Greg Lalas
Monday February 18th, 2008

Behold, the Underdog. Overlooked, underpaid and unloved except by his local fans who dwell in ancient backwaters on the edges of Europe, like Istanbul or Athens or Oporto.

The Underdog suffers little indignities every day at the hands of the thoroughbreds. His name is mispronounced, his training facilities are criticized, his chances are mocked.

In the end, though, it is the Underdog who makes the Champions League interesting. The Fenerbahçes and Portos and Olympiakoses of the world, who sneak through the group stages at the expense of so-called bigger clubs like Marseille, PSV Eindhoven and Werder Bremen, and then wreak real havoc in the knockout rounds.

The Underdogs know ultimately they have no chance of winning the trophy. They don't have the talent or, more important, the depth. But, like a third-party candidate, the Underdog does affect the final outcome.

How would last year's competition have played out if PSV had not upset Arsenal? Would Barcelona still have won in 2006 if defending champion Liverpool had not stumbled against (relatively) little Benfica in the round of 16?

The Underdog is like a filter. He weeds out the poseurs that just don't have the stuff of champions.

In the past 10 years of the Champions League, only one club not from the big four leagues has lifted the trophy. Portuguese side FC Porto, led by a then-unknown José Mourinho (who wears the underdog's mantle better than he does the favorite's Armani wool coat), won in '04.

That was the year of the Underdog -- or perhaps a down year for everyone else? -- in the Champions League as the final four also included Deportivo La Coruña, a Claudio Ranieri-led Chelsea and AS Monaco, which knocked off Real Madrid in the quarterfinals.

This year, the Cinderella possibilities are tantalizing. Can Celtic challenge a Barcelona side that hasn't looked like a star-studded powerhouse? Can Fenerbahçe, which has lost only three times in 36 matches in all competitions this season, slay two-time defending UEFA Cup champion Sevilla and wreak further havoc in the next round?

Both those matchups begin on Wednesday. But the fun gets started with Olympiakos and Chelsea on Tuesday.

By just about any accounting, despite the wacky weather in Athens and Chelsea's two-hour "ordeal" circling above Eleftherios Venizelos Airport, Chelsea should fly past Olympiakos. Not that the Greek side are a pushover -- o Thrylos have won 10 of the last 11 Greek championships -- but Chelsea is, well, Chelsea. It has more talent in the reserves than most clubs have in the starting 11.

And now, with Avram Grant at the reins, a new attitude has seen the Blues go 15 matches undefeated in all competitions. They may not be playing the dancing football Roman Abramovich wants to see, but they are getting impressive results, which, to be honest, is more important if Roman wants his club to finally capture the elusive European crown.

Speaking to Sky Sports the other day, Frank Lampard tried to show his respect for Chelsea's opponents, but he also spoke about the Champions League trophy being "the one thing that's missing here."

Is this a sign of overconfidence? No. It's just Lamps acknowledging the realities on the ground. The difference between a club like Chelsea and a club like Olympiakos are plain to see when you go down the respective rosters.

Depth is the distinguishing factor, or the quality of the depth. If Chelsea loses, say, Didier Drogba, it can replace him with Claudio Pizarro or Andriy Shevchenko. If Olympiakos' 13-goal striker Darko Kovacevic goes down, Leonel Núñez comes in. Not quite at the same level.

Still, even Lamps -- brash as he is -- knows anything can happen now. "The Champions League is a funny competition in a way," he said, "because a lot of teams that aren't expected to win it, win it."

Can Olympiakos or Fenerbahçe or Celtic win it? No. But they can make a "deep run," picking up precious euros -- and fans -- at each successive stage. They might make it through to the semifinals. Some Underdog nearly always does.

Once there, they will meet a giant, perhaps Real Madrid, perhaps Manchester United, they can't beat. They will crash out, having done their Underdog job perfectly. They made things interesting.

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