With the 2016/17 installment of the UEFA Champions League less than a week away, many of us are left wondering if the tournament will divulge into yet another season of the same contenders, or whether there will be clubs springing a surprise run into the deeper rounds of the competition.
Though the year in year out entertainment value provided by the likes of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid is undeniably exciting, there remains a large group of football fans who crave the unexpected.
Whether or not a new winner of the tournament will emerge, many of us are on the lookout for those dark-horse sides that can ruffle the feathers of the established European elite. With that being said, let’s take a look at five clubs that could turn a head or two over the coming months in the premier club competition in world football.
Manchester City (Group C: FC Barcelona, Borussia Monchengladbach, Celtic)
One of the wealthiest clubs in the world, Manchester City have already established themselves as one of the top sides in England via the financial backing power of Sheikh Mansour. What City have yet to do, however, is truly put themselves on the Champions League map with routine deep runs through the knockout stages – enter new manager Pep Guardiola.
It may be early doors in his tenure at The Etihad, but City are already vastly improved under Pep in comparison to last season. At current, they top the Premier League table after three fixtures, winning all three and scoring nine in the process. The improvement shown in Raheem Sterling has been highlighted as a major reason for their strong start, while the likes of Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva are all relishing playing under a man who is considered by many to be the best manager in the world.
With Pep’s success at Barca both domestically and in Europe, and his dominant years with Bayern in the Bundesliga (though he failed to win the Champions League), City have certainly found the man who they feel can finally bring the team to the next level. Another tasty reunion with his former employers is on the cards, and though they still may not win the group, Guardiola’s experience in the competition could see Manchester City finally make a strong run through a tournament that the club’s owners have dreams of winning in the near future.
PSV Eindhoven (Group D: Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, FC Rostov)
The past two seasons have seen Philipp Cocu’s troops push Ajax Amsterdam off their perch as top dogs of the Dutch Eredivisie. Lauded for their brilliant brand of attacking football that has featured the likes of Memphis Depay, Giorginio Wijnaldum, Andreas Guardado, Gaston Pereiro and Davy Propper, PSV has become one of the most entertaining attacking sides on the continent despite coming from a league who’s stock has dropped substantially on the bigger stage.
Ajax have been crowned kings of Europe in the past, and despite the Dutch assembly line continuing to pump out young players of quality, they’ve failed on the biggest club stage on the continent by quite a large margin. No, this is not a rallying cry for PSV having a miracle run to lifting the Champions League trophy, but rather of them being capable of ruffling feathers in the group stage.
With Dutch clubs struggling to make a real impact in the Champions League over recent seasons, perhaps the biggest contribution PSV could make this year would be to destabilize Bayern Munich or Atletico Madrid. With the club likely picking up the full six points against FC Rostov, Eindhoven can count on being incredibly strong in front of their home support to perhaps take points off the two giants in their group – after that, who knows what could be possible.
Bayer Leverkusen (Group E: Tottenham Hotspur, AS Monaco, CSKA Moscow)
They may not be Bayern or Borussia Dortmund, but Bayer Leverkusen under Roger Schmidt have gained quite a bit of attention over the last season. Despite struggling during the Hinrunde in the Bundesliga, Bayer kicked on in the Ruckrunde with a brand of football that was as pleasing on the eye as their bigger rivals.
Schmidt has quietly assembled a very gifted bunch of players under his command, especially on the attacking side of the ball. At his disposal are the likes of Javier Hernandez, Kevin Volland, wunderkind Julian Brandt, Karim Bellarabi and Hakan Calhanoglu. From deeper areas Bayer have in Julian Baumgartlinger and Charles Aranguiz a midfield duopoly that, on it’s day, can rival even the best in the business in the middle of the park. With keeper Bernd Leno, center back sensation Jonathan Tah, and further defensive talent in Danny Da Costa and others, their squad when fully fit is, for me, the strongest in the group.
Despite Tottenham bringing attacking pedigree under Mauricio Pochettino, the European experience of CSKA, and the youthful ability of Monaco, I will go on record saying that Leverkusen is not only the side to beat in Group E, but they also could be primed for an unexpected run into the quarterfinals in the hopes of establishing themselves outside of the German border.
Leicester City (Group G: FC Porto, FC Copenhagen, Club Brugge)
There was not a single sports story from last season that received more attention and eventual celebration than Leicester City’s improbable rise to the top of the Premier League. Against all odds, Claudio Ranieri’s rag-tag band of work horses (some of whom have an incredible bit of ability) upset the apple cart that is the English footballing elite on their way to their first ever appearance in Europe.
The Foxes have not begun their season the way they finished last term however, winning just one of their four matches in the league. Additional concerns come from Riyad Mahrez not looking as influential as he once was, while the King Power Stadium outfit are still reeling from the loss of talismanic midfielder N’Golo Kante to Chelsea this summer. Something is truly missing early doors from the current Premier League holders, but you still cannot count them out in Europe.
Despite being handed an “easier” Champions League group, Leicester still are not surrounded with expectations of qualifying for the knockout stage in their first European jaunt. Though it’s likely that Portuguese giants Porto will top the group, they’ll quietly like their chances against Belgian champions Club Brugge and Danish regulars Copenhagen. They may not be firing on all cylinders in the league just yet, but they still possess players that can change a match in a moment’s notice – and that’s all you need on a European night.
Sevilla (Group H: Juventus, Lyon, Dinamo Zagreb)
Though they always seem to falter whenever they’ve appeared in the Champions League, Sevilla tend to set the world alight in the Europa League. Currently winners of the last three editions, they’ve firmly established themselves as an excellent tournament side in Europe’s “B” competition, and will now have their sights set on finally performing against the best in the business.
Under new boss Jorge Sampaoli, Sevilla has gone through a major personnel refit this summer and have brought in the likes of Samir Nasri, Wissam Ben Yedder, Joaquin Correa, Ganso, Salvatore Sirigu and one or two others. Not only does this give Sampaoli a far deeper bench with which to juggle the squad on both fronts, but it adds additional Champions League experience through Nasri and Sirigu.
There truly is no easy group in the Champions League, but Sevilla have been gifted a wonderful opportunity to break their hoodoo and progress into the knockout stages. Former manager Unai Emery certainly set the bar high for Los Rojiblancos supporters in recent seasons, and although their chances to get past the round of 16 or the quarter finals are quite slim, a strong performance in the group stage and an admirable exit from the knockout stage would be more than enough of a shock for so many who are used to seeing them fail to impress at the highest level in Europe.