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Barcelona may be favorites to win the Champions League, but they’re not unbeatable

FC Barcelona romped to their first Champions League title last year, brushing aside all competition with seeming ease, capping it off with a 4-0 obliteration of Chelsea in the final. And they’re off to another flying start this year, with five wins out of five, 19 goals scored and only one conceded. That includes two thumping wins over Arsenal—currently at the top of the table in England.

The general consensus seems to be that Barca are pretty much unstoppable. You might almost think that the trophy might as well be etched with Barcelona’s name right now.

But it’s worth remembering that we’re still less than a year removed from a period where the Champions League title seemed like it was permanently owned by a different club. It’s certainly possible that Lyon’s run of five consecutive titles will smoothly transition into a similar period of dominance for Barca. But it’s also possible that we’re simply now moving into an era where multiple top teams can seriously compete every year.

Winning tournaments is really hard

One key thing to remember: it’s exceptionally hard to win knockout tournaments, even when you are very good. Remember the Olympics this summer? Going in, virtually no one would have predicted that the United States would fail to even make the finals. And even fewer would have dared to suggest that Canada would end up taking home gold. But that’s the thing about soccer. Even when the underlying talent gaps are huge, sometimes the weaker team can find a way. And it’s often also true that the gap turns out to not be quite as large as it originally seemed. Key players get hurt, or lose form, or take a knock which puts them slightly off the pace. Insurgent teams deploy tactics designed to neutralize the favorites.

Far too often, we take patterns for inevitabilities, and read trendlines straight off into the distant future. But life rarely progresses in a straight line. Exceptional performances are often followed by letdowns. Sometimes it’s psychological—it can be a lot easier to play freely when it feels like there’s nothing to lose, but the weight of expectations can cause you to seize up at key moments. Sometimes it’s simply the normal process of mean regression.

This is one of the great puzzles of sports. We deal with discrete single events, which have definitive outcomes. But behind those singular results lie a whole blizzard of probabilities. We can’t actually see the alternate histories where things go differently, so we’re inclined to ignore their potential. But the desire to build clean ‘just so’ narratives is generally at odds with the messiness of real life.

None of this is to deny that Barcelona are favorites. Of course they are. They’re playing incredible football right now, and anyone who wants to topple them will have to execute well and get a healthy dose of luck. And it certainly helps that the quarterfinals and semifinals use a home-and-away setup. Doubling the time makes fluke results less likely and significantly enhances the odds for the favorite.

But there’s a difference between ‘favorites’ and ‘pretty close to a sure thing.’ Especially in a single-elimination tournament. For example, if you think Barca are 80% favorites to advance at each stage of the knockouts (which sounds about right to me), that only makes them slightly over 50% to actually win the tournament. And even if you think they’re closer to 90% to win each round, that still leave almost a third of worlds where someone else is crowned champion. It’s just really hard to win three straight legs.

Another way to illustrate the point is to look at the betting odds. Those do put Barcelona as clear favorites—with a little under a 40% chance to win. But that’s not wildly ahead of Lyon or PSG, while Chelsea and Bayern are also given modest odds. Now, there’s certainly not nearly as much money in these markets as in the men’s game and they might therefore be less trustworthy. But ‘less trustworthy’ is a far cry from ‘useless.’ And they also simply confirm what should be obvious: even exceptional teams can be beat by other very good teams.

Can anyone compete with Barcelona? Sure!

The real question: is it plausible that Barcelona are really 90% favorites to win each knockout round? That implies they are not just better, but vastly better than everyone else. But that’s certainly not what last year suggests.

Barca’s march to the Champions League title last year now feels inevitable, with the somewhat dubious benefit of hindsight. But it actually could have been derailed at several spots along the way. They lost a game to Manchester City in the quarterfinals, and only just eased past PSG by a single goal in the semifinals.

Both of those do come with caveats. City’s win came in the second leg after they were already down 3-0 from the first leg. And Barca’s away goal meant that City would have had to score three more goals to recover the tie. In the semifinals, Barca held the advantage the whole way as well, scoring early goals in both legs and then sitting somewhat comfortably on their lead. So it’s certainly not true that Barca was ever on the verge of elimination.

But let’s look a little more closely. First, the quarterfinal against City. Barca won the first leg by three clear goals. A dominant performance, right? Actually, no. It was a wild game, with both sides attacking very well. Barca were clearly on top and could have scored more. But by the same token, City really ought to have scored more as well. Both teams earned penalties within a few minutes of each other. Barca scored theirs and City failed to convert theirs. By xG, Barca led 2.55 to 1.20, and neither of those numbers accounts for the penalties. So a ‘fairer’ result would probably have been 3-2. And if City had returned home with only a one-goal deficit and two away-goals...that same 2-1 home win would actually have carried them through.

In the semifinals, PSG gave Barca a serious game in the first leg. It ended 1-1, and PSG’s xG was within a third of a goal of Barca’s. And while they quickly fell behind by two goals in the away leg, they just as quickly pegged one back and spent the final hour knowing that one solitary goal would be enough to put them through on away goalLooking ahead, Barca could easily end up with a quarterfinal matchup against an excellent Bayern team, along with semifinals or finals matchups against the likes of PSG, Lyon, or Wolfsburg. These are all great squads. They’ll also have the benefit of regularly watching Barcelona work their magic over the previous twelve months—which may give them a chance to develop some countermeasures.

Lyon finally stumbled last year, but they're not too far removed from owning this competition. They finally have Ada Hegerberg back, and she's doing her best to remind everyone that she's still maybe the best player in the world. They also finally have Griedge Mbock Bathy, who may have been an even bigger loss. Oh, and don't forget the small matter of Eugenie Le Sommer and Dzsenifer Marozsán returning, with more potential signings to arrive soon. It's very easy to imagine Lyon climbing right back to the top of the hill.

Then there's Bayern, who recently scored an important win over Lyon, and who look poised to make the same sort of stratospheric leap that Barca made a couple years ago--with an extraordinary core of young players all developing and improving together. Or Wolfsburg who have not performed recently at the levels they reached a few years ago, and who had one foot out of the competition itself a few days ago. But after a blistering 4-0 obliteration of Chelsea, they have shown there's still plenty left in the tank there.

Put it all together, and would I bet on Barcelona to win this year? Probably. They do in fact look like the best team in the competition. But I’d also very happily take an even bet on the field. That's just the way it goes.