The Champions League finally returns this week as Europe’s biggest clubs dream of lifting the famous silver trophy.
Inevitably, the usual suspects have naturally retained their respective places in the high-profile competition: Bayern Munich, Juventus… you get the idea.
With the elite tournament being the highly stratified organisation that it is, very rarely do we see minnow clubs or those who don’t possess the financial muscle of say, a Man City, break the status quo and upset the established order – Ajax’s European journey last season was a breath of fresh air.
But could there be a repeat of De Godenzonen’s sensational run; a copycat club?
Footballing hipsters and purists alike were brimming with an enthusiastic sweat when Ajax knocked out Real Madrid and Juventus, but will they share that same level of excitement for some of this term’s underdogs?
They may not carry the same level of European prestige or pedigree of Ajax, but they do carry a similar level of charm and appeal that certainly satisfies our unconventional needs. With that considered, here are some of the coolest clubs to look out for in the 2019/20 Champions League.
Christophe Galtier guided Lille to the runners-up position in Ligue 1 last season, he wasn’t quite able to upset PSG’s seemingly untouchable stranglehold; in fact, he barely caused Thomas Tuchel to look over his shoulder as 16 points separated the two sides, but make no mistake, this was an unbelievable achievement from Les Dogues.
During their 2017/18 campaign, the Deule River club nearly crashed out of the French top-flight, but after a summer of shrewd investment, with Jose Fonte and Jonathan Bamba the hallmarks of Lille’s astute business, the club has re-established themselves in the upper echelons of French football.
Galtier took over mid-way through that season after Marcelo Bielsa’s reign proved an unmitigated disaster, inheriting a hotchpotch squad that he was barely able to usher to safety – staying up by just one point as the club finished 17th.
How about this for the cheekiest assist of the season?
Lille's Nanitamo Ikone panenkas the wall for Loic Remy to smash home on the volley 👌
Wait for the reverse slow-mo 😍 pic.twitter.com/CFbb6llj4U
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 12, 2019
No-one could therefore have foreseen a transformation of this magnitude; but it has been a combination of young talent and experience that has masterminded this epic rise. Fonte, accompanied by Loic Remy, has proven that he can still cut it at elite level – after his brief sojourn in China – while the latter clinched last season’s Ligue 1 Goal of the Year.
Meanwhile, Nicolos Pepe was the figurehead of this prodigiously-talented side – with 22 goals and 11 assists – but he has since left for pastures new, becoming Arsenal’s record acquisition in the summer.
Either way, Galtier has resurrected this club, taking it from the brink of total collapse to a seat among the table of Europe’s great footballing aristocrats.
Anderlecht missed out on European qualification for the first time in 56 years last season, but that was soon brushed under the carpet after news of Vincent Kompany’s return as player-manager.
No, the habitual continental club will not compete in any competition away from their homeland this term, paving the way for some of the lesser known clubs on Belgium soil to cut their teeth with the heavyweights.
And one of those clubs is Genk, who not only clinched the Belgian First Division title for the first time since 2011, but also qualified automatically for the group stages for the first time in their history.
Under Philippe Clement’s careful watch the Smurfs saw their fourth Belgian trophy confirmed at Anderlecht’s Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, after a 1-1 draw – in which Yannick Bolasie scored for the Purple & White – pipped Club Brugge to top spot.
Genk could ruffle a few feathers this term as they boast a number of talented players. That said, winger Leandro Trossard was the pick of the bunch and, like Pepe, he has chosen to try his luck in the hustle and bustle of English football, joining Brighton & Hove Albion this summer.
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Despite Serie A being home to some of Europe’s finest footballing institutions and most powerful clubs, Atalanta made history last season by breaking the top four ceiling and roughing up the established order, placing third and ultimately achieving Champions League qualification for the first time ever, as well as securing their best ever finish since the Goddess’ inception in 1907.
With Gian Piero Gasperini masterfully taking his position in the Bergamo hotseat, Gli Orobici were a force to be reckoned with last campaign, playing some of the division’s most eye-catching football, with skipper Papu Gomez the fulcrum, Duvan Zapata the insatiable goal-getter and Josip Ilicic the creative catalyst.
Incredibly Atalanta were the highest goalscorers in Serie A across 2018/19 with 77, eclipsing a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Juventus, Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli and both Milan clubs.
But, unlike Lille and Genk, Gasperini has been able to retain the services of his star players, as well as bolstering his ranks with six new signings, including (ironically) Genk’s Ruslan Malinovskyi for £12.3m and Martin Skrtel on a free.
Galatasaray endured a disastrous European campaign last season, losing four of their six Champions League group stage games before crashing into the Europa League. They didn’t last long there either, going out in the first knockout round.
But Fatih Terim’s side might make a better go of things time around. The chance to play against Real Madrid and PSG in Group A could bring out the best in the players – and what makes their squad so interesting is the inclusion of some renowned cult figures.
The hipster crowd will be anticipating the sight of Radamel Falcao and Ryan Babel, one a bonafide legend of Uefa competition and the other a reinvigorated wing wizard who has been playing brilliantly for the Netherlands again in recent times.
What’s more, former Premier League stars Steven Nzonzi and Mario Lemina will hopefully be at their best against the world-class midfield units they are set to come up against in Madrid and Paris.
Former Borussia Dortmund and Ajax manager Peter Bosz led Leverkusen to a fourth-place finish in the Bundesliga last season. Dortmund and Ajax may have been included in an article like this before they became established recent challengers for major honours – now Leverkusen will hope to do the same.
Bosz’s style of play is open and attacking, which led to a disastrous Champions League campaign with Dortmund in 2017/18. But perhaps with less expectation will come better results, with Leverkusen potentially excelling as a result of their underdog status.
They will need their incredibly talented young players – the likes of Kai Havertz, Leon Bailey and Jonathan Tah – to be at their best if they are to shock Juventus and Atletico Madrid in Group D. In any case, they will be fun to watch.
Their entertainment value will only increase as a result of the club’s English social media team. Their Twitter account – @bayer04_en – is always good value for a laugh.
Wait you all just now followed us back?? 😒 pic.twitter.com/hhKoFxt03N
— Bayer 04 Leverkusen (@bayer04_en) September 16, 2019