In recent years, the UEFA Champions League has become the domain of the rich and famous: the European teams with the deepest pockets and biggest stars are regularly in the final stages. That's good and bad for soccer bettors.
Barring a once-in-a-lifetime run by an outsider, only a small group of teams can realistically win or advance to the final. But there are just enough of them to make the futures betting interesting.
By the same token, the dominance of those top teams means the group stage is less compelling from a futures standpoint. The fun is made up with match-specific group-stage bets since surprise results are still a regular occurrence, despite the predictability of the final standings.
SN makes some picks and predictions on all fronts, including for top scorer, as the 2021-22 season gets underway:
Team to win Champions League
By now you’re probably aware of the buzz around the popular picks to win it all. But how can one pick a potential winner in September when a pathway to the final hinges on favorable draws during the knockout rounds? The approach is straightforward: Avoid the hype and pick a likely group winner (group winners are drawn against runners-up from other groups in the knockout draw).
We know that Paris Saint-Germain (+255) and Manchester City (+291) have spent hundreds of millions to win this trophy, but that also comes with a commensurate amount of pressure that can drag a team down. Plus, they’re going to be battling each other in the same group, and one of them will likely finish second. If one team somehow loses both head-to-head group matchups, its Champions League adventure could be over before it has a chance to get started.
Chelsea (+577) has the fourth-shortest odds despite being stronger than it was during its Champions League-winning run last season. Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel has taken two different teams to the final in the last two seasons and he gets the benefit of the doubt with one of the best rosters in the world. Also, the Blues should comfortably finish atop Group H.
Manchester United (+765) is another compelling pick. The additions of Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo will make Man U a team that no one will want to face in the knockouts. It should finish top in Group F and its odds should gradually shrink as the tournament progresses. Don’t get sucked into Real Madrid (+1147): Under Carlo Ancelotti, it will be a contender in the knockouts, but Karim Benzema can’t always mask the lack of elite defensive quality.
Champions League outright winner odds
Champions League group winners
The groups typically go according to script, but a couple this year are legitimately up for grabs: Groups B and G. Here are two potential plays (odds courtesy of Sports Interaction):
Group B: Atletico Madrid (+176)
Liverpool is the favorite in Group B at -109, but against storied clubs like Porto, AC Milan and Atletico Madrid, even Liverpool will drop points along the way. And Atletico Madrid will be a tough matchup: Diego Simeone’s team competes just as fiercely as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side. The English side is off to a strong start to its domestic season, but so is Atletico Madrid and it should improve still as new arrivals Matheus Cunha, Antoine Griezmann and Rodrigo De Paul (below) get settled into the squad.
Group G: Sevilla (+137)
Another La Liga side to keep an eye on. Sevilla has made more shrewd acquisitions to a team that was already talented enough to finish fourth in La Liga last season. Sevilla will be taking on opponents in group play that, on paper, are inferior (Lille and RB Salzburg) or on par with it (Wolfsburg). Unless the favorite tag weighs on Sevilla during the group stage, it’s a pragmatic side that should find a way to secure enough results to get the job done.
Champions League group survivors
More interesting than chasing potential group winners is finding a potential surprise team to advance. There are typically a maximum of two or three of these in each Champions League group stage. Last year it was two German sides finishing ahead of favored teams: RB Leipzig beat out Manchester United for second place in one group, and Borussia Moenchengladbach advanced over Inter Milan.
Here are the most attractive odds for teams to advance to the knockouts in 2021-22 (odds courtesy of Sports Interaction):
Group E: Benfica (+223)
Bayern’s the favorite to win the group (-202) and Barcelona (-625 to qualify) is the other team pegged to advance. But given the current state of the decimated Blaugrana, a talented and underrated Benfica side should be more than just competitive in those head-to-head matchups. Then second place will come down to which of the two can get maximum points against the fourth team in the group, Dynamo Kiev (+922 to advance).
Group G: RB Salzburg (+161)
The Austrian side may have lost its two best players in the summer (Patson Daka, Enock Mwepu), but it has more talent coming through the pipeline to replace them (Karim Adeyemi, Benjamin Sesko and American Brenden Aaronson, above). The Champions League playoffs were evidence. With Sevilla (+137) the favorite to win Group G, second place should be a scrap among Salzburg, German side VfL Wolfsburg (-125 to advance) and Lille (+100 to advance). Salzburg’s chaotic high press and all-out attacking approach could give it the edge against more conventional and predictable teams like Wolfsburg and Lille.
Champions League top scorer
The list is the 10 players you’d expect to be favorites to top the scoring charts come next May. But the final goal ranking will be determined by more than star power. Group stage matchups play a huge role, as do the team’s chances to go deep and the player’s standing on the team. Does he take the penalties? Will he play all the games? Is he the focal point of the attack? Does he have competition for goals within his own team?
Erling Haaland won this prize last year despite a quarterfinal elimination for his Borussia Dortmund team. It helped that he got six of his 10 total goals in the group stage against the likes of Lazio, Club Brugge and Zenit St. Petersburg, which are not exactly European powerhouses. Compare that to the production of his main challenger, Kylian Mbappe, who had a paltry two goals (of eight total) in the group stage and couldn’t make up the difference in the knockouts.
With that and the group-stage draw in mind, Haaland (+503) is the safest bet to run rampant on Ajax, Besiktas and Sporting CP, which offer a similar competitive level to last year’s opponents. It’s tempting to put money down on Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo (vs. Villarreal, Atalanta and BSC Young Boys), but it’s up in the air how many of the six group games the 36-year-old will play as the club manages his minutes.
After Haaland, the next most interesting plays are Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku (+715) and Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema (+1200), who star for teams that have weaker group opponents and should make progress in the knockouts. The long shot is Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez (+5500), who will get to feast on FC Sheriff, Shakhtar Donetsk and a Real Madrid team that has defensive issues.
Odds courtesy of Sports Interaction
Champions League top scorer odds
|Robert Lewandowski||Bayern Munich||+480|
|Erling Haaland||Borussia Dortmund||+503|
|Cristiano Ronaldo||Manchester United||+712|
|Karim Benzema||Real Madrid||+1200|
|Memphis Depay||FC Barcelona||+2400|