A fairly evenly matched group with just one team from any of the Big Four nations, Group C in the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League could provide an enigmatic qualifier for the knockout rounds.
How they qualified: Primeira Liga second place, directly into group stage
Best finish: Winner (1961, 1962)
Home stadium: Estádio da Luz / Lisbon, Portugal
Coach: Jorge Jesus
Outlook: Portugal is generally a selling league, with players and coaches using it as a platform to earn lucrative jobs abroad. If that’s the case, then multiple scouts will be interested in Benfica’s wares, as the club boasts a smorgasbord of talent from multiple countries. No less than nine nations are represented on the Benfica squad.
How they qualified: Ligue 1 champion, directly into group stage
Best finish: Quarterfinals (2013)
Home stadium: Parc des Princes / Paris, France
Coach: Laurent Blanc
Outlook: PSG has come into some money recently, spending its way to the top of the talent pool in Europe. As the club stabilizes after its most recent spending spree this summer, it heads into the Champions League with real hopes of doing damage. In Laurent Blanc, the club has a quick-learning manager who once won 11 matches in a row (a national record) at Bordeaux.
How they qualified: Superleague Greece champion, directly into group stage
Best finish: Quarterfinals (1999)
Home stadium: Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium / Athens, Greece
Outlook: As Europe saw with its contrasting performances in Euro 2004 and 2008, Greece is a bit unpredictable. Greek club teams are much the same, as they can be spectacular and astoundingly bad, sometimes in the same 90-minute period. Traditionally one of the higher-spending teams in the league, Olympiacos has achieved moderate European success in the past.
How they qualified: Belgian Pro League champion, directly into group stage
Best finish: Semifinals (1982, 1986)
Home stadium: Constant Vanden Stock Stadium / Brussels, Belgium
Coach: John van den Brom
Outlook: Anderlecht rarely receives much of a challenge in the domestic title race, having won eight championships in the new millennium and often struggles on European nights as a result. Despite bringing in some good young talent from abroad, it will likely be another tough year for the club on the continental stage.
A clear hierarchy exists in Group C, from PSG at the top to Anderlecht at the bottom. The French champion should waltz through this group, with Benfica joining it in the knockout rounds. Olympiacos and Anderlecht will fight for third place and the Europa League berth, but the Greeks should be able to win that battle.
For a lot of us, that meant delving into statistics and seeing what matched the eye test. Many started Googling the name “N'Golo Kante“, the dynamic disruptor who’d move to Chelsea in August.
He’s a household name now, with some personalities even arguing that he should buck the trend of Ballon d’Or nominees including only major statistic producers (There was a time when names like Fabio Cannavaro and Matthias Sammer claimed the honor, you know).
For our purposes, we’ll use a pair of advanced stats sites and the good ol’ eye test. (Of the sites we’re using, Squawka seems to skew toward high attack scores, while WhoScored tilts a bit toward the back, so life is good if a player hits both sites’ Top 50).
Before getting into our team — we promise no 10-picture, click-to-reveal-next stuff — some stats that stood out.
— Three players have had outstanding “short” seasons for different reasons.
Leicester City’s Wilfried Ndidi took a short spell to adjust to the Premier League after arriving in January, but has been the Foxes’ most influential player in their recent turnaround).
Bournemouth’s Nathan Ake essentially was the Cherries’ first-half success before heading back to Chelsea where Antonio Conte won’t move him ahead of Marcos Alonso or Victor Moses (and that’s actually understandable as you’ll see below).
Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas just doesn’t feature a ton for Conte, but in limited time his per-90 stats on Squawka trail only Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez.
Ander Herrera (Manchester United, 7.44, 36.64) – Long-heralded at Athletic Bilbao, Herrera is finally showing what made him so sought. One odd stat that may be explained by his willingness to run to any situation: he’s very high in average times dribbled past.
Idrissa Gana Gueye (Everton, 7.34, 20.57) – The best player in Aston Villa’s awful 2015-16, he’s been arguably as effective as N’Golo Kante. Seriously.
Matt Phillips (West Bromwich Albion) – Once the top player on a relegated QPR, Phillips is fifth in the Premier League in assists despite missing the last four matches with injury.
Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur, 7.41, 31.89) – Second in the PL in key passes, he doesn’t get the plaudits of English teammates Dele Alli and Harry Kane. The relationships are very symbiotic.
Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace, 7.44) – On an under-achieving team, Zaha’s statistics are wild. He’s the most-fouled player in the league, and attempts/completes the most dribbles in the PL. He gives the ball away a lot, too, but that happens when you’re the focal point of everything your team does in the attacking third.
Alex Iwobi (Arsenal, 30.54) – The Nigerian turns 21 in May, and has four goals and seven assists across all competitions.
“[Ibrahimovic] is a genius, he’s very intense because he wants to win everything, even football-tennis,” Herrera said to Radio MARCA.
“He assumes this role of doing or saying what he likes in front of the media because he does not care, he can say that he’ll score 30 goals or is the best because he can afford to.”
There’s certainly something to stature when it comes to saying what you feel (though on the other hand, being egotistical is rarely controversial. It’s not like Ibrahimovic is often railing on controversial soccer or social issues).
We’re sure there are plenty of players across all sports, casual and professional, who don’t understand hyper-competitive teammates, but we love a guy who doesn’t turn it down when it comes to on-the-field activities. Hopefully Ibrahimovic is the Jaromir Jagr of soccer.