Well aware that the Europa League throws up a number of teams that remain a mystery to many, I took it upon myself to do a bit of reading about the groups in Pot 4. So here’s the result of my research (it was actually undertaken because I was writing a preview of Torino’s group, which is why HJK aren’t featured, because that piece is part of a bigger whole elsewhere.
Qarabag are a team that excite me. I shall have to hunt them out at some point.
Dinamo Moscow (4th in Russian Premier League) – PSV Eindhoven (NED), Panathinaikos FC (GRE), Estoril Praia (POR)
Stanislaw Cherchisow’s Musora (The Cops) can count a European final as their best achievement, with the 1972/73 Cup Winners’ Cup defeat to Rangers a standout amongst a number of appearances in the later stage of that competition. The Muscovite side have never been the major players in a city that plays host to a number of top flight sides, notably CSKA and Spartak (Dinamo’s traditional rivals), but also Torpedo and Lokomotiv, with their last title coming in 1976, though a run of steady finishes in the 1990s was only the gateway to a more disappointing new millennium in which 2008’s third place is the highpoint.
This appearance represents Dinamo’s first appearance in a European group – their last adventures across the continent ending at the playoff stage to Celtic, CSKA Sofia and Stuttgart respectively. Dan Petrescu had overseen the beginning of Dinamo’s revival before his dismissal in April after a heavy defeat to Anzhi Makachkala, though the support for Cherchisow has been rather spectacular over the summer as William Vainqueur has arrived from Standard Liege as well as fellow Frenchman, Mathieu Valbuena – so influential at the World Cup – from Marseille, and they have been joined by Manchester United’s Alexander Buttner.
When the side have clicked this season, it has been rather spectacular (a 7-3 win on the opening day against Rostov illustrating that best); though their Chris Samba marshalled defence is not water-tight, however – with only two clean sheets in their nine games to date, and none in Europe against playoff foes Ironi Kiryat Shmona of Israel and Cypriot side AC Omonia.
Oh, he plays for them? Kevin Kuranyi has been banging in goals for Dinamo for a long time, top scorer in three of the last four seasons (Russia’s great white hope Aleksandr Kokorin wrestled that crown from him last year).
FC Krasnodar (5th in Russian Premier League) – LOSC Lille (FRA), VfL Wolfsburg (GER), Everton FC (ENG)
Krasnodar’s meteoric rise brings them to a first European campaign and of all the teams qualifying thus far, their results have looked the most imposing – a 9-0 aggregate win over Estonian’s Sillamäe Kalev (4-0 and 5-0) being followed by an 8-1 over Hungary’s Diósgyőr (3-0 and 5-1); a 1-0 defeat in the away leg against Real Sociedad had already been cancelled out in the 3-0 home leg as they got through to the group stages by a 3-1 margin.
Formed as recently as 2008, the Byki (Bulls) rose through the ranks in Russia at a rate of knots before reaching the Premier League where a couple of mid-table finishes under Slavoljub Muslin were bettered by Aleh Konanaw of Belarus, who has taken the green-blacks into Europe for the first time as his unheralded team slipped under the radar to finish in 5th spot last season.
That form has been carried into this season as FC Krasnodar sit level on points with occasional Europa League troublers Kuban Krasnodar, whose stadium they share, behind just Zenit and the two Moscow giants CSKA and Spartak.
Oh, he plays for them? Andreas Granqvist is the biggest name in a team of nobody’s the Wanderson’s goalscoring exploits should ensure Europe takes some notice of the newcomers, and former Genoa man Moussa Konate is one of the big summer arrivals.
HNK Rijeka (Croatian Cup Winners) – Sevilla FC (ESP, holders), R. Standard de Liège (BEL), Feyenoord (NED)
Rijeka have been regular features on the European scene both before and after Croatian independence and can lay claim to some notable scalps in their history – most famously a 3-1 victory in the 1985/86 UEFA Cup over a Real Madrid side who went on to win the competition. The recent success has come under the ownership (since 2012) of the Italian oil magnate Gabriele Volpi (Gabriel Wolf!) who counts Spezia amongst his other business – indeed, the Croats have a trio of players on loan with SPEZIA NICKNAME. Of course, so close to the border, Italy has always been a strong influence on Rijeka.
Meanwhile, this campaign has also begun strongly with Rijeka and Dinamo Zagreb opening a five point gap between the team in third place after only six games, while the Riječki bijeli (Rijeka’s Whites) also won all six of their Europa League qualifiers against Ferencvaros (Hungary), Vikingur (Faeroe Islands) and Sheriff Tirospol (Moldova).
Although perhaps unflavoured overall, one thing that is certain is that games in Rijeka will not be easy. The Croats boast an impressive European home record, having lost just 3 of 26 European ties at home (to Partizan Belgrade, Standard Liege and Metalist Kharkiv respectively), winning 15 and drawing 8₁.
Oh, he plays for them? Dario Knezevic is a veteran of the Italian game, playing more than 100 games for Livorno and – rather endearingly – three on loan at Juventus.
KSC Lokeren (Beker van Belgium Winners) – Metalist Kharkiv (UKR), Trabzonspor (TUR), Legia Warsaw (POL)
Having conquered Hull City in the play-off round, Lokeren have qualified for European competition for the first time in 11 years, when Manchester City knocked them out of the first round of the UEFA Cup after becoming only the second team to win at Lokeren in full European competition (after Benfica in 1982 – though a number of visitors in the Inter-toto Cup took victories away from Belgium); indeed, they, like Rijeka can lay claim to a big Spanish scalp, this time that of Barcelona in the 1976/77 UEFA Cup.
Lokeren, quite possibly, boast a bigger celebrity in the boardroom than any of their players on the field, too. Roger Lambrecht might not be a household name but having won three Tour de France stages back in the late 1940s, and worn the yellow jersey for three days, he can count himself amongst sporting royalty – these days, he spends his time as chairman of Lokeren.
All that said, this current incarnation of Lokeren is the result of a number of mergers, though the club traces its roots back to a side founded in the East Flanders city in 1923. The club (under various guises) has bobbed about the Belgian top flight ever since its first appearance in 1974, save for a short spell in the mid-90s that ended in a victorious Division 2 campaign. Even with their relatively regular name changes, the yellow black and white colours of the Tricolores are instantly recognisable.
Oh, he plays for them? Lokeren’s keeper goes by the name of Copa in Belgium, but you may know him better as veteran Ivorian Boubacar Barry – because that’s who he is.
Asteras Tripolis (5th in Greek Super League) – Tottenham Hotspur FC (ENG), Beşiktaş JK (TUR), FK Partizan (SRB)
Over recent seasons, the Europa League has begun to show its worth as a shop window for teams who are on the up; the likes of Galatasaray, Atletico Madrid and Benfica have all come to enjoyed success in the competition before going on to show well in the Champions League. Asteras Tripolis (Asteras is Greek for star – note the huge one on their badge) will probably not get quite so far in their endeavours, such is the weakness of the Greek league, but still, finishing 5th is achievement indeed.
The current Asteras Tripolis has been in existence only since 1978, and was playing regional Arcadian football until as recently as 2003 – though did manage to rack up an impressive five unbeaten seasons at home during that period. They have since been climbing their way through the leagues until reaching Super League in 2007.
As relative newcomers to the European scene, Asteras boast an unbeaten record in European football, having won three and drawn three of their six home games over the last three campaigns – most notably against Mainz in the 2nd Qualifying round this time around.
Oh, he plays for them? Darin Goian left Glasgow Rangers for Asteras over the summer, while goalkeeper Tomas Kosicky is nothing to do with his almost namesake at Arsenal.
Slovan Bratislava (Slovak Champions) – SSC Napoli (ITA), AC Sparta Praha (CZE), BSC Young Boys (SUI)
Slovan are a big name to be in Pot 4 and remain the only Czech or Slovak team to have won a European Trophy, the 1968-69 Cup Winners Cup, much less having won four of the last six Slovak titles. The Cup Winners Cup run was a thing of beauty, taking in victories against Porto, Torino and Dunfermline Athletic before the final against Barcelona.
As a result of such success, they’re a regular feature in European competition having racked up as many as 111 games across UEFA’s big three tournaments – securing an improbable 49 victories against 40 defeats, though recent European campaigns have added more to the latter column than the former – the only notable victory coming against Roma in the 2011/12 Europa League, a result that took Slovan to a group stage in which they won one point and finished bottom.
Before that, the mid-2000s brought Slovan to their knees, and they finish bottom of the Slovak league and were relegated to the 2nd tier in 2004, spending two seasons in the doldrums before resuming their position towards the head of the Slovak game. A big name, then, but not at the peak of their powers.
Oh, he plays for them? Trinidad and Tobago’s Lester Peltier is a high quality member of Slovan’s side, though his goalscoring has rather dropped off recently.
Apollon Limassol (3rd in Cypriot League) – Villarreal CF (ESP), VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach (GER), FC Zürich (SUI)
Another club to enter Pot 4 via following a playoff victory are the Cypriot Legends (their nickname – Thrilos) Apollon, who scored a surprisingly comfortable victory over Lokomotiv Moscow to reach the group stages.
Although Cypriot sides may traditionally be something of a walkover in Europe, recent times have seen their fortunes change and Apollon, who won the first away game of any Cypriot side in a group stage as recently as 2013, have been a big part of that – right back to when Walter Zenga described them as a team of ‘fishermen’ before a 1993 match with Inter in which the Nerazzurri were lucky to escape with a 3-3 draw.
Last season’s Europa League represented an opportunity to show what the new-look Apollon side could do and, after surprisingly defeating Nice to reach the group stages and, while a group containing Trabzonspor, Legia Warsaw and Lazio proved a little too much for the Cypriots, they gave a decent account of themselves; having added young Frenchman Camel Meriem to their squad over the summer, they will not be a light touch.
Oh, he plays for them? Marcos Gullon played a whole season for Racing Santander before leaving for Cyprus, and progressed handily through the Villarreal youth system. Maybe you know him….
Qarabag (Azeri Champions) – FC Internazionale Milano (ITA), FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (UKR), AS Saint-Étienne (FRA)
Fighting against the Baku-dominance in Azerbaijan, Qarabag will host their games at the Tofik Bahramov Stadium – a place where the touchline is given more importance than the pitch. Managed by Gurban Gurbanov, Qarabag are one of the surprise packages not just of Azeri football, but within UEFA.
It is unusual for Azeri sides not to rely heavily on imported players – and sure, there are non-Azeri’s in Gurbanov’s squad, four Brazilians alone – but the vast majority of the Horsemens’ team is made up of home-grown talent. Gurbanov has established a style of play that sees his team operate in a 4-5-1 to 4-3-3 formation and has seen the side rather wonderfully nicknamed ‘Qafqazın Barselonası’ (the Barcelona of the Caucasus).
It is the Brazilians who provide a great deal of Qarabag’s flair, and their wide play is key to the way Gurbanov has tried to implement attacks. Like their Spanish counterparts, though, the Azeri side seldom hurl crosses into the box from wide positions, preferring to fire quick passes and work the ball into the box. The side’s results, particularly in Europe, seem to suggest its working.
Oh, he plays for them? Former Anderlecht man Reynaldo has recently rocked up in Qarabag, though his initial impression was mixed, after both scoring and being sent off on his debut, he scored 22 goals in their championship season.
Astra Giurgiu (Romanian Cup Winners) – FC Salzburg (AUT), Celtic FC (SCO), GNK Dinamo Zagreb (CRO)
Surprise conquerors of Lyon in the playoff round, Astra represent another team based around a star, though masquerading under the rather fabulous nickname of Black Devils (they play in black and white). Giurgiu, if you’re not aware, is a town on the border between Romania and Bulgaria. It is so close, in fact, that there is a Giurgiu-Ruse Friendship Bridge over the Danube between the two cities (its real, Ruse is an actual place).
Their team has only relatively recently located there from Ploiesti, a move which has brought about the most successful period in the club’s history after Ioan Niculae decided to move the club, and even then after some twenty-two years of ownership; that move inspired first a fourth place, then a second placed finish in 2013/14 – behind only Steaua Bucharest. It was that self-same Steaua that Astra defeated in the cup final and then, as if to rub it in, in the Super Cup at the start of this season.
Astra are one of those teams that are on the rise – expect something of them this year.
Oh, he plays for them? Dennis Alibec, who played for Bologna last year (albeit rarely) and made two appearances for Inter is in their squad, as is former Marseille man Elliot Grandin.
Dinamo Minsk (3rd in Belarusian Premier League) – Group K: ACF Fiorentina (ITA), PAOK FC (GRE), EA Guingamp (FRA)
One time perennial Belarusian champions, Dinamo Minsk have slipped down the pecking order in recent seasons and have finished no higher than second but no lower than fourth in all of the last eight seasons but one (9th in 2007) as the likes of BATE Borisov have rather rained on their parade; with their proud domestic form crumbling, their European adventures, once taking them as far as the quarter finals of each of the European Cup (and that was after winning the Soviet Top League) and UEFA Cup in consecutive years, have rather followed suit – last year’s elimination to MyPa of Finland was a distinct lowlight.
That has changed a little this time around. With 21 league games gone, Dinamo are pressing BATE hard in the BPL and secured a splendid aggregate over Portugal’s Nacional in the playoffs, following their 2-0 home victory with a 2-3 win away from home.
Of course, it will take a long way back before Uladzimir Zhuravel can be seen in the same light as Eduard Malofeev (the great Dinamo coach of the early 1980s), but as with so many of Europe’s lesser lights, there is glory to be had in the Europa League. If they can put together a decent campaign, they will put Minsk back on the footballing map.
Oh, he plays for them? Chigozie Udoji will ring a few bells around Europe. The Nigerian is a fair player and, as if to prove the point, got two of Dinamo’s three goals at Nacional in the playoff.
AAB (Danish Champions) – FC Dynamo Kyiv (UKR), FC Steaua Bucureşti (ROU), Rio Ave FC (POR)
You might think of them as Aalborg – legitimately so, because that’s their home town and the first A of AAB – and they did particularly well to break the domination of Copenhagen in the Superliga. That said, AAB tend to have waves of success every now and then; twice they’ve made the Champions League group stages, back in 1995/96 and then in 2008/09 – the first of those inspired by the prolific Erik Bo Anderson, who signed for Rangers and the second in a group with Celtic, above whom they finished.
This campaign is their second Europa League group stage, too, having eliminated Sampdoria on their way through in 2007/08, but being rather unceremoniously dumped here by taking a bit of a thrashing off Apoel Nicosia in the Champions League qualification playoffs this time around.
The man on the bench is a familiar name, too. Kent Nielsen was a long-time Danish international and was part of their successful 1992 European Championship winning side, clearing a German chance off his own goal-line with an overhead kick in the final. Since taking over in 2010, AAB have improved every season – finishing 10th, 7th, 5th and then 1st and winning the cup for good measure; progress in Aalborg – slow and steady.
Oh, he plays for them? While not a global star, Aston Villa’s Nicklas Helenius is on loan with AAB, so look out for him.
₁Though one of those draws became a defeat in extra time to Celta Vigo.