The English representatives in this year’s Champions League might be forgiven for thinking that the draw is becoming as routine as the Premier League these days. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City will all welcome back German opposition to their humble abodes for the second consecutive season. It’s like opening a Birthday present and discovering your parents have bought you the same gift as last year!
It’s not a great surprise given the power base in European football, but it does lack the element of the “unknown”, with the exception of the Pot 4 residents who are invariably cannon fodder for the big boys of UEFA.
English clubs will be glad to have avoided Barcelona, the bete noire of the Premier. Over the past decade, only a handful of clubs have sent Premier clubs tumbling out of the Champions League. Barca have done it seven times, Bayern four, Milan (!) four and Real Madrid twice. PSV Eindhoven and Atletico Madrid have both played the executioner’s song once. The most frequent exit, however, has been another English club.
This year’s group stage draw has been relatively benign for English clubs. Arsenal will feel they can get through their group, although a fourth pairing with Borussia Dortmund since 2002 will have an all-too familiar feel about it. Results between the two clubs have been mixed for Wenger’s men, but the Gunners have been unbeaten in their last two visits to the Westfalenstadion. Galatasaray will present no challenge, although a trip to the new Turk Telekom Arena will be tough. Arsenal’s meeting with Anderlecht will bring back memories of the Fairs Cup final of 1970, the cup win that provided the springboard to Arsenal’s 1971 double campaign. Expect the Gunners to win through their group, but do they have the firepower to get beyond the last 16?
Best CL performance: Final 2006
Last 10 years: 16, F, 16, QF, SF, QF, 16, 16, 16, 16
1970 Fairs Cup W
1980 Cup Winners Cup L
1994 Cup Winners Cup W
1995 Cup Winners Cup L
2000 UEFA Cup L
2006 Champions League L
Chelsea have a slightly tougher group than Arsenal, but Schalke and Sporting Lisbon, while being difficult, won’t be good enough to keep the Blues out of the top two. Last season, Chelsea beat Schalke 3-0 at home and away and since then, Mourinho has strengthened his side. But Schalke have some of Germany’s most promising individuals in the sought-after Julian Drexler, Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer. They finished third in the Bundesliga last season, so they rank as “the best of the rest” after the big two in Germany. Sporting Lisbon also have a promising young side that has mostly been built organically. One to watch is the teenage Ryan Gauld, who was signed in the summer from Dundee United. Maribor, which is not a chocolate bar, will not prove to be too difficult, although they did knock Celtic out of the competition. They’ve won the Slovenian league for the past four seasons.
Best CL performance: Winners 2012
Last 10 years: SF, 16, SF, F, SF, 16, QF, W, F, SF
1971 Cup Winners Cup W
1998 Cup Winners Cup W
2008 Champions League L
2012 Champions League W
2013 Europa League W
Liverpool’s return to the Champions League for the first time since 2009-10 is a reminder of what they’ve been missing. England’s most successful club in Europe will face holders Real Madrid, arguably the most glamorous club in the world at present. Los Merengues will have fun this season juggling their considerable resources and will start the competition as favourites. Basel are a difficult, stubborn team to have in your group and Liverpool will recall a past upset against the Swiss. The other group member is Bulgaria’s Ludogorets, described as a “fairy-tale club” in the media. They came through a dramatic penalty shoot-out against Steaua Bucharest. Liverpool have tried to plug the gap left by Luis Suarez with the equally wayward Mario Balotelli, it will be interesting to see if they have as productive a season as they did in 2013-14. They should come through the group.
Best CL performance: Winners 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 2005
Last 10 years: W, 16, F, SF, QF, G, -, -, -, –
1966 Cup Winners Cup L
1973 UEFA Cup W
1976 UEFA Cup W
1977 European Cup W
1978 European Cup W
1981 European Cup W
1984 European Cup W
1985 European Cup L
2001 UEFA Cup W
2005 Champions League W
2007 Champions League L
Manchester City, once more, have discovered that unless you build some sort of pedigree in European football, you are prone to getting a killer group. It has happened again, with Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow and Roma on the agenda. City are getting accustomed to Champions League football, but landing Roma – who could be Serie A champions this season – is tough luck. City had both Bayern and CSKA last season and although they lost at home to Guardiola’s team, they did win the return 3-2 in Munich. The Moscow side should not pose too much of a hurdle for City. The key will be the two meetings with Roma. If they can come out on top over those games, they can get through, otherwise, it could be Thursday night football for Pellegrini and his charges.
Best CL performance: Last 16 2013-14.
Last 10 years: -, -, -, – , – , – , – , G, G, 16
1970 Cup Winners Cup W
Can any of the English quartet win the competition this year? I don’t think so. In fact, this could be a barren campaign for the Premier sides. Arsenal haven’t got anyone who will frighten the defence of an upper quartile side – unless, of course Wenger makes a dead-of-night signing before the deadline. Chelsea will get past the first couple of stages, but have they the quality to worry the likes of Real Madrid and their post-modern galacticos? I don’t think so. Liverpool are probably a weaker side this year than last, despite Balotelli’s arrival, but you cannot count of that relationship lasting too long – I would expect a pre-nuptial agreement has been signed there. As for City, they may be the best in the Premier, but I am not sure they will survive the group stage. No, I’m afraid the winner will come from Spain or Germany, with Game of the People’s money going on another grinning Ronaldo. Dark horse? Paris St. Germain.