The draw for this year’s Champions League group stage was made yesterday evening in Monaco as Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Celtic all discovered their fates for this season’s competition. All five British entries will be looking to improve on what was generally a disastrous campaign last time round with no British club reaching the quarter-finals.
The seeding system for the group stages has caused some debate over recent years ever since it threw together the so called ‘group of champions’ last season. Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Ajax and Manchester City were assembled in one group after all winning their respective domestic titles the season before. This year proposed a potentially similar group as one of the three top seeded British teams could still have been selected along with the likes of big spending Paris Saint-Germain, Dortmund and Rafael Benitez’s Napoli. As it were that didn’t quite happen, but some difficult groups still emerged as the fortunes of the British teams certainly varied.
David Moyes embarks on his first Champions League group campaign with Manchester United after only ever reaching the qualifying stage with Everton before and he will be relatively content with his side’s draw. United have been grouped with Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad and will certainly fancy their chances of topping their group come December. Neither team should be underestimated, particularly Shakhtar who conquered Chelsea last season, but Moyes’ team should have the squad to comfortably qualify for the knockout stages.
Last year’s runners up Manchester City’s verdict will probably be of relief considering their draws in the last two seasons. Manuel Pellegrini’s team have been drawn alongside holders Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow and Czech champions Viktoria Plzen and despite the presence of the German champions should reach the next round. After failing to reach the last 16 stage in the last two years it is essential for City to improve on their record this time round and in Pellegrini they have a manager of great European pedigree. He has achieved success in the competition with Real Madrid, Villarreal and most recently Malaga, while he may feel he has a score to settle following last year’s acrimonious exit to Dortmund in the quarter finals.
Jose Mourinho is back at Chelsea and will be more determined than ever to secure the trophy that eluded him both in his first spell at Chelsea and also at Real Madrid. The Blues are certainly equipped to do so with a menacing squad of young and prodigious talent and their group of Schalke 04, Basel and Steaua Bucharest should cause little concern for Mourinho. Chelsea beat Basel and Steaua en route to the Europa League title last season and, with no great disrespect, all three other teams in the group are probably more of that standard than of Champions League calibre.
Arsenal, on the other hand, have not been dealt the kindest of draws. After comfortably coming through qualifying against Fenerbahce the coefficient seeding system of the competition successfully created possibly the tightest group in the shape of the Gunners, Marseille, Dortmund and Napoli. Marseille may not be the forced they used to be but in last year’s runners up Dortmund and a rejuvenated Napoli side there are two potential dark horses for the tournament. Rafa Benitez has a fantastic European record and with former Arsenal target Gonzalo Higuain now at his disposal the Italians could pose a serious threat. The draw may confirm what was known already; Arsenal and Arsene Wenger need to spend in the remaining three days of the transfer window after so far not spending a single penny on recruitments this summer.
Yet Celtic undoubtedly have the hardest task of them all and manager’ Neil Lennon’s amusing reaction to the draw sums it all up. In a group justifiable of its ‘ group of death’ tag the Bhoys have been drawn with three European giants and past winners in Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax. Lennon described his side’s qualification to the group stage as his ‘greatest achievement’ in football after overturning a 2-0 deficit from the first leg, but surely progression from this group would surpass that. Celtic, of course, should not be underestimated as they themselves beat Barcelona at Celtic Park last year and qualified for the last 16 only to go out to Italian champions Juventus. Milan and Ajax are not as strong as they used to be and will not fancy the away trips to Glasgow in front of Celtic’s infamous supporters. The Scottish side, despite the draw, will relish the opportunity to take on the best in Europe once again in what is undoubtedly a huge boost to Scottish football.
The first round of matches will take place the week beginning 16th September with the final being held in Lisbon next May.