In the third episode of this series, Subhodip Basu follows the fortunes of the war-ravaged Yugoslav national team through the late 80s and 90s
The Prisoners of War: Yugoslavia 1990-98
Yugoslavia, a consistent underperformer in major tournaments, gave glimpses of turning over a new leaf in the late 80s. First, its youth team won the FIFA World Youth Championship (now known as U-20 World Cup) in 1987. Then it had a moderately successful Italia ’90 followed by a virtual romp through the qualifying stage of Euro 1992. In the interim, Red Star Belgrade took the 1991 European Champions Cup. Then, sadly, came a very bloody civil war, leading to a ban by UEFA. The team disintegrated, but the players continued to glitter for their clubs across Europe. In this edition we look at the travails of the team that “never wanted to be”. Ironically, the protagonists in this story, perhaps would be least bothered by their lack of success as a team, as by the end of the millennium, war had driven the fissures too deep.
The nucleus of this potentially great team germinated during the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championship in Chile. This, despite missing as many as five first teamers including captain Aleksander Đorđević due to suspension and injuries, and keeping Siniša Mihajlović, Vladimir Jugović and Alen Bokšić at home. They did have a blond playmaker called Robert Prosinečki, who was to become the player of the tournament, and he was ably supported by Igor Štimac, Robert Jarni, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Šuker and Predrag Mijatović. They started with a 4-2 win over hosts Chile, before brushing aside Australia and Togo 4-0 and 4-1, respectively. Trouble followed as Red Star Belgrade suddenly woke up to ask for Prosinečki for a UEFA Cup tie. The players protested vehemently and FIFA President João Havelange intervened. Prosinečki duly obliged by curling a free-kick to eliminate Brazil in the quarters. They went on to beat both East and West Germany in the semi-final and final, respectively. In the latter match, they missed both Prosinečki and Mijatović through suspension but an inspired Boban gave them a lead and they finally won in penalties, no mean task, against West Germany. They gave all indications of a team-in-waiting as they demolished all known shortcomings of their predecessors by eliminating bigger teams, sticking together (as in the Prosinečki case), making light of missing players and, most importantly, keeping their nerve.
Balkan, Balkan, Burning Bright
To be fair, good parts often do not make a good football team. The players rarely played together and even when they did, due to all the war and violence, they (especially the Croats and Bosnians) could be scarcely expected to be motivated for giving their best. However, each was a star in their respective clubs. Like all great teams there was quality in almost all positions (save in goal, where Tomislav Ivković, Ivica Kralj and Dražen Ladić could at best be termed ‘goodish’).
However, any glimpse of mediocrity ended right there. In the early 90s, they had a pair of Serbian full-backs in the free-scoring Mirsad Baljić on left and the less adventurous Dragoljub Brnović on right. Later in the decade, they were superceded by an even more talented Croat pair of Robert Jarni and Igor Štimac. Jarni was world class. The original kingpin at sweeper was the Bosnian Faruk Hadžibegić, and anyone who watched their 1990 quarter-final with Argentina would stand testimony to how elegantly he rendered both Diego Maradona and Claudio Caniggia ineffective. Moreover, skilful additions just kept emerging in Slaven Bilić, Miroslav Đukić, Zvonimir Soldo, Robert Kovač and (occasionally) Siniša Mihajlović. The last, being the most consistent dead-ball shooter in his time.
The original kingpin at sweeper was the Bosnian Faruk Hadžibegić, and anyone who watched their 1990 quarter-final with Argentina would stand testimony to how elegantly he rendered both Diego Maradona and Claudio Caniggia ineffective.
Things kept getting better in midfield, where they could comfortably field up to two world class combinations at any time. As holding midfielders, they had Serbian Vladimir Jugović and Slovenian Srečko Katanec, stars for scudetto winning Juventus and Sampdoria, respectively. They were followed by younger Croats, Mario Stanić of Parma and Aljoša Asanović. Attacking flair came from superstars Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinečki and above all Dragan “Piksi” Stojković. Piksi was unlucky to leave Red Star just before their golden run as well as miss the Marseille’s 1993 triumph due to injury (he also missed his international peak due to the UEFA ban). By 1998, Dejan Stanković was taking baby steps into stardom, and he is still setting and scoring stunning goals for Inter.
Most importantly, the Slavs were strong upfront where they have been often weak. Traditionally, their best attackers were either converted wingers like Dragan Džajić or inside forwards like Rajko Mitić. The 90s were an exception, which reinforces the belief that this team was a definite world beater. Their cornucopia of talent included brilliant “holes”, such as Montenegrin Dejan Savićević and Slovenian Zlatko Zahović, as well as penalty box monsters like Macedonian Darko Pančev and Serbian Predrag Mijatović. Last but not the least was the Croat pair of Davor Šuker and Alen Bokšić. All except Zahović, won at least one Champions League. Add the ageing but still clever Safet Sušić and a fast improving Bosnian, Hasan Salihamidžić on the wings and you have an attack that could succeed against all kinds of defence under all conditions.
Clubs in former Yugoslavia, irrespective of their geography, had always been a symbol of anti-communist resistance. The Gravediggers of Partizan Belgrade, the Red Star ultras called Delije and Dynamo Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys were all treated by Marshal Josip Tito as virtual underground movements. Clubs like Hajduk of Split embodied Dalmatia like Barcelona does for Catalonia. As perestroika began to sweep East Europe, these fan groups, emboldened by the events, began to turn more nationalistic. It was inevitable that they shall play a role in the war years.
The first big incident took place in Zagreb, Croatia, when Red Star met Dynamo on May 13, 1990, the last league game of the Yugoslavian league. Thousands of the Delije and the Bad Blue Boys fought both each other and the local police. The game of course was abandoned after 10 minutes, but not before Zagreb’s best player, Boban, kicked a policeman who was trying to prevent Croatian hooligans from attacking Red Star fans. The policeman, a Bosnian Muslim, ironically said later that he understood Boban’s act. Boban, now a Croat war poster boy, boldly declared later, in a documentary film The Last Yugoslavian Football Team: “I would die for Croatia.” Needless to remind the readers, he conveniently avoided doing so during the war, being mostly entrenched instead at the San Siro.
At the same time, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević was attempting to organize the apparently uncontrolled hooliganism to more useful ends and in due course enlisted Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan. During a derby with Partizan in 1992, Arkan’s group dressed in full uniform, took up positions in the north stand and started holding up signals such as ‘20 miles to Vukovar‘ and ‘Welcome to Vukovar‘ (Vukovar being a Croatian town that had apparently fallen to the Serbian army). Both sets of supporters were now united in hatred of a common enemy – the Croats. From this point, the ultras assumed control of football and the criminal underworld in the war-torn state. Arkan, who would eventually be assassinated in 2000, ran everything from ticket sales to foreign travel and intimidation of match officials. His recruited ‘Tigers’ fought the patriotic war, first in Croatia and later, in Kosovo.
The hope that football will flourish when peace is restored, was to be a false mirage. Now, the attack came from the west. From the mid-90s, almost all the international players from Yugoslavia, Croatia and Bosnia were playing abroad. In the 1996 Euro squad of Croatia, only keeper Ladić, defender Dario Šimić and half-back Asanovićwere from home clubs. Similarly for Yugoslavia in 1998, keeper Kralj and a still 19-year-old Stanković were the only players from domestic clubs in the regular eleven. Things only went steadily downhill from 1998.
Terrace attendance was no longer sufficient to fund clubs and television audience were glued to the more glamorous leagues where the best Balkans played. Hence, clubs in both Serbia and Croatia were short of funds, forcing them to sell off their best players thus rendering their domestic football with less skill and competitiveness. This vicious cycle, continues to affect all East European clubs even now, and the Balkan nations, due to war and violence were its biggest casualties. It’s worth reflecting on how this has affected East European national teams. Since 1990, in 12 major competitions (World Cup and Euro) they have managed zero wins, 1 final and four semi-finals. In a similar 12 events between 1966-88 it was 1 win, three finals and 7 semis. The Slavs have been worst hit of all.
Serbian parliamentarian Zeljko Tomic, a committed Gravedigger, likes to relate the story of Mateja Kežman’s sale from Partizan to PSV Eindhoven. Partizan was supposed to receive new floodlights from Philips, the PSV owners. The lights, however, went missing en route, in all likelihood, being pocketed by an intermediary at the club’s expense.
There are countless talented teams which did not perform to their potential, but hardly anywhere did politics play such a cruel and uncontrollable role. Not just that, subsequent war and globalization of the football economy has virtually ruled out a revival. However, the stimulus to rate this team high is not based on emotions. Neither is it based on sheer talent, which admittedly they had in abundance.
They had a temperament to match, with most players being versatile enough to be successful for multiple clubs and multiple leagues. Majority were impact players for their clubs rather than being just a support player. Katanec, Jugović, Mihajlović, the Rossoneri trio of Savićević, Boban and Pančev were all very successful in Italy. Bokšićand Stojković were part of Marseille’s superstar team while Real Madrid had Jarni, Mijatović and Šuker at various times. Let’s not forget a very old Stanković in Inter’s golden run almost a decade later. The combined transfer fee of their top 15 players in the 90s was in excess of €100m, a number almost similar to the top 15 of either Brazil, France or Germany who all won tournaments in that decade. Moreover, to hone this talent they could call on anyone amongst Bora Milutinović, Vujadin Boškov and Radomir Antić, three of the best in this decade.
Additionally, there was pride and team spirit in abundance, a key element in any successful team. With less than 50% of the original player pool, Croatia did make it to a World Cup semi-final with ageing and downhill players. The rest, playing for Yugoslavia, also had a decent run in 1998 World Cup and even in Euro 2000 with players who were even older! Yugoslavia once came back from three goals down in Euro 2000 while Croatia blanked old nemesis Germany by three goals in 1998. Years of responsibility in foreign clubs had made them hard-nosed professionals. They could be clever, even cynical when they needed to be (remember the Bilić dive to oust Laurent Blanc?). These players were made of sterner stuff!
Many political thinkers feel that both Brazil and Argentina were on the verge of civil war in the 60s and late 70s/ early 80s, respectively and football success worked as a great national glue as well as a legitimate diversion. If only Piksi had not missed the spot kick against Argentina, and the Slavs went on to make the finals in 1990 World Cup, perhaps a combined Balkan team would have lined up in 1992 Euro. Perhaps a football crazy population would have understood the power of unity and the futility of conflict. For now, we can only muse as we watch Luca Modrić wave delicate patterns at the Bernabéu.
UEFA Europa League Preview
The Europa League is ready to take off for the 2012-13 season and promises to be more competitive than ever. Riddhi Ray Chaudhuri previews where the teams stand at the beginning of the tournament and how they are going to perform
The second tier tournament of European club football is ready to kick-off the 2012-13 season. Although this tournament is no match to the UEFA Champions League, the Europa League brings a much wider spectrum of clubs on display from across Europe. For the so-called less-fancied clubs, this tournament is a stepping stone towards a bigger glory while for the more popular clubs, this is a poor man’s European tournament. Interestingly, this season will see a higher number of high profile clubs, who are generally more accustomed to playing in UCL, to compete like Internazionale, Lyon, Marseille, Liverpool, etc. A total of 48 clubs will be participating in group stage that have been divided in 12 groups with top two teams from each group qualifying for the next round, they will be joined by eight more teams from UCL group stage. Let’s take a look at the groups and the corresponding teams to preview how things may shape up after six match-days.
Liverpool FC Anzhi Makhachkala FC Udinese Calcio BSC Young Boys
None of the four teams are likely to be very happy with the group they are in. Although Young Boys and Anzhi are comparatively in much better positions in their respective domestic leagues, they know that they have their task cut out against their more illustrious opponents. In recent times, Anzhi have been in the news more because of their spending spree rather than their on-field actions. Getting Guus Hiddink on board has been a major appointment by Anzhi and it goes without saying that a club under the stewardship of Hiddink can never be taken lightly. Young Boys, coached by former Swiss footballer Martin Rueda, will be a very competitive side especially at home backed by their home support. On paper they may lack the names to excite but at the same time, they have nothing to lose and can easily cause one or two surprises. Although the European pedigree of Liverpool cannot be matched by rest of the three teams, in the last few years the performance of the club has gone backwards. It has been compounded by the poor start to the new season (worst in 50 years). With Brendon Rodgers being appointed as the new manager, normally it will take time for Liverpool to hit any sort of form. So with trips away to potentially difficult oppositions, Liverpool have to ensure their home form is up to the mark to ensure smooth passage from the group. A crushing defeat by Juventus has left Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin with a lot to be desired. In last couple of years, Udinese has performed at consistent level irrespective of their limited resources with repeated appearances in Europe. With a hard pressing and counter-attack based side, they will be one of the initial favourites to progress from this group.
Atletico Viktoria Plzeň Academica H.Tel Aviv
Last season’s Europa League champions, Atletico find them clubbed with relatively easier opponents. Atletico have been off to a flier this season, their Europa Super Cup victory over Chelsea has been no less than a stunner. Under club legend Diego Simeone, they have developed as quite a fascinating side. They are lethal in attack and very formidable in other parts of the pitch; it goes without saying that they will be the outright favourites to win Group B. It will be interesting to see who go through the group stage along with Atletico. Academica from Portugal will be participating in Europe for the first time since 1971, courtesy their Portuguese Cup victory. It remains to be seen whether they will be mere pushovers or have something exciting to offer. Hapoel from Israel’s Tel Aviv are a team that have seen a lot of changes both on and off the pitch in recent times. Under new manager Nitzan Shirazi, they are a side in transition. If Hapoel can match their 2009-10 season’s performance in Europa League when they qualified from the group, they will be content with that. Viktoria Plzeň will be the side that will have better chances to go through to the round of 32 along with Atletico. Pavel Vrba has been in charge of the team for the last four seasons and it has helped the Plzeň based club to have a settled team. In 2011-12 they finished third in the group stage of Champions League and qualified for the knock-out round of Europa League – their best performance in Europe so far. This time they will be hoping to build on that and go further in the Europa League.
Olympique de Marseille Fenerbahçe AEL Limassol Borussia Mönchengladbach FC
Group C will be a very hard one to predict. All the four teams have a competitive squad that can give a run for their money to any other team and against each other they have to dig deep in order to proceed to the next round. Marseille and Fenerbahçe are seasoned campaigners in Europe, they generally shuttle between UCL and Europa League every season. After their debacle in domestic league last season, Marseille have just flown off the block this season winning all of their first four matches. They have been solid in those matches in every department and with a squad that is playing together for quite a long time, they will be confident of their chances in the group. Fenerbahçe too have had a good start in the Turkish Süper Lig. They must have felt hard done by their failure to qualify for UCL group stage and Europa League will be their chance to redeem. The team have strengthened over the summer with addition of experienced players. They too would be raring to go. AEL, the Cypriot club have been living a dream since last season. Under Pambos Christodoulou (nicknamed Pambourinho for his managerial resemblance to Mourinho), they won the domestic league last season after 44 years and were very close to qualifying for the group stage of UCL. It will be interesting to see whether they can replicate what APOEL did last season. Although resources are a constraint for them, they can overcome that with their exuberance. Borussia Mönchengladbach has been the underdog team who caught imaginations last season in Bundesliga. They will be hoping to continue that form and build on it. Like the rest of the teams in the group, they too were ousted in the UCL play-off round and will have to be content with Europa League. Although there have been some chop and changes in the team, the backbone remains the same. Their manager, Lucien Favre will try to prepare his team to see off challenges from the rest of the contenders and make it to the next round.
Bordeaux Newcastle United Club Brugge Maritimo
Apparently Group D appears to be a straightforward one. Belgium club Brugge and Maritimo from Portugal haven’t been able to make their marks in European stage in spite of being regular qualifiers from their respective countries in recent years. Brugge have started their season reasonably well but at the same time, Belgian league and Europe are different ball games. Emulating last season’s performance, when they qualified from group stage, will be their primary target. After repeated attempts in qualifying and play-off stage, Maritimo has moved on to group stage this season for the first time in their history. However, achieving something spectacular seems a bit away from their reach currently. Newcastle United’s resurgence under Alan Perdew has been quite exceptional in the last season. Intelligent signings and making the team play according to its strength has led the tyneside club back to European folds. With a very balanced squad, they will be eager to get back to their glory days. However, balancing both European and domestic front will be a challenge for them. Bordeaux have fallen from grace after departure of Laurent Blanc under whom they have been quite spectacular. At the same time, they lost quite a few star players in the process, which have left them severely depleted. Under Eric Bédouet, they are trying to find their feet. A good run in Europe can be the shot in the arm for them although that will require a Herculean effort from the team. Along with Newcastle, Bordeaux seems to be the safe bet to go to next round at this moment.
VFB Stuttgart FC København Steaua București Molde FK
Group E has Molde, Stuttgart, Steaua from Bucharest and FC København pitched against each other. Four mediocre teams will have to slog it out between themselves to decide who will go through to the next round. Former Manchester United favourite, Ole Solskjær with his Midas touch has guided Molde to their first ever domestic title in their centenary year. However, they haven’t been able to make most of their opportunities in UCL and now they will try their luck in Europa League. Whether Solskjær can script another fairy tale with his team remains to be seen. Courtesy of their sixth place finish in Bundesliga, Stuttgart qualified for Europa league this season. However, expecting anything spectacular from them would be a tough ask. A bad start in their domestic league has compounded their problems and a crushing defeat by Bayern Munich has left them in disarray. Coping with the demands of Europa League will be a big test for them. FC København have enjoyed quite a good amount of success in recent years. They would want to follow that up with another good run this season. Under new coach, they have started well in the Danish league and will be the team to watch out for in this group. Steaua are familiar with Europa league group stage, having been a regular participant for the last few seasons. So they will try to use all their experience to get over other teams. Backed by their strong start in domestic Liga I, they will be hoping to get over to the next round.
AIK Solna FC Dnipro PSV Eindhoven Napoli
Group F will see two clear favourites, PSV and Napoli, facing the underdog sides AIK Solna from Sweden and Ukrainian side Dnipro. Napoli have made a terrific start to the current Serie A campaign, winning all three of their opening games. Going forward, they have been one of the most exciting sides in Europe over the last year. Last season they enjoyed a remarkable phase in Europe and they would like to reach the same level this year too. PSV have been rejuvenated under the vastly experienced Dick Advocaat. The start of the season has seen them clinching the Johan Cruijff Schaal (Johan Cruijff Shield) and winning the Europa League qualifier with a record margin. With a rich array of talents in their squad, PSV faithful will be hoping for an extended run in Europe this time. The clashes between these two sides would definitely excite football fans. Dnipro and AIK would have to be at their very best if they wish to gain anything from the group. This will be AIK’s first participation in Europa League group stage. AIK are approaching the end of their domestic campaign where they have a good chance of winning the title. So they would need to balance both fronts carefully to not miss out the chances of good results. Dnipro too have a have good start to their domestic campaign. However, a good run in the group stage is difficult to perceive against such strong opponents. With limited squad strength, manager Juade Ramos will find it difficult to get going.
FC Basel Videoton K.R.C. Genk Sporting CP
Group G will see last season’s Europa League semi-finalist Sporting Lisbon competing against FC Basel, Videoton from Hungary and Belgium club Genk. All these teams have gone through managerial changes in recent times. So, without much experience in Europe, these managers’ credentials would be put to the testnow. Paulo Sousa has been able to overhaul Videoton to an extent and he would certainly want to continue with the good work. They have made a good start to the new season which includes winning the Magyar Kupa (Hungarian Cup) and qualifying for the Europa League group stage after three rounds of qualification. So if these are signs of things to come, the club can be hopeful of good results in this tournament. Basel stunned everyone last season after eliminating Manchester United and qualifying for the knock-out stage. However, the start to the new season hasn’t been quite according to plan for their manager Heiko Vogel in his first full season at helm. They could not repeat last season’s heroics in UCL and were eliminated in the play-offs. In Swiss League, which they have won for the last three seasons, they are yet to find their rhythm. So they must put things in perspective before the group stage starts. Genk too hasn’t had a good start to the season. They may fancy their chances in Group G but before that, they have to vastly improve their performance. A leaky defence has been their problem, which they must rectify. However, their relatively good performance in UCL last year will give their manager, Mario Been confidence ahead of their Europa League journey. Start to the new season for Sporting has been poor. After a bright start to his reign last season, things haven’t been according to plan for Ricardo Sá Pinto this season. They have been winless in their first three matches and thus must turn things around quickly to kick-start their season. However, a talented squad will give the manager confidence to qualify from the group stage.
Inter Partizan Neftchi Rubin Kazan
Group H will have one of Europe’s top clubs and UCL 2010 champion Inter Milan playing against Rubin Kazan, Partizan of Serbia and European debutants Neftchi from Azerbaijan. It is really difficult to see anyone else other than Inter to top the group. With the experience they have in their squad, it would be very hard for them not to qualify for next round. Under young manager Andrea Stramaccioni, they have a sound start to the season. Inter will look to put last season’s mess behind them and get back to the level where they belong. With a few intelligent signings including that of Antonio Cassano, Inter’s squad is looking quite strong. A decent show in Europe is what their fans would be demanding this time. A major concern in the group would be to which side goes the second spot. Apparently, both Rubin Kazan and Partizan would be vying for that. After their good displays in Europe over the last three seasons, Rubin can be hopeful of making it to the next round. Their start to the new season has been average, winning four games out of eight while losing the rest four. Kurban Berdyev has been in charge of Rubin for over a decade and he will have to prepare his squad for the task. Partizan created history last season when they won the Serbian League for a record five consecutive times. However, their record in Europe has not been significant. The last time they moved to knock-out stage in Europe was in 2005. So this time they would want to better that record. Their form in domestic league has been good as usual and manager Vladimir Vermezović will want his team to perform at similar level this time in Europe. Rookies Neftchi will want to enjoy their first European experience. A few surprises by them here and there couldn’t be written off. In their qualification campaign, Neftchi eliminated APOEL, the quarter-finalists in UCL last season. So it will be wrong to ignore them and they may well be the dark horse in the group.
Athletic Club AC Sparta Praha Lyon H.I. Kiryat Shmona
Last year’s runners-up Athletic Club from Spain will start their campaign in Group I. They would be hoping to move one step further this time and clinch their first continental title. However, things have been difficult for them at the start of the season. There has been a rift between club hierarchy and manager Marcelo Bielsa. One of their best players, Javi Martinez has left the club while star striker Fernando Llorente too wants to leave the club. Their form has been very shaky with their defence leaking in goals. The squad too lacks depth to maintain performance in both domestic league and Europe. They have to sort out these issues as quickly as possible and make sure they can repeat their heroics of last season. Athletic will be joined by Lyon from France who are also trying to regain their form on the pitch. After the departure of Claude Puel, it would be a massive task for the new manager, Rémi Garde to put the records straight. Having lost their experienced duo of Hugo Lloris and Kim Källströmover the summer, the current squad would require to rise in the hour of need. Their form in the new season has been satisfactory and it is to be seen whether they can produce the same in Europe too. Sparta Praha and Hapoel Kiryat Shmona from Israel would be the other two clubs in the group. Sparta no longer boasts the glory of yesteryears and they are now mostly limited to participating in European competition. With the more glamorous clubs luring away their talented players, Sparta lacks the strength in their squad needed to succeed in Europe. H.K. Shmona are a club that came into existence just a decade ago. But their rise to prominence in Israel domestic league has been quite spectacular. Last season they won their first domestic title and followed that up with qualifying for Europa League group stage. They would have nothing to lose, rather staging a few upsets may be on the cards.
Panathinaikos S.S. Lazio Tottenham NK Maribor
Tottenham, Lazio, Maribor and Panathinaikos will compete in Group J. Although Tottenham and Lazio appear to be the teams to qualify for the next round, it won’t be wise to ignore the other two teams, Panathinaikos or Maribor. Europa League is the perfect platform for the unsung clubs to rise above their weight. Tottenham are extremely unlucky as they have to participate in Europa League despite finishing fourth in English Premier League. The club have gone for a risky gamble this season by appointing Andres Villas-Boas in place of Harry Redknapp, who was instrumental in Tottenham’s success. After some significant changes in the squad, Villas-Boas has a talented team at his disposal that should do well. AVB would fondly remember the last time he managed Porto in Europa League and would require to produce similar results to justify his billing as one of the promising managers this season. Maribor from Slovenia would be hoping for a better campaign than last season when they finished bottom of the group. But it would be quite tough for them against experienced campaigners in Europe. Panathinaikos would need to step up this time if they really want to make a mark. Off—the-field issues have affected the club’s performance in recent times; a lot of players were sold last summer to compensate financially. With a bunch of young and unproven players, manager Jesualdo Ferreira would have to make things happen. In the new season, Lazio almost found a spring in their step; they started their Serie A campaign in a spectacular manner. Under new manager Vladimir Petković, they have settled in quickly and would be hoping for a good campaign in Europe this time.
Metalist Kharkiv Bayer Leverkusen Rosenborg BK SK Rapid Wien
Group K consists of Bayer Leverkusen, Metalist from Ukraine, Rapid Wien and Rosenborg. Rapid and Rosenborg will be returning to Europe after one year’s absence. Rosenborg’s season is approaching its end. They would be eager to make a good show this time but how far they will be successful remains to be seen. Currently they lie third in their domestic league, just one point adrift of the leaders. Replicating the same form in Europe would be a challenge for their manager, Jan Jönsson. Rapid Wien would look to continue their good home form when they start their campaign in Europe. Last time, they failed to qualify for group stage, so would surely like to better this time. Last season, Metalist from Kharkhiv had a good run in Europa League. Inspite of their limited team strength, they reached the quarter-final where they lost narrowly to Sporting Lisbon. They would like to have a similar run this time too but challenges will be tougher. Metalist coach Myron Markevych has been in charge of the team for a long time and he would definitely like to surpass his own record. Leverkusen must have felt hard done by last season’s seven-goal drubbing against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona. They would look to put the record straight by a good performance in Europa this time. However, their form at the start of the season needs to improve drastically for achieving anything remarkable. After that debacle at Nou Camp, the club parted ways with Robin Dutt and have put Sami Hyypiä in the hot seat. Hyypiä’s boys have to show character if they are to prove their worth. With talent aplenty in the squad, hopefully they will come good as the tournament progresses.
Twente FC Levante UD Hannover 96 Helsinborg
The last group of the entire lot will witness four very interesting teams battle it out among them. Levante, Helsingborg, Hannover and FC Twente will be involved in Group L and it can go to the wire to decide the top two teams. Levante have been living a dream after they returned to top division two years back. With a stringent budget and lot of constraints, their achievement has been phenomenal. After finishing sixth last year in La Liga, they got the opportunity to play in Europa League play-off and they saw off Motherwell FC comfortably to qualify for group stage for the first time in their history. Although their start to the new season hasn’t been good, but their inspirational coach, Juan Ignacio Martinez (nicknamed JIM) would definitely want to put up a competitive performance. Helsinborg had to settle for Europa League group stage after they were defeated by Celtic FC in UCL play-off. Domestic form has not been good for them and in all probability, they won’t be returning to Europe next season. So they must make big of whatever chance they have this season. Hannover have been impressive in Bundesliga for the last two seasons and this season too they have started well. Last season they lost to Atletico Madrid, the champions in an evenly contested quarter-final. Manager Mirko Slomka would try to take his team further this season but for that they’ve got to qualify from this tough group. The last team in the group, FC Twente qualified for the group stage after a gruelling qualifying schedule. They have won all five matches in their domestic league this season and are sitting at the top of the table. The club supporters would be hopeful this season with the return of their iconic manager, Steve McClaren and his effect on the team has been immediate. Twente have a young and talented side that will try to go as far as possible in this season’s Europa League.