The annual UEFA shindig held in Monaco towards the end of August each year must be a pretty lively soiree even for a place as debauched as the monarchist enclave on the Cote D’Azur. One can imagine it now ; after quaffing champagne and lager shandies Michel Platini will end up on the dance-floor twerking deep into the night, all while Sepp Blatter will be perched up against a bar making racist or sexist comments befitting of his role as football’s errant uncle. A scene akin to the sack of Rome with less dignity.
There was also the minor matter of the draw for this year’s Champions League group stage which preceded the main event for the decision makers in European football. Allow me to guide you through the luck of the draw for the five British teams involved in the 2013/14 edition of Europe’s premier club competition™.
Group A – Manchester United, Shaktar Donetsk, Bayer 04 Leverkusen and Real Sociedad
United’s luck under Sir Alex Ferguson of getting an easy draw has reared its head once again. The draw has been favourable for David Moyes in his debut Champions League campaign. Donetsk is not an easy place to go; they only need to ask Chelsea who were filleted in the Ukraine last year. Bayer Leverkusen posses the fairly the potent Stefan Kiessling up front and are a well drilled unit under Sami Hyppia and could pose a threat in Germany. Sociedad are something of an unknown quality at this level, with most of their team having played in Spain’s second division only five seasons ago. They were regarded by Sid Lowe of The Guardian as having played the best football in La Liga last year. For all the individual qualities of their opponents this is a pretty favourable draw for United. In Europe at least their new manager is being broken in very, very gently.
Group D – FC Bayern Munchen, CSKA Moscow, Manchester City and Viktoria Plzen
Manchester City’s petrol funded path to world domination has never been true or smooth. This year’s draw has proved kinder than previous draws but this is still a pretty difficult proposition for Manuel Pellegrini. Last year’s champions Bayern require no introduction; an already well oiled machine has been complemented by Pep Guardiola and the talents of Thiago Alcantra. While an over-excited German media is claiming that the Bayern team is finding it difficult to comprehend the Guardiola vision they are an ominous proposition. A trip to Moscow is never easy and CSKA, with their squad of talented players from not only Russia but Sweden and Brazil are a tough proposition; they were convincing champions last season. The trip to the Czech Republic should be a turkey shoot for all the other teams concerned. This is an early litmus test for the latest “project” at Eastlands. It is infinitely doable but the soft centre and naivety which has plagued City’s Champions League adventures needs to be eradicated for any success to come their way.
Group E – Chelsea, Schalke, Basel and Steaua Bucharest
Probably the easiest draw for all the British teams and a gift for Jose Mourinho. Watching Chelsea trundle monotonously to the last 16 will be tedious but I live in hope. Schalke are already suffering an early season crisis and rumours claim that their manager could be sacked if they don’t turn their league form around. Klass Jan Huntelaar is always a difficult proposition however and young Julian Draxler is one to watch. Basel and Steaua were defeated on Chelsea’s way to Europa League success and will not pose any great difficulties. All a bit meh really.
Group F – Arsenal, Marseille, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli.
From the meh to the ooft. Arsenal have been served a pretty difficult draw. French side Marseille are no great shakes and should prove a pretty easy proposition; although they are renowned for grinding out results. Borussia Dortmund were toasted with cans of Red Stripe by football hipsters across the world for their swashbuckling homespun assault on Europe and despite the loss of Mario Gotze they have kept Robert Lewandoski all while adding Mkhitarian and Aubemyang who have hit the ground running. Arsenal are underdogs against what is a truly great side. A soft centre may be about to be sorely exposed unless major additions are drafted in. Napoli are an interesting proposition ; the only side in Italy who have challenged Juventus’ recent dominance they have added Gonzalo Higuain – a one-time Arsenal target – and Liverpool’s Pepe Reina to an already impressive side. Although Arsenal beat them in pre-season this is a different kettle of fish. Time will tell but Arsenal have been dealt a tough hand.
Group H – Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax Amsterdam and Celtic
Last year ITV Sport made the call that Celtic were in the “group of certain death” and Celtic then surprised us all. After a dramatic flurry against the Kazakhstani side Karagandy The Hoops are back, only to be faced with yet another difficult draw. Last year’s defeat of Barcelona will live long in the memory, however the stars of last year’s campaign – Hooper, Wanyama and to a lesser extent Kelvin Wilson – have gone and have yet to be replaced. The loss of Hooper is a particularly gaping one; efforts are being made to replace him but his cutting edge up front is not easily replicated. Barcelona will be wanting blood after last year’s loss here, not to mention their humiliation at the hands of Bayern. Add Neymar, Messi and a flying start to the season and things are already looking difficult. While not the force that they once were AC Milan have a deadly front two in Mario Balotelli and El-Shaarawy and are perennially strong at this level. Ajax are good but not brilliant and if they lose Christian Eriksen to Tottenham which looks increasingly likely then it is not unfeasible to suggest that Celtic could beat the Dutch champions. They are an incredibly young side and manager Frank De Boer has them playing the “Ajax” way. A group of death if you want to use the term but the matches against the Amsterdam side are quite easily winnable.