For two straight years, Manchester City have found themselves slung into groups that required no hesitation to be christened “the group of death.” This time, despite being one of the top seeds, that piece of misfortune has unquestionably fallen on Arsenal.
The draw for the Champions League group stage has thrown up many highly anticipated matchups, while the debate has already started as to which sides will still be standing come the turn of the year.
Here’s a rundown of how things might pan out:
At first glance, it would be easy to already pencil Manchester United’s name in the last 16. In Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad there are no giants of European soccer. Yet, all three teams promise to be difficult opponents.
It was once a familiar adage that trips to places like Donetsk were never easy, but Shakhtar provide much more of a threat than simply a long journey. Mircea Lucescu’s men showed in eliminating then holders Chelsea from the competition last season that they are now a real force. While Fernandinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have left this summer, a new batch of exciting young Brazilians have arrived like Bernard and Fernando.
Levekusen have also acted swiftly to replace the loss of a prized asset by bringing in Heung-Min Son to take over from Andre Schurrle. Sami Hyppia’s side have reacted well in starting the season with three-straight Bundesliga wins. The theme continues with Sociedad, which lost young midfielder Asier Illarramendi to Real Madrid. Still, the Spanish side were mighty impressive in beating Lyon 4-0 on aggregate to make the group stage. A close battle is in store, but Shakhtar have the class and European pedigree to progress alongside the Premier League champions.
Group A prediction: 1. Manchester United, 2. Shakhtar Donetsk, 3. Real Sociedad, 4. Bayer Leverkusen
Group B initially appeared as though it could hold potential horrors, with Real Madrid and Juventus coming out first. However, with Galatasaray and FC Copenhagen following them into the section, the two European heavyweights should ensure a safe passage.
There will be much interest in Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti returning to his former club, in addition to what promises to be two intriguing matches on the pitch. Galatasaray, with former Champions League winners Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder ,are capable of providing a surprise but, especially with strong rumors that striker Burak Yilmaz is set to leave, they don’t have the overall quality to make the top two. FC Copenhagen, meanwhile, look set to bring up the rear.
Group B Prediction: 1. Real Madrid, 2. Juventus, 3. Galatasaray, 4. FC Copenhagen
For the four teams involved, this may well be the group of life. Paris Saint-Germain have had a mystifying summer, both in their transfer dealings and in seemingly approaching every coach in Europe before finally being almost forced to settle for Laurent Blanc. But the French champions have enough quality to top a favorable group that also features Benfica, Olympiakos and Anderlecht.
Benfica endured a crushingly disappointing end to last season and lost their first league game of this to suggest that the mental scars have not yet healed. The Portuguese side should face strong competition for second place from Olympiakos, which is especially strong at home. Anderlecht, having lost Lucas Biglia this summer, could struggle to make an impact.
Group C prediction: 1. PSG, 2. Benfica, 3. Olympiakos, 4. Anderlecht.
After their experience the past two seasons, Manchester City will be breathing a heavy sigh of relief. Champions Bayern Munich, strengthened further over the summer and with Pep Guardiola at the helm, will, of course, start as favorites. But City will expect to get the better of CSKA Moscow and Czechs Viktoria Plzen.
It would be wrong, though, of City to underestimate CSKA in particular. Currently top of the Russian League, Leonid Slutsky’s side have attacking talent like Keisuke Honda and Alan Dzagoev. Yet, under a man with a fine Champions League record in Manuel Pellegrini, City should join the holders in the last 16.
Group D prediction: 1. Bayern Munich, 2. Manchester City, 3. CSKA Moscow, 4. Viktoria Plzen
Jose Mourinho may well be the manager bearing the widest smile at his side’s draw. Schalke are the second seeds, but have had a dire start to the season. Having taken just a point from their opening three Bundesliga matches, last year’s last-16 participants only just scraped through in the playoffs against PAOK Thessaloniki.
Basel’s performance in reaching the semifinals of the Europa League last season suggests that they could take second place. However, the Swiss outfit have lost important players over the summer and have started the campaign poorly domestically. Steaua Bucharest look unlikely to get in contention for a top two spot. Despite Schalke’s poor start to the season, they showed in reaching the semifinals in 2011 that they can succeed in Europe while struggling at home.
Group E prediction: 1. Chelsea, 2. Schalke, 3. Basel, 4. Steaua Bucharest
The makeup of the seeding pots always meant that a horror group was likely. A quartet of Arsenal, Marseille, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli certainly fulfills that remit. On paper, Marseille are the underdogs to finish in the top two. At the same time, Elie Baup’s side, which finished second in Ligue 1 last season, have strengthened over the summer with the arrival of winger Dimitri Payet, among others, and have won their first three matches of the campaign.
It is Borussia Dortmund and Napoli, though, that are likely to pose the biggest threat to Arsenal continuing their run of making it to the knockout stages. Jurgen Klopp’s young side made their breakthrough in Europe in spectacular fashion last season as they went all the way to the Champions League final. While Mario Gotze has departed, they have held onto star striker Robert Lewandowski. And with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang arriving, among others, their squad is actually stronger this time around.
Napoli, meanwhile, have reinvested the money from Edinson Cavani’s sale and have a manager in Rafael Benitez, whose record in European competitions is one that few other current coaches can come near. Arsenal have still yet to spend any money to strengthen their squad this summer and are currently troubled by an all-too familiar rash of injuries. Unless their squad is seriously enhanced in the coming days, Arsene Wenger could well be heading for an unwelcome tilt at the Europa League.
Group F Prediction: 1. Borussia Dortmund, 2. Napoli, 3. Arsenal, 4. Marseille
Having won the Europa League twice in the past four seasons, this could be the year for Atletico Madrid to make their mark on Europe’s premier competition. Moreover, the ferocious intensity that Diego Simeone has installed in his side could well be better suited to this tournament format than a grueling league season.
Porto have been consistent in European competition in recent seasons, but will be eager to go beyond the round of 16 for the first time since lifting the trophy in 2004. Having made strong signings over the summer, including the exciting Colombian Juan Quintero, they may just do that. Zenit St Petersburg could certainly get in the reckoning, but their lack of consistency and team ethos may them head out at the group stage for the second season running. Austria Vienna, in the competition for the first time, will surely have to settle for using it as a mere learning experience.
Group G prediction: 1. Atletico Madrid, 2. Porto, 3. Zenit, 4. Austria Vienna
The final group sees four former winners of the European Cup battle it out, with giants Barcelona and Milan meeting in the competition for the third season in succession. The other participants, Ajax and Celtic, have suffered from the centralization of wealth in the game and are no longer the forces of old. Of the two, Ajax certainly have the greater chance of threatening Milan to finish behind heavy favorites Barcelona.
Milan struggled in the playoffs far more than the convincing 4-1 scoreline suggests to beat PSV Eindhoven, a club that finished seven points behind Ajax in the Eredivisie table last season. Frank de Boer has done a great job with the Amsterdam outfit, but will have an eager wait for the transfer deadline with Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld linked with moves away. Ultimately, Milan’s nous should be enough to see them through.
Group H prediction: 1. Barcelona, 2. Milan, 3. Ajax, 4. Celtic