Group runner-up not a Champions League death sentence
Soccer fans can be notoriously pessimistic. It can take a team weeks to earn the trust of a finicky fan base, but only one game to become harbingers of the club's doom. A player can go from future messiah to world-class dud in 90 minutes.
And for that corner of soccer fandom, a second-place finish in a Champions League group stage may sound less like the knock of opportunity and more like a moaning death knell.
There's no doubt that runners up have a much tougher road ahead of them in the coming weeks. Drawn against group winners that more often than not feature European giants, second-place finishers have made up just under 32 percent of teams in the quarterfinals since the 2003-04 Champions League (the first year the current format was enacted). That percentage continues to drop as the tournament progresses, with runners up comprising just 28 percent of semifinalists and 22 percent of finalists.
Of course, those anxious fans don't really care how second-place teams fare as a whole. What they really want to know is what chance their team has of progressing. And there, the odds are decidedly better, at least past the first elimination round.
Over the course of the nine prior seasons 72 group winners have faced off against 72 runners up in the round of 16. Of those playing as second best, 23 (or 32 percent) have moved on to the quarterfinals, while 49 (68 percent) of the group winners have survived to fight another day.
Bombshell: it's tough to pull the upset in the first elimination round.
But when it comes to making it out of the quarterfinals or semifinals, the odds even out considerably. The semifinals have hosted 10 teams that finished second in their group and 26 first-place teams. That means that 44 percent of the 23 runners-up that featured in the quarterfinal made it through, while 53 percent of the 49 group winners progressed.
A similar trend continues into the final, with four of the 10 second-besters making it to a final compared with 14 of the 26 first-place finishers, 40 percent progression to 54 percent.
No surprise, group winners have the edge all the way through, but beyond the first round that advantage shrinks significantly.
Even progression through the round of 16 might not be as assured as it seems for group winners. While they make up more than two-thirds of quarterfinal teams, those numbers mask some highly competitive matches.
In fact, the most common aggregate results for runners-up in the first elimination rounds are one-goal losses and draws decided by either away goals or penalty kicks. In draws, group winners have only a slight advantage, progressing by the skin of their teeth in eight of 14 games.
Naturally, the level of opposition plays a huge part in whether the Cinderellas move on. Sporting Lisbon never had much chance of slaying Bayern Munich in 2009, even if laying a 12-1 egg over both legs wasn't exactly in the game plan. They're not the only mismatch, either (Lyon besting Werder Bremen 10-2 in 2005 or Barcelona thrashing Bayer Leverkusen by the same aggregate score last year).
Still, those results are the outliers and, historically, finishing second best isn't the massive handicap it's sometimes made out to be. It might even be enough for a worst-case-scenario fan base to take a deep breath and hope for the best.
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