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UEFA Champions League Group Stage Fixtures: Our Top Picks

Prior to the Champions League group stage commencing, we reviewed the tournament odds and pinpointed a key game in terms of qualification in each of the opening three match weeks. Now that 48 games have been played, we have a far clearer idea of which clubs will make it to the knock-out phase in 2020, and how well they’re likely to do once they’re there.

The real movers, and not in a good way, have been Real Madrid. They were priced at 9.50 to win the tournament before it began, but a heavy defeat in Paris and a home draw with Club Brugge saw them drift to 19.0.

Their win at Galatasaray in week three saw the 13 time champions come in a little to 16.0, though that still only makes them seventh favourites to lift the trophy in Istanbul next May. Los Blancos have two of their remaining three group stage matches at home, so should qualify, and have three-time winning manager Zinedine Zidane back at the helm. Now might be the time to consider a bet on Real Madrid going all the way.

How did our match picks pan out?

Our selection for week one was Benfica vs. RB Leipzig, as Group G was the most closely priced group for betting on which club will top it. ‘The outcome of the match will be vital to both teams’ Champions League future’ is how we described it, and that has been proven true. The German side won, and are now 1.85 favourites to finish top with Benfica the 10.5 outsiders.

In week two, we suggested a point in Valencia would see Ajax ‘take a sizeable stride towards the last 16.’ The 3-0 win they actually got was even more impressive, and saw them become the 1.6 favourites to finish top of Group H. They have drifted to 2.75 following defeat to Chelsea, but Erik ten Hag’s team are well on track for the knockout phase.

Finally to week three, where we highlighted Inter Milan vs. Borussia Dortmund. ‘This match will be vital to the men from Milan if they are to upset the odds' for qualification and so it might prove. Their 2-0 win means the sides are level on four points, three adrift of Barcelona, and though Dortmund are still more fancied to qualify, the teams are closer in the betting than they were. It’s all to play for, which leads us nicely into week four.

Week Four: Borussia Dortmund vs. Inter Milan

It would perhaps feel more insightful to choose a new fixture, rather than simply looking at the return match from week three. But when it comes to looking at qualifying for the knockout stage, there is no bigger game in week four.

At this point, six of the eight groups have a team rated by bookmakers at around 90% certain of reaching the next phase. Indeed, Group F, which these teams feature in, is one of them.

However, most groups also feature a clear gap between the second and third most likely teams, but that isn’t the case here. The clubs both have four points so far, they’re side-by-side in a table of expected goal difference for this season’s Champions League, and they are each rated at around 50/50 to make the next stage.

Dortmund are 2.05 favourites to win, but Inter have the better domestic form – seven wins from their first eight league matches, compared to four from eight for the German side. A draw would give Inter the edge in the head-to-head, so expect them to try to keep this one tight.

Week Five: Valencia vs. Chelsea

At this point, it seems reasonable to assume Valencia will beat Lille at home in week four. They’re unbeaten in their five meetings over the last decade, and are priced at just 1.81 to take the three points.

While that match is occurring, Chelsea will be hosting Ajax. As the Dutch side won at Real Madrid, Juventus and Ajax last season, they are potentially capable of upsetting the odds of 2.05 that the home side win, even if they have lost some of the stars who carried them to within a whisker of the 2018/19 final.

But even if Chelsea win, and assuming Valencia do too, then they will be only two points behind the Blues when they host them in week five. Of the 48 remaining group stage matches this year, Five Thirty Eight rate this as the ninth hardest to call when looking at the probability gap between all three potential results. It might see Chelsea confirm their place in the last 16, but it could just as easily see Valencia make it a three way tussle for two places going into the final week.

Week Six: Lyon vs. RB Leipzig

By the time of the final match, there will be some dead rubbers which are hard to call. Tottenham travel to Munich to face Bayern looking to avenge their 7-2 defeat, while Liverpool’s game in Salzburg should be entertaining if their first meeting is any indication. But these matches are unlikely to have any great impact on which clubs in their groups reach the next stage.

However, as with Group H, we look set to have another three way tussle for qualification in Group G. If the home sides in the group win the matches in week four and five, then Lyon (who would have seven points) vs. RB Leipzig (who’d be on nine) will be a straight knockout match for the next stage.

And not only that, but in accordance Five Thirty Eight’s model, it’s the toughest match to call of all 48 which remain. It might not be the ‘biggest’ match in the conventional sense, but it should prove to be one of the most important in the final week of the group stage.

Once we know which sides have reached the round of 16 and how they’ve been paired together, we’ll then take a look at who looks destined for the quarter-finals of Europe's biggest soccer competition.

Can the champions retain their title?

Liverpool defeated Tottenham in Madrid in June to claim their sixth European crown. And so for the first time since 2013, the Champions League campaign begins with a defending champion who isn’t from Spain.

At 7.50, the Reds are fourth in the outright tournament betting this season, just ahead of Real Madrid (9.50) and Paris Saint-Germain (10.0). The Spanish and French giants clash in the most mouth-watering fixture of the opening match week, and you can find the best odds for the game right here.

Liverpool’s journey to try to reach their third final in a row begins with yet another trip to Napoli, to repeat a fixture they lost in the group stage last season. It’s probably the key match in determining which team tops Group E, as ahead of the beginning of the competition, the Reds are rated as the third most likely team to top their section.

Jürgen Klopp’s European champions are 1.45 to lead the way in Group E. The only teams deemed more likely are Manchester City – 1.12 to top Group C – and Barcelona – 1.35 to emerge at the head of Group F.

So while a defeat in the first game would dent Liverpool’s hopes of topping the group, whatever the outcome of the match it would be a surprise if both they and Napoli did not qualify for the knock-out phase.

These sides have been grouped with Salzburg and Genk, who are priced at 5.06 and 17.8 respectively to make it out of Group E. The former haven’t made the Champions League group stage since 1994/95, while the Belgian side have never won a match at this level in 12 previous attempts.

Napoli vs. Liverpool is unquestionably a big game, as it sees the 2018/19 runners up from two of the continent’s biggest leagues clash. But in terms of which teams qualify from the group, it should have little bearing. Which games will be of greater relevance on that front?

Week One: Benfica vs RB Leipzig

If one were to assign the moniker ‘Group of Death’ to one of the sections in the 2019/20 Champions League, Group F would be the obvious candidate. One of only two groups which feature three teams from Europe’s top five leagues, Group F contains Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan.

However, the Spanish champions are still a very short price to finish top of that pile. Group F might include three strong clubs but it isn’t the toughest to call.

That honour falls to Group G. Where six groups have one team priced at 50 to more to top it, the outsider in this group – Zenit St Petersburg – are available at just 6.00 to finish first.

Despite being drawn from Pot 4, RB Leipzig are actually the favourites to top the group, at 2.65. They had the second best underlying statistics in the Bundesliga in 2018/19, and Five Thirty Eight consider them the 11th best team in Europe. It’s clear why bookmakers favour them.

Leipzig’s trip to Benfica is the closest priced match up of week one, with the Portuguese team 2.77 to win while the visitors are 2.64. They’ve only met once, in a friendly in 2017 – Leipzig won 2-0 – so there’s no history to consider. The outcome of the match will be vital to both teams’ Champions League future though.

Week Two: Valencia vs Ajax

Despite an indifferent start to their Premier League campaign, Chelsea are firm favourites to top Group H. There looks set to be a serious battle for the second spot though, as there are two teams who can barely be split in the qualification odds – Ajax are 1.72 to advance, while Valencia are 1.76. Their two clashes will therefore obviously be vital, and the first of these takes place in Spain in week two.

Both teams reached European semi-finals last season, and their one previous European encounter (albeit it was back in 2002) saw a pair of 1-1 draws in the Champions League second group stage. FiveThirtyEight rate this clash as the most even in week two, and it’s hard to argue.

If the match odds from week one are correct, Valencia will have no points after losing at Chelsea, while Ajax will have three after a home win against Lille. A point in this match will likely see the Dutch side take a sizeable stride towards the last 16.

Week Three: Inter Milan vs Borussia Dortmund

It’s always tricky to look too far ahead when predicting matches, but this will almost certainly be crucial in determining which side advances from Group F alongside Barcelona.

This game is the first of a double header, meaning both sides will have faced the Spanish champions and Slavia Prague at this point. As Dortmund host Barcelona while Inter travel to Camp Nou, they are the more likely of the two to get something, but there is unlikely to be much between the sides by the time week three rolls around.

They haven’t met since 1993/94 so there’s no recent head-to-head to rely on. Both sides fell foul of Tottenham’s march to the final last season, as Inter went out in the Group Stage (thanks to losing their head-to-head with Spurs on away goals) while Dortmund lost home and away to Mauricio Pochettino’s team in the round of 16.

With home advantage, bookmakers will almost certainly make Inter the favourites to win the match. As they are priced at 2.00 at this point to qualify, while Dortmund are 1.67, this match will be vital to the men from Milan if they are to upset the odds. At the half-way point of the Group Stage, we will then have a much clearer picture of which teams look set for the knockout phase - so stay tuned for our latest updates right here on the blog.

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About the Author
Andrew Beasley

Andrew Beasley

Soccer Writer

Posted on 2019-10-28

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