Being that the Champions League is the pinnacle of European club football, it’s easy to get swept up in wanting to watch the biggest teams with the most famous players compete against each other.
However, the democracy of qualification enables a lot of interesting stories to take place behind the headline performers. Ahead of matchday one, here are a select few teams to keep an eye on this coming campaign.
Union BerlinEmbed from Getty Images
It has been a remarkable rise for Union, having only been promoted to the Bundesliga for the first time in 2019. Under Urs Fischer, the Iron Ones have progressed year after year – from 11th to 7th to 5th and eventually a 4th-placed finish last season to reach the Champions League for the first time. It’s a story that, to any Union fan, would be nothing short of a fairy tale, though it stretches back much further than their top-division days.
In Germany, blood donors are paid for their donations, so, back in 2004, when Union needed money for the club’s fourth division licence, fans set up the Bleed for Union campaign where supporters gave their blood donation money to the club. Four years later when the club wanted to redevelop their stadium despite waning funds, over two thousand Union fans volunteered their time to help reconstruct their home.
It may be their debut season but Fischer’s men won’t just be here for the ride. Recruiting significant Champions League experience in Leonardo Bonucci, Robin Gosens and Lucas Tousart combined with an intimidating home stadium and recurring ability to overachieve means that Union are finely placed to disrupt Europe’s elite. Though it certainly won’t be easy, with Italian champions Napoli and fourteen-time European Cup winners Real Madrid in their group, along with Portuguese heavy hitters Braga. Exile to the Europa League may be more likely for the Union, but these perennial underdogs could spring more than a few surprises along the way.
RC LensEmbed from Getty Images
Having only finished one point behind France’s premier title winners Paris Saint-Germain last year, Lens returned to the Champions League for the first time since 2002. Lauded by the likes of Thierry Henry, Lens have been led by Franck Haise since 2020. Their acute recruitment and Haise’s capability of getting the most, or even more than expected, from low-cost buys and young talent, resulted in a whirlwind 2022/23, where they only lost four games in Ligue 1 all season.
In fact, it’s been a thrilling few years, with Lens achieving a similar ascent to Union, achieving promotion from Ligue 2 in 2019/20 in Haise’s inaugural season. However, 23/24 hasn’t started well for the Blood and Gold. After a 1-0 defeat to Metz on the weekend, Haise admitted he “didn’t think we would be here” having only managed a solitary point from their opening five games, leaving them bottom of the table.
In a group featuring Sevilla, PSV Eindhoven and Arsenal, Lens will likely struggle to get more than a fourth-placed finish. However, the excitement of returning to Europe’s elite could be exactly what is needed to kick-start their season.
Royal AntwerpEmbed from Getty Images
Another side making their competition debut is Belgian champions Royal Antwerp. Managed by former Netherlands international Mark van Bommel – a Champions League winner with Barcelona in 2005/06 – Antwerp secured their first Pro League title in sixty-six years when Toby Alderweireld struck from outside the box to earn a draw against Genk. Spine-tingling celebrations followed.
Antwerp have regularly been near the top of the Belgian league pyramid in recent years, with the Europa League and Conference League being their routine outings on the continent. Now they’re mixing with the big boys. And they don’t get much bigger than an in-form Barcelona. Matchday one sees van Bommel return to Camp Nou, where he once helped add to the five-strong European Cups the Catalans possess.
Antwerp’s defensively-minded, physical approach could unbuckle Xavi’s possession-oriented style, though they will have to be strong and stubborn. With Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk making up the rest of their group, fourth place or a demotion to the comforts of the Europa League could be more possible for the Great Old, but a good result against Barca could flip that narrative almost immediately.
Newcastle UnitedEmbed from Getty Images
Though I have personal issues with their new owners, who are the primary reason the Toon Army are here, it would be remiss of me to not include Newcastle, with the club returning to the Champions League for the first time since Bobby Robson’s leadership. It has been a mixed start to the season for Eddie Howe’s men – a battering of Aston Villa has been followed by limp defeats to Liverpool and Brighton as well as a narrow loss to Manchester City. Squeaking past Brentford with a Callum Wilson penalty sends the Magpies to European football in a more positive mindset.
The San Siro is another perfect stage to return to the Champions League, which Newcastle will do this evening against seven-time winners AC Milan. Former Milan favourite Sandro Tonali will return to the Rossoneri to provide his elite deep-lying midfield play to the away team this time.
Newcastle’s campaign will also be noteworthy given they are in the so-called ‘Group of Death’, alongside Milan, PSG and Borussia Dortmund. Taking advantage of a Milan side demoralised from a 5-1 derby loss to Inter on the weekend will be critical if they are to make a run to the knockout stages.