Gear up with your organic ginger ale and mystical moustache oil, as Richard Pike briefs us about 5 off beat and hipsterish teams to watch in the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League
Whilst it is easy to look at the Champions League and pinpoint its elite level teams such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus etc, there are also some off the beaten track stories that are always worth keeping an eye on. Sometimes, unheralded sides go under the radar and surprise with their performances in the competition. In other cases, just qualification for the Champions League and the opportunity to face the elite sides of European football is a romantic story worth following. Despite these teams having very little if no chance at all of getting to the latter stages of the competition let alone winning it, their presence and the route they have undertaken to qualify for the group stage gathers your intrigue and gives hope to fans who support a smaller team.
Here are 5 sides from off the beaten path to keep an eye on in this season’s Champions League.
BSC Young Boys
Group: H (Alongside Juventus, Manchester United and Valencia)
The Swiss league may not be one of the most followed leagues, however, many fans across Europe will be more than aware of the exploits of one of the country’s most famous clubs, FC Basel. Fans of English clubs have been more than aware of this with both Manchester United and Liverpool eliminated in the group stages of the Champions League by Basel in the 2011-12 and 2014-15 seasons. However, after years of Basel dominance in Switzerland, a new hegemony is building in Swiss football, that of capital club Young Boys.
The Bern-based club won their first Swiss league title in 32 years in 2017-18 and thus guaranteed themselves a place in the so-called easier Champions Path qualification for this season’s Champions League. After a few years of trying to make the group stages of the competition through the non-Champions path and failing, this time Young Boys finally achieved their dream of Champions League qualification with a 3-2 aggregate victory over Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb.
There are two areas of intrigue about Young Boys that make them a side potentially worth keeping an eye on. Firstly, it will be intriguing to see how another side from Switzerland other than Basel get on in the Champions League. Young Boys’ title last season, the 12th in the club’s history broke Basel’s 8 year streak of Swiss championship victories. It was also achieved by a comfortable margin of 15 points. In further signs that Young Boys have taken over from Basel as Swiss football’s dominant force, so far after 6 games of the 2018-19 season, Young Boys lead the Swiss league standings with a maximum 18 points from their 6 games, 9 ahead of Basel already.
The second area of intrigue about Young Boys is that their squad contains a lot of experienced players, some of which were tipped to be stars earlier on in their careers but never quite lived up to the hype. Fans will remember two of Young Boys’ current roster who fill this description perfectly. Miralem Sulejmani was once tipped as a future star when just a 19 year-old youngster at Ajax who paid a EUR 16.25 million fee to fellow Dutch side Hereenveen for his services, however he never progressed to the heights once tipped of him. After an unsuccessful spell at Benfica between 2013-15 after leaving Ajax, the Serb signed for Young Boys in the summer of 2015 and has been part of the furniture of Young Boys since.
The second memorable player familiar to many is veteran French striker Guillaume Hoarau. The now 34 year-old had a breakthrough season at French Ligue 2 side Le Havre with 28 goals in the 2007-08 season and subsequently signed for Paris St Germain the following summer. His first season with the Parisien club was a success with 17 goals in 33 games, however, circumstances off the pitch limited Hoarau’s impact at PSG in future seasons with the club being taken over by Qatar Sports Investment (QSI). The arrival of the likes of Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic forced Hoarau down the pecking order. After leaving PSG in 2013, unsuccessful spells in China and at fellow French club Bordeaux followed before Hoarau signed for Young Boys in 2014. Hoarau has become a legendary figure at the Bern-based club scoring a minimum of 15 goals per season for the least 4 seasons. He is, one of the last remnants of the pre-QSI era at PSG still playing today.
Nobody expects Young Boys to qualify from this devilishly tough Champions League group, but with some experience in their ranks as highlighted above they may not be the easy beats some predict. With Basel entering into a period of rebuilding, the onus is on Young Boys to carry the can for Switzerland in European competition. Swiss fans tired of Basel’s recent domination will certainly keep an eye on their results.
Group: E (Alongside Bayern Munich, Benfica and AEK Athens)
Making a welcome return to the Champions League groups for the first time since 2014-15 are Dutch football’s most famous club Ajax. This season as a result of coming 2nd in the 2017-18 Eredivisie, Ajax had to negotiate 2 tough qualification games against Standard Liege of Belgium and Ukrainian side Dynamo Kiev. However, whilst in previous seasons these would have proven tricky, there were no such problems this season as comfortable aggregate scores of 5-2 against Standard Liege and 3-1 against Dynamo Kiev saw Ajax dining once more at European’s football’s top table.
There are many reasons why Ajax are an off the beat team worth watching this season. One reason to keep an eye on Ajax has always been their continuous superb commitment to signing and playing young players or promoting young players through their world-class academy. The Ajax of 2018-19 also possess so much young talent that could emerge as a future star player to keep an eye on with the likes of Brazilian David Neres, Danes Rasmus Kristensen and Kasper Dolberg and home grown academy product Mathias de Ligt.
However, two other factors make Ajax a team to watch. Whilst Ajax are renounced for their youth policy, they have mixed this up in recent seasons by also signing some experienced and familiar players. Two signings this summer are testament to this, former youth product Daley Blind returned to the club after 4 seasons at Manchester United. Also signing was veteran Serb Dusan Tadic, familiar to many viewers of English football after 4 years at Southampton. Add these two summer recruits to the presence of veteran Dutch striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar and you have three very capable players who can still on their day enable Ajax to match up well to richer teams in the big Western European leagues. Ajax and Dutch clubs have struggled to make an impact since the new millennium in the Champions League as the era of big money arrived in football. However, signings such as these above hint at a desire to at least try and make Ajax a competitive team again. It is not just on the pitch where exciting developments are ongoing. Off the pitch, the appointment of recent backroom staff such as former Ajax and Dutch playing legends Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars also hint at a desire to attempt to try and revive the former glories in Amsterdam.
Looking at their summer recruitment and their promising youth, one would think Ajax have a chance to make the knockout rounds of the Champions League for the first time since 2005-06. The draw has been relatively kind to Ajax placing them in a group with Bayern Munich, Benfica and AEK Athens. Whilst expecting them to defeat Bayern Munich and win the group is probably too optimistic, Ajax are probably at present favourites to finish second behind the Bavarians ahead of Benfica and AEK in what will be a fascinating and tight tussle for 2nd place.
Group: F (Alongside Manchester City, Olympique Lyonnais and Shakhtar Donetsk)
The surprise package of the 2017-18 Bundesliga, Hoffenheim recorded an excellent 3rd placed finish, securing Champions League football for the first time in the club’s history. Despite their 30,150 capacity stadium being based in the nearby town of Sinsheim, the village of Hoffenheim where the team played their home matches at until they ascended to the 1 Bundesliga has a population of just 3,272 inhabitants. Instantly, this is one factor which makes Hoffenheim a team worth watching this season in the Champions League as it is hard to imagine a smaller place anywhere in Europe to have a Champions League participating team.
Despite Hoffenheim’s ascent through the German football pyramid over the last 15 years being in thanks to the backing of billionaire SAP entrepreneur, Mr Dietmar Hopp, Mr Hopp is a local businessman who once played for the club’s youth team in the late 1950’s. This makes Hoffenheim a refreshing change to other clubs who have ascended to the top of their country’s footballing pyramids with a sugar daddy who either have no affiliation to the club or is not of that club’s nationality.
There are also two more factors that make Hoffenheim a team to watch. The first of which is their terrific young manager, 31 year old Julian Nagelsmann. In October 2015, at the age of just 28, Nagelsmann became the youngest ever manager to be given a full time job in the German Bundesliga. Hoffenheim were under severe danger of relegation when Nagelsmann was appointed, yet he steered them to 15th place and safety at the end of 2015-16. A superb 4th place finish followed in 2016-17 and then in 2017-18 came an even more impressive 3rd place finish. However, there is an interesting sub-plot to the story of Nagelsmann, nicknamed “Mini Mourinho” in some quarters in Germany.
This sub-plot is that Nagelsmann has already agreed to join fellow Bundesliga side RB Leipzig as their new manager from the start of the 2019-20 season after he activated an escape clause in his Hoffenheim contract this summer. RB Leipzig have ambitions to challenge Bayern’s supremacy in Germany and their statement of intent is clear with the hiring of arguably the most promising young manager in world football at present. Therefore, 2018-19 provides Nagelsmann with a dry audition in his final season at Hoffenheim for his appointment at RB Leipzig.
The second reason for Hoffenheim being a team to watch is that like the aforementioned Ajax in their group, Hoffenheim in Group F of the Champions League should be engulfed in a close three way tussle for runners up spot behind Manchester City and a place in the Champions League Last 16. Lyon and Shakhtar should both prove challenging but beatable opponents for Nagelsmann and Hoffenheim. Hoffenheim’s perfomances are very important as the German Bundesliga had a poor year all round in UEFA competitions last season. The league was outscored by both the French Ligue 1 and Russian Premier League, two leagues ranked lower in UEFA’s co-efficent rankings and therefore needs to up its game this season. Key players to watch at Hoffenheim are Leicester City’s former Croatian forward Andrej Kramaric, midfielder Leonardo Bittencourt and English youngster Reiss Nelson, on loan from Arsenal.
Group: E (Alongside Bayern Munich, Benfica and Ajax)
Like the aforementioned Young Boys, 2018-19 sees the end of a dynasty with AEK Athens now representing Greece at European football’s top competition instead of traditional powerhouse Olympiakos. This venture into the Champions League group phase is the first one since the 2006-07 season for the Yellow-Blacks and it came by virtue of winning the 2017-18 Greek Super League under the stewardship of Spanish manager Manolo Jimenez. The title was AEK’s first title since the 1993-94 season.
European football and AEK Athens have had some memorable moments over the years. The most memorable in recent years came in the 2002-03 season. After overcoming Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia in Champions League qualification. AEK were drawn into a group with AS Roma, Real Madrid and Racing Genk. The Athenians drew all 6 group games in that season’s competition, finishing 3rd in the group stage and dropping into the UEFA Cup, but being the only side not to lose a game in that season’s competition. AEK also have a distinctive record of being unbeaten against European powerhouse AC Milan in their last 3 outings, in the final game of the 2006-07 Champions League group stage when Milan, who went on to win the competition had already qualified for the knockout rounds and in last season’s Europa League group stage where AEK held AC Milan to 2 draws.
Like Young Boys representing Switzerland, AEK are now the side tasked with representing Greek football at European football’s top table. There is also evidence that after a 24 year wait in-between championship victories that AEK could now enjoy a period of sustained success in Greece. Qualification for the Champions League group stages which involved impressively seeing off Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic earned the club a large cash windfall which in previous years was solely taken by rivals Olympiakos. Finally, next season, after 16 years of playing in the Spyros Louis Olympic stadium after the demolition of their old Nikos Goumas Stadium in 2003, AEK will return home to the very site of the old stadium where the new 32,000 capacity Agia Sophia stadium currently under construction will open and serve as the club’s new home. The club as a result of this will return to the Nea Filadelfeia (New Philadelphia) suburb of Athens where the club was founded in 1924 by Greek refugees from the Greco-Turkish War.
The club had some restructuring to perform to their playing and coaching staff over the summer. After guiding Dikefalos Aetos (The Double Headed-Eagle) as AEK are affectionately known to the title, Jimenez left the club to return to his native Spain with Las Palmas citing family reasons. The club also lost two key players to last season’s title success Bosnian defender Ognjen Vranjes to Anderlecht and Swedish midfielder Jacob Johansson to French side Rennes. Jimenez’s replacement is Marinos Ouzounidis, who left fierce rivals Panathinaikos in the summer to take the vacancy. Key players include Croat forward Marko Livaja who signed permanently after being on loan last season from Las Palmas of La Liga, Portuguese central midfielder Andre Simoes and 20 year old home-grown central midfielder Kostas Galanopoulos. AEK are not expected to defeat Bayern Munich in their Champions League group, however, the matchups with Benfica and Ajax will be close and the draw has given the Greeks a chance to reach the Last 16.
Group: D (Alongside Schalke 04, FC Porto and Galatasaray SK)
Another team making their return to the Champions League this season after a long hiatus are Russia’s 2017-18 Champions and the club of Russian Railways (RZhD) Lokomotiv Moscow. This season will be the Railroaders first appearance in the group stages of the Champions League since 2003-04 and they will be hoping to make a similar impact. That season, Loko were pitched in a group with Arsenal, Inter Milan and Dynamo Kiev. After an opening defeat away to Dynamo Kiev, Loko responded impressively with a 0-0 home draw against Arsenal. Then followed two amazing results against Inter, a 3-0 home victory and a 1-1 away draw. Game 5 saw Loko win their home match against Dynamo 3-2 before the club lost away at Arsenal 2-0. Loko however, despite this loss crept through with the Gunners to the last 16 of the competition eliminating Inter in the process. There they played a valiant two legs against eventual finalists AS Monaco losing only on away goals.
What was noticeable that day about Loko is that the very same man who was their manager back in 2003-04 is their manager today, he is to Loko and their fans what Sir Alex Ferguson is to Manchester United, that man is Yuri Semin. Now in his 4th spell with the Railroaders and at the wily old age of 71, Semin’s first spell in charge at Loko from 1991 to 2005 enabled the club who prior to his appointment had never won a Soviet or Russian title to win two championships in both 2002 and 2004. Semin shocked everyone in Russia last season as Loko unexpectedly claimed a stunning title triumph when many pre-season predicted that the club would finish 5th place at best. Loko have only won 3 titles in their entire history and Semin has been responsible for each one as manager. His affection amongst Loko’s fans is so strong that banners proclaiming “No Semin, No Party” can be seen amongst Loko’s fans at home games at RZhD Arena.
Seeing whether Semin has still got the capabilities to surprise with Loko in Europe like the class of 03-04 is one reason to keep an eye on Loko this season. However, there are others too, many faces in Loko’s squad are recognisable to football fans. Peruvian winger Jefferson Farfan, Portuguese central midfielder Manuel Fernandes, German World Cup winning defender Benedikt Howedes, Croatian central defender Vedran Corluka, once of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur and Polish central midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak. Some of these players may be approaching the twilight of their careers, but as the likes of Fernandes and Farfan showed last season, they can still be very effective.
Finally, another reason to keep an eye on Loko is their group. Drawn alongside Porto, Schalke and Galatasaray, Group D on paper may not have a European heavyweight in it, however, it is unlike all the other groups, a group where each team has a genuine chance of finishing anywhere between 1st and 4th. It is a “group of intrigue” as opposed to a “group of death” as groups of death in the Champions League do often possess 1 poor team who barring a miracle are destined to come 4th. This group of intrigue is certainly worth attention as picking a group winner and group runner-up to progress to the last 16 is most difficult as there is a valid case for all teams involved.
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