5 Dark-Horse Teams That Can Advance to Champions League Knockout Rounds
Each year, a few teams shock their more esteemed competition in the UEFA Champions League by advancing beyond the group stages. Teams like Celtic last season, Basel and APOEL in 2011, and Kopenhven in 2010.
This year's draw is no different, as several teams from Pots 3 and 4 will have a good opportunity to beat the higher-seeded teams in their group.
Here are five teams that have good shots to advance to the knockout rounds from the group stages.
To be included, teams must be in Pots 3 or 4, must not be from one of the "Big Four" leagues (Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A), and must not have made the knockout rounds last year.
5. FC Basel, Switzerland
Young defender Fabian Schar is a player to keep an eye on for Basel.
Swiss outfit FC Basel certainly aren't strangers to European competition, having reached the semifinals of the UEFA Europa League last season and making the knockout rounds in 2011-12.
The defending Swiss Super League champions are certainly equipped to make another run for European glory with a squad that features captain and Swiss international Marco Streller, along with young, emerging talents like defender Fabian Schar and Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Salah.
Basel's path isn't the easiest, with Chelsea and Schalke in Group E with them. However, the Swiss side definitely have the pedigree to beat out one of the two more favored clubs to advance to the Round of 16.
4. AFC Ajax, Netherlands
Ajax have already captured the Johan Cruijff Shield for winning the Dutch Super Cup this season.
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It seems strange to list a team with Ajax's history as a dark horse, but in the modern football landscape, that's exactly what the four-time European Cup/Champions League winners are.
The Eredivisie is perhaps the best feeder league in Europe for players looking to move to one of the "Big Four" leagues. Ajax, the three-time defending champions, continue to produce young talent with 23-year-old Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and 19-year-old Viktor Fischer featuring regularly in the first team.
Ajax have been scoring goals for fun so far this year, already tallying 13 goals in five competitive matches.
While Barcelona, AC Milan and Celtic won't be the easiest teams to beat, Ajax certainly have the firepower to advance to the knockout rounds.
3. FC Zenit, Russia
Taking on Zenit means facing cult legend and Brazilian international Hulk.
Zenit have tasted European glory before, winning the UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup in 2008.
The Russian Premier League runners-up hope to recapture some of that former glory with a deep run in the Champions League this season.
Led by the Portuguese duo of Danny and Luis Carlos Novo Neto, along with cult favorite Brazilian international Hulk, Zenit easily qualified for the group stages with an 8-3 aggregate thrashing of Pacos de Ferreira of Portugal.
Zenit also got a fairly favorable draw in Group G, with Porto and Atletico Madrid being the Russian side's primary opposition.
2. RSC Anderlecht, Belgium
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The two-time defending champions of Belgium Jupiler Pro League are hoping to improve on last year's Champions League performance during which they took just five points from six group stage matches.
Placed in the fairly open Group C, Anderlecht will rely upon Argentine import Matias Suarez, the Belgian duo of Massimo Bruno and Guillaume Gillet, and American international Sacha Kljestan to lead the team.
The Anderlecht attack has been a force so far, scoring an impressive 18 goals in five Jupiler League matches this season.
Unless they want to risk early elimination from the Champions League, Paris Saint-Germain and Benfica should be wary when facing the Belgian power.
1. Olympiacos FC, Greece
Javier Saviola brings some extra flair to the hard-working Greek side.
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Olympiacos came very close to advancing to the knockout stages of the Champions League last season, missing out on finishing second ahead of Arsenal by just one point.
This year, the three-time defending Greek Super League champions will hope to go at least one step further by advancing to the Round of 16.
Olympiacos feature a strong core of Greek internationals, including Giannis Maniatis, Dimitrios Siovas, Konstantinos Mitroglou and Ioannis Fetfatzidis. Add in some Argentinian flair from Alejandro Dominguez and new signing Javier Saviola, and the Greek side definitely has the core needed to surprise some teams in the Champions League.
With Group C being wide open—Paris Saint-Germain, Benfica and Anderlecht round out the group—it could be the most entertaining group of the eight. Expect Matchday 6 in December to be full of meaning.