Champions League Group Stage Draw 2013-14

Atletico de Madrid's stadium

There will be some Champions League football played here in a few weeks time

After yesterday evening’s excitement at Celtic Park, with the hoop-ed ones claiming a second successive appearance in the Champions League group stages, it was down to UEFA today to make the draw event as mind-bogglingly dull as possible, which as usual they succeeded in doing.

To give UEFA some credit, however, this year’s slightly skewed seeding system (Arsenal as first seeds? Come on) has thrown up some beauties in the group draw. Things may for once get a little interesting before the last 16 comes along, particularly in these sets of four:

Group H

The group that is nearest the end of the alphabet is probably the most intriguing. Four former European Cup winners in Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax and Celtic make up a group that will attract rather a lot of media attention over the next 3 and a half months. Clearly much will be made of Barcelona’s return to Glasgow after Celtic’s historic victory last year, and while although Milan and Ajax are no longer the forces they once were, they should still provide a test in Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s first taste of the Champions League as Barca manager. I see the top two seeds going through here, though Celtic may just take third and entry into the Europa League.

Group F

Arsenal might inexplicably be first seeds for the group stage draw but this year’s selection has been rather unkind to the perennial fourth-placers. Joining them are Marseille, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli. Dortmund are of course last year’s runners up and though Götze-less have added to their youthful and vibrant squad, while Napoli have spent the Edinson Cavani money wisely under old head Rafa Benitez. Though Marseille are former winners they are perhaps the weakest side in this extremely tough group; the chaps from the Velodrome have not performed well in this competition since the heady days of Basile Boli and ’93. In the end I fancy Dortmund and Napoli to come through.

The Rest

As well as these two show-stopping groups, there are some other rather interesting ties in the remaining quartets. Group A sees David Moyes debut in Europe’s premiere competition (bar getting gubbed by Villarreal in a qualifier with Everton in 2005), with Manchester United probably having an easy enough time of it against Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad. Group B provides a re-run of the 1998 final with Real Madrid and Juventus; it’s unlikely that Galatasaray and FC Kobenhavn will put up much resistance against two sides with 11 European Cups between them.

Group C should see Benfica and Paris St Germain through at the expense of Olympiakos and Anderlecht. Group D looks like providing Manchester City with their best chance of qualifying for the last 16 yet; a Bayern Munich still adapting to Pep Guardiola’s ways will be joined by CSKA Moscow, who are probably the weakest of the second seeds, and Czech underdogs Viktoria Plzen.

Group E meanwhile will presumably be a stroll for Chelsea and their returning irritant Jose Mourinho, with Basel perhaps pipping Schalke 04 and Steaua Bucharest to a place in the knockout stages. Group G is notable for pulling together Radamel Falcao’s two most recent former employers with Porto and Atletico Madrid drawn together; those two should prove too much for Zenit St Petersburg despite their many millions, while debutants Austria Vienna will do well to escape from the group stages with a point to their name.

In all, an attractive draw with Groups H and F providing some real appeal for fans and TV gawpers across Europe. The group stages have tended to be more of a dress rehearsal for the big clubs’ appearances in the knockout stages; this year may prove to be a little different. Hopefully.

Premier League Preview 2013-14

Joe Kinnear's back here.

Joe Kinnear’s back here. He may not be able to work his magic.

It’s that time of year again, when half the people on the planet have an opinion about how the Premier League will turn out, with “the Best League in the World” set to commence at 12:45 this coming Saturday (17 August). The transfer rumour mill continues to irritate, with new vigour this year around the Suarez/Bale/Fabregas sagas. That aside, come 11 May 2014 at about 5pm, I think the Premier League table will look like this:

1. Manchester City

2. Chelsea

3. Arsenal

4. Manchester United

5. Tottenham Hotspur

6. Swansea City

7. Liverpool

8. Aston Villa

9. Southampton

10. West Ham United

11. Norwich City

12. Everton

13. West Bromwich Albion

14. Newcastle United

15. Fulham

16. Cardiff City

17. Sunderland

18. Stoke City

19. Hull City

20. Crystal Palace

I think of the three new managerial appointments in the top four, Manchester City have made the most effective. With the squad they have at their disposal, and the exciting additions of Jesus Navas, Fernandinho, Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic, I think City, with new man “the Engineer” Manuel Pellegrini at the helm, have got the right blend to keep the Premier League trophy in the North West. In the runners-up spot will be Chelsea, with the addition of Andre Schurrle, the potential acquisition of Wayne Rooney and the return of Kevin de Bruyne as well as Mr Mourinho improving the Blues’ position, but not quite enough. It should be particularly interesting to see how the Oscar/Mata/Hazard combination continues to develop in the middle of the park. I can see Arsenal, in a controversial move, finishing in third. Last season’s experience of bedding in a new squad and spreading the goals around should help, Santi Cazorla will still be one of the best players in the league, and they at least seem to have found a settled centre-back pairing in Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. If Arsene Wenger actually spends some money in the next two and a bit weeks, that situation can only improve. At the risk of being very wrong in 9 months’ time, I can see Manchester United finishing in fourth. David Moyes clearly has an almost unassailable amount to live up to, with a squad that frankly isn’t great. Although they can rely on Michael Carrick’s quarter-back-style passes and Robin Van Persie’s goals up to a point, I have my doubts that Moyes can get the same out of a (comparatively) limited squad as what Sir Alex achieved last season.

Falling short once again of the Champions League places will be Spurs. Though they have made one outstanding signing in Paulinho, and one slightly (in my view) overpriced signing in Roberto Soldado, they will finish a solid fifth again, as Andre Villas-Boas copes with the likely departure of Gareth Bale in what will be the first time the Portuguese manager has spent more than one season at a club. One also hopes that AVB again takes the Europa League fairly seriously.  I’m going to stick my neck out again and say that, despite the distractions of Europe’s secondary cup competition, Swansea City will round out the top 6 of next season’s Premier League table. They have a strong squad of players that Michael Laudrup likes and who can play exactly to his template for football. The addition of Wilfried Bony is an extremely sage move, and I’m fairly confident he will be in the Ruud Van Nistelrooy success-straight-out-of-the-Eredivise bracket rather than in the Mateja Kezman failures department.

In seventh place, I see Liverpool failing to improve once again. The Champions League places may be their stated aim, but they are now so far behind the top five sides that they may as well concentrate on winning a cup competition again. The continued uncertainty over Luis Suarez will not have helped, and their forays into the transfer market have so far been largely uninspiring. Iago Aspas scored a decent whack of goals for Celta in La Liga but is already getting old in footballer terms at 26; Simon Mignolet has huge gloves to fill in place of Pepe Reina, while Luis Alberto spent most of last season on loan to Barcelona B. Aston Villa stayed up due to their being one of the form sides in the league towards the end of last season, and with Christian Benteke getting over his itchy feet and signing a new contract with the Birmingham club, I can see them kicking on this year as Paul Lambert’s young side starts to flourish. Rounding out the top ten, Mauricio Pochettino’s style of play getting a full season should see Southampton move up the table, with the robust and mobile Victor Wanyama good cover for their slightly shaky centre-back partnership (though the arrival of Dejan Lovren may cure this), while West Ham will provide more Big Sam football with Big Sam results. Their acquisition of Andy Carroll on a permanent basis does show something of the ambition of the side taking on the tenancy of the Olympic Stadium in 2016.

Top of the bottom half, and going forward in standing still will be Norwich City. The acquisitions of Gary Hooper and Ricky van Wolfswinkel should do Norwich’s goalscoring exploits the world of good, while Leroy Fer should add bite and nous to the middle of their midfield, along with what is already a decent squad for mid-table in the top division. In twelfth I can see Everton. Roberto Martinez has already done that thing I don’t like to see new managers doing; sticking to what they know, going back to their old clubs and picking off what they see as the best talent. Martinez has done exactly this with the purchases of Arouna Kone and Antolin Alcaraz. In Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini Everton have two of the best attacking players in the league with the loan sigining of Gerard Delofeu adding more bite in attack; however Sylvain Distin in particular is getting on a bit and with Martinez likely to want to impose his style on the blue half of Merseyside, it couuld be a transitional season at Goodison. West Bromwich Albion won’t be as high up the league as they were last year, particularly having lost Romelu Lukaku’s goals; Steve Clarke has however made two reliable old head signings in Diego Lugano and Nicolas Anelka. They should be fine without doing too much. Newcastle should improve on last season but only by a tiny amount, even though they’ve employed a director of football who can’t pronounce any of his players’ names. There’s too much class in the Magpies’ side, particularly in Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Demba Cisse, for them to overly flirt with relegation.

Fulham will again be over-reliant on Brede Hangeland and Dimitar Berbatov. With Mr Al Fayed selling it up it could be interesting times ahead at Craven Cottage – things have been fairly quiet on the transfer front for the Lilywhites, though Maarten Stekelenburg is an excellent replacement for Mark Schwarzer. Cardiff City look the strongest of the promoted sides, with Gary Medel and Andreas Cornelius looking like particularly astute signings to add to Malky Mackay’s already strong-ish squad. Sunderland should just about survive as the side is moulded into Paolo Di Canio’s own unique image; bringing in Emanuele Giaccherini is an impressive move, though I think £6m for Jozy Altidore is about £4m too much. His goalscoring touch, for what it is, will be needed to support Steven Fletcher otherwise the Black Cats may be in a spot of bother.

To the bottom three, where I think Stoke City will find themselves come May. A catastrophic end to the 2012-13 season and a side used to playing one way would be difficult for any new manager to sort out following the departure of Tony Pulis; that this task sits with Mark Hughes may lead to a particularly arduous season for the loudest fans in the country. The Potters have not set the transfer market alight, though at least Marc Muniesa, their £3m acquisition from Barcelona, will be able to relay directly to Lionel Messi the pros and cons of a wet Tuesday night in Stoke-on-Trent.  In 19th, I think the leap up will be too much for Hull City, while it’s come far too early for Crystal Palace who should finish rock bottom. Hull have made some eminently sensible but uninspiring signings, such as Allan McGregor and Maynor Figueroa, to add to what is still a fairly thin squad, while Palace have given Marouane Chamakh a year to remember what playing football was like in an attempt to cope with the loss of Wilfried Zaha and the long-term injury of their top scorer Glenn Murray. Though the Premier League is all the more entertaining for the return of Ian Holloway, I think the bald Bristolian could be in for a 9 months that’s not a great deal better than that experienced by Derby County’s two managers in 2007-08.

Two other worthy things to note of this upcoming season – first, BT Sport are the new kids in town as far as live TV coverage is concerned, with a lot of big names on board, though they have only a mere 38 games to BSkyB’s 116; meanwhile, all Premier League grounds have had goal-line technology installed, at long last. The former has looked a tad amateurish thus far; the latter will hopefully work an absolute treat. Here’s to another 9 months of quality football, ridiculous scorelines and interesting refereeing.

The Qatari Farce Continues

Doha World Cup 2022

The Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar (daly3d abd)

This past week, I got to experience a new and interesting feeling. Agreeing with Richard Scudamore. Having previously found the award of the 2022 World Cup finals to Qatar utterly baffling, my bafflement continued with the current push to have the tournament played in the winter of that year.

To briefly recap, in early 2011, FIFA took the interesting step of awarding the next two World Cups at the same time. The 2018 competition was given to Russia, at the expense of, among others, England. Despite the various innuendo and allegations surrounding that choice, Russia is on the face of it a fairly sound decision. It is a country, in its various guises, with a long-lasting football pedigree, an infrastructure that can cope and, importantly, decent weather is likely in the summer there in 5 years’ time; average temps in Moscow this week are around 23 degrees.

Then there was the 2022 decision. Against strong bids from Australia and the United States, completely from left field, the triumphant bid was that of Qatar.

Qatar. As I’ve said on this page before, a country with no footballing pedigree, ethos or history, and a tiny population (1.9m). Couple that with 50 degree temperatures in summer and one city – the capital, Doha – potentially providing six of the venues when FIFA and UEFA have previously been very clear that the maximum is two, and one wonders who has taken leave of their senses most on the FIFA Exec Committee. Of course the fact Qatar is an oil-rich, low-tax haven has nothing to do with the decision.

Coming back to that 50-degree heat, the original plan was for air-conditioned stadia. “Ah, but what of the times when fans and players are outside and not in a stadium?” some sage at FIFA House no doubt asked. The apparent answer? Playing the World Cup, you know, the World Cup in winter. Not summer. Winter.

The push for this mind-boggling plan had inevitably met with the support of Michel Platini, UEFA’s president. This is not altogether surprising – he is after all a man who has perpetually shown his support for a Qatari World Cup despite the obvious logistical issues.

The latest football suit to throw his weight behind a winter World Cup is Northern Irishman Jim Boyce, the Home Nations’ representative on the FIFA board. Boyce’s take on the issue is that Europe’s big leagues should forget about the logistical problems and play a World Cup in winter.

To my mind the man’s ignorance, and thus FIFA’s, knows no bounds. In order for FIFA to validate its hideous decision on 2022, that means Serie A, La Liga, the Bundesliga and the Premier League, not to mention 90% of the other European nations, should delete a couple of months of their season to allow 64 international matches to be played? Er, no. And this is where I find myself agreeing with Mr Scudamore. A winter World Cup would be football finally completing the self-parody, gorging itself while FIFA takes home its tax-free billions from the Gulf.

Not only will the big leagues have to delete two months from their season. They will have to add in those two months elsewhere, which will have knock-on impacts on future seasons as attempts are made to put the international calendar (which FIFA themselves have sought to instigate) back in its rightful August-May place.

There are some who also see a winter World Cup as a first step towards a complete shift of football to a summer sport. While this is probably verging on the paranoid, any move of the biggest tournament in international football is likely to rile, in this country at least, the cricket and rugby league authorities, and no doubt other sporting codes in other countries worldwide. Ultimately, the sensible decision is to transfer the World Cup elsewhere; knowing FIFA, this is likely to be the very farthest from their minds at the moment. Attempts to shoehorn in Qatar 2022 somewhere in the season where the fans and players won’t keel over in the heat seems to be the governing bodies’ top priority at the moment. For the good of the game, indeed.