Five teams to gatecrash Champions League cocktail party
While the Champions League is normally a sedate, drinks reception-type affair for fancy-pants, snooty billionaire Eurotrash types from around the continent, the competition this year is going to be a little more like a backstreet tapas bar. The chat will be loud, the floor will be sticky and someone will be jostling you with their elbows as you try to squeeze that deep-fried pepper into your gob, to add to all the other deep-fried fodder that has gone the same way.
Sevilla winning the Europa League last season means there are five Spanish squads standing on pitches this week, listening to the anthems and wondering whether to sing along or not. Three are in action in Tuesday night’s round of matches, and one of those will be going into the contest with trepidation rather than zeal. That side is Sevilla, returning to the Champions League after six years of dithering and navel-gazing while other teams like Real Sociedad, Málaga and Athletic Bilbao took their spot.
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The problem for Sevilla is that the start of the domestic season has been more than a little shaky, with the Andalusians in the relegation zone after picking up just two points from three games. However, Unai Emery’s men will be happy that the visitors are in even worse straits, with Borussia Monchengladbach currently bottom of the Bundesliga without a single point from four. “What I don’t want is for the Champions League to be a disappointment,” announced Unai ahead of the match-up.
Atlético Madrid are in Turkey facing Galatasaray - a prospect that might spook about 28 of the other 30 teams in the competition, but is water off the backs of some mean ducks who know how to get a 1-0 away win with Jackson Martínez on goalscoring duties.
Betis have had one, so have Espanyol: now it might be Shakhtar’s turn to get a hammering, with the Ukrainians and 40 away fans helping to make Real Madrid’s European start as easy (on paper) as the one in La Liga. With his high-tech eye-mask, Cristiano Ronaldo probably barely slept through the night, in anticipation of having free rein to run the opposition ragged and overcome Raúl’s all-time goalscoring record for Los Blancos. (The Portuguese is currently four behind. Might not take long.)
Over on Wednesday night’s platter, Valencia have been a little odd and hard to suss out at the start of the season, but Nuno Espirito Santo's men should have enough gas in the Mestalla tank to overcome AVB’s Zenit in the battle of the suave Portuguese coaches.
This leaves the most intriguing tie of the week, Barcelona’s trip to take on Roma. Italian teams still spook Spanish fans to this day with suspicions over 11 men behind the ball and devilish ankle-bashing defending. Pair that with Barça always being a little bit flaky on the road in the Champions League, even in the glory days of Pep’s Dream Boys, and the Catalan club might be returning from Serie A Land with just the point in a week where LLL boldly predicts that the five noisy members of La Liga will remain undefeated.
Now watch Tim Stannard and his Shih Tzu...