The 2018-19 Champions League season lived up to the billing and provided soccer fans from all different parts of the world with special moments and surprising outcomes. We were treated to a blast from the past with a Cinderella side like Ajax from Netherlands reaching the semifinals. Johan Cruyffs childhood club was minutes away from reaching the final in Madrid before losing in heartbreaking fashion to Tottenham, another underdog in the grand scheme of things.
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?
How to watch Ajax vs. APOEL: Live stream, TV channel, start time for Wednesdays Champions League game
Lets take a look, with the help of Marius Norheim, CEO of Trademate Sports, and with Andrew Beasley, site editor of Twelve Football.
Ajax vs APOEL Nicosia live streaming: Watch online & confirmed line-ups
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.”
The reason for the long road Ajax has to navigate into the main tournaments, in spite of winning the Eredivisie last season, is the Netherlands fetid UEFA coefficient, which collapsed to 11th in Europe, below Belgium, Ukraine and Turkey, and only just above Austria. This is in spite of the fact that Dutch clubs, combined, have the fifth-most titles in both the Champions League and the Europa League. Ajax alone has four Champions League titles and one UEFA Cup trophy.
Ajax down APOEL to seal Champions League spot
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.”
More significantly still, the club convinced Hakim Ziyech, David Neres, Dusan Tadic, Nico Tagliafico, Andre Onanna and Noussair Mazraoui to commit to staying, in spite of interest from bigger or richer clubs, by signing new contracts. Donny van de Beek appears to be staying as well, in spite of Real Madrids persistent flirting. Ajax managed to retain the bulk of its core, keeping them in the Netherlands when more attractive leagues beckoned.
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.”
For long-time fans, it felt hard to trust the recent success. Because Ajaxs feast-or-famine cadence in European competition suggested that one-off success was the likelier outcome. After all, Ajax had stranded in the third qualifying round, several games short of the main Champions League tournament, in three straight seasons before last years miracle semifinal run.
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.
In a best-practices sense, Ajax has done everything right. It figured out how to build a global brand out of a second-tier league. It also stayed true to its ideals, playing beautiful, attacking soccer with young and often home-grown players. It did good business on the transfer market, consistently buying low and selling high. It has a coherent vision and policy.
Ajax secure Champions League group stage spot
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.”
Ajax progress into Champions League group stages with win over APOEL
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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Ajax into Champions League group stages with win over Apoel Nicosia
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