Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are all stalwarts but which of the lesser fancied teams can mount a run in Europe’s premier competition? Here we take a look at a few teams who could overachieve in a big way.
The Hoops have been on the outside looking in when it comes to Champions League football in the last two years, while their performances in the Europa League in those two seasons were unimpressive.
However, new manager Brendan Rodgers has instilled a free-flowing confidence into the side, and their captain Scott Brown (who was so instrumental in their last-16 campaign three seasons ago) is back to his best. 40-goal Leigh Griffiths is already the top scorer so far in Champions League qualification, and his all-around game has improved ten-fold since signing for the club.
Celtic have blitzed through the Champions League qualifiers so far, and only have to get through a second leg against Hapoel Be’er Sheva in which they’re 5-2 in front before they can finally celebrate their return to the group stages.
One interesting factor will be how Celtic approach the group stages should they make it. Rodgers has opted for an attacking 4-2-3-1 formation, with only Brown staying in a midfield holding role while the likes of Callum McGregor and Nir Bitton alongside him are allowed to bomb forward and join attacks. When playing better teams, Celtic can’t afford to have that luxury, and will have to adapt to sitting back and waiting patiently for their opportunities.
It may be in Rodgers’ best interests to organise his team into a flat midfield five, using the likes of Scott Sinclair and Patrick Roberts in the wide areas as their main threats. However, they have to make sure the defensive midfielders are focused entirely on stopping the opposition rather than surging forward as they would do in the Scottish Premiership.
When it comes to Champions League football, Tottenham Hotspur are relatively unknown, and a run to the quarter-finals back in 2010-11 is their only recent experience of the tournament. However, for the last two years, they’ve slowly been building a side under the vision of Mauricio Pochettino and are now ready to take on Europe’s elite.
Pochettino’s team is armed with plenty of attacking talent, the stand-out being England international Harry Kane who finished as the Premier League’s top scorer last season. After coming third last year, but for long spells looking as though they were going to win the Premier League, Spurs will be encouraged that they can enjoy another solid season this year.
When analysing Spurs’ squad, you can see they already have a host of Champions League quality players. Christian Eriksen, Victor Wanyama, Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen, and others already have experience of playing in the continent’s top competition, and the tournament, therefore, won’t be a culture shock to them. If Spurs play to their strengths and continue with their attacking 4-2-3-1 formation, they can be a real danger to even the biggest teams in the Champions League
At White Hart Lane, they’ll be confident of beating anyone, but they must be positive and attack rather than solely relying on their defensive qualities.
There is more than enough proof that Tottenham can hold their own against strong sides and show resilience when required. With new signing Victor Wanyama fitting in seamlessly, Spurs are slowly moulding into the perfect team, and should do a lot of damage on their return to the Champions League this season.
A reinvigorated Borussia Monchengladbach will no doubt have their eyes fixated on making themselves a mainstay in the top four of the Bundesliga, but Champions League football also looks on the table after their 3-1 win over Young Boys last week.
They have a real abundance of quality throughout their side that can cause top teams problems, with the likes of Mahmoud Dahood, Christian Kramer, and Dutch internationalist Jannik Vestergaard showing an array of talent all over the pitch.
Vestergaard was brought in to shore up a defence that conceded 50 goals last season, but so far he’s looked a real coup for the club as his presence alongside Tony Jantscke has already seen them ship just two goals in four games – keeping two clean sheets.
Andre Schubert has completely transformed Gladbach from a team languishing in the Bundesliga relegation zone to a young and hungry team full of heart. Raffael will have the job of using his experience to find gaps between opposition midfielders and defenders; a role he’s performed well for Gladbach even in the tougher times the club came across. He also has the ability to score and create with either foot, which makes him an unpredictable opponent for opposition teams.
Schubert has favoured a younger squad throughout his managerial career, and this will no doubt continue this season. The most important thing that Gladbach must continue to focus on is their goal scoring. Last season, they finished as the third-highest scorers in the Bundesliga, an impressive achievement in a league that boasts quality sides like Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and Wolfsburg.
Gladbach has differed between a 3-5-2 in the Champions League qualifiers and a 4-3-3 in the league. A pattern that is likely to continue, as they’ll certainly look to flood the midfield in their European group stages should they make it through.
By all accounts, nobody expects Leicester City to pull anything out of the hat in this season’s Champions League. However, you can’t underestimate how well they’ve done over the summer.
The Premier League champions have held on to Riyad Mahrez, captain Wes Morgan, and top-scorer Jamie Vardy. That’s the three most influential players they had in defence, midfield, and attack last season.
The loss of N’Golo Kante to Chelsea last season was a big blow, however, and that can’t be ignored. It would’ve been ideal to have Kante’s tenacity and energy in the defensive midfield, but that’s a job Danny Drinkwater can cover, albeit perhaps not to the same effect. Holding on to Claudio Ranieri was arguably still their biggest coup of the summer, and he will be the key for Leicester if they’re to have a successful campaign in Europe this season.
One of the main reasons most pundits and fans say Leicester won the league was down to their “surprise-factor”, and while that trait has perhaps been wiped out in England, European teams remain without knowledge of Leicester’s quality.
Their team spirit is far beyond most teams’ in the Champions League, and they also have terrific strength in depth this season with the acquisitions of Robert Zieler, Luis Hernandez, Nampalys Mendy, Ahmed Musa, and Bartosz Kaputska giving Ranieri quite the selection headache.
The Foxes play a very ambitious 4-4-2 formation, leaving both Vardy and Musa high up the park in a bid to use their explosive pace. This pace will trouble a lot of teams in Europe who like to play with a compact defence, as Vardy and Musa will both stretch games and surge out wide whenever they see fit.
They may also use their full-backs in an attacking sense this season in Europe, as that’s where a lot of their success came from the last term. The pace and positioning from Fuchs and Simpson last season made them two of the most productive wingbacks in the Premier League, and Leicester may opt to use them as an attacking outlet.
You could claim that against the bigger teams you can’t afford to do that, but this is the way Leicester played all season last year and won the Premier League. Ambition has always been the name of the game for Leicester, and you can expect them to come up with some exciting stuff in this season’s competition.
Although the usual suspects will be there come the business end, do not be surprised to see any of these teams facing off against them in the knockout rounds.