Assessing this season’s UEFA Champions League dark horses

The 2018/19 UEFA Champions League group stage draw has taken place with the competition getting underway on September 18th. Lets take a look at those teams who could be set to spring an upset on the competition.

 Inter Milan – Group B

We’ll start things off with a team returning to the Champions League for the first time in six years and, in that time, quite a lot has changed – as is predictable – with new owners coming to the helm, a new president, seven different managers and a complete revamp of the squad.

Looking at that squad and their recruitment over the summer its clear there has been a controlled level of ambition with players brought in to add to the attacking flair cultivated by Luciano Spalletti as he looks to continue where he left off with Roma.

Even from a defensive point of view, Sime Vrsaljko looks to provide width and pace to the Milanese club when they advance up the field and his performances with Croatia at the World Cup have seen him earn a move to Inter which could, potentially, rise to a combined €24 million.

Over 50 players departed from the San Siro in the summer transfer window, but the refreshed team have suffered a slow start to their Serie A campaign, losing their first game 2-1 away to Sassuolo on a pitch which, frankly, looked more like a cabbage patch than it did a football field.

A far cry from their flying start last season in which they went unbeaten for the first sixteen games, Inter find themselves in Group B of this seasons Champions League with Tottenham Hotspur, Barcelona and PSV Eindhoven their opponents and they’ll need to find their form quickly if they are to mount a serious challenge.

You wouldn’t bet against it, mind, with Rajda Nainggolan and Mauro Icardi showing glimpses of the chemistry they managed to produce in pre-season – Icardi a man who notched up 29 goals from 36 games in all competitions last season has become ‘Mr Reliable’ over the past four seasons and with an ever-explosive supporting midfield, he’ll be the source of inspiration for any Inter progression.

Ajax – Group E

An ever constant presence at the top end of the Eredvisie, it’s almost forgotten that Ajax reached the final of the 2016-17 Europa League and that’s largely in part due to their own domestic disappointment as of late – four Eredivisie’s on the trot was nice and airy but this bubble was firmly burst back in 2014 when they finished 17 points adrift of champions PSV and since then they’ve been playing catch-up in their home league.

With three matches already under their belt in this Champions League campaign, Erik ten Hag has already guided his squad past Sturm Graz, Standard Liege and Dynamo Kyiv in order to reach the group stages and they’ve looked all the more impressive in each round with the nervy wobbles that came in Austria seemingly faded memories when they put three goals past the Ukrainian runners-up.

Recruitment has been strong with Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind arriving from the Premier League in order to bolster their squad – defensively they remain as shrewd as ever with Matthijs de Light, in particular, being an imperiously talented product of their famed academy, the 19 year-old centre back made his debut back in 2016 but has looked as classy as anything thus far in the season.

A rejuvenated Klass-Jan Huntelaar leads the front line with the 35-year-old continuing his impressive streak of finding the back of the net wherever he goes – 17 league goals in 32 games back in Holland and eight from ten this season is a testament that he’s still got it.

Coached by Erik ten Hag, former Bayern Munich II coach, there is a distinct focus on developing the youth talent which, admittedly, seems a cliché when it comes to Ajax but it appears to be even more relevant with ten Hag at the helm than ever before.

That knowledge of the German side could come in handy when they face each other in the group stages alongside AEK Athens and Benfica.

 Shakhtar Donetsk – Group F

Another one of those Eastern European teams that everyone knows of, but not necessarily about – if that makes sense – so worry your little cotton socks no more as we’re about to dive straight into the thick of it and examine why they should be the ultimate surprise package in the 2018/19 Champions League.

Of course having said that they will now probably emerge with no points but, in all seriousness, they seem to repeatedly impress until it comes to the knockout stages where, ultimately, they fall foul of the winter break in their domestic competitions.

Last season they were consistently strong as they claimed wins over Roma, Manchester City, Napoli and, twice against, Feyenoord but they were unable to retain the services of their 30-goal frontman Facundo Ferreyra who departed for Benfica, whilst Fred moved for 59million euros to the red-half of Manchester and, long-serving captain, Darijo Srna made the transition to Cagliari.

To replace Ferreyra upfront the hierarchy has sniffed out a bargain in Olarenwaju Kayode, arriving for less than £3million from Manchester City, who will look to team up nicely with Junior Moraes in order to provide the firepower necessary to carry them through both the domestic and European campaigns.

With no less than nine Brazilians in the squad there is a distinct South American flavour to the team and an overwhelming flair being brought into the playing style, something enhanced by the arrival of Paulo Fonseca in 2016 who, since then, has cultivated a fast-flowing, attacking style of play.

BSC Young Boys – Group H

The final dark horse is BSC Young Boys, a team who have successfully broken the nearly two-decade long dominance in Swiss football by FC Basel and have continued last season’s scintillating form with an, almost, unnerving calm.

Six wins from six league games this campaign and 19 goals along the way are impressive stats in isolation but adding further audacity is how broadly the goals are spread out with Christian Fassnacht, the club’s skilful right winger, leading the way with four goals and the two centre-forwards in Guillaume Hoarau and Nicolas Moumi Ngamaleu adding a further seven.

Gerrardo Seoane came into the helm of the Bern-based club in pre-season and despite a near complete lack of experience, the 39 year-old has taken to the position like a duck to water with the exact same blend of youth and experience that provided so much success over the duration of last season.

Having navigated the play-off round against Dinamo Zagreb, admittedly only just, they find themselves in a group with a much-maligned Manchester United, a lacklustre Valencia and a Ronaldo-centric Juventus in what could be their best chance for progress in a long, long time.

With no real history of success in the European competitions, save from a sole campaign in the late 1950s, Young Boys have never made the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League in that particular guise but, make no mistake, the rate at which they have developed in the last 18 months has been exponential and any team that seeks to take the Swiss squad lightly will have one nasty bite mark come the conclusion of 90 minutes.

The Author

Ollie McManus

Once attempted to run for FIFA President. Have a passion for writing about the obscure stories: I've covered football everywhere from Libya, Syria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Uzbekistan to England, Australia and Brazil. @OliverGMcManus on Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *