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:
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.
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.
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.