Ahhh yes. The Champions League. It’s back.
It’s cold, dark and depressingly far from the weekend, yet there’s a buzz like no other in the air. The biggest stadiums in world football are full. The best players on the planet take to the floodlit pitches, serenaded by the glorious anthem. The ball, covered in its legendary blue stars, sits tantalisingly on the centre circle. This is a competition exclusively for the elite.
And, what’s more, little old City are in it. But in it, I would say, with a very real intention to win it.
Our sixth crack at the competition begins with a trip to Feyenoord, a team who many would agree are somewhat of an unknown quantity. Even so, coming from Pot 4, they are a team that, theoretically, we should be taking six points from. We arrive in Rotterdam as Feyenoord’s first Champions League opponent in 16 years, so expect a fiery welcome.
But I think that’s the only thing we can really, confidently, expect. I’ve done my research, and I’ll present you with my findings. But what you make of this intriguing little football club and whether you regard them as a threat, is really a matter of opinion…
Luckily for me, Feyenoord’s fantastic start to the season, winning their first four games and scoring twelve, means that their line-up for this game is likely to be very similar to the others they’ve fielded so far this year. One notable exception however, will be the absence of big Nicolai Jørgensen up front. This is good news from a City perspective, as the 6-foot 3-inch Danish striker was the Eredivisie’s top scorer last season with 21 goals in 32 games. But if John Stones was breathing a sigh of relief at the idea of avoiding an intense physical battle, he’ll be pleased to hear that the Dane’s likely replacement, Michiel Kramer, is two inches taller.
Moving through the squad, and there are a few players that some very avid fans of the Premier League may recognise. Steven Berghuis, the right winger, recently moved from Watford, captain Karim El Ahmadi used to turn out in midfield for Aston Villa and Australian keeper Brad Jones once plied his trade at Liverpool.
The midfield is very experienced, with the determined Jens Toornstra and the man who scored the winner against Manchester United last year, Tonny Vilhena, lining up alongside El Ahmadi. The back-four should also remain as it was during the 4-2 win at Heracles last weekend, with new acquisitions Jeremiah St. Juste and Kevin Diks having impressed since their recent arrivals at the club.
Taking all this into account, I would expect to see something like this on Wednesday:
Player(s) to watch
After watching our defence try to cope with the pace of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane at the weekend, I’d identify the main threat, certainly in the absence of Jørgensen, as the left winger Jean-Paul Boëtius. The Dutchman, now 23, was at Feyenoord for three years up until 2015, when he left to join FC Basel, but he’s soon found himself back in Rotterdam. And, certainly if his start is anything to go by, his second stint at the club is likely be a successful one, with three goals in his first four games.
In a team where pace is hard to come by, Boëtius is somewhat of an outlet on the left side, as he has bundles of it. With the big striker in the middle holding the ball up, he likes to get in behind and test the centre-backs for pace. And, if he decides to try his luck against Otamendi on Wednesday, Saturday’s evidence suggests that he might find some joy. Not only this, but he’s tricky, agile, and capable on both feet, and so could cause some problems down the left.
Apart from him, I’d keep an eye on Berghuis on the other side – a very different type of winger, but one with a very good left foot who likes to cut inside and curl the ball towards the far corner. Toornstra is also very dangerous from the midfield, a bulldozing midfielder who packs a lot of power behind his shots.
View from the opposition
First and foremost, we’re hearing that last season’s top scorer Nicolai Jørgensen will miss the game through injury. How much of an impact do you think this’ll have for Feyenoord and what can we expect of his replacement?
A big impact! Michiel Kramer is likely to fill in, but he’s not the best replacement. He has height on his side but is not particularly skilful nor quick, and instead represents a lamppost instead of someone who can help build play.
It’s been sixteen years since Feyenoord last competed in the Champions League – can you sum up the excitement around the city of Rotterdam and give us an idea of what to expect from the notoriously passionate fans on Wednesday?
It has certainly been a while and the Feyenoord fans deserve it after putting up with the club’s financial troubles since their last appearance. De Kuip will be rocking and I anticipate the 12th men to make a huge difference. Expect noise and flares!
What do you think would represent a success for Feyenoord in this season’s Champions League?
If Feyenoord are to progress from this group, they will need to win all three home matches and attempt to pick up points at Shakhtar. It’s a huge ask to expect the Eredivisie side to get through and finishing third to make the Europa League would keep fans satisfied. Beating Shakhtar home and away will be crucial in remaining in Europe after winter. In the past, Feyenoord topped a Europa League group also containing Sevilla, Rijeka and Standard Liege – which lead to them undeservedly being knocked out by Roma in the last 32. The Dutch side are no pushovers.
A few teams, like FC Twente in 2009/10 and AZ in 2008/09, have won the title – but apart from that, it’s been almost 50 years of PSV and Ajax dominance. Given the perfect start to this season, do you think Feyenoord have a good chance of disrupting this Dutch dynasty for many more years to come?
Feyenoord are one of the Netherlands’ big three clubs, and now the club has returned to Europe’s top competition, the money will be reinvested into the squad for years to come so they can pronounce their return to Dutch dominance. The Rotterdammers bought well in the summer and are the most settled side out of the league’s title contenders. Another season in the Champions League would mean more money for the club to build on what are already solid foundations.
And, with confidence sky high, do you expect Feyenoord will cause City problems on Wednesday?
Yes, but I think City will face bigger problems breaking down Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team. Feyenoord will know Manchester City’s struggles when playing compact sides away from home, and will set up in a rigid formation to frustrate City, but not to sit back. Unlike other Dutch teams, Feyenoord are defensively solid and will pose problems from set pieces and wing play instead of quick counter attacks or especially stylish football.