UEFA Champions League Preview: Potter kicks off his Chelsea career

THE SECOND Champions League matchday includes some more interesting pairings, notably Chelsea’s first game under new manager Graham Potter. Elsewhere, Manchester City’s force of nature, Erling Haaland comes face to face with his old club, Dortmund and Rangers host the Serie A leaders Napoli. After Zagreb’s win against Chelsea, can the Croatians pull off another shock in Milan?

Rangers – Napoli

Rangers and Napoli couldn’t have had more conflicting results in their first Champions League group games, Rangers losing 4-0 at Ajax while Napoli thrashed Liverpool by 4-1. Napoli are top of Serie A and are unbeaten in their six games. They won 1-0 at home to Spezia at the weekend. The talk of Naples at the moment is 21 year-old Georgian Khvicha Kvarsatskhelia, who has made a startling impact since joining the club. The Georgian is being tipped to become a big star in the near future. Rangers, meanwhile, are still smarting after two 4-0 defeats in a matter of days, against Celtic and Ajax. Giovanni von Bronckhorst upset a few people when he said millions of pounds of investment are needed to compete in the Champions League, but he was speaking the truth.

AC Milan – Dinamo Zagreb

Milan will be wary of Dinamo after the Croatian champions beat Chelsea 1-0 in Zagreb. But there is no shortage of confidence at Milan, they are reigning Serie A champions and they are unbeaten so far this season. Milan beat Sampdoria in Genoa at the weekend, with Olivier Giroud scoring the winning goal, but another forward, Divock Origi, has struggled since arriving at the club and has been labelled the summer’s worst signing in the league. Zagreb are also unbeaten still in their league and have scored 28 goals in nine games.

Chelsea – Red Bull Salzburg

Graham Potter makes his bow as Chelsea manager as the blues attempt to put that 1-0 defeat in Zagreb behind them. Much will be expected of Potter but Salzburg will be difficult opponents. One of their stand-out players, Noah Okafor, a 22 year-old Swiss, is attracting a lot of attention, notably from Leeds United. Chelsea will be looking to gain an advantage over Salzburg in the group and anything other than three points will be unacceptable, but nobody is quite sure how the first Potter Chelsea XI will line-up. They will certainly need to perform far better than they did in Zagreb.

Shakhtar Donetsk – Celtic

Celtic travel to Warsaw to play Shakhtar Donetsk in the Polish Army Stadium. Shakhtar have started their league campaign and have won three of their four games and are joint top of the Ukrainian Premier League. Shakhtar pulled off a shock 4-1 win against RB Leipzig in the first round of group games, but the home side appeared to be in turmoil and sacked their coach the next day. Celtic have a 100% record in the Scottish Premiership and gave Real Madrid a difficult first half before conceding three second half goals in Glasgow.

Real Madrid – RB Leipzig

Real have started the season very well and won their first Champions League game against Celtic by 3-0. They have a 100% record in La Liga and lead the table with Barcelona two points behind. They won 4-1 against Mallorca at the weekend with striker Karim Benzema suffering from an injury he picked up against Celtic. He looks set to miss the game with Leipzig, who are recovering after a disastrous week in which they lost 4-0 at Frankfurt and 4-1 at home to Shakhtar. They sacked coach Domenico Tedesco and have since appointed Marco Rose.

FC Copenhagen – Sevilla

FCK continue to mystify their fans with their inconsistency this season. After nine games, they are in mid-table in the Danish Superliga and have lost five games. They were beaten in Dortmund in their first Champions League game and their fans were subject to an attack from a masked group wielding pyrotechnics. Coach Jess Thorup is under some pressure now and admits performances have fluctuated but must improve: “We have to be honest with ourselves,” he said. It might be hard to get much out of Sevilla, who have problems of their own, but they secured their first win against Espanyol in the last round of La Liga matches.

Manchester City – Borussia Dortmund

Two of the clubs involved in the astonishing Erling Haaland story meet at the Etihad, with the striker hoping to add to his 12 goals for Manchester City since he joined in the summer. Haaland left Dortmund, where he cemented his reputation with some outstanding displays and goals in the Champions League. City are currently second in the Premier League but are unbeaten after six games. Draws against Newcastle and Aston Villa show that Pep Guardiola’s team are not invincible, but these are early days for his new-look side. Dortmund have a problem scoring goals since Haaland’s departure and have netted just eight in six games in the Bundesliga.

Juventus – Benfica

This is a clash right out of “old Europe”  but it still has enormous appeal today. Juventus are having some trouble winning games, although nobody has beaten them in Serie A. Juve have drawn four of their six games and they lost their opening group game in Paris. Coach Max Allegri has been criticised for his somewhat negative approach this season. Benfica have a 100% record in the Portuguese Primera and started their Champions League campaign with a 2-0 win against Maccabi Haifa. As usual, they have players that others want to sign, the latest target is 21 year-old Argentinian Enzo Fenandez.

Maccabi Haifa – Paris Saint-Germain

Maccabi have to deal with a PSG front line that will probably include Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, a daunting task. PSG are top of Ligue 1, but level on points with Marseille. They won their first Champions League game of the season, beating Juventus 2-1. Maccabi, current leaders of the Israeli Premier League, lost 2-0 in Lisbon to Benfica. It is difficult to see anything other than a healthy win for PSG.

Smaller squad syndrome – why some teams became The Great Uncrowned

THROUGHOUT football history, some of the most admired teams have been those that didn’t win the ultimate prizes: Hungary 1954, the Netherlands in 1974 and 1978, Queens Park Rangers in 1976, Ipswich Town in 1981 and Newcastle United in 1996. These are just some of the sides that enthralled so many people but were often denied by ruthless, focused opponents who knew precisely how to win. The world still loves the memory of the Dutch team of Johan Cruyff and co., but although we respect the West Germans of 1974 that beat them, the same level of affection just isn’t there. We feel for the underdog, but it is because they failed that we love them all the more – an element of romance creeps into heroic failure that is often lacking in the hard-nosed pursuit of success and silverware.

We also applaud any tale of the unexpected, such as Leicester City’s Premier League title win of 2016. Over the decades, the football world has willed small clubs on to win trophies – such as in FA Cup finals when the unfancied have triumphed over the favourites. Unfortunately, football has become too predictable in many quarters as financial clout has become the 12th man, not the fans as everyone likes to think. The thought of the 12th man being in the stands and on the terraces is another romantic ideal that has long gone and has been replaced by money.

In the past, teams like QPR, Ipswich and even the mighty Leeds United have fallen at the final hurdle for a variety of reasons, but strength in depth is something that many nearly men have in common. Today, most of the squads of the big clubs are not just sizeable, but they are also packed with talent – there are very few examples of “making up the numbers”, because these clubs have the wealth and the capability to assemble a multi-faceted squad that adheres to a system.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, clubs couldn’t afford to have vast squads, they generally had 14 or so very decent players and the rest were reserves, youngsters or veterans who filled in when needed. Some clubs barely had 11, so when a key man was missing, they struggled. Injuries and suspensions were more influential on the outcome of a season, but loss of form also meant that a manager could not “tinker” as much as they do today. This was a time of one, two or at best, three substitutes, but back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was 12 men at best. It was difficult to keep a squad happy, although there was reserve team football, which had more credibility than it does today. It was a smaller market and players didn’t have the contractual freedom they have in the 21st century.

Leeds United were one such team, a mythical starting eleven of internationals – Sprake (Wales), Reaney (England), Cooper (England), Charlton (England), Hunter (England), Lorimer (Scotland),Clarke (England), Jones (England), Giles (Ireland) and Gray (Scotland) – plus the versatile Madeley (England). Outside of that revered combination, Leeds were relatively weak and given they fought on all fronts, injuries would instantly derail their system. Leeds lost more than they should have won, but a bigger squad would surely have given them the honours they deserved. The same could be applied to Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town in 1981, a wonderful team that didn’t have the depth they needed. At the same time, Ipswich’s big rivals in 1981, Aston Villa, used only 14 players, proving that if they stay fit and on form, a small group can win through.

It’s hard to imagine current champions Manchester City lacking alternatives, although their squad is smaller than most, but is packed with talent at all levels. In 2021-22, City used 33 players in all competitions, just 18 of which played more than a third of their Premier League games. Over the past decade, Premier champions have used, across all fronts, an average of 32 players, but when it comes to the league itself, 17 have been involved over 33% of the time.

The problem of smaller squads has undoubtedly contributed to some excellent teams failing fulfil their destiny, a subject that crops up time and again in The Great Uncrowned, which includes teams from the early 20th century right up to the current era. The role these played in the history of the game should not be overlooked, because without unpredictability and that element of “what might have been”, the sport we are all attracted to loses a big slice of its appeal. Fans of Hungarian, Austrian, Dutch and Brazilian football are still talking about their greats of the past and QPR, Ipswich, Burnley and Leeds fans will forever warm to memories of players who gave them such joy. But even the neutrals and the onlookers gained so much pleasure from the skill, talent and endeavour of teams that really were The Great Uncrowned.

The Great Uncrowned by Neil Jensen is published by Pitch Publishing ISBN 1801501777