Three Champions League minnows who could cause a stir
Bulgarian battlers Ludogorets, outsiders at 200/1 with Coral to win Group B, made life difficult for Liverpool in their opening Champions League game, with a spirited display that almost caused Brendan Rodgers’ Reds to slip up.
With places in the last 16 still very much up for grabs after matchday one, Coral writers take a closer look at the relatively unknown underdogs and potential giant-killers in this season’s competition.
Cypriot champions APOEL currently find themselves languishing at the bottom of Group F, but have much to be optimistic about after almost splitting the spoils with Spanish juggernaut Barcelona in their opening Champions League encounter.
Wily Brazil-born wingman Gustavo Manduca typified his stubborn side by forcing a stoppage time save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen, and APOEL, who are outsiders at 16/1 to qualify from their pool, have nothing to lose in their remaining games against and Ajax and PSG.
Formed in 1962, APOEL were originally created to represent the city’s Greek population and are Cyprus’ most successful team, having lifted 23 top flight titles.
Nicknamed ‘The Legend’, capital club APOEL have already upset the Champions League apple cart once before, by making the quarter-finals in 2011/12.
For the first time in their history they navigated the group stages, earning impressive results against Porto, Zenit St Petersburg and Shakhtar Doentsk to arrange a clash with Ligue 1 club Lyon. Following a memorable penalty shoot-out win in the last 16, APOEL’s memorable journey came to an end against European giants Real Madrid, who defeated them 8-2 on aggregate.
Bulgarian champions Ludogorets illustrated their mettle against Liverpool, but could still take a tricky Group B by storm. Unlucky to leave Anfield without a point, Georgi Domuschiev’s men must now face Real Madrid and Swiss side Basel in a pool they are 25/1 to escape from.
Seemingly unstoppable in their domestic league, Ludogorets were only established in 2001, but managed to win the Bulgarian treble in their first ever top flight season in 2012, and are currently in the hunt for their fourth consecutive Group A title.
Nicknamed the Eagles, the Bulgarian new boys are enjoying their first Champions League campaign, but did make their mark on last season’s Europa League. In a sensational run of form, Ludogorets defeated the likes of Dinamo Zagreb, PSV Eindhoven and Lazio, before eventually being eliminated in the round of 16 by Valencia.
Considering both Madrid and Basel’s recent defensive woes, the potent attack of Ludogorets should not be underestimated, with former Celta de Vigo winger Dani Abalo on target twice in his last two games.
Representing Slovenia’s second-largest city, Maribor are noted for their purple kit, and Ante Simundza’s side have already created waves in the Champions League this year, after dumping Scottish champions Celtic out of the competition in the play-off stage.
Traditionally, Maribor represented the working classes and enjoyed a hostile rivalry, dubbed the ‘eternal derby’, against now defunct and perceived bourgeois capital club Olimpija Ljubljana.
Despite being in debt themselves, Maribor managed to survive, and are one of only four clubs from the Former Republic of Yugoslavia to play in the Champions League since the country split in 1991.
All-time club top scorer and skipper Marcos Taveres was on target to sink Celtic, whilst fellow attacking stars Agim Ibraimi and French forward Jean-Philippe Mendy are also potential game changers to keep an eye on.
Current coach Ante Simundza is also already a hometown hero, having netted the Slovenian side’s first ever goal in the Champions League group stages in the 1999/2000 campaign.
Maribor are level on points with Chelsea, Schalke and Sporting Lisbon in an exciting Champions League Group G, and are 12/1 to make club history by qualifying for the last-16.