Champions League underdogs that can spring a surprise this season

Author : Ayush Roy

With the battle lines drawn prior to the start of the new UEFA Champions League season, there has been a lot of talk about the fortunes of the big teams and how they will fare this time around. But while the 32 teams participating in the group stages of the competition feature of a host of big names, there also remain a couple of surprise teams every season that surprise many to reach the knockout rounds of the competition.

Keeping that in mind, here is a look at teams that could manage to reach the latter stages of the competition despite not having the spotlight on them.

To check the list of 5 teams that went on great giant-killing runs, click here.

1. Real Sociedad

Real Sociedad v Olympique Lyonnais - UEFA Champions League Play-offs: Second Leg

They might have been placed in the fourth pot during the Champions League draw, but Real Sociedad certainly have been showing recently that they are worthy of a much-higher placing.

Led by new manager Jagoba Arrasate, Sociedad will meet Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk and Bayer Leverkusen in Group A on their return to Europe after 10 years. Going by the stature of the clubs they will be facing, along with their long European exile, it would look near impossible for Sociedad to be able to get through to the Round of 16 from their group.

However, in Manchester United, they face a big team that in recent weeks has been struggling for form and fluency in their domestic league, and will constantly be considering a player-rotation strategy to keep their men fit for what could be a long season ahead. Goals have been hard to find for the English club away from their strikeforce, while their wingplay, one of their traditional strengths, has looked impotent for a while now. Furthermore, the Red Devils do not have a favourable record in Spain, something that the Basque side will be looking to take advantage of.

Shakhtar Donetsk have been a strong force in the Champions League in recent years, but have in the recent seasons seen an exodus of players, with the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Fernandinho, and Willian all leaving the club for greener pastures. While they still remain an exciting, attacking team, they are by no means beyond breach.

Their games against Bayer Leverkusen however, who themselves are currently running high on confidence and form, could be the deciders, matches that the Spanish outfit will have to make the most of to qualify for the knockout rounds.

The road might be tough, but Sociedad’s debut Champions League experience might not necessarily end before the knockout rounds.

2. Galatasaray

FC Schalke 04 v Galatasaray AS - UEFA Champions League Round of 16

“We have enough power to beat Real Madrid,” said Ivorian striker Didier Drogba prior to his team’s first Champions League matchday clash against the La Liga giants, exuding a confidence that is neither surprising, nor exaggerated.

After all, backed by a raucous crowd at the Turk Telekom Arena, the Turkish side were able to overcome the mighty Madrid 3-2 as recently as April, in the two teams’ quarterfinal encounter in the same competition last season. Real Madrid might have eventually edged the tie, but that result would give Galatasaray a huge boost going into this season’s competition, with the Turkish champions part of a Group B that also features Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid and high-flying Juventus.

Despite not making huge investments in the summer transfer window, Fatih Terim’s side have made some prudent signings over the recent months to cover up the gaps that were visible last term. Felipe Melo was signed on a full-time contract, 18-year old midfielder Bruma joined the club from Sporting Lisbon, and Aurelien Chedjou came into the side to strengthen their defence, with the club able to hold onto their biggest names as well.

Defensive frailties might still affect Galatasaray, but their prowess in attack and intimidating home presence could help them knock off at least two wins out of three at home. With an away trip to FC Copenhagen and the possibility of other results going their way, Drogba’s Galatasaray could be ready to send one of the group’s two heavyweights home and stay afloat in the competition past the first stage.

3. Napoli

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-NAPOLI-ATALANTA

They might have been pushed into the so-called ‘Group of Death’ of this season’s UEFA Champions League, but despite the strength of their competition in Group F and their low seeding, cannot be written off as contenders to make the Round of 16.

They have a settled team with them, and with the sale of Edinson Cavani over the summer, have been able to facilitate moves for the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Albiol, Pepe Reina, Duval Zapata and Dries Mertens. That reinvestment has paid rich dividends thus far in the new season, as the Naples-based team lie atop the Italian Serie A with maximum points and 9 goals from their first three matches.

Their pre-season friendly against Arsenal, where they drew 2-2 at the Emirates Stadium, will be a rough measure of the fact that they can hold their ground against the group’s top seeds. Borussia Dortmund, who currently lead the Bundesliga and were losing finalists in last season’s Champions League, will be a tough nut to crack for the Italian outfit, but surely are not impregnable, while Marseille are a team that Rafael Benitez’s side will be expecting to beat.

Away trips against Arsenal and Marseille in the second and third gameweeks will be crucial for Napoli, with good results in the first half of the stage set to ensure them a passage to the knockout rounds.

4. Olympiacos

Olympiacos FC v Atromitos FC - Greek Super League

There have been a few teams who have been knocking on the doors of qualification to the Round of 16 every term, but have somehow faltered in the end, albeit closely.

Olympiacos is one such club which hasn’t seen the rub of the green in recent seasons, as they have missed out on qualification to the knockout rounds of the Champions League by one point in each of the last two terms.

Last season, they were placed in a tough group alongside Schalke, Arsenal and then-French champions Montpellier, and were eliminated on the final matchday of the group stages, finishing just a single point behind Arsenal. The 2011-12 season represented a similar misery for the Greek side, as they missed out on qualification by just one point in group that included Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Marseille.

With a team that has seen some strengthening over the summer, 2013-14 could prove to be third time lucky for the Greeks as they look to secure a passage to the knockout rounds. The signings of Javier Saviola, Marco Skeprovic and Joel Campbell, the latter on loan, have beefed up their strikeforce, while the likes of Sambou Yatabare and Carl Medjani have been brought in to strengthen their backline as well.

While PSG will be undoubtedly the favourites in Group C, Benfica represents the team that can be beaten at Olympiacos’ Karaiskakis Stadium and pipped to a Round of 16 berth, given that Anderlecht are unlikely to challenge for a spot.

With a little luck on their side this time, the Greeks could make a march towards the final 16, a berth that will be well-deserved, given their exploits in recent seasons.

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