Can Porto Beat Bayern? Computer Says No

According to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index, which uses historical data to try and predict the outcome of games, Bayern Munich should steamroll FC Porto in its two-game UEFA Champions League quarterfinal series against the Portuguese Liga club. ESPN’s algorithms have determined that the 2013 UCL winner has an 84 percent chance of advancing to the semifinals before a ball has even been kicked.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the series won’t be close, it just means that Bayern, thanks to its superior statistics, won 84 percent of ESPN’s computer’s meetings between these teams 

Or something.

To be honest, Off The Post knows very little about how computers predict things. He also knows even littler about how to measure something like how past history affects future sporting contests. While there certainly can be a psychological effect when one team routinely dominates another, it’s up to the coach to not let that affect his team’s performance, because at the end of the day, the game is still played on the field.

You also have to wonder if something like the Soccer Power Index takes, for example, injuries into account, because Bayern Munich heads into tomorrow’s clash with more than a few, and some of them are key: Arjen Robben, David Alaba, Medhi Benatia and Javi Martinez will all miss the series, while Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger won’t be fit for Wednesday’s first leg at the Estadio do Dragao. Porto, meanwhile, is sweating on the fitness of star striker Jackson Martinez, Adrian Lopez and Cristian Tello.

You could imagine Porto coach Julen Lopetegui, for example, being completely unmoved by what ESPN’s algorithms say about his team’s chances of winning this series. In a recent interview with, the Spaniard waxes philosophical about the importance of statistics in soccer: "Evidently, the more possession you have, the more chances you have to win the game. But there are no mathematics in football,” he says.

Which is precisely what the leader of a defensive-minded team would say. To be sure, Porto has been defensively strong in the UCL this season, conceding nine goals in its 16 games, while allowing a UCL-low 6.25 shots per game, and an average of just 2 shots on goal (tied with Bayer Leverkusen for lowest in the competition). 

Later in the UEFA interview, Lopetegui expounds upon his views regarding style of play, again pointing to possession, which you’ll note is a central tenet of Bayern coach Pep Guardiola’s philosophy. "One of the characteristics of football is that you need to be capable of winning, playing well and being competitive by employing different styles. Each team plays differently. That's one of the big secrets in football. In theory, if you keep the ball for an entire match, you can't concede a goal. In reality, a team with 20 percent possession can still beat you."

Is he looking squarely at his rival when he says these words? Let’s just say that this might provide a glimpse into what we can expect from this series: Bayern passing the ball around relentlessly looking for weaknesses or mistakes; Porto happy to concede pressure, looking to spring quick counter-attacks. The absences of Robben and Ribery, in particular, could prove to be the key to this series, as it could mean that Porto fullbacks Danilo and Alex Sandro feel more confident about bombing down the sides when Bayern turns the ball over. Danilo, who just signed a contract to join Real Madrid next season, has been in excellent form recently, and could prove to be the difference-maker. 

However, make no mistake about it: despite the absence of key players, Bayern is still the favorite to progress, but Off The Post would argue that giving Porto just a 16 percent chance of getting past the five-time European champion is selling the Portuguese giant, itself a two-time European champ, well short of the respect it deserves.   

Stats can inform, but they cannot predict. Maybe that’s why we watch this game. 

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