Tired of watching Europe’s elite teams all the time? Looking for a new, niche club to tell all your less fashionable friends about? You’ve come to the right place.
“Half of the Champions League games are rubbish, I’ve not even heard of some of the teams” blasphemed my dad as I gazed at him in horror. I couldn’t understand his point of view. Who wouldn’t want to watch former European champions back in the big time? Or a 31-year-old manage a club in their Champions League group stage debut? One team’s ground is smaller than Dunfermline Athletic’s East End Park, and their dugout is shaped like a beer can. There are players with unpronounceable names who bang in screamers from forty yards. This one is for all of those who are sick and tired of watching Real Madrid, PSG, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, etc. This is a hipster’s guide to the Champions League.
Red Star Belgrade are one of only two teams from Eastern Europe to win the continent’s elite club competition. Since their triumph in 1991 they have only qualified for the group stage once. A 0-0 draw with Napoli in their opening game had them full of hope, but they were bowled over by a strong PSG side in the following fixture, as they fell to a 6-1 defeat. Their man to watch is Marko Marin, who had a four-year stint at Chelsea between 2012 and 2016, which he spent mostly out on loan. The diminutive attacking midfielder has not quite lived up to his potential, but he still has the creative spark that this team needs. Their chances of progressing are slim, but the atmosphere at the Rajko Mitić Stadium is frightening and is sure to intimidate these European super clubs.
German high-flyers Hoffenheim are managed by Julian Nagelsmann, who took over in February 2016, aged just 28. Since then the club have been moving upward, staving off relegation and finishing in the Champions League spots in the next two seasons despite losing two of their best players, Kevin Volland and Niklas Süle, in that time. They now have former Leicester City striker and World Cup finalist Andrej Kramaric and on-loan Arsenal forward Reiss Nelson. Both of these players have thrived at this village club, which has a reputation for developing players. Their first game was an exciting 2-2 draw away against Shakhtar Donetsk and they were unfortunate to lose to an 87th minute goal from Manchester City’s David Silva in their second game. Unfortunately for the club from Baden-Württemburg, Nagelsmann will leave to join rivals RB Leipzig at the start of next season. Their "all-or-nothing" approach is admirable, and they have shown that they are not afraid of the big boys.
Czech side Viktoria Plzen’s stadium capacity is only 11,722, but surely what’s more important is that their dugout is shaped like a can of Gambrinus, a club sponsor and local pilsner. They have dominated domestically in recent years, winning the league in 5 out of the last 8 seasons. This is their third appearance in the Champions League group stage, but they have never won more than one game in a campaign. They have experienced relative success in the Europa League, crashing out in the last sixteen to Sporting Lisbon last season. They are a strong unit with great team spirit. Michael Krmenčík is their star man. A raw, physical striker who knows how to score. They scored two in their opening fixture against CSKA which is promising, but they conceded five against Roma. The group is open, though, after CSKA’s surprise victory over tournament holders Real Madrid.
Club Brugge have been unfortunate in their two European finals. They lost the 1976 UEFA Cup Final and the European Cup Final two years later, both to Liverpool. The Belgian Jupiler League holders competed in the UEFA Europa League (formerly UEFA Cup) for a record of 20 consecutive seasons, and their recent best is making the quarter-final in 2015. They have been rather unfortunate so far, losing 1-0 to Borussia Dortmund and 3-1 to Atletico Madrid, two sides with world-class players and recent success in Europe. Danjuma’s strike against Atletico was a joy to behold and is a goal of the tournament contender. The combination of forwards Wesley and Jelle Vossen can be deadly. They have the attacking prowess to get results against the teams in their group, but a lack of experience against top level opposition and defensive frailties may let them down.
Fans from the green half of Glasgow were happy to see AEK Athens lose their first game 3-0 to Ajax; the Greeks put Celtic out in the playoff for the competition. To concede three goals against a team which is not one of Europe’s elite is simply not good enough, and AEK will have to be tighter at the back to have any chance of playing European football after Christmas. They fought valiantly against Benfica, coming back from 2-0 down, but a late goal from Alfa Semedo meant that the Athenians have conceded three goals in each of their first two games. They can take heart from Viktor Klonaridis’ two goals. They are likely to create opportunities, as attacking midfielder and free kick specialist Petros Mantalos can cut open defences in a heartbeat. His ability has not gone unnoticed, as West Brom bid €10m for him in the summer.
This guide is only the beginning. There are many other trendy outfits that are well worth watching. Shakhtar Donetsk are always entertaining and CSKA Moscow provided a real shock against the tournament holders. Lokomotiv Moscow, Galatasaray and Porto are also non-mainstream sides that could provide upsets. However, these sides are better established in Europe than the clubs that I have focused on. These sides are not hipster enough.
So, if you have become disillusioned with Europe’s top teams you do not need to worry, there are plenty of other exciting teams to watch. Teams that throw players forward and don’t worry about playing pretty "tippy-tappy" football. With crazy fans, unbelievable goals and calamitous defending, the under-documented side of the Champions League is full of excitement.