UEFA Champions League 2012-13: Underdog Teams Destined for the Knockout Stages
Regardless of whether it’s in film, television or the sporting industry, there isn’t a lover of competition out there who doesn’t love an underdog story.
The idea of a rags-to-riches story where a club can overcome the odds is so appealing, even in the cruel world of football, and those types of stories are commonly witnessed in the Champions League.
In that respect, the 2012-13 edition of the tournament is no different; the following entrants look destined to make their way through to the knockout stages.
Not only that, each side have managed to do so with the odds stacked firmly against them, for whatever reason, making their success that much more impressive.
With Chelsea and Juventus in their group, it wouldn’t have been absurd to expect Shakhtar Donetsk to be one of the two sides to miss out on last-16 football this season.
However, the Ukrainian champions have surprised all. After claiming a win over the current European champions, as well as a point at the Old Lady, Shakhtar find themselves on top of Group E.
Things are still far from sewn up for Mircea Lucescu’s men, who are level on points with their west London counterparts and just a single point ahead of Turin-based Juve.
That said, the South American assets amongst Shakhtar’s squad have done well of late and are playing attractive, free-flowing football.
Currently one of the closest-staged groups remaining in the Champions League, it will be of great intrigue to see how Group E unfolds in the coming weeks. Currently Shakhtar Donetsk are in pole position to proceed, barring a fall of big proportions.
Although the football they’ve played so far this season doesn’t suggest it, Málaga actually started the 2012-13 campaign expected to flail after an unenviable summer.
The Anchovies lost two of their best players in Santi Cazorla to Arsenal and Salomon Rondon to Rubin Kazan, prompting many to believe the club would fail to build on their fourth-place finish last season.
However, where Cazorla and Rondon once thrived, the likes of Isco and Eliseu have stepped up, firing Málaga to the summit of Group C.
While Málaga were in a financial crisis and forced to sell some of their biggest assets, Zenit St. Petersburg were splurging in spectacular fashion, spending mass amounts on the signatures of Hulk from Porto and Axel Witsel from Benfica.
This, of course, led to high expectations for the Russian side who would have been pegged as likely to progress to the knockout phases.
Despite losing several key figures over the summer, AC Milan were being considered as the other outfit looking to challenge for group stage qualification.
However, Massimiliano Allegri’s men are another club to have capitulated in a rather astute manner this season and, with just two group games left to play, are set to finish second to top-of-the-table Málaga.
Just like Portuguese representatives Benfica last season, Braga have been drawn in a group against English and European titans Manchester United.
In their fixture at Old Trafford, José Peseiro’s side held a good account of themselves and showed that while they may not be their nation’s biggest side, they possess several of their own stars and can challenge Europe’s best and brightest.
Braga’s inclusion as “destined to qualify for the knockout stages” may seem confusing considering the Archbishops are currently at the bottom of Group H, but there’s good reason behind it.
Surprisingly, Braga have been more impressive on their travels than at home in this season’s tournament and will be hopeful of redeeming their loss at home to Cluj when they travel to Romania this week.
In their final group fixture, the Portuguese side welcome Gala, whom they already beat in Turkey, at home in Braga, where they will hope to do the double over their group opponents.
With Cluj and Galatasaray still having fixtures against Manchester United, the bottom-of-the-pile club can hope their pool enemies will drop points in the coming weeks, while they wrestle some themselves.
Despite their second consecutive Bundesliga title, Borussia Dortmund will have maintained their position as Group D underdogs this season.
Drawn in a group alongside Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax, the pool of domestic league champions was always going to be a tight one, and one that perhaps the Yellow and Blacks wouldn’t have been expected to make it through.
Manchester City’s spending pattern and resulting strength in depth always makes them a threat, but the Citizens are on the edge of slipping out of the tournament altogether.
Roberto Mancini’s side are yet to win a game in European competition this campaign and, along with Ajax, would seem the most probable candidates to see the group stage exit.
Along with the Premier League champions, Real Madrid would have been considered Group D big guns prior to the season’s beginning, and Jose Mourinho’s men remain likely to head through to the knockout stages.
While their domestic season isn’t going exactly to plan, Jürgen Klopp’s side sit atop the least desirable group in this season’s Champions League, and are a single point ahead of European giants Real.
With fixtures against Ajax and Manchester City left to run, the German representatives have certainly got their harder fixtures out of the way early, and are on course to proceed as top seeds from their pool.
Probably the biggest surprise package of all in this season’s Champions League, Celtic find themselves in territory which will be unfamiliar to much of their squad.
With two fixtures left to go, the Buoys are second only to Group G leaders Barcelona, but are three points ahead of their next opponents down, Benfica.
After earning victory over Spartak Moscow and a monumental three points over Barcelona, the Scottish champions are once again respected on the European scale after years away from its gleam and lustre.
Neil Lennon’s side have amassed a roster boasting several star players such as Victor Wanyama, Fraser Forster and Emilio Izaguirre, and even players such as Georgios Samaras and Tony Watt are showing their worth against big competition.
Scottish football has lost a mountain of respect in recent years, but that doesn’t appear to have stunted the determination of this Celtic side, who remain on course for knockout stage football as things stand.