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.
Welcome to the second annual instalment of the Outside of the Boot UEFA Europa League Hipster Guides, the ultimate guide for you footballing gurus ahead of the 2017-18 UEFA Europa League. In the first part we profiled FC Fastav Zlin, Konyaspor, Zulte Waregem, PAOK and Rosenborg so if you haven’t read that make sure you do as it’s got everything you need to know and probably a bit more. In this part we’ll take a look at Astana, Vardar, Ludogorets, Nice and Braga so make yourself a coffee, grab a pack of party rings and buckle up for a rollercoaster ride.
We kick things off with a bang in the form of “Football Club Astana”, known as The Blue and Yellows, competing in their 5th season of European football (their 3rd in which they’ve reached the group stage) despite only being in their 8th year of existence.
Formed on 27th December 2008 as a merger between Almaty Megasport and Alma-Ata, the club has been heavily bankrolled by numerous sponsors since their inception and has been able to attract high calibre players and managers from within Eastern Europe- their rise to the fore of Kazakh football may be a tad less surprising than it first appears then. To take domestic form and replicate it onto the European scene is a different formula altogether, as they’ve found out to their detriment- they’ve won just one game (against Cypriot team APOEL) and have been knocked out in 4th place in the two previous times they’ve been in the Group Stages of UEFA competition. You may recall I profiled Astana in last year’s Hipster Guide but truth be told I feel like they still warrant the title of a “Hipster” club and, indeed, very little is actually known by the wider footballing fans about the club. By no means do I declare myself to be an expert but I have been a relatively avid follower of the club over the past three to four years.
Very much a club based around strong Kazakh talent, that policy (if you can call it a policy) has been relaxed over the past 12-18 months. Whilst they still have a strong core of national products- Serikzhan Mushikov, Abzal Beisebekov and Roman Murtazayev are just three that come to mind- they are also influenced by players from abroad with Patrick Twumasi from Ghana running the front line, Ivan Mayweski of Belarus standing strong in midfield and Bosnia & Herzegovina’s Marun Anicic stamping his authority at centre-back.
Last season was very much a more competitive league campaign than Astana have been, arguably, used to with FC Kairat really pushing the club hard- particularly in the so-called Championship Round- with The Blue and Yellows emerging victorious by a mere 2 points. Junior Kabananga was the driving force behind the success, with the Congolese striker tripling his tally from the two previous seasons, netting 15 goals from his 23 appearances. The man in charge, Stanimir Stoilov, was appointed in 2014 to impose his brand of possession football on the club with a view of promoting youth talent- something he has visibly done over the last three years- and has previously managed the Bulgarian national team across two stints as well as Levski Sofia, Litex Lovech, Botev Plovdiv (all in Bulgaria) and Anorthosis Famagusta in Cyprus.
The club played Olympiacos, APOEL and Young Boys in their Europa League group last season in which, being honest, they should have done better than they did; five points from six matches saw them in last place. Villarreal, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Slavia Prague are the opposition this time around and, aside from the Spaniards, it looks set to be a real slugfest for that second spot.
Fudbalski Klub Vardar- a club which I had literally never heard of until about two months ago during the qualification process for the 2017-18 UEFA Europa League. Suddenly over the past two months I have had to become an expert in this tiny Macedonian club- I kid, I’m by no means an expert but I’ve done my research so hopefully we’ll all be able to help each other along the way!
The club hails from the Macedonian capital of Skopje- a population of over 500,000- and came to its first incarnation around 1911 before a merger of FK Pobeda and FK Makedonija just after the Second World War, 22nd July 1947 to be precise, resulted in the current club that we all know as FK Vardar. As the most successful club in the history of the Macedonian Football League, with ten championships to their name, you may well have expected to have heard their name crop up in the outer realms of European footballing history before but, alas, that’s not the case.
Last season served as their second successive MFL title and it was actually an incredibly easy campaign by literally all accounts- obviously the quality of Macedonian football isn’t going to be the greatest and depth may be somewhat lacking but regardless of actual inter-division quality, the results and performances were impressive for what they were. Goals were shared amongst a fearsome foursome consisting of two Brazilians, Jonathan Boareto and Juan Felipe, a Montenegrin in Damir Kojasevic as well as Macedonia’s very own Dejan Blazhevski. Between the four players a grand total of 39 goals were scored in a 36-game division that saw the club finish with a goal difference of +51. The main man of the team however is undoubtedly Boban Grncharov. At 6ft 4, Grncharov stands tall in the team’s back line and is notable not only for his height but for possessing a particularly slender figure. With experience including spells at Metalurh Donetsk, KAA Gent, APOEL and Lierse, the 35 year old returned to his first ever club back in 2014 and has played 85 league games since. A local and national legend with a delightful beard, if Vardar are defensively sound then it usually means Grncharov has been influential in some way or another.
Coached by former Macedonia national team head Cedomir Janevski, they only appointed the Belgian-Macedonia dual citizen on 16th August this year but he penned a two-year contract as he returned to national soil for the first time in four years. Although relatively early on in his days here at Vardar, Janevski has historically favoured the 4-2-3-1 formation but given the full wealth of attacking talent at his disposal, he may look to turn that into a 4-3-3 in time.
With it being Vardar’s first season in the group stages of European competition they’ve already made history as the first Macedonian club to go so far. A group with Rosenborg, Zenit St. Petersburg and Real Sociedad is going to be a tough ask but they won’t care about that. They’ve made it to the big time and they’re here for a good time, and not necessarily a long time.
Nice, the ‘nice’ club of France, are a team without any major silverware since 1997 (the Coupe de la Ligue) and no league title since the 50s but have arguably been the most exciting team in French football over the last two years.
2014-15 saw the club finish 11th but a change in fortunes meant Nice finished 4th in 2015-16 and 3rd last season. As has been the case for so many teams across the course of these three Hipster Guides, their season of success can still be considered disappointing. Having led Ligue 1 for 14 weeks of the 38 game campaign, the south-east club faded badly to finish the season 17 points adrift of Monaco (the champions) and nine off Paris Saint-Germain (runners-up). It is no secret that the reason for that failure to capitalize on good form was their lack of clinical finishing ability- 12 draws is simply too, too many.
Aside from that I’m full of praise for the team and how they set up- typically with five players at the back but also with enough flexibility to have a back three; Malang Sarr and Dante are the two ever-presents that remain core regardless of what formation and they’re frequently joined by full/wing-backs Arnaud Souquet and, last season, Dalbert or Mathieu Bodmer. Whilst Bodmer and Dalbert have now moved on to pastures new, Dante really is the next level for Nice in pretty much every aspect. By no means am I saying that he’s the best player in the squad but the leadership, the organisation and the technical ability that Dante brings to the club is worth three Mario Balotelli’s in my opinion.
Lucien Favre certainly seems to share that opinion, having gifted the Brazilian the captain’s armband despite him only being there for a season. A fitting way to move on, Favre, the Swiss in charge, who made his name in Germany with Hertha BSC and Borussia Monchengladbach with six years of experience, joined the club in May 2016 and since then has imposed his own recognisable fluid, fast-paced, attacking football with a variety of tempos to suit the particular match. He can also be bitter, stubborn, proud and unwilling to back down from what he feels is right- brave but admirable.
With a surprisingly short history in European football- a mere 11 tournament appearances and only three since the turn of the century- they’ve not got a lot to build on although they did reach the Quarter Finals of the European Cup back in 1956/57 and 1959/60 when they lost twice to Real Madrid.
Group K awaits them and in it they’re pitted against Lazio, Vitesse and Zulte Waregem where they’ll be hoping to not only advance to the knockout stages but impress along the way.
Sporting Clube de Braga, Os Arcebispos, are the first in a double header of Group C teams so in a way I’m rather hedging my bets but they are both (Ludogorets being the other) clubs that warrant more than just an honourable mention.
Formed way back on 16th January 1921, they’re still searching for a major breakthrough in terms of domestic football. Their best season was a Primeira Liga runners-up medal in 2009/10 and since then they’ve been steadily holding the ship as a top six team of Portugal. Aside from Benfica, Porto and Sporting CP, the three titans of Portuguese football, Braga have quickly established themselves as the perennial also-rans of the division with four 4th place finishes since 2010 in addition to a 3rd place.
Last season, as with Nice, was one of “what might have been?” or, in this situation, “what should have been”. Braga should have done a lot better. Coming off the back of winning the 2015-16 Taca de Portugal and making the quarter-finals in the Europa League and the semi-finals of the Taca de Liga, confidence was high and it was supposed to be the start of a new era for the club. That was the plan anyway. Historically slow starters, Braga stumbled through the opening stanza of their season before casually hitting their stride around a third through the campaign- a good series of wins put them in a good position to push on for a top three finish. Progress stagnated, stamina faded, performances waned and the final run-in was dreadful. 5th place was not a good return on a season that should have been so much more.
Coached by Abel Ferreira, known only as Abel, the former right-back has been working within the club since 2015 when he was appointed head coach of the Braga B team. A natural progression to be appointed first-team manager in 2017, he’s been able to use that knowledge of the youth academy to bring through the cream of the crop and ensure Braga are building a legacy for the future, not just for now. Favouring the classic 4-4-2 formation, there is nothing particularly distinct about Ferreira’s team that would make them instantly recognisable. Instead they’re robust, routine and rigid. Sticking to their formation, each player is aware of one another’s responsibility and play a no-nonsense, straightforward game. No tricks and flicks, head down and run or pass and move.
The key player for the club is Ahmed Hassan Mohgoub who, like his manager, tends to go by just the one name- Kouka. Egyptian born, the 24 year old has a proven track record in Portugal with 24 goals from 66 league games for Rio Ave between 2012 and 2015 before signing a five-year contract with Braga. An absolute giant of man, 6ft3 and 85kg in stature, Kouka is physically imposing and a prospect for any defence. It’s understood the club valued the player at around six million euros- four times as much they paid for the man. He will be pivotal for the The Minho Warriors as they clash with Ludogorets, Hoffenheim and Istanbul Basaksehir in a group which could fly under the radar but ignite with sparks as the competition progresses.
The honour of being the final club for the 2017-18 Outside of the Boot Hipster Guides goes to PFC Ludogorets Razgrad of Bulgaria, The Eagles, who sit in that very aforementioned group with Braga, Hoffenheim and Istanbul.
Founded a mere 16 years ago with the name being half-stolen from a financially troubled club based in the town at the time, that club eventually folded in 2006 and Ludogorets honorarily adopted the history and representation of the Razgrad 2000 (the former club) and, indeed, the town of Razgrad. Since they joined the Bulgarian A Group following promotion in 2010-11, they have had it pretty much their own way with six consecutive league title victories by way of six different managers.
Last season was almost perfect for the club, but not quite. You see the club’s claim to fame has been their invincibility- now some would argue that six league wins on the trot is invincibility but mathematically it isn’t- so last season was their opportunity to right that supposed wrong. That didn’t go quite to plan however as they lost in the 2nd week of the regular season to admittedly 3rd place overall Levski Sofia. An agonising defeat at that, too, in a game marred by nine yellow cards – three coming after the 90th minute- Bozhidar Kraev struck the winning goal for Levski in the 91st minute of playing time to send the travelling fans back to Razgrad in heartbreak. But heartbreak doesn’t last long and the team didn’t lose another game in the entire regular season so they strode jauntily into the Championship Round with a virtually unassailable leading margin of 16 points. A further two losses in the remaining ten games saw the club secure the title with the same margin that they went into the final stage in what was, convincingly, their best season to date. Frankly they only look like getting better.
Claudiu Keseru is the man who runs the front line for the team and he’s prolific- 53 goals from 84 matches for Ludogorets speaks volumes about his talents, as does his spells with Al-Gharafa, Steaua Bucuresti, Angers, Tours and Libourne. He reminds me a tad of Jonathan Soriano not only in the way he plays but also that their careers haven’t been fair to them in terms of opportunities granted.
European history wise, what have they got? Their first tournament was in 2012-13 and since then they’ve played 52 games across all stages with a 37.25% win percentage. They progressed unbeaten from their group in 2013-14- a group with PSV, Dinamo Zagreb and Chornomerets Odessa- before beating Lazio 4-2 on aggregate. They’ve also played against, and admittedly lost to, the likes of Arsenal, PSG, Basel, Liverpool and Real Madrid so they know how to handle a big occasion. To get here, to the group stage, they beat Zalgris from Lithuania and were then pushed back by Hapoel Be’er Sheva but gained Europa League status by beating, another Lithuanian team, FK Suduva Marijampole.
Like we’ve said, Braga, Hoffenheim and Istanbul await them and I think there’s a risk of the other 3 expecting Ludogorets to roll over and have their belly tickled but, let me tell you, if they try and tickle these men then they’re going to go home handless.
AND THAT’S IT! The conclusion of the Hipster Guides- at least for this season anyway- so you may now return to your lives as they were before but with the additional encyclopaedic knowledge of wacky football clubs that will, one day, help you in the odd pub quiz or two. Enjoy the Europa League wherever you are this season and I’ll be back before the next one to either smugly recall how right I was or hastily try and cover my tracks!
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