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Leicester and More: The Potential Champions League Surprise Packages in 2016/17

Andy Brassell@@andybrassellFeatured ColumnistMay 10, 2016

Leicester, and Claudio Ranieri, will not be the only Champions League dark horses next season
Leicester, and Claudio Ranieri, will not be the only Champions League dark horses next seasonMatt Dunham/Associated Press

As Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri famously said, “dilly ding, dilly dong” (as per the Mirror). If their Premier League title win is news that has gripped the globe, then it is their imminent appearance in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League that will really make a few people pinch themselves.

Qualification for Europe’s club-class lounge really does deserve the Italian coach’s flamboyant peal of recognition.

The Foxes deserve to dream of how they might trouble the continent’s good and great, rather than worrying for now if they might be stretched in a similarly uncomfortable way to Montpellier, who beat Paris Saint-Germain to the Ligue 1 title in 2012 and struggled to manage an all-too-predictable hangover in the following campaign.

Taking into account the financial gulf between the Premier League side and Louis Nicollin’s club, Ranieri and company should be better placed to bridge the gap.

Leicester, though, are not alone in presenting a fresh and interesting challenge to Champions League regulars. Here, we look at a few others who could trouble the established order.

Villarreal

They may have continued their miserable record in the semi-finals of European competition with their UEFA Europa League defeat to Liverpool (played four, lost four), but Villarreal’s overall season has been nothing less than a resounding triumph.

Less than three years ago, the Yellow Submarine needed the play-offs to scrape their way back into the top flight. Now, they’re limbering up for another brace of games that will give them the opportunity to take part in the Champions League group stage.

Marcelino's coaching has guided Villarreal back into the promised land
Marcelino's coaching has guided Villarreal back into the promised landAlberto Saiz/Associated Press

Their coach Marcelino has propelled them every step of the way, and deserves an enormous portion of the credit. Coming to the club off the back of a miserable spell at Sevilla, the 50-year-old’s career has been reborn at El Madrigal. His side are nowhere near as attractive as Manuel Pellegrini’s vintage, but they are solid. With one game to go in La Liga, only Atletico Madrid and Barcelona have conceded less goals.

That back line—anchored by Mateo Musacchio and the experienced Victor Ruiz, and shielded by captain Bruno Soriano—will again be the bedrock, but the impressive understanding between strike pair Roberto Soldado and Cedric Bakumbu should enable them to get at opponents, too.

Lyon

Exploits come in various shapes and sizes, and Olympique Lyonnais’ Parc OL home was witness to the completion of one on Saturday night. Lyon’s 6-1 obliteration of Monaco, in what was effectively a play-off for second place, sealed direct qualification for the group stage barring a mathematical miracle.

Alexandre Lacazette fired Lyon back into the Champions League in thrilling style
Alexandre Lacazette fired Lyon back into the Champions League in thrilling styleLaurent Cipriani/Associated Press

Bruno Genesio’s side had trailed Monaco—Ranieri’s former team, of course—by 10 points in late February, but he turned the tables on the Principality club courtesy of an enviable attacking arsenal. Alexandre Lacazette, who led the way against Monaco with a hat-trick, is the most celebrated, but Maxwell Cornet, the improving Sergi Darder and Rachid Ghezzal have all played significant parts. So much so that the injured Nabil Fekir and the marginalised Mathieu Valbuena have barely been missed in 2016.

Much depends on whether Lacazette stays, but an extra year of experience for youngsters like Cornet, Darder, Ghezzal and Fekir should serve Genesio well. After a limp return to the Champions League in 2015, OL should be better equipped this time.

Besiktas

If ever there was a moment for Besiktas to show the sort of mettle needed to be champions, then it was on Sunday, away to wounded, outgoing title-holders Galatasaray in the Istanbul derby. That they held their nerve to close out a narrow 1-0 win spoke volumes for a growing stature. Following Fenerbahce’s Monday night loss at Istanbul Basaksehir, one point from Besiktas’ remaining two games will be good enough for a first title since 2009.

Besiktas' stunning new home, the Vodafone Arena, will impress and intimidate visitors in equal measure
Besiktas' stunning new home, the Vodafone Arena, will impress and intimidate visitors in equal measureChris McGrath/Getty Images

The ability to coolly negotiate pressure is one of the hallmarks of Senol Gunes, their experienced coach, but the Black Eagles’ revival really began under Slaven Bilic, who moulded them back into a competitive force.

It was the now-West Ham boss who brought in the relatively unheralded quality of Gokhan Tore and Jose Sosa, team cornerstones who now complement the goalscoring know-how of Mario Gomez. The Germany international has 25 Super Lig goals this season.

Besiktas’ strides on the pitch have been matched by their progress off it. Following their European ban in 2013 (as reported here by the Independent) the club cut costs and regrouped, and last month moved into the stunning Vodafone Arena, built on the site of the old Inonu stadium, overlooking the Bosphorus. If they get there, it will be one of the Champions League’s most impressive venues, and few will relish visiting.

Sporting Clube de Portugal

Jorge Jesus’ move across Lisbon from Benfica to rivals Sporting was the biggest bombshell of last (or pretty much any) summer in Portuguese football. The charismatic coach has accelerated the renewal of the Alvalade club into a major player and even if they look like just missing out on the title to his old club with one game left, they are thriving again.

Football on BT Sport @btsportfootball

Exquisite! Former @FulhamFC star @bryanruizcr volleys home a goal of the season contender for @SportingCP_en. https://t.co/ce556cNLLR

His tactical approach has remained pretty much the same, with bright, attacking football the name of the game. Sporting are great to watch, and talented homegrown players including Rui Patricio and Adrien Silva are combining well with more experienced players given second chances, including Bryan Ruiz and Bruno Cesar.

Jesus has prioritised the league ahead of Europe in the past and even more than Lyon, Sporting are at risk of being depleted in the summer transfer window, with midfielder William Carvalho and top scorer Islam Slimani among those widely coveted.

Yet the coach’s willingness to promote gifted youngsters like Gelson Martins and Ruben Semedo means that they could bring freshness and vigour to the competition, following on from Benfica’s example this year.

Rostov

No list of Champions League dark horses to compare with the Premier League champs would be complete without the team we’ve come to know as "the Russian Leicester." The recent similarities are clear, with Rostov’s miserly defence the league’s best. Before the surprise recent loss at lowly Mordovia Saransk, Rostov had gone eight games without conceding a goal.

There have been few bigger Champions League shocks than Kurban Berdyev's Rubin Kazan winning at Barcelona in 2009
There have been few bigger Champions League shocks than Kurban Berdyev's Rubin Kazan winning at Barcelona in 2009MANU FERNANDEZ/Associated Press

There is a clear contrast, however, between the Russian Premier League challengers and the Foxes on a coaching level. If Ranieri has just broken a top-flight title duck, then Rostov’s Kurban Berdyev has seen it all before, having guided Rubin Kazan to unlikely back-to-back triumphs in 2008 and 2009.

A couple of Rubin’s key men have reunited with Berdyev to anchor his new side, notably defender Cesar Navas and midfield stalwart Christian Noboa. If Rostov can make it to the Champions League, either directly by winning the title ahead of CSKA Moscow or via the qualifiers, the experience of that trio will mean they should be approached with caution. All three were involved when Rubin beat holders Barcelona at the Camp Nou in October 2009.