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Champions League Preview: Group C

We take a look at the most open group: Ajax Amsterdam, Borussia Dortmund, Sporting Lisbon and Besiktas

Erling Haaland - Borussia Dortmund - Champions League Photo by Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Group C is the group for Champions League neutrals — Any of the teams can get a result against any other on a good day. On paper Borussia Dortmund looks best-placed to win the group, as they are the side with the highest coefficient. However, with the team still adapting to the sale of Jadon Sancho plus the style and tactics of a new manager, the other teams might think Dortmund is not as formidable as its rating suggests.

Last season, Sporting Lisbon won its first Portuguese title in 19 years, a remarkable achievement, but the side’s inexperience might work against it as most of its players have little or no experience in the Champions League.

Another league champion in the group, Ajax, will be eager to right the wrongs of last season’s Champions League campaign that ended in the group stage. Turkish League champions Besiktas added more Champions League experience by bringing in Chelsea forward Michy Batshuayi on loan. Although Besiktas operates on a tight budget, the tactical nous of manager Sergen Yalcin will have the Black Eagles confident of upsetting a favorite and making it out of the group.

Let’s take a look at how these teams fared last season and what to expect from them in the Champions League this season.

(Disclaimer: Lineup predictions are speculative for all the teams due to squad depth, injuries as well as managerial predilection for player rotation and formation tinkering.)


Ajax Amsterdam

  • Coach: Erik ten Hang
  • Average age: 25.6
  • Penalties: Dusan Tadic, Labyad
  • Free kicks: Dusan Tadic, Schuurs
  • Corners: Dusan Tadic, Blind
Ajax v Vitesse - Dutch Eredivisie Photo by Peter Lous/BSR Agency/Getty Images

Ajax qualified for 2021-22 Champions League by clinching the Dutch league title for a record 35th time. A 4-0 victory against Emmen at the Johan Cruyff Arena helped the Dutch team secure the title with three games to spare. The Dutch champions scored 102 goals last season, averaging three goals per game all season.

After what was described as a “gap year” by Ajax director of football affairs Marc Overmars, the onus was on Ajax to dominate the 2020-21 Dutch league season despite the club’s financial difficulties. Ajax opened the season on the road against Sparta Rotterdam, and despite an early red card for Nico Tagliafico, Ajax went on to secure all three points. This set the tone for the next few months as Ajax racked up one win after the other. One of those games was the record-breaking 13-0 victory at VVV Venlo.

The Amsterdam side continued strong form till the end of 2020 when it stumbled at home to FC Twente. The club also suffered an unexpected Champions League exit around this time while going on to drop more points in the league against Willem II. In an attempt to arrest the shocking downturn in results, Ajax did excellent business by bringing in Sebastien Haller from West Ham United. However, an administrative error meant Haller wasn’t registered to feature for the club in the Europa League, and Andre Onana also got suspended for more than a year for a doping allegation.

The situation gave domestic challengers hopes of overtaking Ajax, but when then the league eventually resumed after the winter break, Ajax came flying out of the gates and went on another run. That was enough for Ajax to secure the league title and then complete the local double two weeks later by beating Vitesse Arnhem. Ajax took the unusual step to share their league title with their fans by melting the trophy to make 42,000 stars.

In the Champions League, Ajax endured a very disappointing campaign, bowing out at the group stage. Ajax came third in a group that also featured Liverpool, Atalanta and Midtjylland. That was enough to shunt the club into the Europa league round of 32. The club’s Europa League campaign also didn’t go according to plan, and saw them crash out in the quarterfinal against Roma.

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Ten Hag deploys an attack-minded team committed to high-pressing, quick-passing, and possession. The team sets up in a 4-3-3 formation that looks like a 4-2-3-1 in practice. Central midfielder David Klaassen is more likely to join the attack or maintain a higher position than being the pivot in front of the defense.

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Transfers

Ins: Mohammed Daramy, Steven Berghuis, Jay Gorter, Remko Pasveer

Outs: Razvan Marin, Lassina Traore, Noa Lang, Kjell Scherpen, Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, Carel Eiting

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Possible 11

  • Marten Stekelenburg,
  • Tagliafico, Blind, Schuurs, Mazraoui
  • Gravenberch, Alvarez
  • Tadic, Antony, Klaassen
  • Haller

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Fantasy Considerations

Dusan Tadic: 32 year-old Serbian striker Tadic has been the primary source of goals and assists for Ajax these past few seasons, and he isn’t showing signs of slowing down anytime soon. He has two goals and an assist already in just two games this season.

Tadic plays just behind the striker to create chances and score goals. With 22 goals plus 26 assists last season, Tadic is definitely one to be considered by fantasy managers. In just six Champions League games last season, Tadic scored two goals and assisted a further three.

Sebastien Haller: The Ivory Coast and former West Ham forward plays right in front of Tadic as the club’s main striker. Although Haller failed to muster a goal in the Champions League season, he was still able to contribute twenty goals plus eight assists last season. Tadic’s ability to create chances in tight spaces combined with Ajax’s fast and sleek style of play should give Haller a lot of chances to do damage in the opponent’s box.


Borussia Dortmund

  • Coach: Marco Rose
  • Average age: 24.8
  • Penalties: Erling Haaland, Marco Reus
  • Free kicks: Rapheal Guerriero, Marco Reus
  • Corners: Rapheal Guerriero, Marco Reus
Borussia Dortmund v TSG Hoffenheim - Bundesliga Photo by Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Borussia Dortmund failed to provide stiff competition for eventual Bundesliga winners Bayern Munich last season, but they still did enough to earn a third-place finish and a place in this season’s Champions League.

BVB began the 2020-21 season with former Nice manager Lucien Favre in charge but a spate of unimpressive results got him sacked midway into the season. The club’s embarrassing 5-1 loss to Stuttgart proved to be the final straw; he was sacked less than 24 hours after the match. With the club seven points adrift of Champions League places, the managerial reins were handed over to Edin Terzic on an interim basis. On appointment, Terzic set about restoring players’ belief and making little tactical tweaks. One of those tweaks was moving Jadon Sancho from the right flank to the left, resulting in him improving from two goals in 16 Bundesliga appearances to six in nine on the left.

Erling Haaland was another beneficiary, claiming that he benefitted from “talking a lot”, which resulted in 22 goals scored under the tactician. Terzic’s switch to a 4-3-3 also allowed Dortmund to have an extra man in midfield, which meant they were able to seize initiative in matches rather than relinquish possession and rely on counter attacks. Terzic ended the campaign lifting the German Cup for the 5th time. For his impressive work, Terzic was rewarded with a new 3-year deal as the club’s assistant manager.

Close to the end of last season, Borussia Dortmund handed the reins to former Borussia Monchengladbach manager Marco Rose for the 2021-22 season. Rose moved to Gladbach from sister club Red Bull Salzburg having led them to back-to-back Austrian Bundesliga titles along with the Austrian Cup. The appointment should see Erling Haaland become more clinical, as Marco Rose was the manager who handed him his Salzburg debut in 2019. He scored 29 goals in just 27 matches under Rose before moving to Dortmund.

Dortmund began the new Bundesliga season in impressive fashion by annihilating last season’s Champions League contenders Eintracht Frankfurt 5-2 at Signal Iduna Park. But then, just like the highly inconsistent Borussia Dortmund sides we have come to know, the team succumbed to defeat in its second match, where it faced Sc Freiburg. Dortmund then proceeded to win its third game 3-2 against Hoffenheim.

In his three games in charge this season, Rose has tried a couple different formations, which has seen Erling Haaland up top alone or with new signing Donyell Malen as his strike partner. It looks like Rose is yet to settle on a particular formation as he learns his new club and the players at his disposal.

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Transfers

Ins: Donyell Malen, Gregor Kobel

Outs: Jadon Sancho, Leonardo Balerdi, Thomas Delaney, Jeremy Toljan, Sergio Gomez, Lukasz Piszczek

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Possible 11

  • Kobel
  • Thomas Meunier, Axel Witsel, Manuel Akanji, Rafeal Guerreiro
  • Jude Bellingham, Dahoud
  • Thorgan Hazard, Marco Reus, Reyna
  • Erling Haaland

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Fantasy considerations

Erling Haaland: Last season’s top Champions League scorer will be one of the first names in fantasy managers’ minds. Despite bowing out in the quarterfinals, Haaland finished two goals clear of PSG’s 2nd-place Kylian Mbappe and four clear of former Chelsea striker Olivier Giroud.

Haaland has scored an astonishing 20 UEFA Champions League goals in just 14 games. Haaland achieved the milestone in ten fewer matches than the next player on the list, Tottenham’s Harry Kane who had set the previous benchmark when he struck his 20th goal in November 2019 – on his 24th appearance in the competition. Haaland is also the first to reach the landmark figure before his 21st birthday (20 years and 231 days). With Dortmund drawn in a very balanced group, Haaland seems primed to continue his hot scoring streak.

Marco Reus: Club captain and mercurial winger Marco Reus was also instrumental to BVB last season, scoring eleven goals and providing ten assists. When fit, Reus can be as dangerous from the flank as anyone. He is also on penalty kick duties when Haaland isn’t on the pitch. He too has began the new season in impressive fashion, with one goal plus two assists in three games.

Rapheal Guerreiro: Although Borussia Dortmund isn’t known for having a tight back line, Guerreiro also isn’t your everyday defender. The Portuguese left-back scored six goals while providing ten assists last season. Those are numbers a lot of attacking midfielders and strikers would be proud to boast at the end of a season. So, if you are looking to take a punt on a Borussia Dortmund defender, Guerreiro should be your go-to man.


Besiktas

  • Coach: Sergen Yalcin
  • Average age: 27.4
  • Penalties: Rachid Ghezzal, N’Koudou
  • Free kicks: Rachid Ghezzal, Teixeira
  • Corners: Rachid Ghezzal, Teixeira, Ozyakup
Besiktas v Caykur Rizespor - Super Lig Photo by /BSR Agency/Getty Images

When Besiktas coach Sergen Yalcin was placed in charge of the club at the beginning of the 2020-21 season, not much was expected. The club was dealing with financial issues that limited his ability to sign new players, but he exceeded expectations, managing to win the double on a shoestring budget. The title was secured on the last day of the season with Besiktas pipping rivals Galatasaray on goal difference by only one.

Yalcin deploys a 4-1-4-1 formation that is reliant on creating individual solutions to problems encountered on the field. Yalcin’s deeply individual footballing philosophy means he is not afraid to change strategy if needed, and he also rotates his starting eleven effectively based on the opposition.

There are six players in constant circulation in the center of Besiktas’ game: Atiba Hutchinson, Josef de Souza, Bernard Mensah, Necip Uysal, Dorukhan Tokoz and Oguzhan Ozyakup. They’re tasked with creating attacking and defensive solutions depending on the opponent. While the ability to create individual solutions is effective, it doesn’t provide a comprehensive solution.

Yalcin mostly sets up the team to cede possession until his fast wingers can win the ball and spring counterattacks. The reliance on wingers gave rise to former Leicester winger Rachid Ghezzal. The winger was solely responsible for eight goals plus 17 assists, making him one of the best players in the Turkish league last season.

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Besiktas began its 2021-22 defense of the domestic league title with an opening day 3-0 victory against Rizespor. They however drew their next match against Gaziantep before returning to winning ways against Fatih Karagumuruk.

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Transfers

Ins: Rachid Ghezzal, Umut Meras, Mert Gunok, Can Bozdogan, Michy Batshuayi, Salih Ucan, Kenan Karaman, Mehmet Topal, Valentin Rosier

Outs: Vincent Aboubakar, Dorokhan Tokoz, Alpay Celebi, Karem Kalafat, Umut Nayir

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Possible 11

  • Destanoglu
  • Valentine Rosier, Welinton, Vida, N’Sakala
  • Josef de Souza
  • Rachid Ghezzal, Atiba Hutchinson, Texeira, Nkoudou
  • Michy Batshuayi

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Fantasy considerations

Cyle Larin: Canadian born Cyle Larin is classed as a midfielder but plays very close to the striker. Larin was instrumental in Besiktas’ Turkish Super League and Turkish Cup triumphs, finishing the season with 23 goals plus six assists in 45 games. 19 of those goals came in the league, where he was joint second. If Besiktas are to make it out of Group C, Larin will have to hit the heights of last season.

Rachid Ghezzal: Ghezzal was by far Besiktas biggest creative outlet last season. His pace and intricacy in the final third sparked Besiktas’ title charge. He had the most key passes per 90 mins in the super league (2.9), the second most crosses per 90 mins (2.2). His 17 assists is the most created by a single individual in a Super League season. He also has the ability to score long-range curlers and screamers.

Rosier: Although it might not be wise to rely on Besiktas’ defenders against the caliber of opponents in Group C, right-back Rosier still looks like a decent investment as he has started the new season in impressive form.


Sporting Lisbon

  • Coach: Ruben Amorim
  • Average age: 24.8
  • Penalties: Pedro Goncalves, Jovane Cabral
  • Free kicks: Pedro Goncalves
  • Corners: Pedro Goncalves
Sporting CP V Belenenses SAD - Liga Bwin Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

Sporting Lisbon ended a 19-year drought to win its first Portuguese League title last season. Sporting secured the title with two games to spare after defeating Boavista at the Estadio Jose Alvalade.

This completed the club’s recent revival from dark times that saw dozens of fans with their faces covered force their way into the team’s training complex to assault players and staff. The shocking attack came off the back of Sporting’s inability to secure one of the available Champions League spots. The May 15, 2018 incident resulted in the removal of then-club president Bruno de Carvalho, along with seven players ending their contracts.

Sporting is widely known for the quality of players its academy produces, and it doesn’t look like its production train is set to end anytime soon. No less than ten of its current first team players come from the academy. Its football academy also developed the likes of Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Paulo Futre, Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, among other talented players.

Sporting manager Amorim uses a 3-4-3 formation that changes into 3-4-2-1 and even 3-3-3-1 during games. The team’s style of play relies on a sturdy defense that conceded just 20 goals in 34 games. By playing three at the back, the team has an extra body in midfield to take possession and then outnumber opponents in attack. The team attacks mostly from the flank, winger Goncalves being the team’s top scorer.

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Sporting has had enjoyed an impressive start to the new season, winning three and drawing one. Sporting began its title defense with a 3-0 win against Vizela at the Estadio Jose Alvalade.

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Transfers

Ins: Manuel Ugarte, Ricardo Esgaio, Matheus Reis, Goncalo Esteves, Ruben Vinagre, Joao Virginia

Outs: Luis Maximiano, Josip Misic, Vitorino Antunes, Tiago Ilori, Pedro Mendes

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Possible 11

  • Adan
  • Inacio, Sebastien Coates, Feddal
  • Esgaio, Palhinha, Nunes, Vinagre
  • Pedro Goncalves, Cabral, Paulinho

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Fantasy Prospects

Pedro Goncalves: This 23-year old Portuguese right-winger was the focal point for Sporting Lisbon in its title win last season. The young attacker scored a whopping 24 goals and added three assists. He has picked up from where he stopped last season by scoring four goals in just five matches this season.


NMA Group Stage Article Stream

For group-by-group analysis of each this season’s UCL teams, please see NMA’s Group Stage article stream here. New articles are added to the stream daily.


NMA UCL Fantasy Mini-League

If you played our UCL mini-league last season, or if you played our Euros mini-league over the summer, you should automatically be entered into NMA’s 2021-22 mini-league as soon as you create a team. Head to gaming.uefa.com and get to work!

If you are new to us, then once you create a team you can join our mini-league manually with the following info. Come join us, we’d love to have you!

  • League: Never Manage Alone
  • Code: 71MQALVG07

What do you think of Group-C? Will you invest in players here, or just watch the matches until the dust settles? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


Stats and info referenced in this article were sourced from: Bundesliga.com, lastwordonsports.com, cnn.com, soccerway.com, nbcsports.com, uefa.com, bbc.com, forbes.com, themastermindsite.com, squawka.com, transfermarkt.com, eurosport.com, Turkish-football.com, dailysabah.com, ixbet.whoscored.com, breakingthelines.com, si.com, guardian.com

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