While Group A has two teams that are forever expected to go far in the Champions League, Group B is marginally different. 5 time winners Bayern Munich have not been able to regain their treble winning successes of 2013; Tottenham Hotspur, however, undid doubters in the space of half an hour by overcoming a 3 goal deficit against Ajax to reach their first Champions League final. Red Star Belgrade and Olympiacos meanwhile will compete in the inaugural Marko Marin derby.
Red Star Belgrade
Bayern Munich are Germany’s most dominant and successful club. They have won the Bundesliga 29 times, the DFB Pokal 19 times and the Champions League 5 times. In 2013 they reached the pinnacle of footballing success by winning all three in the same season. But since then, they have yet to reach another European final; what’s more than that, they have struggled to establish any form of identity since Guardiola’s departure. With relative newcomer Niko Kovac now at the helm, Bayern were dealt a tricky hand last season, facing tournament favourites Liverpool in the round of 16. Without mainstays Thomas Müller or Joshua Kimmich, Bayern suffered a 3–1 defeat at tbeir home ground and it is this defeat which overshadows an otherwise prosperous season. Their domestic successes are proving to be not eniuvh for some. For many Bayern fans, reaching the semi-final is a sign of being on the right track. For others, das Finale oder nichts. This season, die Bayern will look to not just go further than the round of 16 but showcase that their unsuccessful plot for Leroy Sané has not held them back. The team has a fine balance of young and old, many of whom are ready to take on the challenge of the big stage.
‘Lads, it’s Tottenham’ was once the punchline. The anticipation of a team that could be walked over, an owner whose reluctance to break the bank coukd cause star players like Harry Kane or Dele Alli to move elsewhere. But something changed a few years ago and now Spurs appear to be one of England’s best; their almost success had come in the shadow of this frugality. Having seen how far they can get without spending much, their midfield received tremendous reinforcement in the form of Tanguy Ndombele; arriving for an uncharacteristic £62 million as well as picking up the prodigious Ryan Sessegnon for £24 million. Other additions include Giovani Lo Celso from Real Betis and the returning Harry Kane from injury troubles, if the Tottenham of today met Liverpool in the final last year… they probably still would not have been able to get the win.
The Champions League final itself is a stand-alone match, as it always is; the 2019 final, in particular, has been considered as one of the worst in recent years. But at no point would they have been considered the favourites. Not just because of Liverpool’s ability but because the Tottenham of that season was not built to compete in several competitions. Mauricio Pochettino did away with the hat-trick scoring Lucas Moura and instead went for the returning Harry Kane in what was his first match back in a month and a half. Outside of this, the team had only won two games since beating Manchester City in their first leg (these two games were against the relegated Huddersfield and the almost relegated Brighton). For Tottenham, their last 15 league games have seen them pick up just 15 points. A respectable finish of 4th in the Premier League and a runner-up medal in the Champions League, their standing has been able to quietly mask the fact that Tottenham have been out of form since around February. Now with a squad that is built for multiple competitions, their shopping spree came maybe a season too late.
Olympiacos’s season started on the 23rd of July as they had to go through the final three stages of qualifying. In spite of this, they remain undefeated in their last 15 games and their total aggregate across all competitions this season currently stands at 14:1.
Every year, Olympiacos appear to have a name on their books that, several years ago, would have been an incredible signing. Such is the case of Greek football not having the profligacy of the English or Spanish FA, Olympiacos have made do with signings such as a 34 year old Esteban Cambiasso, a 35 year old Yaya Toure for 222 minutes and, as recently as this year, a 34 year old Mathieu Valbuena. For what they have to offer, this is a team that has made some handy sporting decisions. Though their physical game may be not be what it once was, at one point in their careers, these players were top quality performers and the mental aspect that comes with that doesn’t go away that quickly. It is unlikely that Olympiacos will continue their form for not conceding goals but if they can limit this amount and find a blanace between Valbuena’s experience and the youth of wingers Daniel Podence and Lazar Randjelovic, they may be able to set their sights higher than the third place many pundits will have already put them in.
Crvena zvezda (or Red Star Belgrade) won the competition back in 1991 when it was still called the European Cup. They went the distance with Olympique de Marseille before winning 5:4 on penalties. In the following season, they were knocked out in the first group stage. Almost immediately following this, Yugoslavian sanctions meant that Red Star were unable to compete in Europe until 1995. It is impossible to say how much of an impact these sanctions had not just on Red Star but on Yugoslavian football as a whole. They were unlikely to begin a decade of dominance but those three years without competition would have set back the team by quite a distance. Since 1995, Red Star have regularly struggled to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League and have only appeared in the group stage of the Europa League a handful of times. Last year they qualified and were rewarded for the efforts by being put in a group with Napoli, Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain. This year’s Group B could be marginally kinder than the free-scoring teams of last year but it will take more than a moment of magic from the German Messi Marko Marin to get them through to either the next round or even the Europa League spot.
In Olympiacos, Marin takes on his former club, the place that finally freed him from the purgatory of Chelsea’s loan army. Now standing in Belgrade as the captain and leader he was set to become for Germany, he is likely to relish both the chance to face the Germany champions and the team he turned down for Chelsea.
This is Marko Marin’s world. We just live in it.