There is a ripple of excitement around the world ahead of the start of this season’s Champions League proper. The competition may be among Europe’s elite but the interest is well and truly global. Ahead of the group stages, Alankrith Shankar picks 5 sides he thinks could surprise a few teams and have long runs in the competition.
The Champions League is known to throw up a few surprises and this edition should follow suit. There is this cliché line that football fans all over the world know, “One can never predict the outcome of a Champions League game for sure”. You never know what is going to hit you. Upsets and shocks are what makes the Champions League the most talked about club competition in Europe and the World.
With such shoes to fill, which are the sides capable of raising quite a few eyebrows this season? Well, it obviously depends on the draw and with the competition ready to kick-off this week, expectations are high from certain teams from Germany, Italy, Spain and England. Barring the favourites, there are quite a few teams who in my opinion have a good shot of going a long way in the competition if not win it. Teams like Roma, Wolfsburg, Sevilla and Valencia are the names that come to mind at first but there are others too, such as Borussia Monchengladbach of Germany and Champions League returnees, Manchester United who have the capability to go till the Quarters and Semi-final stages of the competition. But to narrow down just 5 of the many possibilities is going to be hard and probably unjust to certain sides taking part in this year’s edition, but I am going to try my best to be as accurate as possible.
Manager – Rudi Garcia
Key Player(s) – Radja Nainggolan and Edin Dzeko
Stuck in probably one of the trickiest groups in this year’s edition of the Champions League, Roma will face stiff competition for the 2nd spot in Group E from German’s Bayer Leverkusen. The Italians made a return to Europe’s elite competition last season but tough luck had them in the group of death along with Bayern Munich and Manchester City. Luck didn’t seem to favour them much this time round as well but there is more hope of getting past the group stages as Leverkusen don’t pose the same threat as Manchester City did last season. Rudi Garcia has started the Italian side’s Serie A campaign in style but they are facing fitness issues due to the international break currently and though Garcia is adamant that the Champions League is not a distraction, with a big squad Roma are still struggling to maintain fitness levels. Striker Edin Dzeko and Belgian midfielder Radja Nainggollan will be the 2 players to watch out for from Roma. The imposing presence of the Belgian and his creative impetus will be key to Dzeko scoring goals for Roma and we could see a good chemistry forged between the two this season. Hopefully, they aren’t crowded out by defences in the Champions League, therefore hampering their chances of progressing further in the competition.
Manager – Hubert Fournier
Key Player(s) – Alexandre Lacazette and Anthony Lopes
The team from Lyon, France have made a comeback to the Champions League and manager Hubert Fournier will be setting his sights at least to get the side to Quarter Final stages. Credit should be given to the owner, Aulas who has managed to keep hold of star striker, Alexandre Lacazette this summer and if he reproduces the same goal scoring form of last season in the Champions League, then teams better watch out. Lyon not only rely heavily on goals from their striker but also from Nabil Fekir who was supposed to be a constant goal and assist threat. Unfortunately, Fekir injured his ACL on International duty and will most certainly miss at least the entire group stage fixtures and probably more if Lyon do progress. Goalkeeper Anthony Lopes has also garnered a good name for himself at the club and Ligue 1. He may not be anywhere close to his predecessor, Hugo Lloris in terms of quality but Lopes will be key in Lyon’s Champions League journey this season.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Manager – Roger Schmidt
Key Player – Javier Hernandez, Karim Bellarabi and Lars Bender
This was a close call between VfL Wolfsburg and the factory club from Germany, but ultimately I felt Leverkusen have a better chance of going farther in the competition considering the fact that Wolfsburg have sold one of their best players ever to wear their kit. I may still be proven wrong right from the group stages as Wolfsburg have a simpler draw in comparison to Bayer but the quality of players and the consistency that is required to succeed in the Champions League is present not in Wolfsburg but with Leverkusen. Both sides play very attractive football, efficient as ever, just the way Germans love their game but Roger Schmidt poses more of a threat with the group of players he has at his disposal along with the system that he plays. The settling in of Chicharito will be a key factor in Leverkusen scoring goals, having lost Son to Tottenham, Kiesling will be isolated up top if the Mexican fails to integrate himself with the side. Midfielder Karim Bellarabi will be charged with creating opportunities along with deadball king, Hakan Calhanoglu. The presence of Bender in the midfield will also be key for Leverkusen making it past the group stages over Roma for the second spot in the group. His vision, calmness and ball winning abilities will be put to test and if Leverkusen are to go far in the UCL, he will need to be on top of his game all the time. Of course, there is a possibility of both Roma and Bayer making it out but that involves the outrageous possibility of Barcelona failing to advance.
Manager – Hamza Hamzaoglu
Key Players – Wesley Sneijder, Lukas Podolski
The Turkish giants are once again featuring in the Champions League. 2 years ago, they managed to pip Juventus to the knock out stages and with the draw favouring them this season, it is quite possible that they will easily make it to the round of 16. After which players like Sneijder and Podolski have to pull their weight to take Galatasaray past the quarter final stages. They have a squad with a combination of experience and inexperience but with the manager himself having his first outing in the competition it will be interesting to see how far he can take his squad. They have the goods but will they deliver? I believe they will.
Manager – Louis Van Gaal
Key Players – Chris Smalling, Wayne Rooney and David De Gea
It is a shock and surprise to have Manchester United amongst the clubs on the list but with the unfortunate group of Sevilla (along with City and Juventus) it makes much more sense that United will have the better odds of making it deep into the knock out stages although they fit nowhere in the billing of a regular hipster club. Much is expected by the fans and the general public of LvG’s Manchester United this season and he needs to deliver. Help from Smalling and Rooney will be key to making it to the semi-final stages, which by itself is a big achievement for this United squad and recent contract rebel De Gea will obviously be another major contributor to United’s probable success. Anything below a quarter final finish for the English club is a failure for the amount they have spent and it is crucial they show for it in the biggest club competition in Europe.
Written by Alankrith Shankar