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Oliver McManus takes us on a journey through some of the more obscure parts of Europe as he tells us about some of the Hipster teams to watch out for in the Europa League.
The Europa League is full of obscure clubs with equally obscure stories, here at OOTB we pride ourselves on being home of the football hipster and as such I’ve scoured Europe to deliver you 10 of the most ‘hipster’ clubs taking part in the competition this season.
Straight off the bat, though, I’m going to clear up that, having finished 6th in the East Kent Molten Youth League U12 Division Three, I am no stranger to the rigours of high-pressure football and, thusly, I feel qualified enough to be as harsh as I want about these clubs!
I’ll kick off in Israel, home to, well a lot of things but what has become increasingly popular in recent years is their football – sit back and learn all about their latest team in Europe;
Hapoel Be’er Sheva are a team with very little to show in terms of history and I mean, very little – but all that has changed recently and it’s not exactly clear to see why because they’ve stuck to their roots and origins and, somehow, they’ve come out on tops.
Take last season, they romped to the Israeli title, losing only 2 games in the process and they only conceded a goal every 120 minutes. You may be thinking, so what? But, I’ll tell you what makes this feat all the more impressive is that, for many a season, they have been nomads of the game – just 3 seasons ago they were battling for their top-flight status when they were competing in the relegation play-offs.
Since that time a period of, not transformation but rather, rebirth has taken place and, in keeping with their youthful heartbeat, a new manager was appointed in the hope of turning around the clubs fortunes. Barak Bakhar came on board in the summer of 2015 and, since then, the 36 year old has worked wonders with the club set up.
Similarl to his style as a player Bakhar sets The Camels to frustrate the opposition, wearing them down with the hope to catch them on a quick, sharp counter-attack.
This game plan was executed to perfection when they encountered Olympiacos in the 3rd Qualifying Round for this year’s Champions League – a steely performance from the midfield prevented the Greeks from producing any meaningful attacks whilst at the other end of the pitch, Be’er Sheva’s strikers were clinical when needed.
It’s fair to say, Hapoel are caught in a spell of creating history for football in Israel and they’ll be looking to take this history from the domestic scene onto the wider European scene.
Key to any success that will great the Israeli’s will be their centre-forward and captain, Elyaniv Barda. A striker who, on his day, will wreak havoc with any self-respecting defence and who, despite being a mere 5’10, possesses an absolute bullet of a header.
Having played for Racing Genk in Belgium, his experience could be key to the fortunes of The Camels, let’s just hope he doesn’t get the hump.
In all seriousness though, Hapoel are in a group with Inter Milan, Sparta Prague and Southampton so it will certainly be a step up in quality from their usual opposition but we’re yet to see if it’s a step too far.
Moving from Israel, to Ireland where we’ll take a look at the remarkable story of Dundalk – something which you can read about more, courtesy of our very own Alex Lynch.
Dundalk are a club not unused to the spotlight, although admittedly on a far smaller scale; in 2006, they won what they believed to be a promotion/relegation play-off but what the FAI later claimed was merely to determine final standings. With one fan threatening to set the FAI headquarters alight – they made headlines but not the Premier Division.
2008 would see them claim promotion to League of Ireland Premier Division where they would begin their journey to where they are today; in 2014 they won the ultimate domestic honour (the League) but their failed European qualification ensure they didn’t reach the heights they may have expected.
Last season, they won the title from Cork City by 11 points and they set off on another foray into European football – starting in the 2nd Qualifying Round of the UCL, they scraped past Icelandic club FH by away goals, the next round saw them pull of an almighty upset by crushing BATE Borisov, 3-1. Group stage football was assured but defeat by Legia Warsaw meant it would be the Europa League, rather than the Champions League.
Coached by Stephen Kenny – who had a 4 game professional career – the club have managed to pull off several transfer coups in signing some of the best players from rival clubs to ensure that the spine of the team remains strong as ever.
With all due respect, the League of Ireland isn’t the most competitive league – far from it, in all honesty – but Dundalk are certainly a team with quality unknown by the football masses, owing in no small part to the lack of media coverage both at home and abroad. Capable of playing above their minnow status, they possess a tenacious spirit like no other and, as demonstrated by their win against BATE, are capable of digging in when it hurts and pushing the opposition to oblivion.
In a group with Zenit, AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv, I’d favour Robbie Benson as the team’s strongest performer. A 24 year-old midfielder, without a Wikipedia page, he has played 16 times in the League this season after joining from UCD in January and has a will to work combined with a tractor of an engine which will make him a thorn in the side of any opposition.
Dundalk can play with freedom in the group stages because there are no expectations for them to produce anything. Having said that, the whole of Ireland will be backing them and I wouldn’t be surprised if they managed to pull off a few surprises here and there.
That was Dundalk and for our next club, we’ll take a trip to Greece to take a look at the reigning Greek SuperLeague champions – Olympiacos.
In picking Olympiacos as a potential giant-killer of a team, I had to ask myself at what point we should stop acting surprised that the Kokkinoi keep winning the Greek Super League.
Because, no-one likes a show off and it’s like, after 18 league titles in 20 years, you’d think they’d be kind enough to let someone else win once in a while, wouldn’t you?! The club have other ideas however, and they continue to improve as a squad and to impress endlessly.
As I said, the club keep on getting better and better and, in a way, their dominance is just part of the spectacle that is Greek football. They ignite the passion in a fan, even a neutral, in such a way which many other teams could only dream of – because everyone has heard of the club and everyone (even if they don’t know it) love them.
30 points was their winning margin last season, their nearest rivals Panathinaikos barely bothered to dream about a title challenge and Olympiacos knew it. They don’t play boring football, they entertain and in times of deep financial turmoil in Greece, the fact that they can increase attendances by 6% year on year speaks volumes about their style of play.
Having said that, however, they have suffered a mini-wobble this season and they are already into their second manager after Victor Sanchez was sacked following a 1-0 friendly defeat to Besiktas. Not to fear though, his replacement, Paulo Bento was in charge of the Portuguese national team for 4 years and is returning to Europe after a 10 game stint in Brazil with Cruzeiro.
European omens for them are good, to say the least, having beaten Arsenal 3-2 in the group stages of the Champions League last year and continuing to put in performances that often outweigh the end result. Of course, football is a results business but signs of encouragement are still there.
It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that the whole of Greece needs a result given the circumstances – if for anything just to raise morale and put the country on the world stage for all the right reasons.
With little threat expected domestically, Olympiacos will be able to put additional focus into their Europa League campaign and a group which features APOEL, Young Boys and Astana, they will be confident in putting on a show for their fans and of playing in the only way they know how – that means plenty of flair and plenty of flares.
One of two Russian Premier League clubs to hail from Krasnodar, The Bulls were formed in 2008 and have an absolutely remarkable history to them.
As I say, they made their bow in professional football in 2008 in the 3rd tier of Russian football and, after a variety of exclusions, refusals and disqualifications of other teams, they found themselves in the 2nd Division by the start of the next season.
Steady progress was made, finishing 10th in their first season at that level, and then 5th the next season. Now, 5th wouldn’t usually result in promotion to the RPL but 3 clubs refused to play due to financial fears and, yet again as a result of technicalities, Krasnodar found themselves promoted.
So, obviously and understandably, Krasnodar came into the league with people dismissing them – owing to the fact that, if we’re honest, they weren’t there based on merit but rather luck. The Bulls were bullish in their defiance, however, and looked to give critics the horn by proving them wrong on the pitch.
After repeatedly impressive, yet mid-table finish seasons, they finished 4th last season to secure them their third successive Europa League campaign after trips to the Group Stages and the Round of 32, respectively.
Their short spell in European football has been incredibly impressive, with wins over Real Sociedad, Wolfsburg, Dortmund and PAOK coming of particular note. Who’s doubting their footballing merit now?
Oleg Kononov, their manager, has been at the club since 2013 and has masterminded their rise to the top domestically and ensured that they are on the precipice of becoming a real threat in Europe. In only his 3rd job as a manager, the 50 year-old is starting to make a name for himself thanks to his fearless approach to the game.
2016-17 will see them face off against Schalke, RB Salzburg and Lille in Group I of the Europa League and they will be looking to Fyodor Smolov to lead them to glory;
Smolov was the league’s top-scorer last season with 20 goals and, after arriving at the club with a goal-scoring record of 14 in 127, has hit 30 goals in 48 matches for Krasnodar.
Aged just 26, it is no surprise that he has been scouted by clubs in and around the Premier League, the man has quality and, having managed to watch a bit of him, is one of the most potent strikers of his generation. Too good to be stuck in Russia all of his life, he will be looking to impress on the European stage to try and attract some suitors.
Having already defeated 2 German clubs in their European adventures, they will be confident that they can pull of another win when they face Schalke and, as for Salzburg and Lille, they will be going for the jugular as they look become the next from Russia to advance in Europe.
Qarabag FK are, perhaps, mostly famed outside of Azerbaijan due to their rather obscure name and the propensity of fans to dismiss them as “carrier bag”, rather than any of their actual on-pitch achievements.
2013-14 was when Qarabag made Azerbaijan sit up in their seats and take notice – for too long, the people had been watching the trio of Baku clubs (Netchi, Inter and FC) take title after title and, at the end of the day, it was becoming dull. So Qarabag took it on them to spoil the party!
Inspired by the form of 22 goal striker Reynaldo, The Horsemen recorded their highest points tally in the League’s history (72), to take the title from Inter Baku by 5 points.
They won the league the season after, as well, but last season, was domination for Qarabag, winning both the Cup and League, they completed the double in merciless fashion. 26 wins from 36, 84 points, a goal difference of +45 – the numbers speak for themselves and they impress.
Qarabag have played in each of the last 7 Europa League competitions but only made the group stage in 2014-15.
It was well worth the wait, however, as they had to navigate 3 rounds of qualification before being pitted against Saint-Etienne, Inter Milan and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in a tough group.
The 6 group games were, shall we say, shrewd, as they scored only 3 goals in the process but, more importantly, only lost twice against opposition that were expected to dominate them. 6 points from 6 games saw them finish 3rd place, so not enough to progress but certainly enough to sustain an inner belief of belonging.
The 5ft 8in Brazilian striker, Reynaldo is the main star in Qarabag’s team – a 27 year old, he was just starting to establish a name for himself in Belgium when Azerbaijan came a-calling and he decided it was time for a new challenge.
2 prolific seasons and 2 seasons of injury later, he comes in to his 5th season looking to leave his mark and move on to better things – he’s about to reach his peak and it is his last chance to earn a move to the bigger leagues.
Already the most successful club from Azerbaijan in European football, there is no limit to what Qarabag can achieve, and a relatively easy group would suggest that they can play with an air of freedom and stretch their reputation even further.
This brings us to the conclusion of part one – I know, hasn’t it gone quickly?! Anyway, stay tuned because coming up soon will be part two where you can learn enough trivia about 5 obscure teams from across Europe to bore your friends with for the whole of the season.