Is Group D in the Champions League easy or difficult for Tottenham Hotspur?
Evidence will eventually emerge on the pitch of course, but in the long hours between the draw being made and the exit from matches it is only natural to keep thinking and rethinking whether or not Tottenham have performed well. .
On the one hand, they have avoided all the big guns and should enter as favorites. On the other hand, there are three fixed teams from the major leagues, three difficult away matches, and no one gives Spurs a simple six points.
To start with the optimistic side of the controversy, no team is easier than Spurs could have gotten from the first pot of Eintracht Frankfurt. Their position in this bet is the bonus of winning the Europa League last season (notably beating Rangers on penalties in the final in Seville), but it was not a true reflection of their level as a team. Their coefficient result would have put them at the bottom end of the third pot (equal to Benfica, directly ahead of Sporting Lisbon and Bayer Leverkusen).
If you want another objective ranking of the relative strengths of the teams in this competition and use FiveThirtyEight’s SPI (Football Strength Index) rankings for the teams, Frankfurt were not only the weakest of the eight teams seeded into the first pot, but also one of the others. The weakest difference in the entire lottery. Only five other teams, all from Europe’s minor leagues (Dinamo Zagreb, Shakhtar Donetsk, Copenhagen, Viktoria Plzen, Maccabi Haifa) are ranked lower than them by the site.
And how do these numbers translate into the real world of actual physical football matches? Well, Frankfurt started the season very badly. Perhaps that was the emotional hangover from their second-ever European title win last season. Perhaps that is the result of this summer’s players ripple, as they lost the heart of left-back Philippe Costek to Juventus. Either way, they have only picked up two points from their three Bundesliga games so far. They started with a 6-1 loss at home to Bayern Munich (they were 5-0 down in the first half) and followed up with draws with Hertha Berlin and FC Köln.
Therefore, taking all this together, it is logical to say that withdrawing Frankfurt from the first destiny was the best thing that could happen to Tottenham, the gap is very big between them and the giants of Real Madrid: Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, PSG and so on. The news is arguably so good that it could go against almost anything that could happen to Spurs from the second and third pots.
Even if Spurs got the worst possible options from the third and fourth pots, a Frankfurt draw would have made that draw relatively easy. As it happened, they acquired Sporting Lisbon and Marseille. At first glance, this seems easy enough. Sporting Lisbon scored the second lowest in the laboratory in the third pot, ahead of only Bayer Leverkusen. Their 538th ranking was slightly better, putting them almost halfway to 32 teams in the group, 17th.
This coefficient score may not take into account the improvement made by Sporting Lisbon under Ruben Amorim (taking them to their first Portuguese title for a generation the season before), but then in the summer they sold Nuno Mendes, Joao Balinha, and Matthew Nunes (to Paris Saint-Germain). and Fulham and Wolves respectively), three important players from the Amorim team. This is just an unfortunately inevitable part of the modern football scene and already means this season will be even tougher for Sporting Lisbon. Last weekend, they went to Porto – who beat them for the Portuguese title 2021-22 – and lost 3-0.
Then there’s Marseille, whose coefficient makes it the third-best team in the fourth pot, which puts it 548th just two places above Frankfurt, low at the end of the standings for all 32 teams. It’s a big club but it’s in a constant state of transition. Igor Teodor replaced Jorge Sampaoli as coach in the summer but is already having a hard time after leaving famous Dimitri Payet.
Put it all together and a set D looks very simple for Spurs. No giant opposition, facing two teams ranked among the weakest with 538, giving Spurs a 48% chance of getting out of the group.
However, there is another aspect to this argument, which is that the combination is probably not as easy as the numbers might suggest. There is no discount at the highest level in this group but there are no real fish here either. None of the teams are affiliated with a European minor league, none have recent or real European experience, and none of them will be an easy place to go. Frankfurt proved last season that they are skilled at finding a way to beat seemingly superior teams to win the Europa League, defeating Real Betis, Barcelona and West Ham United before beating Rangers in the final. If they can invoke anything like the same atmosphere and sense of occasion at home, it’s going to be a tough ride.
Likewise, Marseille, whatever the league format, could have one of the most intimidating matches in Europe at the Stade Velodrome. And Sporting Lisbon, spurred on by Amorim’s heavy presence, may decide this year to direct all their emotional energies to Europe rather than to domestic competitions. There is a long history of English teams going to places like this, being surprised by the incident and the noise, and never coming back.
This is a young Tottenham team, and while some of these players have experience reaching the 2019 Champions League final, other than Ivan Perisic, the newcomers do not have the same background in this competition. We know how they can sometimes take on teams that are pressing really well, who may take advantage of that in the next few weeks. And of course, this Spurs team has done nothing in Europe together yet. They will have to learn from scratch.
Perhaps the ideal situation for Tottenham would have been a more hierarchical group, with one big opponent and two smaller ones, that would have provided an opportunity to rotate in simpler matches to focus resources on the Premier League. But this group, which is likely to be in Libra all the way, may not give them the opportunity to do so. Or perhaps we’re overthinking what actually looks to us: Tottenham are the strongest team and the clear favorite in their Champions League group, a scenario that every Spurs fan would happily take on just four months ago.
(Top image: Lukas Schulze – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)