BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
The draw has just been completed for the group stages of the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League. I will provide comprehensive group previews before the competition starts, for now, my quick reflections below:
David Moyes will be relatively pleased in his first Champions League group stages campaign, as English champions Manchester United are drawn with Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad. That being said, even under Sir Alex Ferguson, United have bowed out at the first stage, and the away games in particular will be tricky in this group.
Shakhtar are always dangerous at home, and qualified at the expense of Chelsea in last season’s group stages. Bayer Leverkusen may have lost Andre Schurrle, but in Stefan Keisling and Sidney Sam, manager Sami Hyppia will hope they have enough firepower to cause problems at home. Finally, Real Sociedad demonstrated in their comprehensive victory over experienced European campaigners Lyon in the playoffs, that they are a smart and tactically sophisticated team that can be a dark horse to make a deep run in the competition.
Real Madrid and Juventus renew their rivalry from the late nineties and early part of the century as Los Blancos and the Bianconeri were drawn up in a mouth-watering clash. Both teams will use their matches against each other as benchmarks for the knockout stages, as they should have too much for Galatasaray and FC Copenhagen. The Turkish champions can however be expected to upset the top two seeds at least at home, as Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder will be more settled after a good pre-season with the rest of the squad.
If their domestic start this season is anything to go by, it seems that the big stars at Paris Saint-Germain will once again click into gear on the European stage. Ibra, Cavani et al, thrive on the greater competition in Europe, and after topping their group convincingly last season will be confident of doing the same this season. Benfica should emulate their domestic rivals Porto in finishing second behind the millionaires of Paris. Olympiakos and Anderlecht will play passionately at home, but ultimately don’t have sufficient quality to challenge the top two seeds.
Reigning champions Bayern Munich should be confident of their progress from this group, allowing new manager Pep Guardiola a comfortable bedding in period on the continent. After getting some horrible draws, Manchester City will finally be confident of getting out of the group stages. Furthermore, new manager Manuel Pelligrini has always found success in the Champions League with his astute tactics, and while not on the same level as Bayern, City should possess too much for Viktoria Plzen and CSKA Moscow
Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge coincides with an easy group for Chelsea, who will be relieved after last year’s nightmare draw. The other blues in the group, Schalke 04 are favourites for second on paper, although they are serious issues as far as form and morale are concerned. FC Basel, have become a formidable team in Europe over the past two seasons, and will be ready to take advantage of any slip-ups from Schalke. 1986 champions Steaua Bucharest complete the group, but will struggle to make an impact.
This is definitely the group of death in this year’s competition. Arsenal, for so long have had it too easy in the group stages, and this draw will set the alarm bells ringing or the Gunners. They have played Marseille quite often in recent seasons to be comfortable enough to overcome them. However, they drew the toughest teams from Pot 3 and Pot 4 in last year’s runners-up Borussia Dortmund and Italian big spenders Napoli respectively.
The head-to-heads between Dortmund, Napoli and Arsenal will be crucial in determining who goes through from this dangerous group. Contrary to what most pundits expected, Dortmund have actually strengthened their team despite selling Mario Gotze. The same can be said of Napoli, who have compensated for the loss of Edinson Cavani, by bringing in some excellent additions including Arsenal target Gonzalo Higuain. Throw into the mix the fact that Jurgen Klopp is a master motivator and Rafa Benitez an excellent tactician, it is clear that Arsene Wenger has his work cut out to get Arsenal out of their hardest group in recent seasons.
Porto might have lost Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez to the mega millions of Monaco, but they’ve gained Colombian duo Juan Quintero and Jackson Martinez and have the core of an attack that could cause havoc in Europe. Atletico Madrid have also lost their star forward Radamel Falcao to Monaco, but manager Diego Simeone has already tasted success in Europe with the Rojiblancos, and under his management the team play with levels of intensity unmatched across the continent. Atletico have started the season really well, with David Villa, Diego Costa and Arda Turan in good form. Zenit St. Petersburg are a mixed bag, capable of beating the best on their day, but far too inconsistent, and their best players Danny and the returning Andrey Arshavin go missing in the crucial moments. Debutants Austria Vienna will be delighted to be in the group stages, but will struggle to get a win in this group.
The group of Champions! Between Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax and Celtic, the quartet have won the competition 16 times. Barcelona and AC Milan have played each other so often in recent campaigns, and once again their head-to-head will decide who comes out on top of the group. AC Milan ruthlessly disposed PSV Eindhoven in the playoffs, and should be confident of getting the better of Eredivisie champions Ajax. Frank de Boer will want his young stars from Ajax to put in a good display, while Neil Lennon will hope Celtic can recreate their home form from last year, when Parkhead was absolutely buzzing in their upset win over Barcelona.