The planet's top club competition is about to get underway in this most unusual of seasons. Here's how we see the group stage shaking out.
MADRID — Despite managing to hang onto Lionel Messi, Barcelona begins its Champions League campaign with reduced expectations after one of its worst seasons in years.The Catalan club appears to lack its confidence from previous seasons following an embarrassing elimination to Bayern Munich and a troubled off-season in which it nearly lost its talisman.“Knowing what happened recently, we are not the top favourite,” coach Ronald Koeman said on Monday ahead of the team's debut in this season's competition against Hungarian club Ferencváros. “But we are a team that can go far.”Koeman arrived to put Barcelona back on track shortly after the 8-2 collapse against Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, which capped its first season without a title since 2007-08.“Barcelona always plays to win titles, in the league and in Europe, but there are other strong teams,” Koeman said.Barcelona hasn’t won the Champions League since 2015, but since then it had never embarked on a new campaign in the competition amid so much disarray.The club avoided losing Messi after he said he wanted to leave, but it continued to endure political turmoil and even financial difficulties. President Josep Bartomeu is facing a censure motion that could force him to leave his post before the end of the year.Koeman was given the task of revamping the first team, and he quickly got rid of veterans such as Luis Suárez and Ivan Rakitic, but the club failed to bring in any of the players he wanted in the transfer window.Koeman said Messi is fine despite scoring just once so far this season.“Maybe his performance could be better, but I see him happy,” Koeman said. “I see him training well and focused. I have nothing to complain about him in that sense.”He said “a bit of bad luck” has played a role in keeping the Argentina star from scoring more goals so far.Koeman also downplayed criticism of Antoine Griezmann for his recent poor performances, though he admitted that “everyone in the attack” can improve.Barcelona opened the Spanish league with two convincing wins under Koeman, but then it drew 1-1 with Sevilla at home and lost 1-0 at Getafe on Saturday.Hungarian champion Ferencváros returns to the Champions League for the first time since 1995. It needed to get through four qualifying rounds to reach the group stage.The other Group G teams are Juventus and Dynamo Kyiv.“We want to start with the right foot,” Koeman said. “We want to win the match and gain tranquility.”___More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports___Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoniTales Azzoni, The Associated Press
GENEVA — Back in the Champions League after a 25-year gap, Ferencváros aims to revive its even longer European history while facing Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.There was a time when the Hungarian champion beat Juventus in a European final and its star forward won the Ballon d’Or as the continent’s best player.When the club last reached a European final — eliminating Liverpool on the way in the 1974-75 Cup Winners' Cup — it lost to Dynamo Kyiv, where current Ferencváros coach Serhiy Rebrov is remembered as one its greats.So it is fitting that on Tuesday Ferencváros returns to the Champions League for the first time since 1995, and after four qualifying rounds since mid-August, in a group with Juventus and Dynamo.The adventure starts away to Barcelona for the team from Budapest ranked No. 118 in Europe by UEFA, the lowest of the 32 teams in this season’s competition.“We are very, very proud to reach this level,” Ferencváros chief executive Pál Orosz said in a telephone interview, suggesting his is “a classic Europa (League) group-stage club.”“We all wanted big names ... but this is a bonus for us,” said Orosz, whose father, also called Pál, played in the 1965 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup title win over Juventus in Turin.Ferencváros heads to Barcelona fit for a bigger test. The Hungarian league leader is unbeaten in a season that started two months ago with a win over Djurgårdens of Sweden in the Champions League first qualifying round.Orosz acknowledges “there is a huge gap” between his club, known affectionately to fans as Fradi, and the multi-national brands of Barcelona and Juventus.The entire Ferencváros squad is valued at less than 25 million euros ($29 million) by one transfer analysis website — equivalent to a few months’ wages for upcoming opponents Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.“This is our club. We are one team, we are not about individuals,” said Orosz, pointing to good scouting as a reason not to fear wealthier rivals who now try to sign his players.The scorer of winning goals in two Champions League qualifying rounds, Tokmac Nguen was recruited from Norway where his family moved after being refugees from South Sudan.Rebrov also was a smart hire. The former Tottenham forward coached only in Saudi Arabia after leaving Dynamo Kyiv, which he once led to the Champions League round of 16.“He is very serious, not so extrovert,” Orosz said of the 46-year-old coach. “It’s a very, very good stage in his career. He’s having a good time.”The CEO credits club president Gábor Kubatov, a national lawmaker, with helping choose Rebrov.Kubatov is a campaign strategist for the Fidesz party led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who a decade ago made a priority of state funding for sport and tax credits for businesses to invest.The plan was to restore pride in Hungarian soccer: An era of the Mighty Magyars who reached the 1954 World Cup final with Ferenc Puskás, and won the 1964 Tokyo Olympics title.Hungary’s recent stadium-building project will be seen in Ferencváros’s Champions League campaign.Dynamo Kyiv will be hosted in its 22,000-capacity home that opened in 2014, and hosted the 2019 Women's Champions League final. It was built on the site of a venue named for club icon Flórián Albert, who was voted Ballon d’Or winner as Europe’s best player in 1967.The new arena changed the perception and behaviour of the club, Orosz said, though the club will move to the national stadium for its marquee games.Around 20,000 fans should be allowed to attend in the 67,000 Puskas Arena when Juventus visit on Nov. 4 and Barcelona on Dec. 2“I think the tickets will be sold in a day,” Orosz said. “Everybody was waiting for success like this and games like this.”___More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_SportsGraham Dunbar, The Associated Press