Spare a thought, before the kick-offs in what looks the toughest of all the groups in this season’s Uefa Champions League, for the central defenders and goalkeeper of Viktoria Plzen, the Czech club who are supposedly making up the numbers in Group C.
Journeys like theirs are hard-fought, in Plzen’s case a marathon of pre-qualifiers that took them to Helsinki, Moldova and Azerbaijan. Having reached the main event, they promptly end up confronting Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Internazionale.
Seven years ago, Jindrich Stanek, the Czech champions’ keeper, was being fixed up with a gig at Hyde United, a non-league club in England’s north-west. He was on Everton’s books, a teenaged prospect, and they wanted him to see some competitive action, so loaned him out. He never got further than Everton’s bench during his time on Merseyside; on Wednesday he should make his debut in the Champions League proper, at Camp Nou, probably facing Robert Lewandowski.
That’s just one of the daunting prospects ahead for Stanek, and for Lukas Hejda and Ludek Pernica, an experienced pair of central defenders with an established partnership but only one minute’s worth of shared experience as a pairing in the Champions League group stage. That was back in 2018, the last time the club made it this far in Europe’s elite competition. After Lewandowski, they will probably be asked to marshal Inter’s Romelu Lukaku, who should be back to fitness next week, and, in matchday three, to keep pace with Bayern’s Sadio Mane.
Much of the intrigue around who finishes in the top two positions of Group C is focused on this illustrious trio of centre-forwards, all of them newly transferred in a summer market animated by the movements of top-class goalscorers. The concentration of them in a single Champions League mini-league means that either the holder of Fifa’s The Best award – for leading male footballer of 2021 – Lewandowski, or the reigning African Footballer of the Year, Mane, or the player on whom more has been spent in combined transfer fees than any other player in history, Lukaku, will not be progressing to the next stage.
All three made emphatic starts to the new chapters of their careers, although Lukaku, returning to Inter on loan a year after his €100 million sale to Chelsea, has encountered a significant setback since scoring within two minutes of his second Serie A debut for Inter. A muscle problem ruled him out of the last two matches, the latest a narrow defeat in the Milan derby and keeps him from the starting line-up for Bayern’s visit to San Siro.
Mane, who left Liverpool after a fabulous six-year spell, set such a promising standard with four goals in his first four games for the German champions that two blank outings in successive Bundesliga draws have already provoked criticism. The former Bayern head coach Felix Magath told Bild TV: “Bayern are learning it’s not easy to replace Lewandowski, who was perfectly tuned to the way they play. Mane needs to adapt.”
The ex Bayern captain, speaking to Gazzetta dello Sport, said: “My pick to replace Lewandowski would have been Lukaku.”
Barcelona’s determined pursuit of Lewandowski, 34, appears fully justified so far, the Pole having netted five times in four Liga matches. He looks every bit the talisman for an upgraded Barca, who borrowed heavily to fund a busy summer of comings and goings. Two of the later arrivals, full-backs Hector Bellerin and Marcos Alonso, were unveiled on Tuesday, while Miralem Pjanic, the midfielder, was jetting off to the UAE with a view to joining Sharjah.
The transformation of Barcelona’s squad in the course of a year is striking. Twelve months ago, they opened their Champions League campaign with a forward line comprising Memphis Depay and Luuk de Jong. Relegated to the Europa League, they bowed out of that competition with Adama Traore, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ferran Torres chasing, in vain, a comeback against Eintracht Frankfurt in the quarter-final. De Jong, Aubameyang and Traore have all left.
So far this season, head coach Xavi’s preferred front three is made up of Ousmane Dembele, new signing Raphinha and Lewandowski, who was largely responsible for deflating Barca’s European season a year ago. He scored twice at Camp Nou in the first of two 3-0 Bayern wins over Barca that consigned them to third place, behind Benfica, in the group.
This time, the combined pedigree of the group-phase opposition is even stronger, reckons Xavi.
“It’s the hardest group for many years," he said. "We need to start strongly against a physical, hard-working Plzen, who counter-attack very well. This is a dangerous match for us. I can sit here say we have a super squad – we have to go out and show that.”