Every year when UEFA run the draw for the Champions League Group Stage, we try to pinpoint the ‘dark horses. Infact, we generally categorise teams into the ‘Favourites’, ‘Dark Horses’, ‘Underdogs’, and then, more loosely, the ‘write offs’. The teams that consider being in the prestigious competition an achievement on its own. Club Brugge, Ferencvaros and Olympiacos sit straight into this category for most fans.
Olympiacos lie in Group C from this year’s draw. Manchester City, Porto and Marseille alike are all expected to demolish the Greek side. The same can be said for other clubs, like FC Midtjylland facing Liverpool. Or Lokomotiv Moscow having to play Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid.
Yet this season, a few of these bottom tier teams could that they have just as big a chance as the teams like Ajax and Dortmund. Obviously underdogs, but not ‘just’ there to enjoy the lights and shine of UEFA’s prized competition. We at EADF have selected three teams we believe could be ones to watch in this years group stage.
Belgian football is rarely talked about. The topic generally springs up when discussing the possibility of a joint league between Belgium and Holland. However, Club Brugge have perhaps the best chance out of any of these teams to reach the knockout stages.
Last season, Brugge stormed to the Belgian title with 70 points from an available 87. They lost just one game in the entire season, before the league was the first across Europe to be cancelled due to COVID-19. Brugge also finished third in their UCL group, despite not winning a game. A famous draw away at Real Madrid to effectively clinch passage into the Europa League. There, they were unfortunate to come up against an in-form Manchester United side, losing 6-1 on aggregate.
Brugge this season though have drastically improved under coach Phillippe Clement. Clement has implemented a pressing style akin to that of Liverpool. They are exceptionally good at blocking passing lanes. Infact, Vincent Kompany found this out just before the international break. The Anderlecht manager suffered a 3-0 defeat away at Brugge. Throughout the game, Anderlecht were consistently drawn into clever pressing traps. In their toughest match so far this season, Brugge proved they were a level above one of the most established sides in Belgium.
What makes them an especially interesting prospect is the level of quality throughout the squad. A balanced combination of players in their prime as well as exciting youngsters give Brugge an organised set up with an edge of chaos. Krepin Diatta is one such youngster. The 21-year-old has played 6 games this season and has already managed 4 goals. A strong, talented right winger, Diatta cuts in from the left with exceptional close control. He completes over 2 dribbles a game in Belgium, a generally physical league. He also adds 2.7 shots and 1.4 key passes. Diatta is an extremely dangerous player.
Brugge will have to play Dortmund, Zenit and Lazio. Dortmund are a side who, so far this season, have struggled to break down an organised defence. While talented players like Malcom and Lovren stand within the Zenit ranks, Lazio have stuttered at the start of this season. Should Brugge organise themselves well defensively, they could prove a thorn in these sides.
Olympiacos are going to be a team many fans will keep a quiet eye on this season. Following a successful Europa League Campaign, the Greek champions have proven themselves to be a team even Super-Clubs should watch out for.
The team managed by Pedro Martin fell through to the Europa League knockout stages, after finishing 3rd in their UCL group. They picked up a singular point at home vs Tottenham, and a win against Red Star Belgrade prevented them from finishing 4th. However, in an epic display of sheer determination, Olympiacos overcame Arsenal in the first knockout round of the Europa League. After pulling the second leg through to extra time, the team showed the character needed to succeed in Europe. Despite a wonderful goal from Aubameyang to put Arsenal ahead with 20 minutes remaining of extra time, Youssef El Arabi scored with 119 minutes on the clock. The 2 away goals sent Olympiacos through to the round of 16. They were beaten narrowly by Wolves, losing 2-1 on aggregate.
Since then, the side has lost talented LB Tsimikas to Liverpool, and key midfielder Guilherme to the Qatari league. Yet, the club have managed to bring in European quality players. Bruma joins on loan from PSV, and so does Ruben Vinagre from Wolves. Meanwhile Youssef El Arabi has started the Greek season well, scoring 3 goals in 5 games already.
Olympiacos will face Porto, Manchester City, and Marseille in their UCL group. While we expect Manchester City to defeat them home and away, Porto and Marseille will find a result harder to achieve. As they have already proven, Olympiacos can go toe-to-toe with Premier League sides. This confidence could give them an edge. Having missed out on the semi finals of the Europa League by a single goal last season, Olympiacos will surely be hungry for more European success.
To many purists, Ferencvaros will be their adopted favourite this year. The biggest club from Hungary, Ferencvaros are a true blast from the past. Their past European glory was born in the early 1960s, the time when Hungarian football reigned supreme across Europe. English fans do not tend to forget that Hungary inflicted the three lions largest ever defeat, a 7-1 thrashing in eastern Europe.
Since then of course, Hungarian football has laid largely dormant. Infact, it has been 10 years since a Hungarian club participated in the Champions League. That was Debrecen, finishing last in their group in 2009/10. In the Europa League, no club has made it past the groups in the competition’s brief 11-year history.
This season though, feels different. Ferencvaros defeated Celtic and Dinamo Zagreb on their qualification journey to the UEFA Champions League. Norwegian winger, Tokmac Nguen, scored 3 goals in 5 qualifying games. Lots of eyes will be on him, as well as Franck Boli. The Ivorian striker scored 12 goals in 37 appearances across all competitions in 19/20. (Tied with Tokmac as top scorer). Both Boli and Tokmac are 25 years old and will be eager to impress in a group featuring Juventus, Barcelona and Kiev.
This will be the culmination of 2 years of hard work for Sergiy Rebrov, the Ukrainian manager of Ferencvaros. Across his managerial career with Dynamo Kyiv, Ahli and Ferencvaros, he has never averaged below 2 points per game. A former Spurs and West Ham player, Rebrov may be eager to impress English viewers, and show his managerial quality.
The Hungarian champions will face a Barcelona side that has been drowning in controversy throughout 2020, and a Juventus team under the management of Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo only passed the exam to coach in the competition in late August. With such uncertainty surrounding these teams, Ferencvaros could prove to be the most motivated and driven collective unit in group G.