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Thursday, 13 December, 2018

Bayern Munich may suffer from a lack of new blood

Ajax splash the cash on Premier League quality

Bayern Munich have made a brilliant start under Nico Kovac
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Bayern Munich Niko Kovac
The German national team and Bayern Munich are so intrinsically linked it will be fascinating to see whether the team known in some parts as FC Hollywood suffer a World Cup hangover.

Germany's group-stage exit rocked their nation and Bayern, with seven current players - Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Thomas Muller, Leon Goretzka, Niklas Sule, Jerome Boateng and Joshua Kimmich - part of that Russian fiasco and need to restore their reputations.

There's no better place than the Champions League to do just that and Bayern's record in the competition over the past ten years is consistently excellent with one win, two runners-up spots, four semi-final eliminations, two quarter-finals and one second-round exit.

Bayern remain dominant in the Bundesliga, winning each of the last six titles, and there was a 21-point gulf last term, but they may not be improving at a significant enough rate to keep up with Europe's finest.

A low-key summer saw free transfer Goretzka become the biggest arrival and new coach Niko Kovac is untested at this level.

Benfica Rui Vitoria
Benfica wrote unwanted history in last season's Champions League, becoming the first team from pot one to end the campaign pointless after a shambolic effort.

It was not even as if the Portuguese team were in a group of death - Manchester United, CSKA Moscow and Basel were relatively limited opponents - but the Lisbon side were pathetic, finishing with a goal difference of minus 13.

There were several low points with two standing out, a 5-0 loss at Basel and scoring more own goals (two) than goals (one).

Benfica also had to deal with missing out to Porto in the domestic title race and coach Rui Vitoria was arguably fortunate to survive in his role.

The qualifying wins over Fenerbahce and Paok were incredibly important from a financial point of view to reach the group stage once more and hopes are high 18-year-old Joao Felix could become the next big talent to showcase his talents in Lisbon.

However, the last 16 looks the absolute limit for Benfica.

Ajax Erik ten Hag
A change in emphasis over the summer saw Ajax, sick of not winning enough with their youngsters, spend a record amount on experienced professionals Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind.

"We need to become the Bayern Munich of our league," said technical director Marc Overmars and the early signs, at least in Europe, have suggested it was money well spent as the one-time Dutch giants beat Sturm Graz, Standard Liege and Dynamo Kiev to qualify for the group stage for the first time since 2014.

Winger Justin Kluivert, son of Patrick, was sold to Roma but Ajax's other young Dutch A-listers were retained as a show of ambition with centre-back Matthijs de Ligt and midfielder Frenkie de Jong mixing alongside Tadic and Blind.

Striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is another with bags of Champions League experience and this Ajax squad looks much better balanced than previous editions, including the extremely young bunch who reached the Europa League final in 2017.

AEK Athens Marinos Ouzounidis
AEK Athens' first Greek Superleague title in 24 years was not short of incident and a key moment arrived in the unusual circumstances of title rivals PAOK being docked points after their owner entered the field of play to threaten a referee with a gun during a controversial contest with the eventual champions.

The match in March was abandoned, PAOK lost three points and AEK were awarded a 3-0 win, decisions which proved pivotal in a race that was settled by six points.

Manolo Jimenez, the Spanish coach responsible for AEK's success, quit almost immediately to head to Segunda side Las Palmas and hid replacement Marinos Ouzounidis will be aiming to replicate the defensive foundations of a side who conceded just 12 times last season.

Early-season form hints Ouzounidis will struggle in that area.

AEK have come through qualifying ties against Celtic and MOL Vidi but the Greeks failed to keep a clean sheet in those four fixtures, suggesting they are missing centre-back Ognjen Vranjes, who left for Anderlecht. 

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This Ajax squad looks much better balanced than previous editions
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