As the 2018/19 season reaches its conclusion across the continent, teams are fighting tooth and nail to secure the final Champions League qualification spots.
The picture has already been painted in many of Europe’s top divisions, with the usual suspects naturally retaining 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 has been a breath of fresh air.
But could there be a repeat of Ajacied’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 next 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 qualify for the 2019/20 Champions League.
This season Christophe Galtier guided Lille to the runners-up position in Ligue 1, 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.
Last 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 the 2017/18 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.
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 the Ligue 1 Goal of the Year.
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
Meanwhile, Nicolos Pepe has been the figurehead of this prodigiously-talented side – with 22 goals and 11 assists – but his future looks destined to be away from the Stade Pierre Mauroy.
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.
Anyone remember Masters Football on Sky Sports? Well a quick look at Istanbul Basaksehir’s current ranks and you can see a host of ex-Premier League names still trudging along, enough to make up a fine six-a-side squad: Demba Ba and Emmanuel Adebayor up top, Robinho and Eljero Elia on the wings, Gael Clichy at the back, and Gokhan Inler forced between the sticks.
Among the other ‘has-beens’ on the books include loanee Arda Turan – still contracted to Barcelona – and former Bayern Munich defender Serdar Tasci, making up a squad replete with European experience.
And while this will certainly make for fascinating viewing next season, it also brings an added spark as the household names of Besiktas and Fenerbahce have been forced to make way for Abdullah Avci’s side.
The club finished second in the Super Lig this season after an intense derby against Galatasaray on Sunday saw the Lions win 2-1 and clinch a record 22nd league title, meaning Istanbul Basaksehir will enter the second qualifying round for the Champions League.
Basaksehir have never reached the group stages, but with the sheer volume of seasoned professionals available to Avci, the club could yet be rubbing shoulders with some of Europe’s top dogs. The power may well be shifting in Turkish football.
Anderlecht missed out on European qualification for the first time in 56 years on Sunday, 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 next season, 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 next term as they boast a number of talented players, with winger Leandro Trossard the pick of the bunch, though he is reportedly being courted by Arsenal, and his future looks to set elsewhere after he stated: “Sunday’s game against Standard Liege might be my last one in a Genk shirt.”
There are plenty of places still up for grabs, but this is the full list of teams who have already secured their spot in the 2019/20 Champions League.
Group stage qualifiers
Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, Benfica, Barcelona, Spurs, RB Leipzig, Shakhtar Donetsk, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Bayer Leverkusen, Genk, Real Madrid, Napoli, PSG, Galatasaray, Valencia, Lille, RB Salzburg, Manchester City, Zenit Saint Petersburg, Liverpool, Bayern Munich.