holland, Birkir Bjarnason of Iceland during the EURO 2016 qualifying match between Iceland and Netherlands on October 13, 2014 at the Laugardalsvollur National Stadium at Reykjavik, Iceland.(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images) Getty Images

    Some of Europe’s biggest sides find themselves in tricky positions ahead of the final four group stage matches of qualification.

  12. $10 million Gradel set for six-month Bournemouth absence after ligament tear

    Sep 2, 2015, 9:24 AM EDT

    Bournemouth's Max Gradel battles for the ball with Aston Villa's Micah Richards, right,  during their English Premier League match at the Vitality Stadium, Bournemouth, England  Saturday Aug. 8, 2015. (John Walton/PA via AP)  UNITED KINGDOM OUT  NO SALES NO ARCHIVE AP

    Bournemouth took a big hit on transfer deadine day, but it had nothing to do with sales or purchases.

  13. Transfer window by the numbers: The Premier League breaks its records

    Sep 2, 2015, 8:47 AM EDT

    watfordfc.com watfordfc.com

    Let’s dig into the figures, at least in terms of the 20 Premier League clubs, including the controversial amount of players on loan from Chelsea.

  14. U.S., Swiss attorney generals to give joint press conference on FIFA investigation

    Sep 2, 2015, 8:16 AM EDT

    U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch listens to East Haven Police Chief Brent Larrabee, left, speak during a community policing tour, Tuesday, July 21, 2015, in East Haven, Conn. Lynch is in Connecticut to highlight improvements in relations between police and Latinos since four officers were arrested in 2012 on abuse charges. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) AP

    We’re just a few weeks away from further information on the strength of the cases against Sepp Blatter’s FIFA.

  15. VIDEO: Could Manchester United and Real Madrid benefit from the De Gea deal collapsing?

    Sep 1, 2015, 10:08 PM EDT

    FBL-ENG-PR-MAN UTD-ARSENAL Getty Images

    If both sides really wanted to make this transfer happen, they could have. Is it possible neither team wanted the deal to get done?

  16. VIDEO: Manchester City has spent more than $500 million under Manuel Pellegrini

    Sep 1, 2015, 9:37 PM EDT

    cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznptnjmtjlmtrmyznjyjzkyziwmwm1owmzndhiogfmnmiz AP

    Based on the Citizens’ form to start the season, it looks like money well spent.

  17. Arsenal Supporters’ Trust issues statement calling for review of club’s transfer policies

    Sep 1, 2015, 9:08 PM EDT

    Arsenal v Liverpool - Premier League Getty Images

    After spending just $20 million this summer on a goalkeeper and a teenager, Arsenal fans want to know what’s going on in the boardroom.

  18. Full list of every transfer made by Premier League clubs during the Summer Transfer Window

    Sep 1, 2015, 8:19 PM EDT

    International Champions Cup 2015 - Manchester United v San Jose Earthquakes Getty Images

    Considering Premier League teams spent more than $1.3 billion on transfers this summer, it’s quite the list.

  19. Five deals that didn’t get done over the Summer Transfer Window

    Sep 1, 2015, 6:30 PM EDT

    FBL-ENG--PR-EVERTON-MANUTD Getty Images

    We all thought they would happen, but with the transfer window now closed, we’re left scratching our heads.

  20. WATCH LIVE: Premier League Deadline Day Show

    Sep 1, 2015, 5:34 PM EDT

    PremierLeagueNBC

    Clear your schedule at 7 p.m. ET for two hours of coverage detailing a wild and crazy Deadline Day in the Premier League. Watch live on NBCSN or online, right here.

Featured video

PST Extra: Analyzing transfer deadline day