The Underdog's day
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
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
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 --
And now, with
Speaking to Sky Sports the other day,
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,
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.