One criticism occasionally levelled at the UEFA Champions League is that it is too predictable during the early stages, but this season’s edition has seen a number of underdogs exceed expectations to progress to the knockout stages.
The majority of the favourites emerged unscathed from the group stage, but in a handful of groups the established order was upset by teams that were expected to be outsiders. In this article STATS takes a look at a selection of the teams that overachieved and made it through to the Last 16 at the expense of some of the Champions League’s biggest names.
KAA Gent was arguably the group stage’s biggest overachiever, beginning the competition with just a 7.2% chance of progressing from Group H according to STATS’ pre-tournament projections. Despite being drawn in a tough group, the Belgian champions finished with three straight victories to qualify behind Zenit Saint Petersburg and become the first Belgian team to qualify for the knockout stages since 2000/01.
Primarily built around a strong defence that conceded just seven goals in six games (11th fewest in the competition), Gent was able to qualify from Group H despite taking only 66 shots, fewer than all but seven teams in the Champions League. However, Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s side made up for its relative lack of creativity by recording a shooting efficiency of 8.25, the 13th best in the competition.
Gent’s standout player was Danijel Milićević, the Swiss winger making a total of 30 crosses, more than all but two players (Shakhtar Donetsk’s Darijo Srna and Sevilla’s Benoît Trémoulinas). Milićević also recorded a shooting efficiency of 3.33 from his 10 shots, the sixth best of all players who attempted 10 or more shots.
Drawn in Group B alongside CSKA Moscow, Manchester United and Wolfsburg, PSV Eindhoven was given just a 25.6% chance of progression (the least of the Group B teams) but defied the odds to join Wolfsburg in the knockout stages at the expense of Louis Van Gaal’s side.
After losing two of the opening three games (and conceding six goals in the process), PSV’s defensive improvements during the second half of the group stage were crucial to the team’s progression. Conceding just once in the final three matches, the reigning Eredivisie champions’ defensive solidity enabled the team to progress despite scoring just eight goals, joint second fewest of the qualifiers after Juventus.
Dutch international centre half Jeffrey Bruma was key to this improvement, leading the team in tackles (25, fifth most in the competition) and touches (397). At the other end of the field, Davy Propper, Luciano Narsingh, Luuk De Jong and Maxim Lestienne all offered attacking threats. Lestienne’s numbers were particularly impressive as the Belgian winger hit the target with four of his six shots, scoring two goals despite playing just 163 minutes during the group stage.
Dynamo Kyiv was only given a 24.4% chance of surviving Group G, a pool which also included Chelsea (94.4%) and FC Porto (76.2%). However, a pair of victories over Maccabi Tel Aviv and a crucial 0-2 away win in Portugal were enough to see the Ukrainian champions progress to the next stage for the first time since 1999/00 when manager Serhiy Rebrov was leading the line with Andriy Shevchenko.
Dynamo’s success under Rebrov has been built on a resolute defence (the team has conceded just six goals in 16 Ukrainian Premier Division games this season), and this shone through in the Champions League with Kyiv allowing only four goals during the group stage. No better was this illustrated than during the 0-0 draw with Chelsea in Kiev and the impressive 0-2 away win in Porto, with similar performances required in the next round if the Ukrainian side is to overcome Manchester City.
Dynamo was primarily reliant on its wide players in attack, with the likes of Andriy Yarmolenko and Danilo Silva proving particularly effective. Silva (21 crosses), Yarmolenko (15) and Derlis Gonzalez (15) all feature in the top 50 players for total crosses during the group stage, with Junior Moraes (18 fouls received) and Yarmolenko (13) being the second and twelfth most fouled players in the competition.