Ajax used to be historically viewed as one of the top clubs in the world, but as the economic side of the sport began to evolve, Ajax was no longer viewed as a European juggernaut. Yet this team was within minutes of the final, bringing back the Dutch magic that had been absent for several years. Ajaxs run to the final opens the door for other teams to truly believe they can do the same thing.
Tottenham is a team with very little history but proved that with the right mix of players and a talented manager, there is no ceiling.
With the Champions League group-stage draw taking place in Monaco on Thursday — watch it on fuboTV (Try for free) — who are the best bets to pull off something like Ajax or Tottenham?
Lets take a look, with the help of Marius Norheim, CEO of Trademate Sports, and with Andrew Beasley, site editor of Twelve Football.
Borussia Dortmund: “Dortmund finished second last year only two points behind Bayern Munich. They outperformed their expected goals by 16 goals last year, netting a total of 81 goals. It remains to be seen whether they can keep it up and give Bayern another challenge for the title. Dortmund has had an excellent transfer summer bringing in Mats Hummels from Bayern as a centerback plus Nico Schulz from Hoffenheim as their new left back. Their offense has been strengthened by the signing of Julian Brand, Thorgan Hazard as well as getting Paco Alcacer on a permanent deal. Alcacer, Hazard and Schulz were all impressive in their 5-1 win over Augsburg which took them top of the Bundesliga table. This year Dortmund look strong in all positions and have a depth from the bench to make another attempt at the Bundesliga title as well as an outside chance of winning the Champions League. They are second seeded in the Champions League. If you can find them at +3400 in odds, its worth a shot.”
Inter Milan: “Bringing in former Serie A and Premier League winner Antonio Conte as head coach was the best signing of the season for Inter. They have also strengthened their attack with Romelu Lukaku and the midfielders Nicoló Barella, Valentino Lazaro and Matteo Politano. Barella in particular is an excellent player. Surprisingly they allowed the World Cup star Ivan Perisic to leave on loan to Bayern Munich. Still we expected the team that finished 4th in Serie A last season on joint points with Atalanta to improve this year under Contes management. They are a long-shot for winning the Champions League. But if there is one coach who can pull of a strong run its Antonio Conte. They are a three seed in the Champions League. We would take them at +4900.”
Bayer Leverkusen: “They finished fourth in the Bundesliga last year. They have an incredibly strong attack which scored 69 goals last season. The main thing that kept them back was their defense which conceded a whopping 52 goals. Their star player is the generational talent Kai Havertz who scored 17 goals and had three assists last year at the age of 19. They have lost Julian Brandt to Dortmund but have replaced him with Kerem Demirbay, Moussa Diaby and Nadiem Amiri, giving them a lot of squad depth for both a strong UCL and Bundesliga campaign. The question remains whether head coach Peter Bosz can sort out their defense. Also he used to be the head coach of Ajax during their run to the Europa League final, which they lost against Manchester United in 2017. They are a three seed in the Champions League. If you can get them at +9900 in odds, its good value.”
Out of those three, I personally think Inter Milan is the best pick of the bunch based on early season form. Though all three started off their seasons well, Inter looked sharp in the 4-0 win over Lecce on Monday, with Lukaku scoring. Theres a different, fresh vibe about this Inter team and a belief that this could be a strong season. All three are strong dark horses, but Inter has the edge for me.
As for teams maybe a tier below that could pull off an Ajax-like run? Heres what Beasley has to say:
RB Leipzig: “Despite finishing third in the Bundesliga, 10 points adrift of Dortmund, the underlying statistics suggest that Julian Nagelsmanns side was the second best team in Germany last season. Their non-penalty expected goal difference of 0.82 was better than Juventus (0.70) and not far shy of Barcelona (0.87) in their respective leagues. FiveThirtyEight has Leipzig ranked 12th in their Global Club Soccer Rankings, suggesting they could do better than many people think. The German side are available at +10000 and while they will be in pot four for the draw, they could be worth a small bet.”
Atalanta: “Atalanta had the best season in their history in 2018-19, finishing third in Serie A. They finished 21 points adrift of the champions, and 10 behind Napoli, yet were arguably the best team in the division. The Nerazzurri were the top scoring team in Italy last season, and deservedly so. They had a non-penalty expected goal difference of 0.88, which was the best in Serie A. This is their first ever Champions League campaign so their lack of experience may prove costly. But they look very capable of springing surprises along the way, particularly if the larger clubs underestimate them. At +15000, its a low-risk option that could turn out well.”
Lyon: “Lyon has been to the Champions League semifinals in the past, albeit 2009-10 is too long ago to be of much relevance now. Even so, theyre tournament regulars and may be in pot two for the draw depending on how the qualifying round pans out. Their expected goal statistics suggest they were the second best team in France last season, which, with PSG on the scene, is about the best anyone else can hope for. They may have lost the likes of Nabil Fekir and Tanguy Ndombele in the summer, but theyve hit the ground running in Ligue 1 this season by winning their opening two matches by a combined score of 9-0. Memphis Depay and Moussa Dembele have each scored three, so if they can carry their early season form into Europe, a bet on Lyon at +15000 might not be as much of a longshot as it initially appears.”
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Roger Gonzalez is an award-winning writer based in Virginia that has covered pro soccer from Europes top clubs to Argentinas first division. Roger started out his pro soccer writing career with Goal.com… Full Bio
Ajax Amsterdam made a dazzling run to the Champions League semi- finals last season, knocking out Juventus and Real Madrid along the way, but that did not earn them any extra credits for this years competition.
Three months after Tottenhams dramatic 96th-minute goal crushed the Dutch sides hopes of a first Champions League final in 23 years, Ajax find themselves one goal away from exiting Europes elite competition before it has properly started.
Having seen off PAOK Salonika in the preliminary round, the Dutch champions must beat APOEL Nicosia in Amsterdam on Wednesday to reach the group stage after the first leg of their playoff tie ended in a goalless draw in Cyprus.
“We are very ambitious and have to get back into the Champions League,” Ajax coach Erik ten Hag said on Tuesday.
“But we know how difficult this is, not many Dutch teams have survived the playoff rounds. We know what we have to do and I have no doubt we shall succeed.”
With half of the 32 Champions League spots reserved for Spanish, English, Italian and German sides, it has become increasingly difficult for clubs from leagues like the Dutch to make their mark in Europe.
Ajax, however, proved that smaller teams can still surprise and are eager to do so again, even though their glorious campaign ended in the predictable loss of some leading players, including youngsters Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong who joined Juventus and Barcelona.
The four-times European champions did manage to hold on to the bulk of their players, using an estimated 157 million euros (£143 million) in transfer proceeds to hike up the wages of Dusan Tadic, Hakim Ziyech, Nicolas Tagliafico and goalkeeper Andre Onana and keep them aboard.
But despite being able to field eight of the starting side who beat Juventus in Turin in April, the Dutch team have been struggling to reproduce last years fast attacking game, missing De Jongs passing accuracy in midfield and the towering presence of De Ligt at the back.
That was evident last week in Nicosia, where, after a promising start, Ajax quickly faded and needed Onana to save them from defeat.
“But we have also played decent games in recent weeks, where we showed what we can do. Not all is bad.”