Andrew McQuillan on Champions League Group Stage

Andrew McQuillan has a go at the Champions League draw. He and Allen Farrington rarely agree…

In the long, unending list of things that I hate about football in it’s current form, the glitzy tedium of the draw for the UEFA Super Soccerball Kickoff (formerly the European Cup) is up there. I like George Weah. I like Denis Law. However, watching them take the names out of the proverbial hat so we know who is going where in their quest for glory at Wembley is unnecessary. Anyway. My quest to bring back terracing, monstrous facial hair, and macaroon bars to the game once known as football continues.

In terms of the teams in the draw, I’m actually fairly impressed. The lack of “diddy teams” from the outer reaches of nowhere has been kept to a minimum, while it is pleasing to see teams with a great heritage in Europe, Anderlecht and Juventus for example, finally back at the top. Also, it is fair to say, that in terms of strong teams from the top three pots at least, we are sure to be spoiled in the coming months. Without further ado, here is my look at the prospects for the British teams in emerging from their groups.

Group B – Arsenal, Schalke 04, Olympiakos and Montpellier

The Gooners minus RVP have been about as voracious in attack as a Don’t Walk model in a China Buffet King. One would expect Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud to click, but Wenger needs someone, or something to replaced the Dutchman up front. A real nasty pair of successors to Keown and Viera would be appreciated too. However, the draw is kind to them. Schalke, with the exception of Huntelaar, should be reasonably manageable, as their capacity to splutter in the face of superior (or in fact any) opposition is their Achilles heel.  As proven last season, the atmosphere in Piraeus got the better of Arsenal, at the end of a 3-1 reverse against Olympiakos, however they are nothing special at this level and should be dealt with at The Emirates. Montpellier are interesting, potential dark horses for the group. The return of Giroud in a foreign shirt to the maiden French champions is a side drama to what should be an very competitive tie; the band of brothers who won Ligue 1 have all but been held together, and are built on solid, adventurous foundations. For all their Gallic flair, I expect Arsenal to get out the group. How much further they go after that is another matter.

Group D – Real Madrid, Manchester City, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund
“Group of Death” time. City have yet to play a truly great club on the continent. Their tussles against Real will be a true marker of how far the Mancini project has come. Expect fireworks. Ajax should be comfortably dealt with, as they have lost a lot more than they have gained this summer. I think Frank De Boer will regard this as a fact finding expedition for his young side, which is a sad indictment of how a storied club, winners in 1995, have slipped so far. Dortmund, probably the most enjoyable side I managed to watch last season, who bolt forward with a truly relentless style, are on something of a rebuilding job after a poor campaign in Europe last year. Given City’s propensity to slip against the likes of Dynamo Kiev and Sporting Lisbon, how they deal with BVB will be another marker of how far they have come. They’ll get out of the group; they’ll just have a fight on their hands to do it.
Group E – Chelsea, Shaktar Donetsk, Juventus and FC Nordsjaelland
An awkward little group for the Champions ( It still doesn’t sound right). Travelling to Donetsk and dealing with their well drilled Brazilian inspired side is a task for any side, and that could prove tricky for The Blues. Juventus however, will provide their biggest test. Juve in the aftermath of Calciopoli lost their mojo, with a sea of managers failed to find a particular style. Antonio Conte managed to instill team spirit and a slick passing style, centred around Andrea Pirlo. The double-headed sword that Juve possess is that while numerous members of their side can chip in with goals, they lack a out-and-out goal getter up front. Nick Bendtner the answer? I think not. However, they are Chelsea’s clear rivals at the top of the group. The Danish league winners I doubt will be much of an irritant. They’ll probably win the thing now.

Group G – Barcelona, Benfica, Spartak Moscow and Celtic

If Manchester City are in the “Group of Death” then this is the “Group of Near Certain Death”. After a four year hiatus from the Champions League Celtic are back. With quite the welcoming committee to salute them back into the gang. Barring a miracle, the matches against Barcelona will be a torrid affair, however, most teams endure a similar experience. Europa League football will be the stated ambition around Parkhead, and home victories against sides who have lost at Celtic Park in the past five years would go some way to achieving that. This is a talented young team Celtic are in possession of, however matches against Ross County and HJK Helsinki are hardly a fitting preparation for what lies ahead. The return of the permanently peeved Aiden McGeady to Celtic Park in the colours of Spartak will be an interesting wee side show.

Group H – Manchester United, Braga, Galtasaray and Cluj

United’s knack of getting easy draws returns yet again. Braga might be difficult, they are an up and coming team with a decent recent pedigree, who did give Arsenal some grief last time. If Cluj are half way as good as Otelul Galati then it’s a guaranteed six points for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. Being welcomed to Hell by Galatasaray is never fun. The tie over there will be difficult, but I find it hard to believe that a side which champions Emmanuel Eboue and Johan Elmander as two of it’s biggest stars will at all pester United to a great extent. Ferguson will be out to avoid a repeat of last season’s slide into the Europa League. Expect vengeance. The dog fight between the other three for second spot will probably be the most entertaining thing about the group.

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