The draws are pretty interesting. Unlike previous years, Arsenal have not been handed a kind group in the UEFA Champions League. The Gunners have been grouped with last year’s finalists Dortmund, big spending Napoli and Ligue 1 side Marseille, in what many observers have termed the Group of Death.
In other interesting ties, holders Bayern Munich will play former Premier League champions Manchester City in Group D, Real Madrid will face Juventus in Group B, while Barcelona and AC Milan will renew their rivalry in Group H.
Let us consider the groups individually.
Group A: Manchester United, Shakhtar Donestsk, Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad
David Moyes makes his United bow on the continent, armed with a warning from Sir Alex Ferguson about this tricky group. On paper, it looks as if the English champions will find it easy, but Shakhtar Donetsk cannot be pushed aside. With many Brazilians in their side, they will surely trouble the Red Devils. So will Real Sociedad, who eliminated Lyon and Bayer Leverkusen, handled by former Reds defender, Sami Hyypia. I think United and Sociedad will progress.
Group B: Real Madrid, Juventus, Galatasaray, FC Copenhagen
Group B contains two European power houses in Real Madrid and Juventus, who are without a doubt strong favourites to qualify from the Group. However, you do get the feeling that Turkish side Galatasaray will attempt to be party spoilers. One cannot easily forget how they scared the La Liga side in last season’s knockout stage. I fully expect Madrid and Juve to make it through.
Group C: Benfica, PSG, Olympiakos, Anderlecht
Laurent Blanc has been handed an easy group. Paris Saint-Germain have enough within their ranks to progress from this group without drama or breaking sweat. However, they have to be wary of Benfica, who play some fantastic football and Greek side, Olympiakos. I tip the French champions and Benfica to qualify.
Group D: Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow, Manchester City, Viktoria Plzen
For Pep Guardiola and Bayern Munich, the defence of their European crown starts with trips to Russia, England and the Czech Republic. Looking at the other teams in the group, Manuel Pellegrini’s men appear to be the only strong contender for top spot, but the Bavarians should take CSKA Moscow seriously, although I think they and City will progress.
Group E: Chelsea, Schalke 04, Basle, Steaua Bucharest
Jose Mourinho will be aiming to win the UEFA Champions League for many reasons. In his first tenure at Stamford Bridge, he failed to win the competition in two and a half years. In three years at Madrid, he also failed to deliver the La Decima. The Portuguese tactician is also aiming for a personal record, of winning it with three different teams. You do feel he will come up short again, but he should navigate this group with ease, alongside Schalke.
Group F: Arsenal, Marseille, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli
When the draws for the group stages were made, there was no reason for Gooners to brag. But after Arsene Wenger pulled off the stunning capture of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid, the mood and language has changed and confidence has seeped back in. It won’t be a smooth ride for them though. They have to contend with last season’s finalists Dortmund, big spending Napoli and Marseille, but I think they will make it, along with Jurgen Klopp’s men.
Group G: FC Porto, Atletico Madrid, Zenit, Austria Vienna
One would be seriously tempted to pick out FC Porto and Atletico Madrid as the two teams that will qualify from this group. But it would be wrong to completely wave Zenit off like that. The Russian club will provide stern competition for the two teams and if they do enough, they might just be one of the qualifiers.
Group H: Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax, Celtic
Perhaps the most iconic image that emerged after the draws, was that of Celtic coach Neil Lennon, with his head on the table. With Barcelona and Milan in the group, you have to admit that the Scottish side stand no chance, especially with how they struggled to make it to this stage. The only side that will give both giants a run for their money will be Ajax, but I doubt that even they, will change the expected outcome.