New Kids on the Block: Champs League Preview
The Champions League kicks off over Tuesday 18 and Wednesday 19 September, and what a wait it’s been. This year’s competition features an alarming number of teams who’ve been there before, and it’s likely to be a tense, tight and competitive affair.
All the big boys are back in contention for the 27th installment of Europe’s premier football competition. The Champions League is no doubt the pinnacle of the modern game, featuring the richest teams, the most talented players and simply outstanding football from start to finish.
They'll certainly be looking to make their mark
All but four teams from last year’s round of 16 have made to this year’s tournament, only Basel, Besiktas, Chelsea and Sevilla miss out.
Real Madrid, Barcelona, City, United, Liverpool, Bayern and Juventus are all back to compete against one another for the trophy that every player and fan dreams of winning. It’s almost preordained that we’ll see the familiar titans in the latter stages, and while swathes have been written about their chances, but what do we know of the other teams to grace the competition?
This year’s tournament features three teams who are making their inaugural appearance in the Champions League, and although they’re not likely to be given a warm welcome, they’ll certainly be looking to make their mark.
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
Hoffenheim managed to make the grade for this year’s competition after finishing an impressive third in the Bundesliga, even finishing ahead of Borussia Dortmund, albeit on goal difference.
The boys from Baden-Württemberg have had an impressive rise to success over recent years. Residing in the 5th Division only in 2000, their climb up the ladder has been nothing short of meteoric, initially earning promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history in 2008. Since then they’ve continually punched above their weight finishing in the top half of the table an impressive five times out of ten.
Money doesn't always buy success
Backed by local boy and software mogul Dietmar Hopp, Hoffenheim have had considerable financial support aiding their rise. But as we know, money doesn’t always buy success. Qualifying for the Champions League represents a significant statement of intent for Die Kraichgauer, who will be looking to make an impression on this year’s competition.
Never shying away from a challenge, Hoffenheim have difficult trips away to Manchester City and Shakhtar Donetsk. But if they play their cards right, it’s not unthinkable that they’ll battle it out of their group in the second spot. A consolation third place finish ensuring entry into the Europa League wouldn’t be a terrible result either.
- Manager: Julian Nagelsmann
- Last season: 3rd
- Group F: Man City, Shakhtar Donetsk, Lyon
- Key players: Krmaric, Linton
Red Star Belgrade
We say ‘newcomers’ but technically Red Star Belgrade have been here before...technically. The Serbians are making their first appearance in the competition since it was rebranded into the “Champions League” in 1992.
They have a successful and illustrious history behind them. Emerging after the Second World War, Red Star have been consistent participants on the European stage since the 1950s. However, they reached the pinnacle when they won the European Cup in 1991, led by the legendary Dejan Savicevic.
- Manager: Vladan Miljo
- Last season: 1st
- Group C: Liverpool, Napoli, PSG
- Key players: Marin, Nabouhane
They successfully navigated RB Leipzig in the final qualifying round to make it to the group stage. Unfortunately, due to the damage their fans caused to the home team’s stadium in Austria, UEFA has banned supporters from attending their first two away matches at Anfield and the Parc Des Princes.
A lack of support in their key away games isn’t the worst of it. Red Star have been drawn into a group containing Liverpool, PSG and Napoli - easily their stiffest competition in some time. You can bet their legendary home support will be in full swing, after their three home fixtures sold out in just three hours.
Red Star have made an impressive start to the new the season winning all of their seven league matches, but the opponents they face in Napoli for their opener are something else. The Italians know that they’ll need to register back to back wins against Red Star who are undoubtedly the weakest team in the group.
Swiss champions Young Boys are making their first appearance in the Champions League, but not for want of trying. They've tripped at the last hurdle on several occasions, to CSKA Moscow last year, to Borussia Mönchengladbach the year before that and most notably to Tottenham in 2010.
After claiming the title last year they only had to successfully navigate Dinamo Zagreb, drawing away from home but clinching a 2-1 victory at home in Bern.
- Manager: Gerardo Seoane
- Last season: 1st
- Group H: Juventus, Man United, Valencia
- Key players: Mbabu, Suljemani
They display a distinctive attacking style that helped them to their first title in years, becoming the first club to break Basel/Zürich dominance in over 10 years. It’s served them well this season and they're already looking to run away with the title after claiming an impressive six wins out of six and 19 goals scored.
They’re drawn into a difficult group against Manchester United, Juventus, and Valencia, but the Swiss will take encouragement from compatriots FC Basel who have rumbled United on more than one occasion on Swiss soil. If they can get their attacking balance just right, they might be in with a chance.
Back on track
While we have three fresh faces in this year’s competition we’ll also be seeing some long lost friends who’ve had notable absences returning to the fray.
Greek champions AEK Athens are back in the competition for the first time since 2006-07. The boys from the capital ran beat PAOK to the championship by six points, and in doing so broke a seven year Olympiacos winning streak.
In Group D, Lokomotiv Moscow are gracing the tournament with their presence for the first time since 2003-04 after pipping cross town rivals CSKA to the title by two points last season. They face trips to Porto, Schalke and Galatasaray before they can entertain ideas of the group stage.
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