UEFA Champions League 2012: Underdogs to Watch out for in Knockout Stage

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UEFA Champions League 2012: Underdogs to Watch out for in Knockout Stage
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Now that the Champions League group stage is winding down, the knockout stage is beginning to take shape. Of the 16 spots, 13 have already been decided.

Experts and fans alike will agree that Barcelona and Real Madrid are the favorites to finish as the best club in Europe. On the periphery are Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Manchester United.

Most of the fun, though, comes from watching a club like APOEL make a deep run in the Champions League.

Here are three clubs who could make the world take notice.

 

Malaga

Malaga's rise in the Champions League has been a massive surprise, but it looked like a foregone conclusion when Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani took over. He plunged a massive amount of money in the team to try and break up the La Liga duopoly.

Then, without explanation, he was nowhere to be seen. Players went months without being paid. In an article on CNN.com, Spanish football expert Tim Stannard said, "It is riches to rags in a very short amount of time. No one has actually given a reason; it has been very, very quiet."

The ownership always presents a threat to the club's on-field performance because no matter the stage, players can only be so motivated when they're ignored by the higher-ups.

However, Malaga has put all the boardroom issues behind them and been extremely successful in Europe this year. They've finished top of Group C, ahead of Zenit St. Petersburg and AC Milan.

They have been extremely good in defense this year, surrendering only nine goals in the league and three in the Champions League.

By finishing top of the group, Malaga have set themselves up for what could be a favorable draw in the Round of 16. And as Chelsea showed last year, you can go far with a little luck and an organized defense.

 

Schalke 04

Just under two years ago, Schalke met Manchester United in the Champions League semfinals. The German club lost 6-1 on aggregate, but the European season as a whole was a massive success.

It's a result they could repeat again.

Schalke have plenty of options in the attack with Lewis Holtby, Jefferson Farfan, Ibrahim Afellay and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The club's immediate future could rely on the Dutch striker.

Huntelaar has been a target for the major European clubs for the past few years, especially since he's regained his form with Schalke. Although very unlikely to happen, a move in January could seriously derail their Champions League hopes.

Die Knappen sit second in the Bundesliga, but they're eight points off Bayern Munich. Most are conceding that it's Bayern's time to retake their thrown after Borussia Dortmund's back-to-back titles. This could actually be a benefit for Schalke.

With the league title possibly out of reach early into the season, the club could focus their efforts on Europe.

 

Shakhtar Donetsk

As Chelsea discovered in October, Shakhtar Donetsk is a tough team to beat in the Donbass Arena.

Historically, traveling to Eastern Europe for European games has always been a tall order. It's gotten slightly easier with the fall of the Soviet Union, but it's difficult nonetheless.

They aren't just a team that relies on home-field advantage, though.

With the money at their disposal, the club has been able to lure Brazilians Alex Teixeira, Luiz Adriano, Fernandinho and Willian to Ukraine. It was Teixeira and Fernandinho who scored the goals in the 2-1 win over the Blues.

At this point, qualification is guaranteed for Shakhtar. With a win, they finish atop Group E. Anything less, and their future is a little more unclear.

It's unlikely that they can make it to the final, but they definitely have the opportunity to ruin a bigger club's chances at lifting the Champions League trophy.

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