Champions League opponents: Royal Antwerp in the spotlight

Champions League opponents: Royal Antwerp in the spotlight

The Belgian champions are enjoying a resurgence.... And under the management of two former Barça men they now feat nobody

This year, FC Barcelona will be playing their opening Champions League fixture against Royal Antwerp, a side that fans may not be overly familiar with, but they are one of the oldest clubs in continental Europe, and are currently enjoying a massive resurgence after years as one of the also-rans of Belgian football.

Oldest club in Belgium

The club was founded way back in 1880, two decades earlier than Barça, under its original name of the Antwerp Cricket Club. It was founded by British students living in the city and who wanted to play the sports they were so familiar with from back home, thus introducing the people of the country's second biggest city to a brand new sporting culture.

Despite being one of the leading forces in the early years of Belgian football, it wasn't until 1929 that they won the first of their five league championships. And although they are one of the the best supported teams in the country, and its first to reach a continental final when they lost to Parma in the 1993 Cup Winners' Cup final, Antwerp have rarely been in contention for major trophies, which makes last season all the more special.

They won the league for the first time in over 60 years, secured in dramatic fashion in injury time on the final day, and also won the Belgian Cup to complete their first ever domestic double, probably the proudest moment in the club's 143 years of history.

Previous meetings

After beating AEK Athens in the playoffs, Royal Antwerp are playing in the Champions League for the very first time. But it won't be the first time they have played Barça. The two clubs crossed paths in the Fairs Cup in 1965 and have also played each other in two friendlies since:

Inter-City Fairs Cup Second Round 1965-66
Antwerp 2 Barça 1 (Rifé)
Barça 2 (Rifé, Zaballa) Antwerp 0
Barça won 3-2 on aggregate

Friendly in Antwerp 1973
Antwerp 0 Barça 2 (Filosia 2)

Trofeo Ciudad de Palma Semi-Final 1979
Barça 2 (Landaburu, Migueli) Antwerp 2
Barça won 4-2 on penalties

Barça presence

Two former Barça men have had a lot to do Antwerp's new-found success. Mark van Bommel is into his second season as coach, and having imposed a highly characteristic style of play on the team, has started this season with a third item of silverware for the club's collection in the form of the Belgian Super Cup.

There is definitely a Barça-esque way to the Antwerp game. The team had the second highest average possession in the Belgian league last season (56.6% - topped only by Bruges) and are currently leading the new one both in the most important category of points, but also possession (59.4%), although it will be interesting to see if they can do likewise at the very top level of European club football.

But there is somebody else at the club who Barça fans will be familiar with. The great Marc Overmars has been director of sport since 2022 at a club that is very clearly aiming very high indeed.

Alderweireld and Janssen leading the way

As often happens when teams from 'lesser' leagues do well, much of their top talent has been picked up by clubs elsewhere. Gastón Ávila left for Ajax and Willian Pacho is now at Eintracht Frankfurt, but Overmars has done well to keep hold of most of the main block from last year and cover the gaps with new recruits.

The two best known faces in the class of 2023/24 are Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Janssen. The former, the captain, won La Liga when he was at Atlético Madrid and has Premier League experience from Southampton and Tottenham. The 34-year-old centre back is the third most capped Belgian international of all time.

The man to look out for up front is Dutchman Vincent Janssen, who was the top scorer in the Eredivisie of 2016 when playing for AZ Alkmaar.  He too spent time at Tottenham, having also appeared for Fenerbahçe In Turkey and Monterrey in Mexico. His 26 goals in 53 games for Antwerp equate to almost one every two games. Not bad!

Young and fearless

The younger talent includes 18-year-old Arthur Vermeeren, a fabulous midfielder and one of the main cogs in the Belgian U21 wheel. Full back Owen Wijndal already has full international experience for Holland, and French centre back Soumaïla Coulibaly is looking very promising after arriving on loan from Borussia Dortmund. This is a team that has already broken new ground in Belgium and is now looking to do so on the international stage. And they'll be going into the Champions League knowing they have absolutely nothing to lose. Underestimate them at your peril!

Força Barça
Força Barça

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