Champions League Draw: Some Early Thoughts.

It would be really nice if the bigwigs over at UEFA could come up with a less tedious and time-consuming way to draw thirty-two teams into eight groups of four. When I was playing basketball and soccer, they’d simply hand you a sheet with the list of teams you’d have to face and that was that. In debate, they shout at everyone to cram into an entirely-too-small room before blowing the thing up on a huge-ass LCD projector. But this…this past week’s UEFA monstrosity was something else entirely: there’s former players, former coaches, celebrities, ads, interviews, a red carpet, endless sponsorship opportunities by Gazsprom and Heineken and Playstation and god knows who else. The whole affair takes close to two hours when it really shouldn’t take longer than about five minutes. That the whole insufferable ceremony takes place amidst the billionaire-playboy-casino pomp and royalty of the horrifically snooty Monaco makes it even worse. Seriously, does Michel Platini have nothing better to do with his time? Surely there’s an international tournament to ruin by expanding it to 142 teams or hosting it on the moon. Failing that, he could just sit on his solid-gold sofa – a gift from the Russians and Qataris for inexplicably giving them the World Cups – and remember a time when he was a really good player rather than a crazy old man with terrible ideas about how football should work.

But there was also a Champions League Draw. In fact, a draw that was simultaneously very interesting and very boring. Player movement and manager turnover and rising powers like Atletico Madrid and AS Roma promise to make this a very interesting year in the Champions League, while nearly every major team was drawn with somebody that they hit last year. Here’s our thoughts on how it’s all going to go down in the first three months of Champions League Football:

Group A: Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Olympiakos, Malmo FF

Group A benefits from being a really aggressive top/bottom split. Atletico and Juventus will advance, while Olympiakos and Malmo will fight for the Europa League spot. Within each of those bands, however, is a great deal of possibility.

Atletico Madrid were heartbreakingly close to winning the Champions League last year, folding only in extra time to Real Madrid after a last-minute equalizer from Sergio Ramos. As typically happens with middle-class clubs who punch above their weight, their best players were sold off this summer – Diego Costa, Felipe Luis, and Thibaut Courtois to Chelsea, David Villa to NYC FC, Adrian Lopez to Porto. But the fire-sale wasn’t as extreme as many of us feared it would be – the central pairing of Diego Godin and Joao Miranda is intact, Koke and Arda Turan remain, and Atletico have bought extremely well. When Radamel Falcao departed last summer, his partial ownership by Doyen Sports Group meant that Atleti got a fraction of the ridiculously high fee; their complete ownership of Costa and Luis meant that there was considerable money for reinvestment. And invest they have. Mario Mandzukic doesn’t have the same ability to do the piercing through-run that Diego Costa did, but he’s an intelligent player who makes the most of the space available to him. Antoine Greizmann is an intriguing buy who offers a variability to Atletico’s game-plan that they lacked at times last year. Once he recovers from his back injury, Jan Oblak, who is now the most expensive GK transfer in La Liga history, will likely prove a fitting replacement to the enormous shadow left by Courtois.  What Diego Simeone has accomplished at Atletico Madrid is extraordinary, and it is currently a club that enjoys total communion between its fans, its manager, and its players. That unity will be vital as they seek another successful season in Europe, and it will put them in good stead to top the group.

On paper, Juventus have a stronger and deeper squad than Atletico, but the loss of Antonio Conte to infighting over club transfer policy will prove a massive blow. Massimiliano Allegri is not a popular replacement – discontent amongst the Juve ultras is high – and while they don’t look as likely to lose Arturo Vidal or Paul Pogba as they did at the start of the window, such a sudden managerial change midway through preseason is a dangerous proposition for a club that has genuine European aspirations. Allegri did well to guide AC Milan through a number of difficult groups in his tenure as their manager, and gave Barcelona a serious fright in the 2012-13 octofinal. The resources he has at his disposal at Juventus are considerably greater, but the question remains of whether he will be able to make the constituent parts click – particularly when they had become so used to playing Conte’s idiosyncratic 3-5-2 formation in the past three seasons. Juventus also proved prone to wobbles away from the intimidating Juventus Stadium against opposition that they really should have just swatted aside – draws with Copenhagen, Nordschelland, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Galatasaray threatened to derail their last two European campaigns (and did, in the case of an away loss to Galatasaray last season). If Allegri can right those two considerable holes in Juventus’s quest for another deep run in the Champions League, then he’ll be doing well. But I just can’t see them gaining the early consistency of results needed to top what is still a very strong Atletico side.

In the 3/4 split, Olympiakos should come out on top. They knocked Benfica out in last year’s group stage and, while they lost Kostas Mitroglou to Fulham in the winter window, they’re probably still strong enough to finish ahead of Malmo.

Advancing: Atletico Madrid, Juventus

Europa League: Olympiakos

Group B: Real Madrid, FC Basel, Liverpool, Lugodorets

2009: Liverpool were amazing and Real Madrid sucked. Oh how times change…

The draw could have gone a lot worse for both Real Madrid and Liverpool. I’m skeptical of the Holders ability to advance deep, seeing as they’ve basically sold the midfield spine of their team, trading the engine for a flashier set of rims and a sick spoiler. That being said they’re still strong enough to easily navigate this group. With a tougher draw, Liverpool could have been in trouble – they sold their most important asset to Barcelona and looked woeful in defense against Manchester City last week. But given that the competition is Basel (a team infamous for shooting themselves in the foot) and Lugodorets – who are making their first-ever Champions League appearance – they should come a comfortable second in this group. Both Real and Liverpool should breathe a sigh of relief that they avoided Juventus, Dortmund, Monaco, or Roma. Lugodorets did magnificently to get past Steaua Bucharest, with their defender saving two penalties in the shootout (yes, you read that right. Their GK was sent off and they had no subs left) to get them to the Group Stage. But that’s almost certainly as far as they get.

I can see a world in which FC Basel upsets Liverpool to take 2nd in the group – they beat Chelsea home and away last season and Liverpool’s defense is suspect enough that they could falter in the away ties. If there’s an upset in this group, that’ll be it, but I’m still reasonably confident in predicting that Real Madrid will comfortably top the group while Liverpool will take second.

Advancing: Real Madrid, Liverpool

Europa League: FC Basel

Group C: SL Benfica, Zenit St. Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen, AS Monaco

This isn’t the most glamorous group, but it’s probably the most difficult. In terms of brand-power, Benfica would be most people’s favourites, but the Lisbon club have seen their side bled dry by summer transfers: they’ve lost Ezekiel Garay (to their opponents Zenit), Rodrigo Moreno, Joao Cancelo (Valencia) and Jan Oblak (Atletico) among others. Zenit are an impressive, Gazsprom-backed proposition, boasting the aforementioned Garay, Javi Garcia, Hulk, and Axel Witsel. They’re also coached by Andre Villas Boas who, despite his low reputation in England, is a considerable upgrade on Luciano Spaletti in terms of his understanding of modern tactics. Still, Zenit have a history of screwing up winnable groups (2012-13, 2013-14) and could do again. Bayer Leverkusen are also a difficult proposition, and have consistently done well in the last four years of the Champions League. However, they have a bizarre inferiority complex that causes them to fold against stronger teams: a below-par Manchester United absolutely flattened them in last year’s Group Stage before they were beaten comfortably by PSG in the octofinal. That could come into play during the Group Stage, though less so in a group where their opposition are either new guns without the same power to inspire fear as a Manchester United or Barcelona, or an old power who has slowly declined through player sales.

AS Monaco are a difficult team to place. They lost James Rodriguez, saw their captain quit in anger over their refusal to honour a pre-contract with Victor Valdes, and could well lose Radamel Falcao before the end of the transfer window. They also have definitively the weakest manager of the group in Portugal’s Leonardo Jardim. Simply given that their Russian owner seems to be losing interest and cash, I don’t see Monaco going far in this year’s group. Falcao and Joao Moutinho aren’t enough on their own to get past the more cohesive team units in the rest of the group. Even that unit might not remain by the time the window closees.

Advancing: Zenit St. Petersburg, SL Benfica

Europa League: Bayer Leverkusen

Group D: Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray SK, Anderlecht

Arsenal-Dortmund is emerging as a frequent rivalry in the Champions League Group Stage – this is the third time in the last four years that the two clubs have been paired together. On paper, Arsenal have had a good summer: Alexis Sanchez is an inspired buy, even for a hefty $40 million, and the addition of Calum Chambers adds a versatility to their back-line that they’ve lacked since Nacho Monreal turned out to be not actually very good as a leftback. Dortmund’s summer has been more mixed: losing Lewandowski on a free to your great domestic rival has to hurt, but they managed to hold onto Mats Hummels, Marco Reus, and Ilkay Gundogen while adding Ciro Immobile from Torino and Adrian Ramos from Hertha Berlin. The two teams are easily the strongest in the group, and are relatively even at that – both finished on twelve points in 2013-14, with Dortmund gaining the edge through head-to-head goal difference (and away goal difference, at that). Their matched strength extends to having an identical weakness: both squads are susceptible to key injuries – the loss of Per Mertesacker or Aaron Ramsey could have devastating consequences for Arsenal alongside the already-injured Olivier Giroud, while an injury to Marco Reus or Mats Hummels would seriously damage Dortmund’s aspirations of another deep run in the knockout stages.

But even with injuries, they’re probably good enough to get through this group. Galatasaray are likely to cause problems for all involved in the cauldron of noise that is the Turk Telekom Arena, and have an adept coach in former Italy boss Cesare Prandelli. His tactics are imaginative and versatile, but the biggest problem for the Istanbul club will be that they simply don’t have good enough players to compete with even an injury-ravaged Arsenal or Dortmund: Wesley Sneijder and Burak Yilmaz are about the only outfield players of considerable quality, and while that will be enough to take points at home, I can’t see them managing enough wins away from Istanbul to get through this group.

Anderlecht are woeful. They’ve finished bottom of their group two years in a row, and have given me no reason to think that that trend won’t continue.

The real reason to watch this group is for the noise. The Turk Telekom Arena and the Westfalenstadion are two of the loudest grounds in Europe, with Dortmund and Galatasaray boasting incredible fan-bases – particularly their traveling fans – that will make every game played in those two cities a spectacle to behold. Keep in mind that Galatasaray’s last game against a German club saw their fans attempt to tunnel into the stadium by hand. It should be fun.

Advancing: Dortmund, Arsenal

Europa League: Galatasaray

Group E: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, CSKA Moscow, AS Roma

What a nightmare of a group for everyone involved. Bayern-City-Moscow all met last year in Group F, with the German and English heavyweights getting the better of the current Russian champions. The introduction of AS Roma, however, makes things more difficult. They play magnificent, proactive, attacking football under Rudi Garcia, enjoyed the best-ever start to a Serie A season last year, and will prove difficult to handle in their return to the Champions League. Bayern are seemingly poised to win the group again: they’ve added Robert Lewandowski from Dortmund, Mehdi Benatia from Roma, and Xabi Alonso from Real Madrid. Bayern’s greatest enemies will likely be themselves: Guardiola’s insistence on tinkering with fundamentally sound lineups doomed Barcelona’s 2011-12 campaign and could well do so again as he experiments with a back three and back two at the Bavarian giants. Against Dortmund in the German Supercup, their defense was sloppy, their attacks disjointed, and their midfield too congested to counter Dortmund’s aggressively high press. Manchester City seemed to figure the Bavarians out at the Allianz Arena last year after being comprehensively beaten at the Etihad, and though I expect Bayern to top the group I don’t expect them to do so without any wobbles.

City have also strengthened, and Pellegrini is a master at navigating European competition with both newcomers and veterans alike. Moscow could take points off of any of the other three at home, but they’re unlikely to muster the fight needed to get out of the group.

Advancing: Bayern Munich, Manchester City

Europa League: AS Roma

Group F: FC Barcelona, Paris St. Germain, AFC Ajax, APOEL

Two iconic giants of the modern game meet again

 

Ajax cannot catch a break. In the past four seasons of UCL football since Frank De Boer took over as coach, they’ve been fortunate enough to get paired with Real Madrid (2010-11), Real Madrid again (2011-12), Real Madrid a third time (2012-13), and Barcelona (2013-14). As a reward for their troubles, they’ve picked up Barcelona again and added PSG to the mix. The usual storylines about the Ajax-Barcelona connection via Johan Cruyff will be there again, and we can look forward to two games as magnificent as last year’s group stage – Barcelona crushed Ajax at the Camp Nou before the Dutch put on a masterclass in possession and pressure football in Amsterdam to win 2-1. PSG are interesting from both a footballing and narrative perspective – they’re stocked with former players from both Ajax (Zlatan, Van der Wiel) and Barcelona (Zlatan, Thiago Motta, Maxwell). In all cases, there’s a considerable quantity of bad blood between the players and their former clubs, which means that the PSG games should be absolute firecrackers. Plus, the chance to watch The Zlatan Show against quality opposition is just too good to pass up.

Barcelona should top the group. They’ve strengthened considerably this summer, adding Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suarez, Jeremy Mathieu, Thomas Vermaelen, and the early indicators are that new manager Luis Enrique has recovered the swagger and intensity of the Guardiola era. PSG will probably run them close, but their inability to click without Zlatan Ibrahimovic (currently out with a hip injury) and the defensive lapses of David Luiz mean that they’ll probably finish second. Ajax (again) lost their captain over the summer, with Siem De Jong departing for Newcastle, while there’s a reasonable chance that Daley Blind leaves for Manchester United before the transfer window closes. They did, however, manage to hold onto manager Frank De Boer, and his tactical acumen and dedication to the Cruyff model of playing football means that Ajax stand a decent chance of taking points off of both PSG and Barcelona when they play in Amsterdam. At best, they’ll run PSG close for second, but the likely outcome is another trip to the Europa League.

This is a triangle. This triangle has three points. That is more than APOEL are likely to get in this group. They are beyond screwed. They’ll relish the glamour ties, but they’re not winning them.

Advancing: Barcelona, PSG

Europa League: Ajax

Group G: Chelsea, Schalke 04, Sporting Lisbon, Maribor

The addition of Diego Costa solves the last hole in Chelsea’s lineup

A running joke throughout the last decade of the Champions League has been the tendency of Manchester United to draw hilariously easy groups while Chelsea and Liverpool were dealt horrifically difficult hands. 2012-13 was the exemplary example of this: Chelsea hit Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk, Manchester City hit Ajax, Real Madrid, and Dortmund. United? They got Galatasaray, CFR Cluj, and Braga. Since the retirement of Alex Ferguson, however, that role has been assumed by Chelsea. They were dealt a very easy group last year in Schalke 04, FC Basel, and Steaua Bucharest. This year, they’ve been dealt a similarly easy group involving…well…Schalke 04. Though the Ruhr-based side finished a strong 3rd in the Bundesliga last year, they basically have the same squad that they did last year – Sydney Sam is the only major edition from last time around. Chelsea, by contrast, have added Cesc Fabregas, plus the spine of the Atletico Madrid team that took Real to the brink in the Champions League Final – Diego Costa, Felipe Luis, and Thibaut Courtois. The Belgian goalkeeper has thus far managed to supplant Petr Cech’s starting spot, while Costa looks ready to add the firepower up front that they have sorely lacked since signing (and ruining) Fernando Torres. Where Chelsea have seen their attack considerably upgraded, Sporting Lisbon have seen their back line shredded: Marcos Rojo and Eric Dier both departed for the Premier League, while their net spend this summer hasn’t exceeded $10 million. Maribor were exceedingly lucky to get out of the playoffs to begin with – a late goal against Celtic saw them progress to the Group Stage and don’t have the financial muscle or squad depth to compete with any of the other three teams.

I can very easily see Chelsea taking 15+ points from this group – the away ties in Schalke and Lisbon are the only games that present even the possibility of a challenge, while Mourinho’s stellar home record at Stamford Bridge (1 loss since 2004) is likely to continue. In terms of second, Schalke’s greater squad depth and their relative stability over the summer transfer window mean they’re far more likely to take the 2nd place spot. That being said, Sporting Lisbon are almost certainly strong enough to earn the Europa League spot over Maribor. This group is nothing if not predictable.

Advancing: Chelsea, Schalke 04

Europa League: Sporting Lisbon

Group H: FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Athletic Club Bilbao, BATE Borisov

Athletic Bilbao return to the Champions League with their magnificent, brand new San Mames Stadium

Porto’s incredible collapse in Group G last year was one of the surprises of the Group Stage – they never really recovered from blowing the lead against Atletico at the Estadio do Dragao, and settled for 3rd in the group behind Atletico and Zenit. The club also suffered from high managerial turnover and the transfer of basically all of the key players from their 2011 Europa League victory: Radamel Falcao to Atletico Madrid (and later Monaco), James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho to Monaco, and Hulk to Zenit St. Petersburg. By comparison, this summer has been relatively stable: though Eliaquim Mangala departed for Manchester City, they managed to hold onto Jackson Martinez, grabbed Adrian Lopez and Cristian Tello from La Liga giants Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, and have hired a resourceful, tactically astute, and long-term manager in former Spain U21 coach Julen Lopetegui. It’s early days in the new regime, but all the indicators are that this Porto side will be considerably stronger than the one that bowed out so meekly last year.

Porto’s immediate rival for the top spot is Athletic Club de Bilbao, who are back in the Champions League Group Stage for the first time since 1999, having comprehensively beaten Napoli in the playoff round to advance. The Basque club lost Ander Herrera

Advancing: Athletic Bilbao, FC Porto

Europa League: Shakhtar

General Observation: Team protection would be nice

There are a stupid number of repeats of past meetings in the Group Stage: Bayern, City, and CSKA Moscow are all in the same group for the second year running, while City and Bayern have been paired together in three of the past four years. Chelsea/Schalke, Arsenal/Dortmund, and Barcelona/Ajax are all repeats as well. I get that this whole thing is random and that anything can happen, but it would be nice to see different big-name matchups once in a while.

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