An exciting opening round of the 2020/21 UEFA Champions League stands complete.
For two more German clubs, however, the 2020/21 European journey is yet to begin. Having already provided in-depth analysis of all four UCL groups featuring top-flight German sides here at Bulinews, it's time to take a look at the Europa League.
Analysis on Leverkusen's group can be found here. Hoffenheim gets its turn next.
Die Kraichgauer return to Europe after a one-year hiatus, still seeking just their second win in a European club competition. For all of the praise Julian Nagelsmann receives, many tend to forget his disastrous European campaigns in charge of the Sinsheim club when they qualified for the 2017/18 Europa League and then the 2018/19 Champions' League.
Nagelsmann accomplished just one victory in twelve group stage fixtures as Hoffenheim finished at the bottom of their group on both occasions. The man so many tap as the "mini-Mourinho", interestingly enough, only managed to beat the team that Leipzig recently beat on Tuesday.
This third trip to Europe constitutes an enormous opportunity for an organization almost universally disliked by the German footballing public. Bundesliga enthusiasts do not much care for a team without a deep history financed by a billionaire owner who brazenly defies the sacred 50+1 fan ownership tradition.
That being said, German footballing enthusiasts remain pleased to dispense with cognitive dissonance when it comes to the European club competitions. Bayern may elicit serious hatred over the weekend, but they transform into the country's heroes when playing a team from another country in a midweek Champions League fixture. The same increasingly applies to Leipzig.
VfL Wolfsburg eventually found widespread acceptance after stringing together some successful European campaigns. On a micro-inception level, Hoffenheim can hope shed some of its popular disdain by successfully representing the country in this year's tournament.
Unfortunately, Sebastian Hoeneß's side limp into an opening encounter against the group's strongest team with three of their best players in quarantine and another three vital cogs injured. It looks to be another bumpy ride.
In order for our readers to get a better understanding of Hoffenheim's upcoming opponents, we have put together a profile of each club they will face. We look at their strengths & weaknesses, key player and where they will finish come Matchday 6 on the 10th of December.
Red Star Belgrade (Serbia)
What a club! The Zvezda boast so much history, admittedly not all of it flattering. European football fans still can't resist a match involving the former Yugoslav club that for years represented one of the East's jewel during the Cold War. The mere fact that teams like this can now meet with lighter geo-political connotations serves as a hopeful reminder that past ideological fault lines can indeed be transcended.
The current Serbian league champions should be considered favorites to top the group. German footballing enthusiasts engaged in a relatively recent scout of the team after they played Bayern twice in last year's UCL group stage. The Serbs couldn't pull off one of their famous upsets, losing twice to the German giants by a combined 0-9 scoreline.
This year's incarnation appears stronger.
Matchday 1 10/22/2020 (A) vs. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
Matchday 5 12/3/2020 (H) vs. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
Head-coach, and former Serie A legend, Dejan Stankovic almost always favors a simple 4-2-3-1. Six years removed from retirement after 16 seasons spent playing for Lazio Rome and Inter Milan, he was brought in by his hometown club last December for his first job as a professional trainer. It took him approximately ten months to get the pieces for his preferred system into place.
Young Montenegrin Nikola Krstovic spearheads the attack, supported directly by the attacking ten, Italian journeyman Diego Falcinelli. Both were procured during Stankovic's short tenure. In order to bolster his flanks, the 42-year-old rookie coach reached across the pond to re-acquire former Belgrade winger Aleksandr Katai from America's MLS.
Krstovic has scored nine goals across all competitions already this season. Katai and Falcinelli have chipped in seven and five respectively. Comorian forward El Fardou Ben Nabouhane (known simply as "Ben") adds another six.
As if a rebuilt thriving attack weren't enough, Stankovic presides over a very experienced defense corps that still includes Australian defender Milos Degenek, former Bordeaux fullback Milan Gajic, and former Canadian #1 keeper Milan Borjan.
Hoffenheim aren't the only ones suffering from COVID-related personnel issues. Stankovic will have to do without Gabonese attacking midfielder Guelor Kanga and crucial Montenegrin midfielder Mirko Ivanic after both Ivanic tested positive for the novel corona-virus earlier this week.
As the Kraichgauer recently demonstrated, Hoeneß possesses a fairly decent tactical template for neutralizing a potent attack. Even without many of his important actors, the Hoffenheim head coach presides over a deep enough squad put something serviceable together.
Surely some confidence emanating from the fact that he bested Hans Dieter Flick's 4-2-3-1 carries over into the Thursday encounter. Hoffenheim also have their own Serbian weapon in Novi Sad's Mijat Gacinovic.
Key Player: Diego Falcinelli
Red Star remain undefeated in through 11 rounds of the Serbian SuperLiga in large part due to this pivotal addition. Stankovic exhibited good judgment in reeling in the 29-year-old on loan from Bologna. Football fans can certainly be forgiven for never heard of him. This tall and versatile attacker has spent most of his twelve-year career playing in Serie B and C.
Sometimes one country's perpetually loan-out scraps can be another's treasure. It's unclear when Falcinelli caught first caught Stankovic's eye, but the new addition certainly works. The former Fiorentina man scored what proved to be the match winner in the qualifying playoff, where he showed he can also work as a lone lead striker.
Verdict: 1st place
KAA Gent (Belgium)
Such a shame that VfL Wolfsburg didn't qualify for the tournament this year. There's been a great unofficial rivalry brewing between the German Wolves and this Belgian club since the 2015/16 UEFA Champions League Round-of-16. VfL and Gent met in the Europa League group stages last year and produced two separate four-goal thrillers.
Alas, we shall have to see if a new German-Belgian football rivalry can develop. The Flemish Buffaloes always invariably put on a good show and this year should be no exception. After an especially dreadful start to the season, Gent enter the first week of European play having just played in a six and seven goal thrillers in the last two Juliper Pro League fixtures.
Matchday 2 10/29/2020 (H) vs. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
Matchday 6 11/26/2020 (A) vs. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
For all of the early troubles, the Belgians remain capable of bursting through with a torrent of goals. In a recent Juliper league encounter with K. Beerschot V.A.C.. towering striker Laurent Depoitre netted a brace. The 31-year-old is one of two center forwards, Bundesliga veteran Tim Kleindienst being the other, who accord the side a fantastic aerial advantage with their 1.94 m statures.
The more diminutive Anderson Niangbo often manages to score without the height asset. A rising star with the Cote d'Ivoire national team system, he's tallied five times since moving to the side last January. An even more recent augmentation, Niklas Dorsch of 1. FC Heidenheim, has already scored twice. Goals are evenly spread throughout this team, with midfielders, forwards, and defenders contributing about an equal number.
Gent have a very competent captain at the back in Cameroon's Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui. Africa footballing enthusiasts will surely recall him from his heroic performances in the unforgettable 2017 Africa Cup of Nations campaign. The then Slavia Prague linchpin kick-started Hugo Broos' side that year with an electrifying late winning tally in the group stages and another late-winner against favored Ghana in the semi-finals. Les Indomitables would go on to capture the continental crown behind his efforts.
As noted above, the season has gotten off to a wretched start. The Belgian league, among those who opted to simply cancel their seasons when the pandemic hit, features many teams operating under deep financial duress. Gent were forced to sell leading goalscorer Jonathan David to Lille for an estimated €20 million. Losing his 23 goals across all competitions left the club with a void yet to be filled.
Danish trainer Jess Thorup worked with the board to frugally pluck about €15 million worth of talent from the domestic and surrounding leagues. Germans Kleindienst and Dorsch counted as two of the splurges. Unfortunately, Thorup came nowhere close to identifying a candidate capable of replacing David's goals. He found himself sacked after the first two games of the campaign.
Matters didn't improve much under interim manager Laszlo Bölöni. The Buffaloes put together a meager 1-0 victory, but got crushed in two more competitive duels. Since Wim de Decker was installed as the replacement, they've won three of seven, got completely dismantled by Dynamo Kiev in the UCL playoff and presently sit 13th in the table.
Key Player: Roman Yaremchuk
German fans received a proper introduction to the 24-year-old Ukrainian international last autumn when snagged a brace against Wolfsburg in the third round of the Europa League group stages. The two-goal performance included a slashed last-second equalizer that left quite the impression. One round later he would tomahawk home a scorching goal.
We know the name. Soon others will. The Lviv native put together a rollicking 10-goal campaign in last year's abridged season and has already tallied five times in 14 caps for Andiry Shevchenko's Ukrainian national team. After scoring three times in seven appearances for his club team this year, he'll surely take aim at the German Nationalmannschaft when our shaky side squares off against him in November.
Yaremchuk is a fairly versatile attacker who can play the nine, ten, or even eight positions. He's remained one of the few bright spots for Gent amid the disconcerting start
Verdict: 2nd place
FC Slovan Liberec (Czech Republic)
The Modrobili went through a tough qualifying process to qualify for Europe for the first time in four years. Their journey began in the second qualifying round and ended with a dramatic last-minute upset of Cyprus' famed APOEL F.C. Ranked 149th in the latest UEFA club coefficient, we now arrive at the club widely considered to be this group's easy mark doormat.
There doesn't exist much evidence to counter the team's minnow status. The sixth-place finishers in last year's Czech campaign don't retain the strongest of rosters. What names European footballing enthusiasts might recognize, like winger Thomas Malinsky and defender Matej Hybs, departed over the summer transfer window.
The team nevertheless features some promising youngsters--midfielders Jan Matousek and Jakob Hromada--who may be on a few ancillary scouting radars. Liberec happens to be one of those teams that larger clubs like Salvia or Sparta Prague remain happy to offload some of their prospects off to on loan. PSV Eindhoven prodigy Michal Sadilek is also on the roster, though he evidently hasn't featured yet.
Matchday 3 11/5/2020 (A) vs. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
Matchday 4 11/26/2020 (H) vs. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
Irrespective of how unbalanced the Fortuna Liga may be, performance always matters. The northern Czech Blue-Whites have turned in some dominant performances this season. Keeper Filip Nguyen has kept five clean sheets across all competitions, including the last two UEL qualifying fixtures.
Thirty-one-year old striker Michael Rabusic scored a hat trick in the squad's last league encounter. Two goals may have come on penalties, but a players recent form always counts for something. Rabusic has tallied in nearly half of the team's fixtures.
For the purposes of this analysis, we treat the uncertainty teams currently face in the pandemic landscape as a negative. In the brief space of time between this article and the preceding one covering the Europa League, the Czech FA has opted to largely cancel its next three rounds.
As every footballer knows, extended time off adversely affects one's touch. Drills and exercises cannot replace match action with one's colleagues. A team like this, obviously reliant on defensive cohesion against much more powerful clubs, will likely make many errors and suffer lopsided defeats.
Key Player: Abdulla Yusuf Helal
Liberec do possess a ringer of sorts in 27-year-old the Bahraini center forward who decided to go by "Yusuf" when singing for Bohemians in December of 2018. The name may still not ring a bell for those unacquainted with AFC Confederation national squads, but this writer got a good look at him during the AFC Asian Championship.
El Helal was groomed by English coach Peter Taylor (incidentally not the canonized Peter Taylor that served as Brian Clough's better half). In a little under two seasons playing for all three Prague sides, he refined his game both as both a lead and supporting striker.
After landing in Liberec (on loan from Slavia Prague) this summer, he tallied in all six of his first appearances. One might witness some fireworks from him here.
Verdict: 4th place
Group C Table Projection
The previous group concluded with a straightforwardly conservative tip. Here, we'll unveil the "upset special". KAA Gent simply understands how to school German teams, or so an intuitive augury says. Hoffenheim's European performance continues to fall flat.
- Red Star Belgrade
- KAA Gent
- TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
- Slovan Liberec