Allen Farrington on Champions League Group Stage

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Allen Farrington looks over the Champions League draw, and picks out the key runners and riders…

It’s back! After a surprisingly entertaining summer by competitive footballing standards, we at last return to club football’s premier competition; the UEFA Champions League. Having dutifully ignored the Champions League™ Cup Winners™ 3rd Qualification Tie™ Replay, we are now on the cusp of the Group Phase and the time is right for me to predict with expert assessment (run some simulations on Football Manager) what on earth is going to happen.

Most Interesting Group – Group A – Porto, Dynamo Kiev, PSG, Dinamo Zagreb. Anything could happen. Exciting players abound, and it is entirely possible that any combination of teams could go through. Porto retained Joao Moutinho (although they have lost the incredible Hulk), but also adding Jackson Martinez, a skilful Colombian centre forward with a quite ridiculous scoring record in the Mexican League. Kiev’s primary weapon will be young winger Yarmolenko, who had a decent outing at the Euros, and recently added Miguel Veloso to tighten up a team providing the bulk of the Ukrainian national side which impressed many at EURO 2012. Dinamo Zagreb field Croatian old hand Josip Simunic, and whilst the weakest on paper possess two of Europe’s brightest young talents in Mateo Kovacic and Sime Vrsaljko (pronounced ‘vrsaljko’). Finally we have PSG. I have no idea what to say about them; Pastore, Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Lavezzi, Motta – and Lucas on the way. Will it work? Who knows. They could win every game, they could lose every game. The final cog in the most interesting group of this season.

Least Interesting Group – Group G – Barcelona, Benfica, Celtic, Spartak Moscow. Barcelona will win at least 5 games. Benfica will win at least 3 that don’t involve Barcelona, and Celtic will scrap with Spartak Moscow for the Europa League spot. The games between the bottom two teams could be of the greatest interest as there isn’t a lot of recent European history on either side to make an informed prediction. Spartak look better on paper, but then again Celtic traditionally punch well above their weight when playing at home in the Champions League.

Dark Horse (Group Stage) – Montpellier. Off the back of a fantastic and utterly unexpected win in the French League, Montpellier sold league top scorer Olivier Giroud but crucially held on to lesser known (but arguably better) talents Younes Behlhanda, Remy Cabella and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa. The Fourth seeding could have been cruel to them, but having been drawn alongside Arsenal, Schalke and Olympiakos, they will certainly fancy their chances of progressing to the knockout round, and could go even further with another kind draw.

Dark Horse (Knockouts)– Benfica. The Portuguese former giants are quietly becoming a force in European football, and were perhaps unlucky not to get past Chelsea last year. Frankly they went nuts in the transfer market this summer, but, all in all, selling Javi Garcia for a laughable £16m, and reinvesting it in Alan Kardec, Eduardo Salvio and Ola John is pretty darn good business. Add that to a team already boasting Alex Witsel, Nicolas Gaitan, Oscar Cardozo, Pablo Aimar and Ezequiel Garay and Benfica are a dark horse shoe-in. Drawing Barcelona in the groups may even be a blessing. Guaranteed to come second in the group, they also guarantee avoiding Barcelona in the knockouts; they will face a group winner at that point, and, of the likely candidates, only Real Madrid and Bayern Munich would be certain to beat them. On last season’s evidence, they might even be favourites against Chelsea, Man Utd, Arsenal or AC Milan.

Flop Waiting to Happen – Man City or Borussia Dortmund. At first glance, Group D is scintillating; the reigning champions of the world’s three best leagues. On recent history, however, Man City and Borussia Dortmund performed way below expectations in last year’s competition. With Real Madrid a sure bet to win the group, I have a cynical feeling that the destination of second place will have more to do with who slips up than who plays well.

Whipping Boy in the Waiting – Nordsjaelland. In Group C, Chelsea and Juventus will be expected to progress, and Shaktar will feel that they may as well have a go at it, seeing as they do not realistically risk coming fourth. Unfortunately for Nordsjaelland, this means that all three teams will look to pummel the Danish team home and away as either first or second place could easily come down to goal difference.

Breakout Performers – Sergio Canales (Valencia), Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund), James Rodriguez (Porto). All similar stories with slight twists; each is a prodigiously gifted young attacking midfielder. Canales was frustrated at his position in the Real Madrid pecking order, and constantly succumbing to injuries, but has just secured a permanent move to Valencia, where he should develop superbly. Reus was the driving force behind an out-of-nowhere performance in the Bundesliga by Borussia Monchengladbach, and will fit seamlessly into the Shinji Kagawa shaped hole in Borussia Dortmund’s otherwise unchanged team. Rodriguez moved to Porto from Colombia while extremely young after impressing at the South American U17 Championships. He has performed exceedingly well when given the chance in the past, but is expected to cement a first team position this season. Each of the teams will fancy their chances in the groups too. Simply put, all three are ready to make the step up to the big time.

Most Irritating Moment – November 20th – As if Chelsea vs. Juventus or Bayern vs. Valencia wasn’t a hard enough decision, a horde of raving Mancunians (some of whom will sound oddly American) will storm into the Union and demand that Man Utd vs. Galatasaray be shown instead.

Most Appetising Moment – A.C. Milan vs. Malaga. Both are a little top-heavy, and both may need to win. Expect goals.

Winners – Barcelona. I hate them, you hate them, but we both know they are outrageously good. You might think Chelsea, Bayern or AC Milan could out-park-the-bus them, or maybe even that Real Madrid could outscore them, but a quick look at the early season form of all involved would not suggest this is likely. On the bright side, if Chelsea vs. Barcelona were to pop up, it would feel a lot more like the good old days this time around.

Top Scorer – Messi. See above.

Best Player – Iniesta. He’s better than Messi – that’s right, I said it. (You’re going to have to justify this…Ed.)

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