Manuel Veth –
The 2018/19 Champions League group stage kicks off in less than a week. As part of our coverage, we preview the groups that involve one or more teams of the Futbolgrad Network universe. Among the groups we preview is Group E, which includes AEK Athens, Ajax, Bayern München and Benfica.
Dominated by Real Madrid for the last three years one of the significant questions ahead of this season will be whether the dominance by the Spaniards can be broken. On the Futbolgrad Network, we cover the Bundesliga, the post-Soviet space and the Balkans in-depth. Up next in our team-by-team break down is Group D.
Champions League – Group E – Team by team breakdown
A slow start to the season and a disastrous Champions League performance against PSG led to Bayern firing head coach Carlo Ancelotti in September. No coach was ever fired earlier by Bayern. Ultimately, Jupp Heynckes took over and forged together a squad that was quite visibly on beyond its high point. Heynckes then led Bayern on a fabulous run that saw the Bavarians dominate the league and reach the semifinal of the Champions League. But the run cost energy and by the time the semifinal against Real Madrid came around the players were mentally exhausted. A narrow defeat in the semifinal was then followed by poor results in the Bundesliga and disaster in DFB Pokal final against Eintracht Frankfurt and future head coach Niko Kovac. The poor results at the end overshadow the magnificent work by Heynckes, whose effort might not be valued until this season. He took an ageing side within a whisker of winning a treble, but the final three cup games and Germany’s performance at the World Cup showed that the club is in desperate need of an overhaul.
Brought in to oversee the overhaul is Niko Kovac. The former Croatian national team coach was the architect of Eintracht Frankfurt’s revival over the last two and a half years. The 46-year-old, however, has never coached a major European club and is more of an authoritative leader rather than a tactical genius. At Frankfurt, he was excellent getting the best out of a squad that was littered with misfits and young guns. Whether that approach works in the shark tank that is Bayern’s dressing room remains to be seen. At his new club, he is now in charge of slowly sending Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben into retirement while integrating young players like Kingsley Coman, Serge Gnabry, Leon Goretzka, and come January, Canadian youngster Alphonso Davies, as well as young players from the academy.
It is a tight robe that Kovac will be walking this season. Bayern remain dependent on Ribéry, Robben and disgruntled striker Robert Lewandowski, who wanted, and perhaps still wants, out of Munich. Leon Goretzka was brought in to strengthen the midfield, but here too Bayern remain dependent on Thiago, Thomas Müller and even Javi Martínez. Thiago could still leave the club as Bayern are looking to collect money for a mega transfer. Here the biggest task will be to integrate Renato Sanches and Leon Goretzka. Mats Hummels and Manuel Neuer are going to be asked to lead on and off the pitch and could become the faces of Bayern’s transition period – going forward Colombian James Rodríguez has the potential to become the club’s biggest star.
Neuer – Alaba, Hummels, Boateng, Kimmich – James, Javi Martínez, Müller – Ribéry, Lewandowski, Robben
Bayern will dominate this group and finish first. Furthermore, anything but the semifinals would be a disappointment.
It was year one after Peter Bosz. The former BVB head coach had guided Ajax to the final of the 2016/17 Europa League where his side lost to Manchester United. Success in Europe, however, managed to gloss over internal problems at the club. Those internal problems were not completely gone after Bosz left either. Bosz was replaced by Marcel Keizer, who in turn was fired by December and replaced with Erik ten Hag. Keizer had failed to get the club into the Champions League group stages after losing to Nice in the third round of qualification. Even worse Keizer also stumbled over Rosenborg in the Europa League qualifiers, which meant no group stage football for Ajax last season. In fairness, some of Keizer’s problems may have stemmed from the Abdelhak Nouri, who collapsed during a test match ahead of the season and is still in critical condition today. Under ten Hag Ajax somewhat stabilised at least – the club finished second in the league behind winners PSV and qualified for Group E of the Champions League this season.
Erik ten Hag will be a familiar figure when Ajax play at the Allianz Arena in Munich. Between 2013 and 2015 the 48-year-old was in charge of Bayern München’s reserve side in the Regionalliga Bayern. After failing to guide Bayern II to Liga 3 ten Hag moved back to the Netherlands to become the sporting director of FC Utrecht. Under his leadership, Utrecht finished fifth in the Eredivisie in 2015/16 and then won the KNVB Cup. The following year his club finished fourth enough for Ajax sporting director to bring in his former Twente teammate to stabilise Ajax. In Munich Ten Hag worked closely together with Pep Guardiola, which shows in the way his team plays football.
Another golden generation seems to be emerging in Amsterdam. The likes of goalkeeper André Onana, Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek, Kasper Dolberg and David Neres are all already in the notebooks of major European clubs. The young talents are being supported by the more experienced Daley Blind, Dusan Tadić and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Onana – Tagliafico, Blind, de Ligt, Mazraoui – de Jong, van de Beek, Schöne – Tadić, Huntelaar, Ziyech
Ajax together with Benfica will be fighting for the second spot in Group E.
Benfica finished second in the Primeira Liga seven-points behind champions FC Porto. The 36-time Portuguese champions and two-time winners of the European Cup had a bit of a disappointing 2017/18 Champions League campaign. Placed in a group with CSKA Moscow, Basel and Manchester United Benfica finished fourth in the group with no points and a goal differential of 1-14. “It did not go well. It started early with the first game [a 2-1 defeat to CSKA]… but there is life beyond the Champions League. We are looking to win the domestic competitions,” head coach Rui Vitoria told the media after the conclusion of the Champions League group stage. But domestically, the club was also left without a trophy; fortunately for Vitoria, however, President Luís Filipe Vieira took much of the blame for the poor season citing lack of investments for a year without a major title.
Vieira’s statements aside there is no doubt that Vitoria cannot afford another season without a title. The 48-year-old will have to deliver, and success in the Champions League playoffs against PAOK were just the first step towards guiding Benfica back to the top of Portuguese football.
Central midfielder Pizzi is the key to how Benfica play. The 28-year-old operates as one of two central midfielders in Vitoria’s 4-3-3 system. His experience is also key for young midfielder Gedson Fernandes. The 19-year-old will without a doubt be one of the next bright talents to leave Benfica for a bigger league. Up front strikers, Nicolas Castillo, Jonas and Facundo Ferreyra are all dangerous, but all also struggle with injury problems. Also look out for midfielder Andrija Živković in this Champions League Group E.
Vlachodimos – Grimaldo, Jardel, Ruben Dias, A. Almeida – Gedson Fernandes, Fejsa, Pizzi – Salvio, Jonas, Cervi
Benfica will compete with Ajax for second in Group E. After that much will depend on the luck of the draw but getting beyond the round of 16 would be a major success.
Last season in Greek football was a wild ride. AEK Athens and PAOK chased each other for much of the year making the best out of the chaos at Olympiakos to finally break the dominance of the Piraeus based club. In the end, it was AEK beating out PAOK to the title. PAOK had hurt themselves after President Ivan Savvidis had stormed onto the pitch during the decisive match between PAOK and AEK with a gun holstered to his belt. As a result, AEK completed the greatest comeback in the history of Greek football. Relegated from the first division in 2013 AEK went bankrupt and had to restart in the third division. From there the club slowly rebuilt and like a phoenix from the ashes, AEK won the title last season and then topped their season by qualifying for the Champions League by eliminating first Celtic and Vidi FC during the qualification stage.
Last season’s head coach Manolo Jiménez left the club after the successful title run. He was replaced by Marinos Ouzounidis a close friend of sporting director Nikos Liberopoulos, who he played with at Panathinaikos. The 49-year-old Ouzounidis is considered a tough coach, who still lacks international coaching experience. At the same time, he managed to outclass Celtic in the Champions League qualifiers and has won the first two games of the still young Superleague Greece.
Forward Marko Livaja has flourished since finally finding a fulltime home in Greece. The 25-year-old Croatian striker has been one of the main reasons for AEK’s success last season. Other notable players include former Barcelona defender Dmytro Chyrgrynskyy and winger Anastasios Bakasetas.
Barkas – Hult, Chyrgrynskyy, Oikonomou, Bakakis – Galanopoulos, André Simoes – Boyé, Bakasetas – Mantalos – Livaja
AEK Athens will finish fourth in Group E.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.