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Hipster Guide: UEFA Champions League – 5 Unheralded Teams to Watch

 As you know, here at OOTB, we pride ourselves in being home of the football hipster, bringing you all the stories you never thought you’d want to know but, boy, are you glad you found out about.

Following on from that vein and continuing on his quest to cover a team from every nation in Europe, Oliver McManus brings you 5 teams to keep an eye on as we progress through this season’s UEFA Champions League.

FC Rostov

Kicking off in Russia with Rostov, known as the Selmashi, they are a club with an incredibly unique and astounding history – founded in 1930, their story is distinctly unremarkable until we reach the 2007 season.

That saw one of the most disastrous club campaigns in the whole of world football history, when they scored just 18 goals in 30 league games, being relegated to the 2nd division of Russian football in the process.

Rostov managed to bounce straight back though, 42 games, 29 wins and 96 points later, Rostov romped to the league title and were promoted back to where they belonged – the Russian Premier League.

Many were expecting scraps at the bottom for Rostov for the foreseeable future, however, their first 4 seasons back in the big time proved to be one of a surprising mediocrity as they loomed around mid-table with little qualms as to their being so. The people of Rostov were content with simply mixing it with the big guys of Russian football but, even then, the team showed impressive signs of quality throughout.

Last season was their big breakthrough and, in an insatiably close contest, the Russian Premier League went right to the wire with no less than 4 clubs putting up a strong challenge to eventual winners CSKA Moscow – none stronger than Rostov who finished only 2 points behind the Champions and with over double the points scored from the season before.

Including this upcoming season, Rostov have featured in 4 UEFA European competitions, with their first being the most successful – appearing in the UEFA Intertoto Cup, Rostov beat sides from Macedonia and Croatia on their way to the semi-final of the competition, where they met Juventus in a real David and Goliath match up.

In Sardar Azmoun, they are blessed with one of the finest strikers in European football, at the moment; last season, he was the most prolific U-21 striker in the RPL, finishing with 12 goals to his name.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 12: Igor Denisov (L) of FC Dinamo Moscow challenged by Sardar Azmoun of FC Rostov during the Russian Premier League match between FC Dinamo Moscow and FC Rostov at the Arena Khimki Stadium on May 12, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images)

Igor Denisov (L) of FC Dinamo Moscow challenged by Sardar Azmoun of FC Rostov (Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images)

Already 7th in the list of all-time top-scorers for Iran, Azmoun is one of a kind, he has that spark that all scouts are looking for and it won’t be long before he makes a big-money move to a top class club. Until then, Rostov have got to get the best out of him for the good of both the player and the team.

Rostov have a battle on their hands, because they are in a titan of a group. It is almost guaranteed that Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich will finish in the top 2 and progress to the knockout stages but, the fight for Rostov will be to secure 3rd place in the group and a place in the Europa League knockout phase.

It will be tough for them, that’s for sure, but they play without fear and they take it to the big teams with nothing to lose.

Bayern, Atletico, PSV, bring your best because the boys from Rostov are here and they’re up for a real European dust-up, they may not leave victorious but they will leave their mark on the competition for years to come.

Sporting Clube de Portugal

Perhaps a team still overshadowed by the fact that they were the first club of Cristiano Ronaldo, Sporting have spent the last 6 or 7 years trying to carve out a new, fresh reputation for themselves.

Having lost in the play-off round to Igor Akinfeev’s, CSKA Moscow last year, they are already assured of a better showing in the upcoming campaign and will be looking to go one step even further by getting out of the group stage of the Champions League for the first time since the 2008-09 season.

Poor as that may sound, they have had a couple of impressive Europa League tournaments in time between – even reaching the semi-finals in the 2011-12 season, managing to beat Manchester City in the process. Of course, as we all know, the Europa League is a completely different kettle of fish to the Champions League (having said that, if Tottenham ever win it, I will maintain that it is the greatest tournament to grace the world).

Sporting's head coach Jorge Jesus gestures from the sideline during the Portuguese league football match Sporting CP vs Moreirense FC at the Jose Alvalade stadium in Lisbon on September 10, 2016. / AFP / PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA (Photo credit should read PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Sporting’s head coach Jorge Jesus gestures from the sideline (Photo credit: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images)

In all seriousness, though, Sporting’s first season under legendary coach Jorge Jesus saw a marked improvement in results for the club – 10 more points and a goal difference bettered by 20, resulted in their most successful domestic campaign since the turn of the century.

Not only on paper, did they improve, but they developed a new vibrancy and fluidity to their play, stemming attacks from the midfield dynamic duo Bryan Ruiz and William Carvalho, whilst Algerian sensation Islam Slimani slotted home 31 goals in all competitions.

Transfers this season have been based around developing a strong array of youth talent and building a future of success – on the loan front, Joel Campbell has joined from Arsenal and, whilst it seems an age since he impressed at Olympiacos, both himself and the club will be hoping he can deliver as a replacement to Slimani – who left for Leicester earlier this summer.

Sporting have been dealt the final blow in their European adventures by German teams, Schalke, Wolfsburg and Leverkusen, respectively, in each of the last 3 seasons. With a new man in the dug-out and a breath of fresh air around the side, they will be looking to avoid this omen again, as they look to progress to the knockout stages and, for the first time in a long time, punch well above their weight.

As I say, they are trying to change their image from the former club of Ronaldo and, I can’t help but get the feeling that something special is brewing for the Leões.

They are in the unique situation where they can dictate their own future, they can write their own legacy, so, do yourself justice, do Portuguese football justice and, just maybe, you will find yourself as the turning point for the fate of Portuguese clubs in Europe.

Football Club Dynamo (Dynamo Kyiv)

From Portugal, let’s make the journey to the rather remarkable Ukraine and visit their current Premier League champions, Dynamo Kyiv.

Revered in their home country, it is clear to see why with their domestic form being, to say the least, electric – losing only 2 games out of their last 56 league matches. So, long time domination you may be thinking? You’d be wrong, Kyiv achieved back-to-back titles after a drought spanning back to 2008 and, in doing so, reprinting their name on the history books of European football.

With five wins from six this season at the time of writing, confidence is sure to be soaring as they look to make it 3 from 3 – complicating matters, however, is the small issue of Shakthar Donetsk who are 6 from 6. They’ve been fairly absent on the domestic scene as of late but appear to be back with a burning desire for silverware.

Sergiy Robrev, the former Tottenham striker, is in charge of the club and last season they reached the last-16 of the UEFA Champions League. That result is far more impressive than it sounds, with many pundits (both professional and armchair) expecting them to struggle to get out of their group which featured European giants Chelsea and Porto, as well as the dastardly tricky Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv.

They did, however, progress from that group – losing just one game in the progress – before moving on to face Manchester City in the knockouts. A 3-1 loss in the first game put the tie to bed but, despite having nothing to play for, a dogged performance resulted in a 0-0 draw from the 2nd leg.

As I say, dogged describes them and with some 18 yellow cards to their name already this season, some could call the team undisciplined, others could call them tough-tackling and robust. Frankly, I favour the latter because, having got hold of (whisper it quietly) a couple of dodgy internet streams, the way they commit to tackles is not reckless, rather full-bodied, bleeding with passion and determination.

Determination is a word which, I find, sums up Dynamo perfectly because, on paper, they shouldn’t be where they are, but through sheer grit, hard work and unity they are the flagbearers of football in Eastern Europe.

Andriy Yarmolenko, the 26-year-old, is going to be a key cog in the wheel of Kyiv’s European hopes this season – since his debut as an 18-year-old, he has played 293 times for the club, scoring 115 times in the process.

Ukraine's midfielder Andriy Yarmolenko (L) runs with the ball during the Euro 2016 group C football match between Ukraine and Poland at the Velodrome stadium in Marseille on June 21, 2016. / AFP / BERTRAND LANGLOIS (Photo credit should read BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukraine’s midfielder Andriy Yarmolenko (L) runs with the ball during the Euro 2016 (Photo credit: BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images)

It would be easy to label the men in white as a one-man team but that is simply not the case. Talent runs through the veins of the club, and no-one epitomises the value of Dynamo Kyiv more than, 41-year-old goalkeeper, Oleksandr Shovkovskiy who has played for the club for more than 23 years.

A club full of praxis, principle and passion, a successful European campaign beckons with the knock-out stages within touching distance. Having said that, however, the hot and cold nature which beholds them could also mean a complete blow-out. Let’s wait and see.

Club Brugge

Club Brugge Koninklijke Voetbalvereniging, to give them their full name (but, we’ll stick to Club Brugge, just for fun), are the reigning Belgian Pro League champions having regained the title for the first time since the 2004-05 season.            

That’s not to say they went about doing so in an easy fashion – not by any stretch of the imagination – the 30 match regular season was a tale of two very differing extremes because although they won 21 of these games, they only drew one and lost the remaining 8. To make things even more confusing, when they won they usually won fairly convincingly yet, when they lost they lost pretty disastrously.

The ‘play-off’ round, however, saw them hit their stride in impressive fashion – winning 7 of the 10 games, scoring 25 goals in the process and taking the title from Anderlecht, their nearest rivals, by 7 points.

Coached by Michel Preud’homme, the legendary Belgian goalkeeper, he brings a wealth of domestic experience to the hot-seat, having already coached within the league for 8 years, the current being his 3rd  in charge of the Blauw-Zwart (Blue-Black).

BRUGGE, BELGIUM - JULY 23: Head coach Michel Preud'homme of Brugge celebrates winning 2-1 the Supercup match between Club Brugge and Standrad Liege at Jan-Breydel-Stadium on July 23, 2016 in Brugge, Belgium. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

Michel Preud’homme of Brugge celebrates winning 2-1 the Supercup match between Club Brugge and Standard Liege (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

Those 3 seasons have brought 3 trophies, 2 further finals, 81 wins from 138 and a whole new set of admirers for both Brugge and Preud’homme, respectively. Preud’homme ruled himself out of the running for the Belgian national job earlier this summer, in favour of committing his long-term future to his current club.

Club Brugge’s record in European football makes for a very mixed, extensive, sometimes painful reading but things have got better as of late meaning, surely, things can only continue this way?

The 2014/15 season saw them top a potentially difficult group, in the Europa League, with Torino, HJK (of Finland) and Copenhagen. They did so impressively, as well, remaining unbeaten with 3 wins and 3 draws from their 6 matches. Onto the round of 32 they marched where they met, another Danish side in, AaB – running out comfortable winners by 6 goals to 1, they continued on to the next stage where they beat Besiktas 5-2.

Oh, I’m sorry, did someone say quarter-finals? Because that’s where Brugge found themselves – in relatively untainted ground, the experience of being there was big enough for the club and, facing Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, they had a tough task on their hand. Two rather gritty performances in, albeit, relatively tame clashes saw them just run out of the competition by a single goal but, still, they got there and they got there by their own accord – an incredible feat.

This season, however, has been incredibly shaky for everyone involved at Brugge. Despite the commitment from Preud’homme, it’s looking as though his job may be in danger; although only 5 games into the season, Club Brugge lie in 9th place from the 16 team league and have won only 2 games. What’s worse is that, key forward, Abdoulay Diaby has yet to really get firing as he did last season and, without that potency, it may well be a long slog for the team.

But, Europe beckons and with that, who knows, spirits always seem to be lifted and players always seem to be able to find that little bit extra within themselves to really push performances. I’ve always been a little cynical and assumed they are doing it for selfish reasons but, genuinely, Brugge are a collective group of young talents who kind of remind me of just a bunch of mates having a kick-around at the local park; they play for each other, they carry each other and, hopefully, they’ll succeed together.

Fussball Club Basel 1893

Ah yes, FC Basel, a team trying to make a name for themselves in a country largely overshadowed by Lindt chocolate, snowy slopes and Roger Federer – it is of course Switzerland!

Basel were assured of a place in the Champions’ League Group stages by winning the Swiss Super League for the 7th time in a row and, the 19th time in their history. What was surprising, however, was the fashion in which they did it; as, former midfielder, Scott Chipperfield said on Twitter, “never seen Basel win so easily yet play so poorly”.

And that, unfortunately for the state of Swiss football sums up the affairs of the Super League – distinctly un-super. Maybe if it was called the Swiss fairly-mediocre League, it would be a fairer representation of the standard of play – rude as that may sound, there is no denying that there is a very real lack of competition in the country at the moment.

Let’s take last season, having watched the club live on numerous occasions, Basel performed outstandingly poorly throughout the campaign and yet still escaped with 83 points to, nearest rivals, Young Boys’ 69. The fact is, Basel have enjoyed a detrimental monopoly over the domestic game for quite some time, and it’s starting to show throughout their tired and lacklustre performances.

Urs Fischer has been in charge of Bebbi since July of last year after a, relatively, failed experiment with, their first non-German speaking manager ever, Paulo Sousa came to an untimely end.

Basel's Swiss head coach Urs Fischer gestures during a training session in Basel on September 12, 2016, on the eve of the UEFA Champions League League group A football match beetween FC Basel 1893 and PFC Ludogorets Razgrad. / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Basel’s Swiss head coach Urs Fischer gestures during a training session (Photo credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Anyway, since then, Fischer has enjoyed a successful 15 months having lost only 7 games in that time and revolutionising the style of play at St Jakob-Park; an experienced side mixed with one or two young gems has meant that Basel have enjoyed an assured fluidity to their play as well as youthful exuberance to their attacking spirit – hats off to Fischer, he’s made a boring league just a little less boring.

Embodied in the history of European football, Basel have played over 200 games in the competitions with their best results coming as of late – it’s a new dawn for Swiss football!

In 2014-15, they competed in Group B of the Champions League facing the mighty Real Madrid, Liverpool and Belarus’ Ludogorets Razgrad; whilst Real Madrid stormed to the top with 6 wins from 6, Basel battled it out with the others to become best of the rest with gritty and determined performances which assured them of a place in the knockout stages.

For the first time in their history, they had reached the round of sixteen and, although they lost 5-1 to Porto, they had proved to themselves that they have the capability of competing within Europe and broken their duck of group stage exit after group stage exit.

In Marc Janko, Basel have one of the most experienced strikers around – at 33 years of age, he has been prolific in Austria, Holland, Portugal, Australia, at a national level and, now, for Basel. Having joined on a free transfer from Sydney, Janko hit the ground running, scoring 16 goals in 20 Super League appearances and has won 14 honours for both his clubs and as an individual.

This season, they will face Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain and, old favourites, Ludogorets. Now, expectations are low and that is understandable what with two powerhouses in their groups.

They should, however, favour themselves to come 3rd in their group and, thusly, qualify for the knockout stages of the Europa League. That may sound quite pessimistic, but it’s a harsh reality for the club, domestic dominance may look good on paper but it doesn’t do a lot for improving your performances on the pitch.

So, there you go, that is 5 teams to keep an eye out on during this season’s UEFA Champions’ League group stages and (hopefully for me) the latter stages as well – I always feel a tingling sense of raw emotion when that famous music comes on at the beginning of match broadcasts, a feeling that the season really begins.

Now that my team, Tottenham, are back in the big time, it will certainly be a more stressful period in the McManus household but, it will be a riveting one.

UEFA Champions League? Bring it on.

Oliver McManus

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