Born in the south east of Ireland, Simon put his life-long love of football to good use when he started a successful independent blog in 2010. That opened up an alternative route to a career in journalism, and having had work published across a number of sites and publications, Simon joined the staff at Spotlight Sports Group in 2018.
2018/19 UEFA Champions League Group E has an interesting mix of clubs with long ranging and successful associations with the continent’s biggest club competition.
Bayern Munich, Ajax and Benfica have won the tournament, in its various incarnations, a total of eleven times between them. But while the Bavarians can point to relatively recent success, remembering the title winning teams of Ajax and Benfica requires deeper retrospection.
The German giants are huge favourites to coast their way to top spot in Group E and the Bundesliga champions certainly look a cut above the rest in the section. Greek side AEK Athens will hope to be more than the Group’s whipping boys, though they look set for a campaign of struggle. That leaves Ajax and Benfica to fight it out for second spot, and both clubs will fancy their chances of progressing to the knock-out rounds.
Let’s take a closer look at the fixtures and clubs in Champions League Group E:
19th September 2018
Ajax vs AEK Athens (Johan Cruyff Arena, Amsterdam)
Benfica vs Bayern Munich (Estádio da Luz, Lisbon)
2nd October 2018
Bayern Munich vs Ajax (Allianz Arena, Munich)
AEK Athens vs Benfica (Olympic Stadium, Athens)
23rd October 2018
AEK Athens vs Bayern Munich (Olympic Stadium, Athens)
Ajax vs Benfica (Johan Cruyff Arena, Amsterdam)
Bayern Munich vs AEK Athens (Allianz Arena, Munich)
Benfica vs Ajax (Estádio da Luz, Lisbon)
AEK Athens vs Ajax (Olympic Stadium, Athens)
Bayern Munich vs Benfica (Allianz Arena, Munich)
Ajax vs Bayern Munich (Johan Cruyff Arena, Amsterdam)
Benfica vs AEK Athens (Estádio da Luz, Lisbon)
How did they qualify?
Bayern Munich won the 2017/19 Bundesliga. It was their 6th straight German title win.
Best Champions League season:
Bayern Munich have won the European Cup/Champions League 5 times in their history (1974, 1975, 1976, 2001 and 2013). They finished as runners up on 5 other occasions (1982, 1987, 1999, 2010 and 2012).
Having been eliminated from the Champions League at the Semi Final stage of the competition in three of the last four seasons, there is a burning desire at Bayern Munich to at least make the Final of the tournament this year, for the first time since they last won it in 2013.
Their dominance of German domestic football is such, that winning the Bundesliga has almost become an afterthought at Bayern. Der FCB finished 21 points clear of their nearest rival in Germany last season and their ability to amble pasth the flimsy challenges in their homeland allows them to train every thought and focus every sinew on Champions League success.
Their quest for football’s Holy Grail has a new leader this season after former Bayern player Niko Kovac was chosen to replace temporary boss Jupp Heynckes at the Allianz Arena.
Bayern’s title winning squad has only undergone minor adjustments over the transfer window, with Arturo Vidal departing to make room for the arrival for Leon Goretzka in midfield. Elsewhere, Douglas Costa moved on a permanent basis to Juventus, while Sebastian Rudy and Juan Bernat were also allowed to leave.
Even without significant reinforcement, Bayern’s squad is one of the strongest collectives in the Champions League this season. Their ranks are packed with seasoned, hardened winners and Die Roten are rightfully among the favourites to win the competition outright.
Bayern Munich have world-class quality in every position on the pitch with highly decorated and accomplished players in all areas. Tactically, they have enough flexibility to keep opponents guessing and their ability to mix things up could be key.
The depth of Bayern’s squad might not be as impressive this season as it has been in years gone by. A couple of injuries to key players in defence could cause problems.
Polish superstar Robert Lewandowski is entering his 5th season as a Bayern Munich player. The centre forward has hit at least 40 goals in each of his last 3 seasons in Munich and his incredible consistency shows no signs of slowing down. Lewandowski already has 6 goals in just 4 appearances in all competitions in 2018/19. We’re tipping the prolific striker to finish as the Champions League’s top scorer this season.
Colombian attacking midfielder James Rodriguez was insanely creative for Bayern Munich in last season’s Bundesliga. The Real Madrid loanee racked up 11 assists in the league last term, more than any other player in the division. He amassed those assists having played just 1627 minutes of football. Comparatively, the Bundesliga’s second highest assist provider, Daniel Caligiuri, needed 2918 minutes to get his 10 assists.
- Bayern Munich have lost only 1 of their last 10 Champions League games.
- Bayern Munich have won 20 of their last 23 Champions League home matches.
- Bayern Munich have won 4 of their last 5 Champions League away fixtures.
Bayern Munich’s Champions League preparations will be helped by the fact that they play at home in the Bundesliga directly before 4 of their Group E matches.
However, Die Roten will play away from home in the Bundesliga directly after 5 of their mid-week Champions League fixtures.
A few days after their Match Day 1 trip to play Benfica in Portugal, Bayern take on Schalke 04 in Gelsenkirchen. While, the German champions have away league games either side of their trip to take on AEK Athens in Greece on Match Day 3.
After their return match against the Greeks in Munich, Bayern travel north to play Borussia Dortmund at the Westfalenstadion.
How did they qualify?
Ajax finished 2nd in last season’s Eredivisie. They had to come through three sets of double-legged qualifiers against Sturm Graz, Standard Liége and Dynamo Kiev to make it to the Group Stage of the Champions League.
Best Champions League season:
Ajax have won the European Cup/Champions League on 4 previous occasions (1971, 1972, 1973 and 1995). They were beaten finalists twice, in (1969 and 1996)
Ajax are back in the Champions League Group Stage for the first time since the 2014/15 season. The Netherlands’ most reputable club haven’t been crowned champions in their homeland for five seasons now, though a runner up spot in the Eredivisie was enough to earn Ajax a place in this year’s Champions League qualification rounds.
De Godenzone failed to get past Nice in last year’s qualifiers, though this season, they sailed through three sets of challengers. Ajax beat Austria’s Sturm Graz 5-1 on aggregate, before easing past Belgium’s Standard Liége by a score of 5-2 over two legs. Ukrainian outfit Dynamo Kiev were then seen off the final qualifying round by a 3-1 aggregate score.
The emergence of several talented players from Ajax Academy, De Toekomst, has breathed new life into club, and there is a feeling around Amsterdam that Ajax are close to breaking back through Europe’s glass ceiling, to where many feel like they belong.
Of course, Ajax ability to hold on to their best young stars is regularly tested. Already, two of their brightest prospects, Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie De Jong, have been sounded out by some of the continent’s bigger fish and the club already lost Justin Kluivert to Roma in the summer.
The good news is that Ajax have retained the crux of their talented youngsters for at least another year and they have added some experience to their youthful pool in Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind. Manager Erik ten Hag will have emerged positive from his assessment of the rest of the teams in Group E and bar facing Bayern Munich, Ajax have nothing to fear.
Ajax are excellent technically and they have several young players on the cusp of international stardom. Ajax’s attackers know where the goal is too – they were the top scorers in the Eredivisie last season, hitting 89 goals in 34 games.
The Ajax squad looks a little lightweight in terms of physical presence, and there’s a chance they could be bullied at times by some of the more robust teams in Group E.
Matthijs de Ligt
Blossoming central defender Matthijs de Ligt is already Ajax club captain at just 19 years of age. To be given so much responsibility at such a young age is testament to the centre back’s maturity and consistency. Standing at an imposing 6’2”, de Ligt can mix it aerially as well as on the deck. His potential is virtually limitless and every top club in Europe is credited with having an interest in the youngster.
Versatile Moroccan attacker Hakim Ziyech is effective from any position across the forward line for Ajax. The 25-year old’s wicked left foot can score and create goals with equal precision. The schemer was the leading assist maker in the Eredivisie last season (15) and his performances earned him the Dutch Player of the Year Award for 2017/18.
- Ajax are unbeaten in their last 17 home matches in all competitions
- Ajax have only lost 1 of their last 12 Champions League matches.
- Ajax have kept 6 clean sheets in 10 competitive matches in 2018/19.
Ajax play away from home directly before 4 of their Champions League Group E matches. They also play away from home straight after 3 of those 6 Group games.
Just a couple of days after their Match Day 1 clash with AEK Athens, Ajax take on current Eredivisie champions PSV in Eindhoven.
After their Match Day 3 meeting with Benfica in Amsterdam, Ajax welcome Feyenoord to the capital in the Eredivisie.
How did they qualify?
Benfica finished 2nd in the 2017/18 Portuguese Primeira Liga. They had to come through two sets of double-legged pre-qualifiers against Turkish club Fenerbache and Greek side PAOK to make it to the Champions League Group Stage.
Best Champions League season:
Benfica won the old format European Cup in 1961 and 1962. The were beaten finalists in the competition 5 times in 1963, 1965, 1968, 1988 and 1990.
Benfica enter the 2018/19 Champions League Group Stage looking to restore some pride after last season’s horrendous showing in the competition. The Eagles lost all six of their Group fixtures last term in a campaign that was embarrassingly abject.
A repeat of that dismal performance is unlikely to be replicated this year, though the fact that Benfica enter this season’s Champions League having relinquished their Primeira Liga title for the first time since 2012/13, suggests that they are an even weaker outfit this time around. Porto beat Benfica to the punch in the Portuguese championship in 2017/18, stopping a run of four straight title wins for the Eagles.
Benfica were busy in the summer transfer window, identifying and signing cut-price recruits and unpolished diamonds for their team. Their tried and tested methods in the market have yielded fewer and fewer results in recent years however, and Benfica’s squad looks as weak as it has done in quite some time.
It’s not all doom and gloom however – Manager Rui Vitória will hope promising young players like Ruben Dias, João Félix and Gedson Fernandes continue to develop and flourish. Up front, Benfica have an interesting enough mix of attacking talent to cause teams problems with Jonas, Eduardo Salvio, Facundo Ferreyra and Franco Servi vying for places.
Benfica have a number of quick and skillful players in attack who are all adept at beating defenders in one on one situations. Benfica averaged just under 2.5 goals per game in the Portuguese Primeira Liga last season.
Defensively, Benfica aren’t quite up to scratch at Champions League level. With largely the same defence, the Eagles conceded 14 goals in 6 UCL Group Matches last season. In their pre-qualifiers this year, Benfica only kept 1 clean sheet in 4 fixtures.
Veteran centre forward Jonas enjoyed a phenomenal individual season in 2017/18. The 34-year old Brazilian rattled in 37 goals in 41 appearances in all competitions for Benfica. He failed to register a single goal in Europe however and Jonas will be keen to make more of an impact this time around.
Argentinean winger Eduardo Salvio has been at Benfica since his 2012 move across the border from La Liga club Atlético Madrid. Salvio brings speed and trickery to the Eagles’ flanks and the 28-year old adds a goal threat from wide positions too. Salvio is also tactically flexible – he played at right-back in two games for Argentina at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
- Benfica lost all 6 of their Champions League Group games last season
- Benfica scored just 1 goal in their 6 Champions League Group matches in 2017/18.
- Benfica have won just 5 of their last 26 Champions League away fixtures.
Benfica’s opening Group E match at home to Bayern Munich on Match Day 1 is bookended by two Primeira Liga home games against Rio Ave and Desportivo Aves.
Benfica play four away matches in five games around Match Day 2 & 3. They travel to take on Chaves in the Primeira Liga a few days before flying to Greece to play AEK Athens. After a home game against champions Porto the following weekend, Benfica’s schedule takes them to Ajax and Belenenses in successive games.
Similarly, their Champions League Match Day 4 & 5 fixtures at home to Ajax and Bayern come during a run of four home matches in five games for the Eagles. Their only away match in that period is away to Tondela, which is scheduled to take place between their two Champions League fixtures.
Read More: 2018/19 Champions League Analysis: Group D
How did they qualify?
AEK Athens won the 2017/18 Greek Super League, finishing 6 points ahead of PAOK in 2nd place. AEK had to come through two rounds of pre-qualification games against Celtic and Vidi to make it to the Champions League Group Stage.
Best Champions League season:
AEK Athens made it to the Quarter Final of the 1968/69 European Cup, where they were beaten over two legs by Spartak Trnava. AEK qualified for the Group Stage of the Champions League in 1994/95, 2002/03, 2003/04 and 2006/07, but were eliminated at that stage each time.
AEK Athens are still spinning from the euphoria of winning their first Greek league title in twenty-four years in 2017/18. The Énosis went unbeaten for the last twenty-two matches of the Super League to finish six points ahead of their nearest challenger PAOK.
The title win also ended a period of dominance for Olympiakos, who had won seven league championships on the spin before AEK’s triumph. The man who masterminded the title triumph, Manolo Jiménez, left the club almost immediately after the celebrations however, moving back to Spain with Las Palmas.
Under new manager Marinos Ouzounidis, AEK made hard work of their Group Stage pre-qualifiers against Scotland’s Celtic and Hungary’s Vidi, emerging 3-2 winners after each double-legged tie. Their battle with Vidi was particularly intense and four players were sent off between the two heated contests in Hungary and Greece.
AEK Athens have only lost once in twenty-eight home matches in all competitions and new boss Marinos Ouzounidis will hope to lean just as heavily on his side’s form at the Olympic Stadium in Group E this season.
The Énosis also made it to the Last 16 of the Europa League in 2017/18, showing that AEK Athens are capable of producing on the continental stage. However, transferring those performances to the Champions League will likely prove a far trickier task for the Greeks.
AEK Athens were remarkably consistent at the back last season – they conceded just 12 times in total en-route to winning the Greek Super League. In the season’s run in, they conceded just 1 goal in their final 12 league matches. That’s an incredible statistic by anyone’s standards.
While keeping teams out at one end is something AEK excel out, opening sides up at the other is routinely a struggle for the Greek champions. The Énosis averaged just 1.6 goals per game in the Super League last season. Their goal scoring capabilities took a further hit over the summer, when last year’s top scorer Sergio Araujo returned to parent club Las Palmas. Araujo scored 21 goals while on loan in Greece in 2017/18.
Like last season’s top scorer Sergio Araujo, Marko Livaja spent 2017/18 on loan at AEK Athens from Las Palmas in Spain. The Croatian made his move permanent over the summer however and now the pressure is on the striker to fill the void left by his former teammate Araujo. Livaja has started the new campaign in terrific style and his performances earned him a call-up to the Croatian national team for the first time ever in August.
Club captain Petros Mantalos missed a huge chunk of last season with an ACL injury, but the midfielder returned just in time to join in with the title celebrations towards the end of the campaign. The 20-times capped Greek international has already scored twice this season and his AEK Athens are much better team when he plays.
- AEK Athens conceded just 1 goal in their last 12 league matches last season.
- AEK Athens have lost just 1 of their last 28 home matches in all competitions.
- AEK Athens conceded on average just 0.4 goals per game in the Greek Super League in 2017/18.
AEK Athens have tough domestic fixtures directly after both of their first two Champions League Group E matches. Following their clash with Ajax in Amsterdam on Match Day 1, AEK play away to last year’s Greek Super League runner up PAOK.
They follow their Match Day 2 fixture at home to Benfica with a match against ousted Greek champions Olympiakos.
AEK Athens play away from home 4 times in the Greek Super League immediately before they have mid-week Champions League commitments. They do however, have home matches in the league directly after 4 of their Group E fixtures and that should help with the team’s recovery.
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