BERLIN – The Bundesliga’s best are once again primed to showcase their talent across Europe with the start of the Uefa Champions League and Europa League in a fortnight’s time.
A hard-fought 2017-18 season reaped the reward of continental football for seven of the Bundesliga’s best teams and, following the fascinating group-stage draws in Monaco last week, each side learnt their European fate for the coming campaign.
Bayern Munich, Schalke, Hoffenheim and Borussia Dortmund will fly the Bundesliga flag in European football’s elite competition. Bayer Leverkusen, Eintracht Frankfurt and RB Leipzig, meanwhile, will battle it out for the famous Europa League trophy. The competition will be fierce for all concerned, but each team will harbour serious ambitions to be challenging come the latter stages of the season.
For Bundesliga champions and five-time Champions League winners Bayern, intriguing encounters against Portuguese power-house Benfica, Dutch giants Ajax and Greek underdogs AEK Athens await in Group E.
“It’s an interesting group containing clubs with great history. Our fans can look forward to three great Champions League nights at the Allianz Arena. From a footballing point of view I’m very pleased,” Bayern’s new coach Niko Kovac told his club’s website after the conclusion of the group-stage draw.
Intriguingly, the Bundesliga giants’ opener against Benfica in Lisbon on September 19 will bring back memories of the teams’ recent continental battle. Bayern edged the Portuguese outfit 3-2 on aggregate en-route to the semi-finals in 2016, playing out a mouthwatering 2-2 draw at the Estadio da Luz that year.
“We have a bit of unfinished business with Benfica away,” goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said, harking back to that titanic tussle. “We’re up against three illustrious names in European football.”
Returning to the top table of European football after a three-year absence, last season’s Bundesliga runners-up, Schalke, were delighted to discover that they will be coming up against some familiar faces in Group D. Opponents Porto, Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow will provide the Miners with two fascinating duels, given the players that ply their trade with the Russian team these days.
“We’re so excited to be facing Benedikt Howedes and Jefferson Farfan,” Schalke coach Domenico Tedesco said after the draw. The duo made a combined total of 563 appearances for the Royal Blues and will be certain to receive a special welcome at the Veltins-Arena when Lokomotiv visit on December 11.
The air of excitement in Sinsheim was also palpable when the draw took place, with local side Hoffenheim among the group-stage elite for the first time in the club’s history. Keenly awaiting the outcome of their Pot 4 placement, Julian Nagelsmann saw English champions Manchester City, Ukraine’s finest Shakhtar Donetsk and French challengers Lyon emerge in what will provide a fascinating mixture of footballing cultures.
“In the Champions League we are underdogs, which is normal for the club that we are, but I think there is something for us in that group,” Nagelsmann said. Hoffenheim’s Group F opponents will underestimate the men from Kraichgau at their peril.
Borussia Dortmund, 1997 European champions, were also placed into what will be a closely contested group alongside Atletico Madrid, Monaco and Club Brugge. Along with visiting the scene of this season’s final - Atletico’s Wanda Metropolitano - the encounters against Monaco, in particular, will bring back memories of a particular gesture of solidarity between fans of both clubs.
Following an attack on the Borussia Dortmund team bus prior to their 2017 quarter-final, the first-leg at Signal Iduna Park was postponed to the following day. A huge response from Dortmund’s supporters under the hashtag #BedForAwayFans offered a chance for visiting supporters to stay in the city and watch the rescheduled game, with the display of goodwill in a time of crisis hailed across the world.
“Regardless of who we got in the draw, some time ago we clearly stated that we want to be first in our group and advance. We will be favourites (to do that), we suppose,” said Leverkusen coach Heiko Herrlich after he learnt Die Werkself would face Ludogorets, FC Zurich and AEK Larnaca in Group A of the Europa League.
The same tournament pitted last season’s DFB Cup winners, Eintracht Frankfurt against Lazio, Marseille and Apollon Limassol, while also intent on advancing will be RB Leipzig, who will meet RB Salzburg, Celtic and Rosenborg.