Every year, there are Champions League clubs that are usually expected to challenge for the trophy no matter what season it is, and no matter what kind of squad they have in one given season compared to previous years. On the other side of the coin, there are teams that may not necessarily be strong enough to actually win the title as kings of Europe, but definitely have the power to spring up a surprise or two against European football’s biggest heavyweights. For this list, we’ll be looking at the 10 biggest dark horse clubs during the 2014-15 UEFA Champions League season.
Several clubs on this list have sprung up surprises on multiple occasions in Premier League seasons past: Shakhtar Donetsk have made it to the quarterfinals on one occasion, Atletico Madrid are fresh off the heels of a Champions League final appearance where they lost to their city rivals, and Porto won it all back in 2004 under the guidance of Jose Mourinho. Whether any such surprises can happen again is up for debate since the Premier League season has only just gotten underway, but history has dictated that the biggest club tournament in Europe is hardly played on paper.
Certain clubs – for instance, Benfica and Manchester City – could be considered dark horses because they seem to have something to prove: the former lost in the final of the Europa League for the second straight year and have lost a number of their former stars to other clubs, while the latter has yet to make an impact in Europe despite winning the Premier League last season and boasting some of the world’s best players on their squad. No matter the story, all 10 of these clubs can turn heads and upset the status quo of European football’s elite. Let’s take a look.
10 Shakhtar Donetsk
Though they’ve made headlines recently for players wanting to leave the club due to unrest in Eastern Ukraine, Shakhtar Donetsk have proven in the past that they can go a decent distance in any given Champions League season. Having gone to the quarterfinals in the 2010-11 season, they’ve got a solid group of players to potentially carry them through this year as well: domestic stars such as Yaroslav Rakitskiy and Taras Stepanenko, as well as Brazilians Bernard, Douglas Costa and Fred (among numerous other fellow countrymen at the club) will be counted on to lead the club during this go-round.
Another potentially surprising team at this year’s Champions League is Shakhtar’s Group H rivals, Porto. Having won the trophy in 2004 while being managed by Jose Mourinho and boasting players like Deco, Maniche and Ricardo Carvalho, this current team doesn’t look as talented, and will see their chemistry be dependent on how well their many new signings gel with each other. However, captain Jackson Martinez is quite a lethal striker, and young players like Juan Quintero, Cristian Tello and Oliver Torres are all very promising in their own right. In a group including Shakhtar and Athletic Bilbao, anything’s possible after the group stage if they make it through.
8 Manchester City
Is there a bigger anomaly in the Champions League over the past several years than Manchester City? They’ve won two league titles in three seasons and they lay claim to players like Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure among other elite squad members, but have yet to make it past the round of 16 over the past three seasons – the first two seeing them crash out in the group stage. With Manuel Pellegrini – who has a reputation for his clubs performing well in the Champions League – remaining in charge, it’ll be interesting to see how Manchester City navigate their tough-as-nails group that includes Bayern Munich and Roma.
Quite unlucky to have lost the Europa League final two years in a row, Portuguese giants Benfica have also had salt rubbed into their wounds with the departures of Lazar Markovic, Jan Oblak, and Ezequiel Garay to Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Zenit St. Petersburg respectively, as well as loaning out Andre Gomes, Rodrigo and Filip Djuricic. The Eagles have been trying to make up for it with signings such as Julio Cesar, Jonas and Andreas Samaris, but it definitely remains to be seen how easily they will get through their group which includes Zenit, Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen. If they get through it, plenty is possible.
6 Atletico Madrid
Coming off a Champions League final appearance from last season where they fell short to crosstown rivals Real Madrid, Atletico is surely going in for the kill this time around. Although they’ve lost certain star players – namely Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois, all to Chelsea – Los Colchoneros got many strong new signings including Mario Mandzukic, Antoine Griezmann and Jan Oblak to fill some of the gaps left by the aforementioned departures. In a group featuring Juventus, the defending La Liga champions will be ashamed not to progress from the group stage, after which the world – or perhaps just Europe – is their oyster.
5 Borussia Dortmund
Okay, so you could argue that Borussia Dortmund are actually a legitimate contender for the Champions League trophy as opposed to a dark horse. However, it’s unknown how easily Die Borussen will be able to fill the boots of their biggest offensive weapon in Robert Lewandowski – who transferred to Bayern Munich this summer – through Ciro Immobile, Ji Dong-Won and Adrian Ramos. That said, the return of Nuri Sahin and Shinji Kagawa to their ranks will be likely to help them work their way towards what they hope will be their first Champions League trophy since beating Juventus for it in 1997.
4 Bayer Leverkusen
This is a pretty unexpected choice for a dark horse team, admittedly, but this Bayer Leverkusen side looks young and exciting in a way the football world hasn’t seen from them in quite a long time. Players like Bernd Leno, Son Heung-Min and Hakan Calhanoglu are among Bayer’s young guns, and the group of players the club has will make it interesting to see how they push past a group which includes Monaco, Zenit St. Petersburg, and Benfica. They might not be good enough to challenge for the trophy, but they’re certainly good enough to make a decent run in the tournament.
A.S. Roma had definitely seen some leaner years in the seasons leading up to this one, but this year, they’re quite deep. Players like Kevin Strootman, Miralem Pjanic and young Argentine forward Juan Iturbe are just a few on their talented squad that also includes Daniele De Rossi, Ashley Cole and their 38-year-old captain Francesco Totti – who recently became the oldest player to ever score in the Champions League by netting the tying goal against Manchester City. Admittedly, they’re in quite a tough group thanks to being drawn with City, Bayern Munich and CSKA Moscow, but a squad as deep as theirs should have no problem challenging for a spot in the knockout stages.
2 Paris Saint-Germain
If any club from France is going to be the first since Marseille to win the Champions League trophy, it’s most probably going to be Paris Saint-Germain. Reaping the benefits of the fact that they’ve gotten so deep and strong over the years following the club’s purchase by Qatar Sports Investments, Les Parisiens are going to hope that they can improve on two straight quarterfinals appearances in a row in the Champions League. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and co. are already off to a pretty decent start with a recent 3-2 victory in Group F over Barcelona – their only obstacle to topping the group.
They’re dark horses to win the Champions League in the eyes of former Manchester United great Paul Scholes thanks to how well they can play at home at Anfield, as well as the exciting style of play that Brendan Rodgers has instilled in the club. He’s not wrong: this Liverpool side has returned to the Champions League after five years away from the tournament, and they’ve got a reputation for making noise – and winning trophies – in seasons past. The only club that may prevent them from winning Group B is defending champions Real Madrid, but otherwise, expect the Reds to make quite a run after the group stage is said and done.