The Champions League returns next week! We've reached the second round of group stage games.
One of the big differences between playing Champions League fantasy soccer versus Premier League or La Liga fantasy soccer is the number of teams involved. You've got 32 teams in the group stage, as opposed to 20 in the domestic leagues mentioned above.
There's a natural tendency to stock your lineup with players you're familiar with, from the best leagues. But there's also real value to be found in players on some of the other teams -- if you know where to look.
Just take a glance at the fantasy points leaderboard from the first round of group-stage games two weeks ago. Five of the top 10 players are from teams outside the big five leagues in Europe (England, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France).
Midfielder Nikola Vlasic would have finished third with 31.3 points, thanks to a goal and seven chances created for CSKA Moscow. Defender Nicolas Tagliafico was fourth with 30.3 points, after scoring two goals for Ajax. And forward Michal Krmencik was eighth with 26.8 points ... he also notched a brace, for Viktoria Plzen.
Those are just three examples. Shakhtar Donetsk defender Ismaily and Porto midfielder Otavio finished ninth and 10th, and two more players from outside the big five leagues -- Galatasaray's Garry Rodrigues and Ajax's Carel Eiting -- also finished in the top 20.
Here's an important note about the players mentioned above. Most of them played against teams that were also from outside the big five leagues. CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen played against each other, in a game that finished 2-2. Ajax hosted AEK Athens and won 3-0.
Galatasaray hosted Lokomotiv Moscow and also won 3-0. Shakhtar and Porto both played teams from Germany, but not against superpower Bayern Munich, or even Borussia Dortmund. Shakhtar drew 2-2 at home against Hoffenheim, who are making their Champions League debut, and Porto drew 1-1 at Schalke.
The lesson here is, don't ignore the teams from outside the big five leagues. In particular, look at the matchups that feature two teams from the outside the big five leagues, and check out which players are in good form ... especially on the home teams.
Picking a player from one of these teams -- who will almost certainly be in Tier 2 or Tier 3, and whom your opponent probably will not have -- could make all the difference in your matchup if he comes through.
There are two of these games coming up next week. AEK Athens will host Benfica, and Porto will host Galatasaray. Be on the lookout for players in these matchups, as they could offer big potential with little popularity among your rivals.
Benfica lost 2-0 at home in their Champions League opener, but they were up against Bayern Munich. They're unbeaten in their first five games in Portugal, with four wins and a draw. Pizzi, a midfielder, didn't take a shot against Bayern and was taken off after 62 minutes. But he has four goals and three assists in five domestic games this season.
AEK Athens were well beaten at Ajax, as mentioned above. They had only four shots in that game, and none on goal, so I probably wouldn't turn to any of their players this time around, even with them playing at home.
By the way, last season two players from outside the big five leagues would have been in the top 20 in fantasy points over the course of the entire group stage, which includes six games. Vincent Aboubakar finished 17th, with five goals and two assists for Porto. (That's another player to keep an eye on -- he didn't score in their Champions League opener this year, but has four goals and one assist in their first five domestic games.) And fellow forward Cenk Tosun -- now with Everton -- finished 18th, with four goals and two assists for Besiktas.
You'll also want to keep an eye out for games that feature teams from the big five leagues going up against teams from outside the big five, particularly when the biggest clubs are involved. Star players can rack up huge scores in these fixtures.
It was no real surprise that Lionel Messi notched a hat trick in the first round and was the top scorer with 51.2 fantasy points, over 13 more than any other player. Barcelona was playing at home, against PSV.
If you didn't have Messi on your fantasy team, you almost certainly lost your matchup. In fact, even if you had him on your team but didn't captain him, you were probably done for.
There are a few matchups like this coming up in the second round. In particular, I've got my eye on Paris-Saint Germain hosting Red Star Belgrade. As well as Messi performed last time out, he should find it tougher going at Tottenham. Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani are all capable of a very big points haul against Red Star, who managed a scoreless draw at home against Napoli but conceded 20 shots, including eight on target, and an expected goals total of 1.61.
Things will change come the spring, once the knockout rounds begin. When we get down to the last 16 teams, the Champions League will be made up mostly of heavyweights fighting it out.
But right now we have a mix of sharks and minnows. And when the minnows play other minnows, there can be huge fantasy rewards.