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Is the 2023-24 Season the Final Opportunity for an Underdog to Win the Champions League Title?

It has been twenty years since a team considered an outsider clinched victory in the Champions League, with Porto’s surprising win in May 2004 under the management of Jose Mourinho. Although Porto has a significant footballing history, their triumph still stood out as a remarkable feat, especially considering they hailed from a league outside the major European footballing powerhouses.

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Soccer Football – Champions League – Group H – FC Porto v Shakhtar Donetsk – Estadio do Dragao, Porto, Portugal – December 13, 2023 FC Porto’s Galeno in action with Shakhtar Donetsk’s Valeriy Bondar REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

Fast forward two decades, and the prospect of a club from a non-traditional footballing nation lifting the prestigious trophy seems increasingly improbable. The dominance of teams from England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain has solidified, making it challenging for outsiders to break through.

Nevertheless, the current season presents a glimmer of hope for such underdogs. With the competition fiercer than ever and unexpected results becoming more frequent, this year might offer the best opportunity in years for a surprise winner to emerge.

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Key Factors for Underdog Success in Major Football Tournaments: Performance Peaks and Powerhouse Pitfalls

For an underdog to triumph in a major football tournament, two critical factors typically come into play.

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  • Firstly, the underdog teams themselves must perform exceptionally well, surpassing their usual standards.
  • Secondly, the traditional powerhouses of the sport must exhibit a level of weakness or vulnerability that opens up opportunities for lesser-known clubs to succeed.
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Soccer Football – Champions League – Semi Final – Second Leg – Inter Milan v AC Milan – San Siro, Milan, Italy – May 16, 2023 Inter Milan’s Francesco Acerbi with teammates celebrate after the match REUTERS/Claudia Greco

The remarkable victory of Leicester City in the 2015-16 Premier League season exemplifies this dynamic, benefiting from the lack of dominance among the usual top clubs, none of which accumulated more than 71 points that season, compared to five teams achieving this feat the following year.

Looking ahead to the 2023-24 season, there’s a possibility that the conditions for another underdog triumph could materialize in the flagship European club competition.

One aspect that seems plausible is the potential decline in performance among the established elite clubs. However, it’s worth noting that the presence of just one overwhelmingly dominant team could render this point moot. Manchester City, under the management of Pep Guardiola, appear as formidable as ever after clinching the treble last season, suggesting they may continue their dominance in the upcoming campaign.

Beyond Manchester City, the pool of contenders appears less intimidating. Bayern Munich, typically a dominant force in the Bundesliga, are experiencing a relatively modest season by their standards, highlighted by recent defeats to Bayer Leverkusen. Other frontrunners such as Arsenal, while talented, lack recent experience in the Champions League knockout stages. Real Madrid, although consistent, have undergone minimal changes from the previous season, with notable exceptions like Jude Bellingham replacing Karim Benzema as a key goalscorer.

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Soccer Football – Champions League – Group C – Real Madrid v 1. FC Union Berlin – Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain – September 20, 2023 Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham celebrates scoring their first goal REUTERS/Isabel Infantes

Further down the list, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Barcelona, traditionally formidable clubs, seem to lack the exceptional strength typically associated with their stature. PSG’s performance appears consistent with previous seasons, while Barcelona has struggled significantly, with their manager already announcing plans to step down at the end of the season due to their poor showing.

Analyzing the Decline in Quality Among Top Football Clubs: A Dual Perspective on Team Form and Individual Brilliance

The decline in quality among top football clubs can be attributed to several factors, influencing both team performances and individual contributions.

One notable trend is the unexpected drop in form experienced by reigning champions of major European leagues. In Spain, Barcelona has faced well-documented struggles, although they currently hold third place in La Liga. Similarly, Napoli, following the departure of their Scudetto-winning coach Luciano Spalletti, find themselves languishing in ninth place in Serie A.

The appointment of Walter Mazzarri, who previously achieved success with Napoli but has since coached teams like Watford, Torino, and Cagliari, hasn’t yielded the expected results. This downward trend raises doubts about their Champions League credentials, especially as they face each other in the round of 16, suggesting that one of them will bow out early in the competition.

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Soccer Football – Champions League Final – Manchester City v Inter Milan – Ataturk Olympic Stadium, Istanbul, Turkey – June 11, 2023 Manchester City’s CEO Ferran Soriano, manager Pep Guardiola and chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak celebrate with the trophy after winning the Champions League REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Another perspective considers the impact of individual brilliance on the outcome of matches. Despite football being a team sport, the past two decades of Champions League knockout football have often revolved around standout performances rather than collective team efforts. Unlike league competitions or international tournaments, where teamwork is typically emphasized, the Champions League knockout stage has seen individual players shine on the big stage.

Memorable instances include Kaka’s mesmerizing display for AC Milan against Manchester United in 2007, Lionel Messi’s virtuoso performance for Barcelona against Arsenal in 2010, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s heroic efforts for Juventus against Atletico Madrid in 2019. These standout performances highlight how one player’s brilliance can tilt the balance in crucial matches, overshadowing team tactics and strategies.

While availability bias might influence our recollection of these individual displays, the prevalence of such moments underscores the significance of individual excellence in the highest echelons of European club football.

Assessing the Impact of Talent Drain and Investment Influx on European Football

Individually, European football appears to be experiencing a dip in quality compared to previous years, primarily due to the absence of prominent players and the lack of Ballon d’Or winners actively competing in European leagues. Currently, Luka Modric stands as the sole former Ballon d’Or recipient playing in European football. Despite Modric’s enduring brilliance on the pitch, at 38 years old, his playing time is increasingly limited, raising questions about the overall caliber of talent in European football.

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FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football – Saudi Pro League – Al Nassr v Al Okhdood – Al-Awwal Park, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – November 24, 2023 Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo reacts REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri/File Photo

The recent influx of investment from Saudi Arabia into football raises doubts about whether it will translate into significant power in the sport. However, European football cannot ignore the impact of losing star players to leagues like the Saudi Pro League. Notable departures include Cristiano Ronaldo, the all-time leading goalscorer in the Champions League, and Sadio Mane, who finished as a runner-up in Ballon d’Or voting. Other players, such as Jordan Henderson, Aymeric Laporte, and Riyad Mahrez, have also left European clubs, leaving a void in talent across the continent.

While some of these players were not lured away from current Champions League clubs, many played pivotal roles in recent Champions League knockout matches or Europa League successes. The sudden exodus of talent has forced European clubs to undergo a regeneration process, which takes time, disrupting the usual dynamics of top-level competition.

As a result, the upcoming Champions League knockout stage might favor cohesive team units over individual star power. This shift could provide an opportunity for underdog teams still in contention, including FC Copenhagen, Real Sociedad, and PSV Eindhoven, to make their mark on the competition.

PSV Eindhoven’s Rise to Prominence: A Closer Look at Their Champions League Prospects

Among the remaining contenders, PSV Eindhoven emerges as a particularly intriguing prospect in the upcoming Champions League knockout stage.

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Soccer Football – Champions League – Group D – Real Sociedad v Benfica – Reale Arena, San Sebastian, Spain – November 8, 2023 Real Sociedad players celebrate after the match REUTERS/Vincent West

Their dominance in the Eredivisie this season, winning 17 out of their first 17 matches, highlights their impressive form. Despite facing setbacks with draws against Utrecht and Ajax, PSV bounced back convincingly by securing a resounding victory over Volendam in their latest fixture. While they suffered a heavy defeat to Arsenal in their group opener, losing 4-0, they displayed resilience and determination, securing their knockout stage berth with a thrilling 3-2 away victory against Sevilla.

Leading their attack is the seasoned center-forward Luuk de Jong, aged 33, supported by promising talents like the speedy 20-year-old Belgian Johan Bakayoko and the emerging star Joey Veerman, who made his senior Netherlands debut last summer at the age of 25 and has since been a standout performer in the Eredivisie.

Under the guidance of manager Peter Bosz, who previously demonstrated his European expertise by steering Ajax to the Europa League final in 2017, PSV has showcased their potential on the continental stage. Drawing Dortmund, arguably one of the weaker seeded sides along with Real Sociedad, in the round of 16 favors PSV’s chances of progression. However, advancing further into the tournament will present tougher challenges.

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Soccer Football – Champions League – Group B – Arsenal v PSV Eindhoven – Emirates Stadium, London, Britain – September 20, 2023 Arsenal’s Gabriel Jesus in action with PSV Eindhoven’s Armel Bella-Kotchap REUTERS/David Klein

The upcoming Champions League season marks the end of the current format before the implementation of the new ‘Swiss model.’ The new system, featuring eight first-phase games instead of the current six and eliminating small groups, is likely to benefit the established elite clubs. With more matches and fewer chances for lopsided draws, the new format diminishes the possibility of surprise outcomes.

Considering these factors, this season presents a compelling opportunity for a potential shock winner in the Champions League. While the likelihood of such an outcome remains uncertain, it’s plausible that this season offers the best chance for an underdog to claim European football’s most coveted prize.

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