BATE Borisov are on top of Group F of the UEFA Champions League, and no one can say that they don't deserve to be there. They were better than Lille in their opening match, and they were at least as good as Bayern Munich in their second match. They've defended well, taken their chances, and executed their gameplan well thus far, but they haven't gotten to this point without a good deal of luck.
The Belarusian side almost failed to make the final round of Champions League qualifying. With five of their players at the Olympics, three of whom featured regularly for the first team before the Olympics and one more that did afterwards, BATE drew Debrecen 1-1 at home in the third round of qualification. At that time, Belarus had defeated New Zealand, who Egypt drew in the Olympics, and looked like the favorite to progress to the next round. In Belarus' final Olympic match, they lost to Egypt, just in time for their players to return to BATE.
Dmitri Baga and Denis Polyakov slotted directly into the BATE lineup after returning from the Olympics, while Renan Bressan and Aleksandr Gutor made the bench. BATE scored early in the second leg, but were still under pressure until Debrecen's Balazs Nikolov picked up a red card in the 57th minute. BATE scored two minutes later, clinching progression to the next round.
A combination of skill and fortune led to their 3-1 victory over Lille on the first matchday of the group stage. BATE's first goal came via a highly speculative, but impressive 25-yard bomb by Aliaksandr Volodko. They went 2-0 up 14 minutes later, thanks to an offside goal by Vitali Rodionov, on which the linesman failed to flag. They also dodged multiple bullets early in their win over Bayern Munich, including Toni Kroos' post hit in the 13th minute when he had an empty net at his mercy, and it was easier to score.
Had Rodinov's goal been disallowed, Lille probably would have played a much different game. The same goes for the Bayern match, where the Bavarians should have went 1-0 up. BATE probably haven't played quite well enough to expect to have six points from two matches, especially when they were a bit fortunate to get to the group stage in the first place.
However, this team is not here by accident, and they do not have six points by accident. They've been very fortunate thus far and they certainly can't match up with Bayern Munich or Valencia, their opponents on Tuesday, man for man, but that doesn't mean that they haven't earned their spot.
BATE's fitness and discipline is incredibly impressive, and their ability to press their opponents for 90 minutes sometimes allows them to create their own luck. They don't create a high volume of shots or retain possession for long periods of time, but they make all of their opportunities count.
Because BATE put pressure on the ball consistently and counter quickly, while possessing players who are comfortable on the ball, even if they are defensively-oriented, a very high percentage of their chances are extremely high quality, and the possession that they enjoy always has a purpose. They keep their shape well defensively while attacking in a fairly fluid manner for a team with so few attacking stars and so little possession.
High-pressure defending is a good concept, but the problem with a high-pressure defensive tactic is that the team employing it must have one of two things: A lot of possession or incredible stamina. If a team has a lot of the ball and doesn't have to work as hard when they have possession, they can work their socks off defensively (see: Barcelona). When teams who don't have the ability to take over possession and play a methodical passing game attempt to press constantly, the plan eventually backfires as their players get tired. Even professional footballers struggle to give 100 percent effort to chasing a constantly moving ball for 90 minutes.
BATE manages to press teams for the entirety of a match, even when they have considerably less than half of the possession. Their midfielders don't have the top-notch technical or creative skills to take over a game, but their combination of athleticism, stamina and respectable technical ability makes them extremely effective players. Luiz Gustavo, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos had trouble beating them. Ever Banega, Jonas and Fernando Gago will likely have a similar experience.
Even though it's taken a good deal of luck for BATE to accumulate six points, they are a very good team with an excellent gameplan, and they belong on this stage. They can hold their own against the best of the best, and there's no reason to believe that they can't create some more luck against Valencia, even if they won't be the most talented side on the pitch.