The draws for the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League and UEFA Europa Conference League are out, and there are plenty of historical feats and compelling match-ups to fix your eyes at. For the first time since 2007, both Rangers and Celtic will be playing in the Champions League, and for the first time ever, a team from Liechtenstein will be playing in a European group stage. Liechtenstein, a German-speaking, 25-km long principality located between Austria and Switzerland, is the only one of UEFA’s 55 member states that does not have its own domestic league. They do, however, have seven professional clubs and each of these clubs plays in the Swiss footballing pyramid. These clubs also play in the Liechtenstein Cup, a cup competition that is not only contested by those seven professional clubs but their reserve squads as well.
FC Vaduz Make History
The most successful team from Liechtenstein is FC Vaduz, a 90-year-old club located in the capital of Vaduz that currently plays in Switzerland’s second tier after suffering relegation from the Swiss Super League in 2020/21. They are forced to pay the Swiss Football Association an estimated £150,000 a year to compete in Switzerland’s footballing competition, despite the fact that Vaduz cannot be crowned as Swiss champions even if they were to finish atop the premier division – as a foreign club, they cannot even qualify for Europe via the Swiss pyramid. FC Vaduz have won a world-record 48 titles – all of them being the Liechtenstein Football Cup – having won every single cup since 1997/98. This cup is their gateway to European competition, with Vaduz spending the past three decades duking it out with the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Besiktas and Rapid Wien only to lose in the qualifier stage on every single occasion. In 2019, when they lost 5-0 to Eintracht Frankfurt in the first leg of their Europa League third qualifying round match, 5,908 spectators filled the Rheinpark Stadion to watch the club take on the likes of Ante Rebić, Daichi Kamada and Filip Kostić. If that sounds like a small figure, it’s worth noting that Vaduz’s population is 5,521, whilst Liechtenstein’s population is 38,137.
The following two years would see them lose to Maltese side Hibernians and Hungarian side Újpest FC, but this month, FC Vaduz dared to dream. After winning 1-0 in Slovenia, Vaduz looked headed for victory only for Andrej Kotnik to equalize in the 88th minute for Koper and force the tie into extra time.
Whilst FC Vaduz has typically been composed of players from Liechtenstein, nearly all of these players have moved abroad to nearby leagues in Austria and Switzerland, forcing Vaduz to change their strategy and focus on recruiting players from every corner of the world. After Kotnik levelled the tie in the dying minutes, Nigerian forward Franklin Sasere restored Vaduz’s lead in the 102nd minute, with Vaduz forced to grind out a result at home whilst playing down a man after Swiss midfielder Ryan Fosso picked up a second yellow with five minutes left. One week later, they would host Turkish side Konyaspor, with Sasere breaking the deadlock in the 72nd minute only for the club to concede in the 88th minute again as Muhammat Demir levelled things up. Things looked bleak after Guilherme opened the scoring from the penalty spot within 18 minutes, but Vaduz would score two quickfire goals from Cédric Gasser and Manuel Sutter to go into the break on top, with Tunahan Cicek adding to the lead in the 67th minute and Gasser completing his brace to secure a 4-2 win in Turkey. They had reached the play-off round for the first time, where Dario Ulrich would break the deadlock within 10 minutes only for Ferdy Druijf to equalize for Rapid Wien shortly after the break to snatch a draw. Cicek opened the scoring within 22 minutes in Austria, and just 13 minutes later, ex-Tottenham defender Kevin Wimmer saw red after hauling down Milan Gajić and preventing a goalscoring opportunity. Despite playing down a man, the hosts continued to push for an equalizer only to be narrowly denied on each occasion, and by the time the referee blew the final whistle in Vienna, FC Vaduz had made history, becoming the first-ever team from Liechtenstein to qualify for the group stage of a European competition. They will be competing in Group E of the Europa Conference League alongside Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, Ukrainian side Dnipro-1, and Cypriot side Apollon Limassol.
Conference League Group Stages
The 2022/23 Europa Conference League group stage will feature teams from Turkey, Italy, Scotland, Latvia, England, Romania, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Israel, Austria, Poland, Serbia, Germany, France, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Cyprus, Liechtenstein, Ukraine, Norway, Ireland, Sweden, Romania, Kosovo, Switzerland, Slovakia, Lithuania and Armenia. It will not, however, feature a team from Portugal.
Portuguese Sides In The Conference League
Four Portuguese teams have played in the UEFA Europa Conference League since its inception last season, and not a single one of them has made it to the group stage. Of those four teams, three of them entered the competition with a different manager from last season. Shortly after leading Paços de Ferreira to a fifth-place finish, Pepa left for Vitória de Guimarães and took them to a sixth-place finish, only to leave his post nine days before the 2022/23 season due to disagreements over the club’s transfer policy – he has since taken charge of Saudi club Al-Tai. The sole exception was Santa Clara manager Daniel Ramos – after leading the Azorean club to their first ever European qualification, Ramos’ side fell to Partizan Belgrade in the qualifiers, with the manager rescinding his contract in the first week of October to join Saudi side Al-Faisaly, where he would last until February before being sacked after a run of one win in ten matches.
Gil Vicente finished fifth last season to qualify for Europe for the first time in the club’s 98-year history, only for key players Samuel Lino and Pedrinho to depart, whilst manager Ricardo Soares headed for Egyptian giants Al-Ahly, who have reached the past three CAF Champions League Finals, winning on two occasions, as well as an astonishing 42 league titles. He replaced South African manager Pitso Mosimane, departing Gil just days before the preseason began and penning a two-year contract that would see him take home €1.5 million per year. Soares took charge of the club on July 1, kicking off his time in the Egyptian Premier League with a 0-0 draw to El Gouna, bouncing back with a 4-0 win against Future before losing 2-0 at Pyramids. After stringing together two consecutive wins, the Red Devils would suffer back-to-back goalless draws before bouncing back with two straight wins as well as a victory in the Egyptian Cup, before picking up two straight goalless draws again and beating ENPPI 2-0 at home. However, a 1-0 loss at El Gaish on Saturday would leave Al-Ahly four points behind Pyramids and 10 behind Zamalek with one league match remaining. For the first time in 30 years, Al-Ahly will finish outside of the top two in Egypt, an unacceptable result for one of the biggest clubs in the world, let alone Africa. After less than two months in charge, Soares has been relieved of his duties. He is the latest Portuguese manager to depart for a lucrative offer in the Middle East or Africa, and after Pepa, Ivo Vieira, and many more, his time overseas has been brief and unsuccessful. Perhaps the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, even if the wallet is heavier.
Montpellier’s 7-0 Win
“Michel Der Zakarian had built Montpellier into one of the toughest defensive units in France and a dangerous counter-attacking threat for any side to France, and after four years at the club, he headed north for Brest, who, after ascending to the top-flight in 2019, managed to stave off relegation by the skin of their teeth in 2020/21. He was replaced by Olivier Dall’Oglio, who, following a two-year spell at Brest that saw the likes of Romain Perraud and Romain Faivre thrive in a fearless attacking brand of play, took charge of Montpellier on a contract through 2024.”
I wrote about Montpellier and Brest’s managerial swap for BET Central last December, with Montpellier winning 4-0 at Brest before losing 2-1 at home in April, as Brest finished 11th, five points above 13th-placed Montpellier. Montpellier would kick off their season with a 3-2 win against Troyes as a brace from Téji Savanier propelled them to a comeback victory, before losing 5-2 to Paris Saint-Germain and 2-1 at home to newly promoted Auxerre, the latter seeing Savanier, their captain and most important player, sent off in extra time after the club relinquished its early lead. Brest, meanwhile, would follow up a 3-2 defeat to Lens with a 1-1 draw against Marseille and a 3-1 win at Angers. With Savanier unavailable, it seemed as though Brest would make it two wins in a row. Not so fast.
After a failed corner kick attempt, Montpellier broke on the counter as Faitout Maoussa broke forward from the halfway line before firing a shot past Marco Bizot to open the scoring within five minutes. 19-year-old striker Elye Wahi would double the visitors’ lead just five minutes later, volleying Wahbi Khazri’s cross past Bizot and into the far post. Merely seconds later, Khazri made it three at the Stade Francis-Le Blé, with Nicolas Cozza and Wahi adding goals before the break and Valère Germain coming off the bench and grabbing a brace following Pierre Lees-Melou’s expulsion for the hosts. In a weekend that saw Liverpool thrash Bournemouth and Celtic beat Dundee United 9-0, there’s an argument to be made that Montpellier’s 7-0 win was the most eye-catching result. They have done it away from home and without their creative talisman in Savanier, and they’ll be looking to keep that momentum as they host newly promoted Ajaccio and Lille over the next week before travelling to Angers and hosting Strasbourg in September.