UEFA Champions League Preview: Napoli, Inter, Atlético stage huge group games

THE FIRST evening’s games had dire consequences for at least two club managers. Thomas Tuchel, who won the Champions League in 2021, was sacked by Chelsea after their surprise 1-0 defeat in Zagreb, and RB Leipzig also parted company with Domenico Tadesco after Shakhtar Donetsk won 4-1 in Germany.

Ajax – Rangers

Ajax, as ever, have been busy selling players in the summer, a key part of their business model. They also waved goodbye to their coach, Erik Ten Hag, who joined Manchester United. His replacement, Alfred Schreuder, has benefitted from the arrival of Steven Bergwijn from Tottenham, who cost € 31 million. Bergwijn has already scored six goals this season. Rangers, who had an excellent Europa League campaign in 2021-22, losing to Frankfurt in the final, go into this game on the back of a 4-0 humbling by Glasgow rivals Celtic. Rangers fans will enjoy their brief stay in Amsterdam, but their team may find it difficult to return with some Champions League points.

Napoli – Liverpool

This will be the third time since 2019 that these two sides have met in the Champions League group phase and the past games in Italy have both ended with Napoli winning, by 2-0 and 1-0. Napoli have started the season well and won 2-1 at Lazio prior to this tie. They have been active in the market and new signings Kim Min-Jae and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia are settling in well. Liverpool, meanwhile, have had a stuttering start to the campaign by their standards, prompting a lot of sould searching about the strength of their squad, which looks rather light in midfield. Although Mo Salah hasn’t been at his absolute best, Liverpool have front-line options, notably in the form of raw arrival Darwin Núñez and past signings Diaz and Jota.

Atlético Madrid – Porto

These two sides met in the group stage last season and drew 0-0 at the Wanda Metropolitan stadium. Atléti, who endured a disappointing 2021-22, have had a patchy start to the new season, but have played three of their four La Liga games away from home. There have been no big signings, Axel Witsel was acquired from Dortmund, but he’s 33 years of age. Given Porto’s reputation as a proficient player trader, it was no surprise that they generated around € 80 million in the market, selling Fabio Vieria and Vitinha to Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain respectively. Porto won the Portuguese double in 2021-22 and have won four of their five league games this term.

Bruges – Leverkusen

Bruges were champions of Belgium last season but have lost some of their key men, notably leading scorer Charles De Ketelaere (AC Milan) and defender Stanley Nsoki (Hoffenheim). It’s often forgotten that Bruges reached the European Cup final in 1978, but their ambitions today are more modest and they will do well to get into the knockout phase. Bayer Leverkusen have had a disastrous start to 2022-23, losing four of their five Bundesliga games and going out of the DFB Pokal. They still have Euro 2020 stand-out star Patrik Schick in their line-up and have added Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi to their squad on a loan deal.

Barcelona – Viktoria Plzn

The most talked-about club in Europe this summer has been Barcelona, who have spent heavily despite revealing financial troubles. Barca spent € 158 million, buying Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha and Jules Kounde, among others. In 2021-22, they failed to get out of the group stage, but they have performed well so far this season, winning three of their four games. Viktoria Plzn, from the famous beer-making city, were Czech champions in 2021-22, losing just two games. They are unbeaten in the league this season and have overcome Qarabag, Sheriff and HJK to reach the group stage.

Inter Milan – Bayern Munich

A repeat of the 2010 Champions League final is one of the games of the first matchday this season. Inter relinquished their Serie A title to neighbours AC Milan in 2021-22 with Simone Inzaghi at the helm. They won through the Champions League group stage but were beaten by Liverpool in the last 16. They have secured their former striker, Romelu Lukaku, on loan from Chelsea, and paid € 25 million for Lazio’s Joaquin Correa, but they have lost two of their five league games this season. Bayern Munich lost their talismanic goal scorer Robert Lewandowski to Barcelona, but filled his role with Liverpool’s Sadio Mané at a bargain €33 million. Bayern have also signed Matthijs de Ligt from Juventus for € 67 million.

Eintracht Frankfurt – Sporting Lisbon

Frankfurt won the UEFA Europa League to gain automatic inclusion in this season’s Champions League. On route to securing their first European prize, they beat Barcelona, West Ham, Real Betis and Rangers in the final. This year, they started with a crushing 6-1 defeat at home to Bayern, but they appear to have recovered and they have scored four goals in each of their last two games. Sporting were Portuguese champions in 2021 and lost their title by six points to Porto. They also enjoyed a run to the last 16 of the Champions League coming out of a tough group that included Ajax and Dortmund. They have a highly-rated coach in Rúben Amorim, who could be on the shopping list of some bigger clubs.

Tottenham – Marseille

Tottenham are supposedly transformed under Antonio Conte, so they go into the group games with confidence high after a very good start to 2022-23. Spurs have added some interesting and talented players to their squad, notably Yves Bissouma, Richarlison and Dejan Kulusevski (loan). They are unbeaten in their first six games and they should have enough to get through to the knockout rounds. Marseille were runners-up in Ligue 1 last season and have been in excellent form and are unbeaten. They have some familiar faces in their squad, including Alexis Sanchez, who was signed on a free from Inter Milan.

If a Belgian club is to compete, it might just be Brugge

CLUB BRUGGE are at the head of the Belgian league this season, a year after they were named as champions after the competition was abandoned due to the pandemic. Although Belgium operates a two-stage league, Brugge must be favourites to retain their title as they have a 14-point lead over second-placed Antwerp and they are 19 clear of Anderlecht. 

It’s hard to imagine now, but Brugge reached two European finals in the 1970s, the UEFA Cup in 1975-76 and European Cup in 1977-78. Both times, they were beaten by a strong Liverpool team. In those days, Belgium was very adept at producing skilful and competitive teams in European competition. As well as Brugge, Anderlecht were worthy European combatants, winning the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1976 and 1978 and losing in the finals of 1977 and 1990. Mechelen also won the competition in 1988 and Standard Liege and Antwerp were beaten finalists.

Brugge may be the best in Belgium at the moment and the country may have one of the best national teams in the world, but clubs from the Jupiler Pro League struggle to compete on the European stage today. Since the Champions League began in 1992-93, only Anderlecht in 2000-01 and Gent in 2015-16 have gone beyond their group.  

Belgium’s clubs are in a similar position to clubs in the Netherlands and France (and other leagues) in that the elite of Europe have way more financial clout and dominate not just on the field of play, but also across the commercial landscape. According to Statista, Club Brugge had the highest market value – € 131 million – among Belgian clubs at the end of November 2019, with Anderlecht (€ 123 million) and Genk (€ 122 million), the only others over € 100 million.

At some stage, the much-feared European Super League may well emerge and the rest of the continent’s football will create something resembling a second tier elite. Clubs like Brugge and maybe Anderlecht will have the chance to become part of that second tier.

Bruges is a small city with a population of less than 120,000. It is best known for its quaint medieval town, lace-making and its role in developing European trade and commerce. Yet the city has two major football clubs, Club Brugge and Cercle Brugge, both of whom play at the Jan Breydel Stadium. The capacity of this shared home is just 29,000 but the ground is no longer fit for purpose according to some experts. Hence, both clubs have plans to build new homes next door to each other. Club Brugge, when supporters are allowed in the stadium, average around 24,000 while Cercle attract much smaller crowds. They averaged less than 6,000 in the 2018-19 season. 

Brugge’s planned new stadium will have a 40,000 capacity and Dirk De Fauw, the major of the city, insists it will be the most beautiful football ground in Europe, possibly the world. The club’s chairman has said that the Jan Breydel is worn out and dangerous. The images of the new arena suggest Brugge are not only aiming to make the project a more intimate experience for fans, they also want to create a stadium that can be a transformational financial asset.  Approximately 10% of the capacity will be prioritised for the lucrative corporate market. Based in the middle of a new park in Bruges’ Sint-Andries district, the architects are SCAU and BZAi and the overall cost may be as much as € 100 million. 

With no funds coming from matchdays, transfer income has been invaluable to clubs like Brugge in 2020-21. Anderlecht and Brugge have been the biggest net recipients, earning € 35 million and € 19 million respectively. Brugge have generated a net € 60 million from the transfer market over the past five years. The leading Belgian clubs are all net sellers and Brugge’s purchases of € 90 million have been countered by € 150 million in sales. Brugge are among the top 11 sellers to clubs from the “big five” leagues.

Brugge’s most recent big sale was 21 year-old forward Krépin Diatta, who went to Monaco for € 16 million in January 2021. The club’s record sale was Wesley to Aston Villa for € 25 million in July 2019, a move that has yet to prove its worth after the player suffered a cruciate knee injury in January 2020. 

As for this season’s Brugge, they have been excellent away from home in the league, losing just one game and conceding seven goals on their travels. Coach Philippe Clement, who played briefly for Coventry City, was appointed in June 2019 and his win rate so far is over 60%. 

The UEFA Champions league campaign ended at the group stage and was frustrating – Brugge lost just twice but finished third, behind Borussia Dortmund and Lazio. Their two wins were against fourth-placed Zenit St. Petersburg. Brugge did enough, however, to qualify for the last 32 of the Europa League and will face Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv over two legs. 

The most eye-catching player in the Brugge side has been winger Noa Lang, a 21 year Dutchman on loan from Ajax. Lang has scored 11 times and also created more than his share of goals for team-mates. The more experienced Hans Vanakan has also been in impressive form and has been eyed by Premier League clubs, notably West Ham who bid close to € 15 million for the 28 year-old midfielder earlier this season.

The Blauw-Zwart squad includes Simon Mignolet, the former Liverpool goalkeeper, and Charles De Ketelaere, who was named the best young player in Belgium in 2020. The 19 year-old has already won his first cap for Les Diables Rouges. Brugge recently added journeyman striker Bas Dost to their squad, signed in December from Eintracht Frankfurt, and took centre back Stefano Denswil (a Brugge old boy) and right back Nabil Dirar on loan from Bologna and Fenerbahce respectively. Brugge have also expressed an interest in luring Tottenham defender Toby Alderweireld back to Belgium, but any bid will now have to wait until the summer. 

Football needs successful clubs from right across the continent to make the pan-European competitions more diverse, interesting, healthy and democratic. There was a time when Belgian clubs were highly respected and it would be good to see a return to the time when a visit to Brussels or Bruges could be a fearful away trip. After all, Belgium has proved it can produce talent.