The road to Madrid starts here as the Champions League gets under way for another year. A year in which the final will take place on a Saturday night instead of the usual Wednesday night. Yesterday’s group stage draw has provided us with some tasty clashes, while giving English clubs favourable draws. Manchester United avoided Real Madrid, while Chelsea avoided Inter Milan, both of which would have been fantastic group stage ties had they been draw together.
Instead, United have been handed possibly the trickiest of the English four. First up for them in Group B is Besiktas away on September 15th, three days after a trip to current league leaders Tottenham and just before a clash with rival Manchester City at Old Trafford. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson won’t favour trips to Moscow and Turkey, as well as a trip to Germany to Bundesliga Champions Wolfsburg. His side has never met any of the three sides they’ve been drawn against. United will have to guard against complacency, after being dominant in Europe over the last two years. United should go through, along with Wolfsburg.
Perhaps the English team that has been given the easiest group is Arsenal, which is why their odds of winning the Champions League have been dropped from 12/1 to 9/1. The Gunners have been paired with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, Olympiakos, whom former Blackburn player Matt Derbyshire now plays for, and Standard Liege. A couple of nice games for Arsenal in that group with Olympiakos and Alkmaar causing the biggest threat, they’ll still qualify. Olympiakos to go through also.
Five time winners Liverpool have somewhat of a smorgasbord of teams to face, one from France, one from Italy and one from Hungary. Those teams are Lyon, Fiorentina, and Debrecen, the first Hungarian team to qualify for the Champions League in 14 years. It looks to me to be another three way tie for the top two spots. Fiorentina have a shaky record having gone out at this stage last year, while Lyon have been knocked off their top spot in France, but have spent well bringing in Lisandro Lopez from Porto a fantastic goalscorer in their qualifying round, scoring a hat-trick. Liverpool have not had the best starts to the season, and already look to be missing Xabi Alonso, however, the Champions League is their forte. I’m tipping Liverpool and Lyon to progress.
2008 runners-up Chelsea have been given an interesting group of Porto, Atletico Madrid and Apoel FC from Cyprus. Chelsea is the most consistent side in Europe after reaching five semi finals, and still has not won it. With Carlo Ancelotti, a man with Champions League pedigree, having won it as a player and a manager with AC Milan. His aim will be to win it first time round with Chelsea. Porto won’t be pushovers in this group by any means, and neither will Atletico Madrid. So, it could be a tie for second place, but I think Atletico could squeeze it and Chelsea as group winners.
Scottish Champions Rangers haven’t fared too bad in their draw, having been drawn against Sevilla, Stuttgart and Russia side Unirea, however Rangers Champions League record is pretty dismal whatever way you look at it, so I don’t see much hope for them. They should be happy to settle for 3rd place and a route into the Europa League. The main battle will be between Sevilla and Stuttgart for first and second, while Unirea should enjoy their very first Champions League experience.
So now you know all the English sides, and who their facing it’s time to move on to the mouth-watering ties this year’s draw has throw up. Real Madrid and AC Milan have been drawn in group C along with FC Zurich and Marseille. Madrid and Milan facing off will see Kaka make a return to his old stomping ground of the San Siro, and also it will be a chance to see what Madrid’s galacticos are really made of. I fancy Madrid and Milan to progress here, whatever way you look at it.
As always in the Champions League, there is the dreaded group of death, and this year it’s group A. The so-called group of death contains Bayern Munich, Juventus, Bordeaux, and Maccabi Haifa. In recent times Bayern have been a poor side in Europe having taken a beating by Barcelona last year, they’ve also made a bad start to the Bundesliga, so I don’t see them going through. Former Manchester United defender Laurent Blanc has done a tremendous job at Bordeaux, leading them to their first league title in 10 years knocking Lyon of their perch. They could be one to watch, so I think they should qualify along with Juventus, who could also be a dark horse in this year’s competition as they begin to re-establish themselves among Europe’s finest.
It’s that tie that many would expect to be a Champions League final in itself, Inter Milan vs. Barcelona, but that’s a game we have to look forward to in the group stages this year, as they’ve been paired with Dynamo Kiev and Rubin Kazan. After lifting the trophy last May, Barcelona will once again be favourites for this year’s competition. The main battle will be to see who scoring Barcelona or Inter’s goals having swapped strikers during the summer, with Eto’o moving to Italy and Ibrahimovich going the other way, both will be looking for revenge against their former clubs. It’s a no brainer as to who’ll be going through here, Inter and Barcelona.
And as they say when the draw is over that concludes our draw, it also concludes my preview. In red are the teams I’m tipping to progress. Closer to the start of the competition I will also be doing a team by team break down so look out for that.
I’ll leave you with the draw in full:
Group A: Bayern Munich, Juventus, Bordeaux , Maccabi Haifa
Group B: Manchester United, CSKA Moscow, Besiktas, Wolfsburg
Group C: AC Milan, Real Madrid, Marseille, FC Zurich
Group D: Chelsea, Porto, Atletico Madrid, Apoel FC
Group E: Liverpool, Lyon, Fiorentina, Debreceni
Group F: Barcelona, Internazionale, Dynamo Kiev, FC Rubin Kazan
Group G: Sevilla, Rangers, VfB Stuttgart, Unirea Uriziceni
Group H: Arsenal, AZ Alkmaar, Olympiakos, Standard Liege