This travel guide looks at five underdog teams (and their stadia) that were drawn from pots 3 and 4 in this season’s UEFA Champions League draw. First up, a short jaunt to north-eastern Slovenia...
2017/18 represents a ninth straight season in which NK Maribor are in European competition. It is also the Slovenian club’s third Champions League appearance in four seasons. Maribor have already disposed of Zrinjski Mostar, Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar, and Hapoel Be'er Sheva in the qualifying rounds. Curiously, the Vijoličasti have faced off against English opposition on four occasions in the last seven seasons.
With one main stand opposite three interconnected ones, it is sufficiently compact to generate a good atmosphere, and fittingly, Maribor is a relatively small city itself, making the stadium accessible from anywhere in the area. Being next to a river, locals consider it to be an iconic landmark, and it is also the national team’s home stadium.
Getting to Maribor can be a challenge, but it can be simplified by a well-laid travel plan, with Maribor being accessible from Ljubljana, Graz, and Zagreb. For those that simply want to go there and back without too many stopovers, flying to the Austrian town of Graz is the best option. After arrival, visitors can board a train journey to Maribor, which takes just under two hours.
Maribor, the 2012 European capital of culture, is famous for wine production and a number of other landmarks steeped in history. The second-oldest synagogue in Europe is a prominent attraction, as is the Old Vine House (Hiša Stare trte), and the brilliantly-named Judgement Tower (Sodni stolp). The greatest concentration of shops, bars, and restaurants can be found on the waterfront.
APOEL became notable in Europe back in 2011, after reaching the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in its history. Remarkably, the Cypriot minnows finished top of an extremely tough group, which contained Lyon, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Zenit St Petersburg. APOEL also performed strongly in last season’s Europa League, with the Cypriots again topping the group and getting as far as the round of sixteen.
GSP Stadium is shared by APOEL and their rivals Omonia Nicosia. Harking back to the Olympic days of yore, it is open-air and has a capacity of nearly 23,000. A friendly, but passionate atmosphere can be expected on match nights.
Nicosia airport has lain derelict since 1974, making Larnaca International the destination of choice for Tottenham fans on 26 September. Unless a nine-hour walk is high on the agenda, transportation should be arranged in advance, with the stadium about thirty minutes’ drive away from Larnaca International
Nicosia boasts some beautiful architecture and sights to see. The wholesome Mediterranean cuisine available to tourists is an attraction in itself, and there are plenty of eateries to explore. On the way back, visitors can partake in some scuba diving in the coastal town of Larnaca.
This quaint village in Azerbaijan has now hosted European club football for five successive seasons but only this year did Qarabag become the first club from Azerbaijan to qualify for the Champions League group stage. In a group containing Roma, Athletico Madrid, and Chelsea, nobody expects much of Qarabag but the stadium’s distance from the rest of Europe has often drained visiting teams to devastating effect, with FC Copenhagen being the victim of Qarabag’s latest breakthrough.
As Karabakh-Agdam is a ruined ghost town, which is never fully ‘safe’ to visit, the country’s leading team plays at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium in Baku. An impressive sight, its 31,200-strong capacity makes for a raucous atmosphere on match day, and it once even hosted an Elton John concert.
For Chelsea’s hardcore contingent, the journey from London to Baku can be surprisingly smooth. Azerbaijan Airways runs a direct service, with flights lasting five to six hours, but an array of multi-stop flights are also available. Getting to the stadium from the airport is relatively easy, and fans can take a shuttle bus (H1, which takes around thirty minutes) or the metro red line.
Once in Baku, those who enjoy their museums will be in paradise – as will those who enjoy bathing in crude oil. Such is the oil the country has to spare, oil baths are now a tourist attraction.
RSC Anderlecht is a regular feature in Europe but the club has not had it all its own way. KAA Gent and Club Brugge have upset the odds in recent seasons but Anderlecht will once more fly the flag for Belgium in Europe’s premier club competition. Undoubtedly, Anderlecht’s finest moment against English opposition came in the 1976 Cup Winners Cup final, with the Paars-wit defeating West Ham United 4-2.
Situated in the Belgian capital of Brussels, the Constant Vanden Stock underwent a renovation in 2013, which boosted its capacity to 28,000, with nearly a quarter of that accounting for a ‘safe standing’ section – although this is reduced for European games. However, along with the national team, RSC Anderlecht will move into a new stadium within the next four years. Anderlecht fans have a good reputation at home and abroad.
Brussels Central can be reached by a Eurostar train from London via Lille and, from there, a visitor can take a metro train ride to the stadium. Zaventem and Charleroi airports are the destinations for travelling fans travelling by plane. Although Zaventem is by far the closest to the hub of the Belgian capital, Charleroi is more frequently served by budget airlines. The drive to Brussels from Charleroi airport may take between 40 and 60 minutes depending on traffic conditions, but shuttles from the airport to the city are frequent. Planning ahead is, however, still crucial.
As the Belgian capital, Brussels has the standard array of cafes, bars, museums, and monuments. With Belgians amongst those that most highly respect ‘European’ drinking culture, alcohol can be consumed in a wider range of areas than in the UK. Belgium’s culinary delights are damned to be overshadowed by the cuisine of neighbouring France but the ready availability of street food contributes to the match-day atmosphere. For those who plan to frequent restaurants, and have no relevant dietary restrictions, Belgium’s signature dish of twice-fried chips (frites) and mussels (moules) with spiced aioli is a must-have.
Already known as the strongest Greek team by far, Olympiakos take their place in the Champions League every year, without fail. Only a second-place finish in 2003/04 prevented what would now be a 21st consecutive year, in which the league title occupied the Karaiskakis Stadium trophy room.
After undergoing a rebuild for the 2004 Olympics, the stadium’s capacity increased to just over 33,000. Remarkably, for a stadium in a country synonymous with the Olympic Games, Olympiakos’ ground does not keep the fans at bay by means of a running track. Its English ‘twin’ would most readily be identified as Sunderland’s Stadium of Light. The fans are in fact in surprisingly close proximity to the players, and thus generate a raucous atmosphere on match days.
Aegean Air is the airline of choice for those that want the simplest flights from the UK to Athens International. The stadium in the nearby port town of Piraeus is a 30-minute drive from the airport and the road also has a toll. An airport express bus (the ‘X95’) is available 24 hours a day but the journey to the stadium will take close to ninety minutes.
Athens needs no introduction. One of the great cornerstones of modern civilisation, the attractions would take up an entire travel guide by itself, and those with money to burn can enjoy a couple of days in the capital before venturing towards the home of the immovable Greek champions. In Piraeus, there are some stunning views from the harbour, and two major museums – architectural and maritime – also located nearby. The club shop and museum are also well worth a visit.