Sizing up Champions League after group-stage draw

By Nicholas Hennion  () 

Dortmund can spray a few champagne bottles, Inter Milan can quietly lick its chops and Ajax and Manchester United are unable to exhale. 

Those were a few of my key takeaways from the Champions League group-stage draw last week in which Lionel Messi and Ronaldo were drawn into the same group and the last three champions got mostly favorable draws. 

Europe’s top competition will begin Oct. 20, and Las Vegas and East Coast futures markets are filled with opportunities for bettors before prices begin to move. 

Let’s look at a few of my favorite wagers, for the group stage and the whole tournament, that offer the most promising return and value for players willing to tie up a portion of their bankroll. Here are the best bets. 

Group-Stage Futures Plays

Borussia Dortmund to Win Group F (-112 at DraftKings Sportsbook)

In three of the last five seasons in which Dortmund has advanced to the Champions League knockout round, it has won its group. And on paper, Dortmund is far and away the best team in Group F. Zenit is always the overrated Pot 1 occupant and hasn’t participated in the Champions League since the 2015-16 season. Lazio has not played UCL football since the 2007-08 season and has never reached the knockout rounds.

Dortmund’s ability to defend home field at Signal Iduna plays a big factor here. Lucien Favre’s side is unbeaten in seven of its last eight in Germany and has won five of seven games in which it has produced a result.

I expect Dortmund will grab in the range of 12 to 14 points, and that will be enough considering the three other teams in Group F are fairly level in quality. 

RB Leipzig Top 2 in Group H (-112 at DraftKings Sportsbook)

Come December, one of these teams will be out of the Champions League: PSG, Manchester United or RB Leipzig.

The immediate punditry on this Group of Death draw was that Leipzig’s luck would run out after last season’s run to the UCL semis, but don’t count out Julian Nagelsmann’s side. In fact, I would not be surprised if it’s Man United making its way to the Europa League. 

Yes, Timo Werner is gone, which undoubtedly downgrades Leipzig’s attack. However, Leipzig returns a plethora of talent from last season’s run and quietly added two solid loan additions in Justin Kluivert and Benjamin Heinrichs.

Ultimately, the outcome of this play will come down to Leipzig’s results against United, which has failed to reach the knockouts only twice in its last eight UCL campaigns. However, I give Leipzig a slight edge tactically in the midfield, especially if Marcel Sabitzer can return from injury in time for the fixtures. Plus, United returns only five starters from its run in 2017-18. 

The bonus? Leipzig earned points in every one of its road fixtures last season. Granted, those matches were against Lyon, Tottenham, Zenit and Benfica, but a team that knows it can win on the road carries an advantage. 

Manchester City/Liverpool/Bayern Munich Group Winners Parlay (-109 at DraftKings Sportsbook)

I’ll start with the boring part: If Manchester City finishes anywhere but first in Group C, it should voluntarily exit the competition. Porto just sold its best player, City has dominated French sides and should wipe the floor with Marseille, and Olympiacos should just be happy not to be in the Europa League. 

The next-riskiest leg would be Bayern Munich, which gets a solid challenger in Atletico Madrid in Group A and may very well drop points in Madrid. But Atletico would need to be 6-0-0 to win the group, and I simply don’t see that happening. 

Salzburg is a nice up-and-coming side, but neither they nor Lokomotiv Moscow will challenge last season’s UCL winners. Bayern will grab 16 to 18 points and win the group. 

By far the leg making me the most nervous is Liverpool, which faces a mini-Group of Death in Atalanta, Ajax and Midtjylland. 

In their last three UCL campaigns, the Reds have won their group twice. The one season they failed to do so? When they drew into a Group of Death with PSG and Napoli. 

However, the 2018-19 UCL winners have also won 23 of a possible 27 points at home in the group stage in the last three seasons and have won five of six against the team that finishes in the bottom of its groups the last three campaigns. 

Assuming those trends hold, losing no more than 1.5 times against Atalanta and Ajax on the road, Liverpool should be able to finish atop Group D.  

Full-Tournament Futures Plays

Atletico Madrid to Win the Champions League (20-1 my price)

Last season’s quarterfinalists provide the perfect combination of youth and experience, and on its best day, Atletico’s starting 11 can stand up against the best in Europe. 

The permanent additions of Luis Suarez and Yannick Carrasco bolster the Atletico attack, and Diego Simeone’s defensive prowess — just ask Liverpool about it — provides a nearly perfect balance. 

Consider this trend: In the last four seasons Atletico has at least reached the knockout rounds, Simeone has recorded a SU loss only once. In the knockout rounds? Even more impressively, Atletico has never failed to earn at least a draw at the Wanda Metropolitano. 

That’s a huge advantage for a team that has reached the UCL final in two of the last seven seasons. 

Furthermore, Atletico has beaten the following powerhouses at least once in the knockouts since the 2013-14 season: Liverpool, Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Those are all previous UCL champions, showing that Atletico is capable of rising to its competition level rather than dropping to it. 

At a price of 20-1, the Spanish giants provide incredible value to bettors when it’s more than 90% likely in my estimation to reach the knockouts. After the group phase, there’s enough historical precedent to believe Atletico can make a run all the way to the final. 

Borussia Dortmund to Win the Champions League (26-1 my price)

While my confidence in Atletico is borne out by its strength on defense, my love of Dortmund is based on its overall offensive prowess. 

The 2012-13 finalists will embrace the attitude of: “You may score three, but we’ll score five.” The return of Marco Reus after last season’s injury will give Dortmund arguably the deepest squad in the competition. Julian Brandt, Nico Schulz, Thorgan Hazard and Gio Reyna will provide quality off the bench. 

Additionally, the assumed return of two-legged knockout-round ties will enhance Dortmund’s home-field advantage. Plus, all but one of the last 10 Champions League winners had advanced to one final in the decade before its win, a trend that applies to both Dortmund and Atletico. 

The cause of concern for Dortmund backers will be its mediocre road record in the competition. Dortmund has logged a 5-3-9 mark across the last three campaigns. For reference, three of the last four Champions League winners have won at least 50% of their road fixtures.

But at 28-1, I’m willing to put aside some concerns with Dortmund, especially after its favorable draw. And I have power-rated a few teams with lower prices on the futures board — Man United at 25-1 and Chelsea at 18-1 spring to mind — so bettors definitely can find value here. 

A Few Futures Superlatives

A Team at 100-1 or Greater That Could Make the Semis… FC Porto at 125-1

The Most Overvalued Futures Board Price … Manchester United at 25-1

The Best Value Among the Four Most Recent Winners (Bayern, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona)… Liverpool at 5-1

Wait and See If It Makes the Knockouts, Then Reconsider… Ajax at 100-1 (would play at anything greater than 60-1)

Two Top-10 Futures Board Prices That Could Be Knocked Out by the Conclusion of the Round of 16… Paris Saint-Germain at 10-1, Barcelona at 12-1

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