It’s been a mental start to the season across Europe, with shock results and huge scorelines popping up left, right and centre.
As things stand, the current leaders of Europe’s top five leagues are: Everton, Real Sociedad, AC Milan, RB Leipzig and Lille. Not exactly who you would’ve predicted going into the season.
Indeed, with so many surprises happening, it’s plausible that we may also see a Champions League campaign littered with drama and upsets. But which clubs, if any, are most likely to shock the world and storm their way to European glory?
Below, we’ve taken a look at eight potential dark horses, and broken down why they’re contenders to create history in the 2020-21 season.
Since José Mourinho led them to a historic treble in 2010, Inter’s success has dramatically dropped off. Juventus reign supreme in Serie A while Inter have only made it to the quarter-final stage of the Champions League once over the past decade.
But that could all be about to change. Antonio Conte arrived in Milan at the start of last season and immediately inspired an upturn in form. His side finished second in the table, a solitary point behind Juventus, and made the Europa League Final.
Conte is a master when it comes to organising his teams, and that stability may well prove crucial in such a hectic season. The firepower of forwards Romelu Lukaku and Lautro Martínez, too, gives Inter the capability to overpower any team on their day.
Marseille is a city and club that thrives off passion and intensity. Packed out stadiums may not be on the agenda for a while, but fans will no doubt still spur Marseille on as they look to become the first French club to win the Champions League since… well, Marseille.
In fact, Marseille are the only French side to ever win the tournament, having captured the trophy back in 1993. The current squad isn’t as strong as teams of yesteryear, but they do have a few club legends in their ranks — specifically Steve Mandanda, Dimitri Payet and Florian Thauvin — who are all capable of match-winning performances.
The club also has André Villas-Boas at its helm, who brings plenty to the table, having managed the likes of Porto, Chelsea, Spurs and Zenit Saint Petersburg in the past. The manager has a wealth of European experience and even a Europa League trophy on his CV, so he knows what it takes.
Few clubs boast a football pedigree like Ajax. The current Dutch champions are widely revered for their unique philosophy — a space-orientated, possession-based style of play, pioneered by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, known as totaalvoetbal.
Their prestigious academy is also celebrated, and held up as an example of how to run a modern football club. Recent graduates include Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Donny van de Beek, who helped take Ajax to the Champions League semi-finals back in 2019.
It’s a lot to ask, but in these bleak and unprecedented times, Ajax winning the Champions League would represent the feel-good story we’re all crying out for. We, like many others, would see it as a victory for football.
Atalanta have captured the imagination of football fans across the world in recent years. Gian Piero Gasperini’s brand of high-octane, breathtakingly attacking football serves as a reminder to us all that football is meant to be fun.
Bergamo, the city within which Atalanta resides, became the reluctant epicentre of the coronavirus a few months back, with the pandemic’s devastating impact having a profound effect on the local community. As families rallied around one another, so too did fans around their football club — a shining beacon of hope in the city’s darkest hour.
Atalanta ultimately came up just short last season, finishing third in Serie A and exiting the Champions League at the quarter-final stage, after a cruel last-minute PSG winner. It would be wonderful to see them go all the way this time around.
Many probably expect Sevilla to end up finishing third in Group E before going on to win the Europa League. That’s been the script in recent years, with the club claiming six Europa League titles since 2006.
But what if this is finally the year where Sevilla go one better, where they harness their zest for big European nights and put it to use in Europe’s premier competition? It’ll be tough, with marauding full-back Sergio Reguilón’s loan ending and the loss of midfield general Éver Banega, but only a fool would bet against them at this point.
Manager Julen Lopetegui endured a torrid start to last season as fans called for his head, but he turned things around, remaining undefeated after the restart. Sevilla's Champions League group looks winnable and once you get through to the knock-outs anything can happen.
In a similar vein to Marseille, Dortmund feed off the intensity of their crowd. The club’s Yellow Wall is iconic and gives them the edge in any home tie. Unfortunately, it’s a strength they won’t be able to call up, but there are plenty of other reasons why it may be Dortmund’s year.
Firstly, their squad is packed to the rafters with young, generational talent. Jadon Sancho, Giovanni Reyna and, of course, Erling Haaland all have the ability to create and score past any opponent, giving Dortmund one of the deadliest forward lines in the tournament.
Secondly, their manager, Lucien Favre, who’s now into his third season at the club, is fine-tuning his fluid playing style. It’s easy to get lost in the mayhem of an end-to-end goal-fest, but Farve and his players have the ability to revel in it.
Our third and final Italian club. Lazio have been steadily building and improving for a few years now. Last season they won the Supercoppa Italiana and finished fourth in the league, qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in five years.
Coach Simone Inzaghi has overseen a quiet revolution in Rome and will now look to test his management skills against some of Europe’s best. Striker Ciro Immobile has proven himself to be one of football’s deadliest marksmen, and playmaker Luis Alberto possesses the creative guile to cause any team problems.
Inconsistency has plagued Lazio in recent years, and they looked well off the pace after last season’s restart, but with a solid foundation and a winnable group, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their chances.
Much has been made of Red Bull’s involvement in football over recent years, and while a lot of the criticism is valid, they have at least managed to run a network of football clubs with great efficiency and innovation.
Leipzig are Red Bull’s flagship club, and they came within a whisker of making last season’s Champions League Final, eventually succumbing to PSG in the semi-finals. With a world-class scouting network and a brilliant tactician in Julian Nagelsmann, there’s every chance they’ll continue to improve in Europe.
Leipzig currently sit atop the Bundesliga, so they’ll be hoping their electric domestic start translates into quality European displays. Their group is far from easy, but they’ll surely be there to capatalise should PSG or Manchester United slip up.
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