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Champions League 2012: Top Dark Horses to Make Knockout Stages

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Champions League 2012: Top Dark Horses to Make Knockout Stages
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Everyone is gunning for defending champion Chelsea F.C., but what dark horse teams can find success?

The 2012-2013 UEFA Champions League is underway, with the second round of Group Stage games starting today. With the first round of six down, today and tomorrow will serve as moment in time when some teams pull out in front, and others begin their climb back into contention. The first knockout round is only two and a half months away, so today we will be looking at some potential dark horse teams who pose a legitimate threat of making the next round of play.

Coming into today's action, 13 teams are well-positioned—going forward—with 1-0 records and three points each. That also means that there are 13 teams who have no points and are winless. This leaves only six teams that have tied and have a single point.

 

Sport Lisboa e Benfica [SLB]

One of those teams with a single point is Benfica. In their first outing, they held Scottish champion Celtic to a 0-0 tie while on the road. Benfica showed grit in pulling out a tie without their captain, Anderson Luis da Silva [Luisao], who is still serving a four-game suspension for shoving a referee to the ground.

While their past two contests ended in 0-0 draws, historically, when these teams have met, the winner has gone on to hoist the European Cup.

Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova has great respect for Benfica.

"This game is important enough not to think about any other. In the last four years we have suffered sometimes in the group stages. They are strong in attack and dangerous on the wings. Benfica are a big club, and because of what they have done in the past, they have earned our respect."

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Benfica will be playing Barcelona without their suspended captian Luisao.

This is not a team to be overlooked. They have sound defense and a lot of depth, even without star center forward Oscar Cardozo, who is suffering from a thigh injury.

Coach Vilanova said of Benfica in an interview Sunday:

"Benfica is playing at home and I don't think they will pack in their defense. They say a draw will suit them, but they will go out looking to win. There isn't enough margin to speculate and they have to take advantage of playing at home. It won't be an easy game."

A win, and SLB is right back in the thick of things. A draw, and they are still alive. A loss, and they could be looking at a bleak future. Right now, they are weathering the storm until they get Cardoza and Luisao back. Perhaps having home field will be helpful.

 

Ballspiel-Verein Borussia 1909 e. V. Dortmund [BVB]

Dortmund is 1-0 after defeating Ajax Amsterdam one-nil. Tomorrow afternoon will be a great test, as they face off against Manchester City. This club is not a slouch, having won back-to-back Bundesliga titles.

Since taking over the team in 2008, Borussia coach Jurgen Klopp has led the club to heights otherwise unseen. This year, however, the club has been susceptible to scores, giving up eight goals in their past eight games. Klopp had this to say after his club allowed Frankfurt to make a comeback to tie for a 3-3 draw in a recent Bundesliga match (via ESPN):

Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Coach Jurgen Klopp and his Borussia Dortmund club.

"The lads have not lost their memory. Our attacking potential is enormous, but we need to give better protection to our attacks. And if we do that we won't make it so easy for our opponents, even for well-playing ones."

They will have to find the right mix of effort and players defensively to match their offensive attack against Man City if they hope to win. If they pull out the victory, they will be in a favorable position going forward in one of the hardest Champions League groupings.

 

Paris Saint-Germain [PSG]

Playing in what might be the one of the easiest groupings (perhaps the easiest of all), PSG is primed to make waves on the big stage. This team could be the Boston Red Sox of 2004, having spent around €250 million in transfer fees to acquire Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic from AC Milan.

Among their other acquisitions, 19 year old Marco Verratti—signed from Pescara—is playing exceptionally well; well enough to have played in each of the club's first six games in Ligue 1.

PSG face off with FC Porto in their second game of the Group Stage tomorrow. 

After winning their first match against Dynamo Kiev, coach Carlo Ancelotti dismissed any notions of being favorites to win the Champions League, saying:

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
PSG coach Carlo Ancelotti watches as his team decimates Dynamo Kiev 4-1.

"We are not the favorites. We need to stay focused. Our goal is to go through the group stage. We still have five matches to play. It was a very good start but it's just three points."

In the end, only time will tell which, if any, of these three clubs make it to the knockout rounds. Fans of each team should sit back and enjoy the ride.

 

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