Sarah Fitzpatrick gives us the lowdown on the supposed underdogs in this year’s Champions League.
The Champions League returns tonight and the main focus will be on the current holders, Real Madrid and other European giants such as Bayern Munich, Barcelona and of course the return of five-time winners Liverpool.
The Champions League is often unpredictable and there are a few clubs in this year’s edition that you may not know much about but that doesn’t mean that they won’t have an impact on the competition.
From a club that’s only 13 years old, to a former Swedish finalist, to the team that broke Celtic fans’ hearts, and the club that has the only Irish player in this season’s competition, here’s all you need to know about this season’s underdogs.
Ludogorets Razgrad – Group B
Ludogorets Razgrad are the current Bulgarian champions and were formed on the 18th June 2001. They are known by their fans as “The Eagles from Razgrad”. There was a club before them in Razgrad but they were dissolved in 2006. After Ludogorets were founded in 2001, they changed their name in 2002 to Razgrad 2000 but have been known simply as Ludogorets since 2010.
Following their formation, they had to work their way up the amateur leagues and were subsequently promoted to the professional second division in the 2009/10 season. Businessman Kiril Domuschiev bought the club in 2010 and invested enough in the club so that they gained promotion to the top flight in 2011.
Ludogorets didn’t take long to gain top spot in Bulgaria as they won the domestic double in 2012 and last season they won their third successive league. Ludogorets have reached the Champions League qualifying rounds in recent seasons but this is the first time they have ever reached the group stage.
They reached this year’s group stage by defeating F91 Dudelange of Luxembourg and Partizan Belgrade of Serbia in the qualifying rounds, while they faced Steaua Bucharest in an exciting play-off round match. Ludogorets were tied with Bucharest when their goalkeeper Vladislov Stoyanov was sent off for a second bookable offence in the last minute of extra time.
In response to the crisis up stepped defender Cosmin Moti, scoring their first penalty and then going in goal to save two of Bucharest’s penalties. Ludogorets may be seen as a huge underdog in this season’s Champions League but they have some talented players such as midfielder Marcelinho who is a skilful 30-year-old midfielder, named best foreign player in the Bulgarian league in 2013.
Ludogorets are faced with one of the toughest groups in the competition as they have been drawn with Real Madrid, Basel and Liverpool. Their first ever Champions League group game will take place in the historic Anfield against Liverpool tonight.
Malmo FF – Group A
Malmo FF are a Swedish club that were formed on the 24th February 1910. They are known as “The Sky Blues” by their fans and have won 17 Swedish championships and 14 national cup titles. This makes Malmo FF Sweden’s most successful side but they have also had some historical moments in European football.
Malmo FF overcame all the odds and reached the 1979 European Cup final as a semi-professional side. They were narrowly beaten 1-0 by Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest but they still remain the only Swedish side to reach a European Cup final. Malmo FF are also known for producing great players, the legendary Zlatan Ibrahimovic once played for the club.
The Swedish outfit qualified for the group stages by defeating Czech side, Sparta Prague on away goals and then beating Austrian side Salzburg 4-2 on aggregate. Markus Rosenberg shone in the qualifying stages by scoring four times and the 6ft striker will be one to watch in the group stages.
Malmo have been drawn in Group A alongside Juventus, Olympiacos and Atletico Madrid and they will play their opening game against Juventus in Turin tonight.
NK Maribor – Group G
Nogomenti Klub Maribor are a Slovenian club that were formed on the 12th of December 1960. They play at the Ljudski Vrt stadium that has a capacity of 12,994. Maribor have never been relegated from top flight football in Slovenia and dominated in the late 90s-early 2000s era by winning seven successive league titles.
Maribor were impressive in the qualifying rounds where they defeated Zrinjski of Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-0 on aggregate and then beat Maccabi Tel-Aviv of Israel 3-2 on aggregate. Maribor were considered underdogs against Celtic but they went on to beat the Scottish champions 2-1 on aggregate to secure their group stage place.
Maribor have an impressive squad including the Slovenian league’s goalkeeper of the year Jasmin Handanovic and defender of the year Aleksander Rajcenic. Maribor also have Marko Suler in defence who Celtic were interested in signing in recent years but it never went through.
The Slovenian side are dangerous for opponents because they have creativity and pace going forward. Midfielder Dare Vrsoc is a constant threat and loves to have go from long range, while attacker Mitja Viler is known for his pace.
Marcos Tavares is also a key member of their squad and is revered as Maribor royalty, being the club’s all-time top goalscorer. Maribor have been drawn in Group G alongside Sporting Lisbon, Schalke 04 and Chelsea and will play their opening fixture at home to Sporting on Wednesday the 17th of September.
BATE Borisov – Group H
BATE Borisov were founded in 1973 and are the reigning champions of Belarus. This is the fourth time that the Belarusians have qualified for the group stage and their recent European highlight came when they beat Bayern Munich at home in the group stage in 2012.
BATE had a dramatic road to qualification as they eliminated Skenderbeu Korce of Albania and Slovan Bratislava of Slovakia. They then faced Debrecen of Hungary in what turned out to be an exciting fixture between the two, with the Belarusians leaving it late to snatch victory through goals from Volodko, Rodionov and Krivets.
Rodionov and Sergei Krivets were instrumental for the Belarusians in their qualification campaign and could be even more important for them in the group stage. BATE Borisov were drawn in Group H alongside Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and Atheltic Bilbao and will play their opening group fixture away to Porto on Wednesday the 17th of September.
Apoel Nicosia – Group F
Apoel Nicosia were founded in Cyprus on the 8th of November 1926. They are known by their fans as “The Legend Club” and play their games at the GSP Stadium which has a capacity of 22,859. Apoel Nicosia have won 23 championships, 20 Domestic Cups and 13 Super Cups.
They qualified for the group stages in the 2009/10 season while they managed to top Group G in the 2011/12 season overcoming Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit St. Petersburg. They eliminated Lyon on penalties in the last 16 before their remarkable run came to an end with an 8-2 aggregate defeat at the hands of European giants Real Madrid in the quarter-finals.
This season the Cypriot outfit defeated HJK Helsinki of Finland 4-2 in the 3rd qualifying round and then thrashed Aalborg BK of Denmark 5-1 on aggregate in their play-off game. Apoel Nicosia will have many Irish football fans keeping an eye on them as they have the only Irish player that will feature in this season’s Champions League in the shape of Cillian Sheridan.
Cavan-man Sheridan moved to Cyprus to play his football after it didn’t work out for him at Celtic, he also has three Irish caps to his credit. The 6ft 5inch striker scored five times for the club last term but will be hoping to improve this season and play a part in their Champions League campaign.
Apoel Nicosia have also recruited some experience, signing former Champions League winner John Arne Riise this summer. The Norwegian will be a great asset to the side as he has plenty of European experience from his days at Liverpool, including a 2005 Champions League winners medal as well as scoring an important goal at the Nou Camp in 2007.
The legendary Catalan stadium is the very place where Apoel Nicosia will get their Champions League campaign underway, their first fixture is away to Barcelona on Wednesday the 17th of September while they also have to face Paris Saint Germain and Ajax in this year’s group of death.
Sarah Fitzpatrick, Pundit Arena.
Featured image By George Groutas (originally posted to Flickr as APOEL – Chelsea) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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