I guess we all know how it’s going to end, with Barcelona, Real Madrid or perhaps Paris St.Germain running round the Estadio do Sport Lisboa with that magnificent trophy gleaming in the floodlights, but there is still something fascinating about the UEFA Champions League draw when it comes to the group stages.
Thirty-two clubs went into the metaphoric hat, 20 of which were there last season. It’s all ridiculously geared towards the big clubs – even if Barca and Real finished in mid-table in La Liga, they would somehow find themselves in Pot A – and the minnows really are..well, minnows. You don’t get giant-killing in the Champions League because you’re not meant too. How would UEFA like it if Austria Vienna ran out against FC Copenhagen next May? You got it, they wouldn’t.
UEFA make a meal and a half out of the draw process, deliberately making the balls hard to open to ensure the event runs for the full allotted time. I mean, how difficult is it to draw eight groups of four?
This year, the group draw has yielded some interesting possibilities. The annual “group of death” award goes to H (for horrendous if you are a Celtic fan). Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax and dear old Celtic will slug it out, and you have to feel sorry for Neil Lennon and his team. They had Barca last season and had the audacity to beat them, so you know what’s going to take place there. It’s a group of four previous European Cup winners, although only Barca are comparable to their past – Milan, Ajax and Celtic are great names, but they live on their history. Nevertheless, it will be a group to watch.
So what of the English clubs’ hopes this season. Chelsea will be relieved to have a reasonable group (E) after falling at the first hurdle in 2012-13. Schalke will be tough, but they are no Juventus or maybe not even Shakhtar Donetsk. Basel and Steaua Bucharest are familiar to Chelsea as both were beaten en route to the Blues’ winning the Europa League. There should be no slip-up this year.
Manchester United, in Group A, should come through relatively unscathed against Shakhtar, Leverkusen and Real Sociedad, although they cannot afford to be sloppy on the road. Neighbours City may have the best chance they’ve had so far, although holders Bayern Munich will probably claim top spot in Group D. City should be too good for CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen, so Game of the People predicts that Pellegrini’s charges will make progress for the first time.
As for Arsenal, they are in their 16th consecutive Champions League, but this season, they may struggle to get out of Group F. Napoli, under Rafa Benitez, are a useful team and have started the season well. Borussia Dortmund still have Lewandowski, so they will be a major threat, and Marseille are joint top in France after finishing runners-up last season. So, a tough group for Arsene Wenger, who has yet to strengthen his under-fire squad. It will be an interesting group and one that is hard to call.
Marseille’s stablemates, Paris St.Germain, will be favourites to win group C, which contains Benfica (how did they get into Pot A?), Olympiakos and Anderlecht. On paper, a weak group, so expect Portuguese and French flags to be flying.
Two games between Real Madrid and Juventus should light up Group B, which also includes Galatasaray and FC Copenhagen. Group G, however, will struggle to live up to its billing: Porto, Atletico Madrid, Zenit and Austria Vienna.
So there you have it – matches start in mid-September and we will be bombarded, once more, with that pompous hymn, the histrionics and the constant fawning over Barca’s passing game, CR7 and Robben’s trickery. FIFA won’t like to hear this, but the UEFA Champions League has evolved into a monster that is arguably bigger than the World Cup….