x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Eyes east for the biggest movers in European football

Clubs from new Uefa countries are tackling continent's best sides, writes Ian Hawkey.

Apoel's Nuno Morais scores against Lyon's goalkeeper Hugo Lloris during the penalty shootout in last years Champions League.
Apoel's Nuno Morais scores against Lyon's goalkeeper Hugo Lloris during the penalty shootout in last years Champions League.

Who were the highest achievers in European club football last season? Chelsea, winners of the Champions League for the first time? Not according to Jose Mourinho, the coach of Real Madrid, the semi-finalists, and twice, with Porto and Inter Milan, a European Cup-winning manager.

"The most successful club in the Champions League have been Apoel," Mourinho said after his Real had eliminated the Cypriot team in the quarter-finals of the world's principal club tournament. "What they have done is incredible."

Mourinho was being honest. The unprecedented run by a team from the small Mediterranean island to the last eight had been one of the great giant-killing performances of the 21st century. Apoel had knocked out Lyon and topped a group including Porto, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Shaktar Donetsk.

It was inspiring, as Apoel will have noted last month. In their qualifying play-off for a berth in the Europa League group stages they found themselves on the other end of a shock, eliminated by Neftci PFK from Baku. Neftci thus became the first team from Azerbaijan to secure a place in the groups of a senior European club competition. The Cypriot giant-killers had been giant killed.

When Michel Platini, the former captain of France and star of Juventus, was elected the Uefa president, his manifesto prioritised reform of European club competitions.

He wanted the Champions League, in particular, to seem less the preserve of a limited cartel of super clubs and to make it more accessible to lesser names.

The qualifying format was tinkered with, and belief has grown that you need not come from England, Spain, Italy or Germany to make firm strides in the Champions League. Apoel's success was a story Platini enjoyed.

Platini's mandate owed much to the votes he garnered from countries in Uefa's eastern constituencies. It was logical to target a region with many younger nations, independent since the break-up of the old Soviet Bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s, football countries with reason to feel marginalised when they looked west.

They have an ally in Platini, whose reign has coincided with the staging of a European championship in Poland and Ukraine and the award of the 2018 World Cup to Russia.

Eastern Europe is making inroads in the club hierarchy, too. Bright young managers from across Europe, such as Luciano Spalletti at Zenit, Slaven Bilic at Lokomotiv Moscow and the Spaniard Unai Emery, late of Valencia and now of Spartak Moscow, are being attracted to the promise of continental challenges with Russian clubs, just as older hands, such as Guus Hiddink, at Anzhi, and Fabio Capello, with the Russia national team, have moved there.

As many clubs from Ukraine as from Italy will take places on the starting grid of the Champions League group phase tomorrow. The play-offs and later qualifying rounds were profitable for eastern teams, often at the expense of clubs from western leagues with a longer pedigree in Europe.

Dynamo Kiev knocked out a German and a Dutch side to reach the groups; a Romanian team, Cluj, knocked out Basel, the Swiss side who beat Manchester United last autumn, and the Belarusians, BATE Borisov qualified for the third time in five seasons for the last 32.

BATE were once where Azerbaijan's Neftci are now, pathfinders for their country's league. Now Belarus is a well-established site on the Champions League map.


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