Thursday’s draw for the 2013-14 group stages of Europe’s premier club competition has provided us with some tasty ties, but who will be leaving Monte Carlo happy?
By Carlo Garganese and Peter Staunton
The Champions League is undoubtedly the most prestigious club trophy in football – a competition that in order to conquer requires a lot of skill, but also a fair degree of luck.
A modest Champions League group goes a long way to paving the path to glory, which is why every club who were in the hat for Thursday’s 2013-14 group stage draw will have been watching on nervously.
Below we take a look at who were the big winners and losers in Monte Carlo.
Sides under Jose Mourinho make a habit of qualifying from the group stages with minimum fuss and that will be no different given the complexion of Group E. There is nothing for fear for the 2012 champions as they avoided any significant banana skins in the draw. Schalke are brittle and seemingly getting worse with only Julian Draxler to stem the tide. Basel, industrious as they are, have again lost players and Steaua, while undeserving of the ‘whipping boys’ tag will do well to avoid two defeats by Chelsea. They will be in the draw for the last 16 after four matchdays.
After being placed in Group C with Benfica, Paris St Germain have defied Uefa’s coefficient seeding system and are the strongest team in the group. They boast a better squad than last season and should be untroubled by a second Portuguese group-stage challenge in two years. Olympiacos have just lost their best player to Nottingham Forest, which tells you all you need to know about where they stand, and Anderlecht have some promising players but no longer boast the talents of Lucas Biglia and Dieumerci Mbokani. Simply, Laurent Blanc could not have hand-picked a better draw himself and, ominously, PSG already look a looming European superpower.
Porto have absorbed the loss of James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho and continue to look strong. Provided they claim two wins against Atletico they should be set for the last 16 as Zenit and Plzen do not have the quality to trouble them. Benfica, while inferior to PSG, will probably have enough quality to ride their coat-tails to the knockouts. What that means is that the coefficient totals of the Portuguese league will continue to prosper. With AC Milan, Juventus and Napoli enduring pretty tough draws in their own right, the Portuguese national coefficient may be good enough to overhaul’s Serie A. At the end of this campaign the totals from the 2008-09 season expire and with it Italy’s five-point lead over Portugal. Depending on results we could see Portugal boast the fourth-best league on the continent.
Much had been said in the days leading up to the draw about how Arsenal didn’t deserve to be in pot one having struggled to make the latter stages of the Champions League in recent years. So the fact that the Gunners feature in the ‘Group of Death’ can be seen as justice being served. Last year’s finalists Borussia Dortmund will expect to win Group F, but second place will be hotly contested between Arsenal, heavy-spending Napoli and a Marseille side who have also impressed in the summer transfer market. Drawing the toughest team from both pot three and four will pile the pressure on under-fire Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
There’s a running joke that involves Manchester United and straightforward Champions League draws at the group stage, but this year David Moyes will have every right to be concerned at the standard of opposition his side face. This is arguably United’s most testing section since being joined by Barcelona and Bayern Munich when they lifted the trophy in season 1998-99; Shakhtar have proven tournament pedigree, reaching the last 16 and quarter-finals in recent years, and represent a daunting away trip. Leverkusen, meanwhile have commenced their Bundesliga campaign promisingly and Real Sociedad trounced Olympique Lyonnais in the play-offs. They are very much here on merit. It is a group that Moyes and United must be very careful not to underestimate.
It is a pastime of most football fans to whinge about football governing bodies such as Uefa and Fifa, even when there is nothing to complain about. However, any fresh criticism of Uefa based on the group stage draw is fully justified as it was nothing short of a farce. Celtic legend Billy McNeill, who captained the Glaswegians to the European Cup in 1967, was chosen to help with the draw but awkwardly failed to open any of the eight capsules containing the pot one teams. Before a global audience, the 73-year-old McNeill became a figure of ridicule all over social media. Manchester United icon Sir Bobby Charlton recently suffered a similar fate. Uefa need to have a complete rethink of how they conduct these draws – Thursday’s event was farcical, even amateurish.