Thursday, August 26, 2010

Champions League Group Stage Draw

It's the most wonderful time of the year...and the holiday season is still months away. But for Europe, and football fans worldwide, the holidays have officially begun with the group stage draw of the Champions League. There is, as always, a group of death (or is it?) and a couple snoozers. However, many of the groups are wide open - at least for second place.

I wouldn't say the groups look weak, but there is parity and fresh faces. Five teams reach this stage for the first time, while others are back after lengthy absences. So there are plenty of rookies and novices, and a handful of veterans who bring many question marks into this season.

Here's how they sorted out group by group.

Group A
Inter Milan
Werder Bremen
FC Twente

Everyone waited with baited breathe to see where Tottenham would land, and no better place than group A with holders Inter Milan. As Tottenham were never going to win their group, it was the remaining two teams which would seal their fate. Well, Werder Bremen are coming off a 4-1 drubbing to start their season and sit in last place in the Bundesliga. Twente, last year's Dutch champions, lost manager Steve McClaren after the season and are off to a decent start. Inter should have no problem progressing. If Tottenham can rid themselves of those bad nerves suffered in the first leg against Young Boys, they should do well to progress here as well.

Group B
Hapoel Tel-Aviv

I'm not gonna lie, I was rooting for the bagel boys to get the best draw possible and they did. Hapoel could very well finish last in the group, but they will have more of a fighting chance than many other of the Pot 4 teams. Lyon are off to an average start, like the other top French teams, but will surely turn on the jets with their addition of Gourcuff. Benfica has lost it's opening two matches of the Portuguese season and Schalke are getting their bearings straight with the addition of Raul. If I had to pick, Lyon and Schalke will progress.

Group C
Manchester United

When you get more than a few Scots in one group, you know you're in for a roller coaster. It's also safe to say you know you're in for that Scottish team to get absolutely tonked by whichever heavyweights share the group. In this case, Sir Alex and Manchester United will battle Rangers twice. No doubt SAF loves trips back to his homeland. Unfortunately for Rangers fans, it won't even be close. Valencia are a tricky group in that we don't know what to expect. Once their season gets under way this weekend we'll have a better idea, but after losing Marchena, Silva, and Villa over the summer, the jury is out on this team. Speaking of, I wouldn't doubt seeing David Silva in the stands at Manchester to cheer on his old mates. As for the fourth team Bursaspor, it's their first time in the group stages. And it doesn't matter what level of club you are, any trip to Turkey for a match is difficult. United should have no problem getting through. I think Valencia will prove a lot of us wrong and finish second (although there really isn't so much to prove against the likes of Rangers and Bursaspor).

Group D
Rubin Kazan

Call this the group of death minus one. Barcelona got themselves a cake walk. The other three will have a dogfight to claim the second spot. Barca, Panathinaikos, and Copenhagen will be none too pleased with drawing Rubin Kazan. Fun fact about Rubin's in the middle of nowhere! It's as far east as Iran, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Don't forget, it was this Kazan squad who actually beat Barcelona last season in the Camp Nou. Three of these teams will also dread traveling to Greece. The last place any club wants to be is in Athens, where riots, Molotov cocktails, pitch invaders, ultras, and hooligans run the show. They show no sense of decency or respect to civilized order, and I hope visiting teams return home unscathed and unharmed - not much a fool's hoop since recently, Greek fans have been burning and beating their own stadiums and coaches. Barcelona and Copenhagen to move on.

Group E
Bayern Munich
CFR Cluj

This one doesn't bring much to the table. Cluj were a tricky side in the group stage two seasons ago, managing to draw with Chelsea 0-0. They, and Basil, are out of their league in this group. Munich and Roma in a canter.

Group F
Spartak Moscow
MSK Zilina

Defending French champs Marseilles are off to a terrible start winning one and losing two. However, with the recent additions of strike tandem Loic Remy and Andre-Pierre Gignac, they should expect the tide to turn in their favor. Chelsea are Chelsea, ripping teams to shreds at the moment. To be honest, I'm more interested to see how Roman Abramovich spends a Champions League away leg in his home country. Put the camera on that guy and his flashy girlfriend, lavish dinners, floating hovercraft, penthouse suites, million dollar bars of soap. Chelsea and Marseilles will move on.

Group G
AC Milan
Real Madrid

The very first European Cup was lifted by Real Madrid in 1955-56 (so were the next four). In the 55 years since, Madrid, AC Milan, and Ajax have won the competition an astounding 22 times!  That's almost half!! I questioned calling this the group of death because Milan and Ajax are nothing like they used to be. Perhaps "Group of Pedigree" is better suited. Who knows about Milan. New coach, and the same aging bodies we've seen for the past decade. Will Pato break out? Will Ibra join them? To be honest this team is no better than Ajax and Auxerre at the moment. Auxerre will try to duplicate the success of last season while Ajax can look no farther than in-form striker Luis Suarez as the key to their success. Let's face it, Mourinho and Real Madrid will be out for blood. His personal accolades speak for themselves. However, he now has a more powerful squad than ever before as Madrid try to erase a six year trend of getting knocked out at the round of 16. I got a feeling they'll be ok. Tough to pick the rest as Milan has yet to begin the season, but I'll choose Milan regardless.

Group H
Shakhtar Donetsk

A fairytale reunion for injury-prone flop Eduardo. The ex-Arsenal man will have a chance to square off against his old teammates for Shakhter. Fairly easy draw for Arsenal by the looks of it. Remember last season's group stage though. Arsenal's boys are still prone to nervous hiccups on the road. I hope - rather I expect - they have grown up and will brush aside the rest of the competition here. Partizan actually reached the final back in 1966, only to lose to Madrid. For THAT reason and none other whatsoever, I'm picking them to shock everyone and finish second behind Arsenal.

Teams in groups A-D and E-H each play on the same night respectively.

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