Yesterday’s draw for the 2020-21 UEFA Champions League group stages placed us in Group D with AFC Ajax, Atalanta and FC Midtjylland. A Twitter user referring to the group, remarked, no defending, no clean sheets, just goals and vibes. These four clubs have scored a total of 400 goals in the 2019-20 season. And we love goals. So, who are our worthy opponents?
The underdog darlings of the 2018-19 Champions League, historically a giant in world football, famed talent factory for Europe’s big leagues, and an enthusiastic fan base, Ajax is an exciting opponent - and one we last faced in 1966!
Ajax captured our imagination most recently with their young squad and fearless, attacking football in the 2018-19 Champions League run-up, when they knocked out prevailing champions Real Madrid, and Italian giants Juventus. They were then knocked out by Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur.
Following their exploits in 2018-19, the talented team was raided in the transfer market - they lost key players Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek in the next two years. Their Eredivisie season was cut short this April due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they finished in first place and qualified for the Champions League. Their current squad still has 31-year old Serbian goal machine Dusan Tadic, but can he help them achieve the same heights as the team two years ago?
Home ground: Johann Cruyff Arena (55,500 seats)
Manager: Erik ten Hag
Top scorer (2019-20): Quincy Promes (16), Dusan Tadic (16)
Next up, the underdog darlings of the 2019-20 Champions League season!
Atalanta is based in Bergamo, a city with a population of 120,000 in the Lombardy region of Italy, and to which the club nurtures a strong attachment. They currently play in Serie A, having been promoted from Serie B in 2010.
They made waves in the 2019-20 season of the Champions League, making it to the final eight, with a sensational and entertaining attacking style. They also finished third in Serie A, just five points behind leaders Juventus, and with the highest goal difference (+50 vs. Juve’s +33).
Their manager Gian Piero Gasperini, despite initial ups and downs, has come to be known for his positive style of tactics, getting the best out of each of his players, and offering opportunities to players from the club’s strong youth academy. Their game revolves around playmaker and captain Alejandro Gomez, but contributions come from other areas of the pitch as well such as their wing-backs. Robin Gosens, their left-back scored 10 goals across all competitions this past season. Watch out Andy Robertson!
Home ground: Gewiss Stadium (21,300 seats)
Manager: Gian Piero Gasperini
Top scorer (2019-20): Duvan Zapata (18), Luis Muriel (18)
Firstly, grow up and learn how to pronounce Midtjylland. From my research, I inferred that it sounds most like mitch-you-land. I humbly seek corrections from Danish fans in the comments if this is not it! As someone who has been called Amanda (which as we all know can be easily confused with Avantika), I know how it feels.
FC Midtjylland play in the Danish Superliga, which they won in the 2019-20 season. They are based in Herning, Denmark, on the Jutland Peninsula. In 2014, Matthew Benham (owner of English Championship team Brentford) became the majority shareholder of Midtjylland, following which the club has won three domestic league titles, and has qualified for the Champions League group stages this year for the first time.
Similar to Brentford, the club has come to be known for adopting a data-driven approach to football recruitment and management. They also deploy targeted strategies such as specialist kicking coaches, in-game statistics for half-time team talks, and the use of analytics for set pieces [The Guardian].
Incidentally, our throw-in coach Thomas Grønnemark previously worked a stint at Midtjylland. If nothing else, it’ll be the Battle of the Throw-Ins!
Home ground: MCH Arena (11,544 seats)
Manager: Brian Priske
Top scorer (2019-20): Awer Mabil (7), Evander (7)