Manchester United’s Champions League campaign will see them travel to Portugal, Switzerland and Romania to face opposition who, on paper, appear to offer little resistance to a successful group stage.
The draw this year was particularly brutal to many teams especially the other three English entries. While United received a fairly easy ride to the knockout stage others were not so fortunate.
Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City have been dealt very severe blows by being grouped with very strong teams who will give them all they can handle. Lets examine the groups and who the potential qualifiers are.
Manchester United will once again face a Portuguese team as it seems Porto and Benfica take turns every year in drawing us in the group stage. At least it feels that way. Benfica will be a tough test but they have lost a few players from team of last season but overall, they always seem to put together a strong side capable of beating anyone. A tough hurdle but not a big problem based on our current squad and style of play.
The rest of the group basically should feel like a walk in the park. Nobody should ever take any team in the Champions League lightly but there is nobody who will convince me that FC Basel has what it takes to beat United, nor do relatively unknown Romanian champions Otelui Galati (sounds like an Italian sports car or a flavour of Gelati) put the scare of God into me either.
Unlike many who always like to throw the political correctness into the discussion, I will deliver something a bit different. Basically, no bloody minnows have a chance in beating us let alone knock us out at the group stages. United will win the group easily and Benfica will come in second while Basel and Galati will fight it out to see if either is capable of beating each other for some points and minor consolation.
The group is a proper reward for a team that reached the final a year ago and in fact has ranked as one of the top four teams in Europe for the past ten years or so. Manchester United deserve this easy group and although it will do very little towards preparing them for tougher European competition down the road, it will allow us to play more of our youth at times and break in our newcomers without feeling too nervous about it. It will also allow us to rest some stars due to the packed schedule being so heavy between these games, the EPL schedule and Carling Cup.
I don’t expect United to route the opposition. In fact we never really do. Benfica will be tough and we may even lose to them away but the rest of the games should be no trouble even if we do not beat these teams by several goals a game. Fergie always tends to play the group rounds with great caution and patience, which means a lot of 1-0 away wins. Look for the same this time around.
What of the competition?
As for our noisy neighbours to the south, Manchester City have unfortunately for them been placed in this year’s version of the ‘group of death’. My God it will bea titanic struggle for any two teams to get out of a group which also includes Bayern Munich, Villarreal and Napoli.
Being a Bayern supporter as well, I am just cringing in fear over the possibilities of worst-case scenarios coming out of this group. Napoli is not a great Italian side but lets face it, they are nonetheless an Italian side and they must be taken seriously. Villarreal are always going to give teams problems as they are a top Spanish side with a lot of talent and experience. Bayern were in the final two years ago and the additions of stars like Neuer, Rafinha, Boateng and others have made them stronger but they are also a club very capable of underachieving and so there are no guarantees coming from their camp. As for City, well to be honest, I find it hard to believe they will not come out of that group but it would not surprise me if they came out as the second place finisher. Bayern and Villarreal will fight it out to be the other side.
Arsenal are fortunate to be in this competition and I hope their experience helps them enjoy it because I have very little confidence in their overall chances. Still, they are in a tough group with up and coming teams but teams who lack the real experience and cutting edge to be called favourites.
I personally love Borussia Dortmund and their coach Juergen Klopp. I think that team led by teen sensation Mario Gotze have the tools to win the group but will inexperience hurt their chances? Marseilles have a little more experience than both the German and Italian sides and so I am expecting Arsenal and Marseilles to get out of this group but Dortmund could surprise, as they are truly a quality side. Poor Wenger, his woes just continue. Arsenal should go through but then again, they could finish last. Anything is possible with those underachievers who are now minus their engine room of Fabregas and Nasri.
What about Chelsea? Well they will not be sending flowers and chocolates to UEFA headquarters any time soon I don’t think. They too have been placed in a very difficult group with Germany’s second place finishers Bayer Leverkusen, Belgian champions Genk and the always-tough Spanish contenders Valencia.
On paper none of these clubs should pose much of a threat to Chelsea but then again the Blues never seem to play well in the early stages and the ongoing question mark that has become Fernando Torres needs to be finally answered. If he returns to his top form, Chelsea will have it easy. If he continues to struggle, then all bets are off. I look for Chelsea and Valencia to come out of this group but Leverkusen have some quality and in players like Ballack, Kiesling and others, they have experience too. Still, Chelsea should have just enough even though they will be missing Petr Cech for many of these games due to injury. No Cech makes things more interesting and even tighter to call.
Finally, let me quickly gloss over the other groups. Real Madrid should have no trouble in Group D even though they are up against very experienced French side Lyon as well as Ajax and Dinamo Zagreb. Ajax is no pushover and neither are Zagred but Real and Lyon should advance with ease. Mourinho will be super determined to get his club to the final this year. And lets face it, he has the horses for the courses.
Inter will have their hands full with the Russian outfit CSKA as well as Lille and Turkish minnows Trabzonspor in Group B. Inter are not what they were with Mourinho but they should still go through due to all that experience. It will be a fight between CSKA and Lille for the second place spot with CSKA grabbing it.
Group F seems kind of tight simply because the top seeded team FC Porto does not look all that tough having lost their manager from last year. Still, they will fight it out with Shakhtar, the difficult Russian side Zenit and Cypriot minnows Apoel. Porto should have no problem advancing along with either Zenit or Shakhtar. Let me go out on a limb and predict Zenit.
And what of the mighty Barcelona? Well lucky them, they get to visit the San Siro early and take on a tough AC Milan. After that they will have no problem with super minnows Viktoria Pizen and Bate Borisov. Both are capable of an upset, but not against Barcelona. It will be Barca and Milan in a cakewalk.
Let’s get down to business…..
The Champions League draw has ensured that the group stages should be highly competitive this season. Many tough groups and nobody other than Barca and United seem to have a free ride. Thankfully, pedigree and performance has ensured us an easier grouping and I’m sure we will meet the demands and get through it unscathed. Now enough talk and lets get on with the tournament. I for one can hardly wait