Now the fun can really begin. No more play-in games. No more clubs from countries very few people have heard of. No more clubs grasping at the last straws of defeat. (I’m talking to you Rangers) Finally the big time. Group Stage of the UEFA Champions League. The real beginning to one of the most thrilling and unique competitions in sport.
Now with the draw all complete, and the matches are set its time to break down each group and see what could happen over the next 9 months, culminating with the final in Munich on May 19 2012.
Group A: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Napoli, Villarreal.
Many pundits and prognosticators have called this the group of death and I am one not to quarrel with them. Bayern will have an experience advantage plus motivation on their side. With the final at Allianz Arena, Bayern would love nothing more than to participate in the grandest of club finals on their home pitch. Manchester City have literally bought their way to the Group Stage and are now looking to cash in on this investment. Napoli and Villarreal are minor surprise entries but are both formidable opponents and play in excellent domestic leagues. This is a tough one to call. I will say Bayern and Villarreal will advance to the next stage while City will go the Europa Cup.
Group B: Trabzonspor, Lille, CSKA Moscow, Inter Milan.
No doubt Inter Milan are the clear favourites here. Especially if midfielder Wesley Sneijder stays with I Nerazzurri. Inter won this competition in 2010 and would love to make it 2 titles in 3 years. French Champions Lille were surprise champions on Ligue 1 and are now ready to make an impact in Europe. CSKA Moscow are still waiting to taste European success. Turkish side Trabzonspor are replacing the banned Fenerbache side. Inter and Lille go through to the next round. CSKA Moscow goes to Europa.
Group C: Manchester United, FC Basel, Benfica, Otelul Galati.
United are the clear favourites in this group and should advance with little difficulty. The Red Devils have bigger fish to fry and are looking to head back to the finals to avenge last year’s defeat to Barcelona. Basel are a decent side that will bring out the best in all their opponents. Benfica are always a tricky squad in this competition. Otelul Galati are long-shots at best. United and Benfica go through. Basel goes to Europa.
Group D: Real Madrid, Lyon, Ajax, Dinamo Zagreb.
Not the easiest group. Actually a very compelling group. Real Madrid are the clear favourites though and with the “Special One” Jose Mourinho patrolling the touchline, Los Blancos should advance. The real battle is for second as Lyon and Ajax should contest for that coveted spot. Lyon has had the recent success while Ajax has a very rich history behind them. If the Dutch side still had striker Luis Saurez who went to Liverpool on a transfer, I would have Ajax through to the next round. Dinamo Zagreb have the odds against them, and their hopes of advancing are grim. Real Madrid and Lyon go through, Ajax will have to settle for Europa.
Group E: Chelsea, Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen, Gent.
At first glance it seems rather simple. However upon further inspection, this group is not a sure thing. Chelsea will be favoured but the West London side have not shown good form so far. There is considerable pressure being put on the Blues by billionaire owner Roman Abramovich. He wants the Champions League trophy by any means and has stated the “trophy with big ears” is his ultimate goal. Valencia and Leverkusen are both quality sides who will definitely push Chelsea to the brink. Gent’s chances are slim to none. Chelsea and Leverkusen go through. Valencia goes to Europa.
Group F: Arsenal, Olympique Marseille, Borussia Dortmund, Olympiacos.
Another testy group. As stated in previous blogs, I am not impressed with Arsenal this season. Even though they survived a scare against Udinese in the playoff round, the Gunners have failed to impress me and must show more improvement in the weeks ahead. Bundasliga Champions Borussia Dortmund are a very harsh side to play against and are looking to parlay their domestic success to Europe. Marseille have been in Champions League before but recently have failed to go beyond the Group Stage. Olympiacos are no easy draw. Dortmund and Arsenal sneak through. Marseille goes to Europa.
Group G: FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Zenit St Petersburg, APOEL.
This group will probably receive the least attention amongst the football media and fans but could provide some entertaining matches. Porto and Shakhtar love to push forward and have had morsels of success in previous years. Zenit and APOEL will battle for Europa spots. Porto and Shakhtar through. Zenit to Europa.
Group H: Barcelona, AC Milan, BATE, Viktoria Plzen
The easiest group to call. Barca and Milan are huge favourites and both should advance with ease. The two giants meet on Matchday 1 on September 13 which is a mouth-watering kickoff to the Group Stage. The battle will be for third as BATE and Viktoria will see who goes to Europa. I say BATE sneaks into Europa on a coin flip.
I won’t pick a final match because it is too dependent on luck of the draw but I will predict Barcelona to repeat as Champions making them the first side to successfully defend their title since AC Milan in 1990.