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UEFA Champions League draw: Quality in each pot leaves multiple routes to Groups of Death


When UEFA draws groups for this year’s Champions League on Thursday in Monaco, the big news won’t come out of the first pot, where names like Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona and defending champions Bayern Munich wait to be drawn. Instead it’s pot two, from which Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus will be paired with another of Europe’s top clubs. Out of pot three, somebody will get grouped with Manchester City or Borussia Dortmund, while Rafa Benitez’s Napoli will be the club to avoid out of pot four.

Conceivably, you could get a group with Bayern, PSG, Manchester City and Napoli. Or Manchester United could be grouped with Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, and Real Sociedad. Regardless, with the increased number of strong teams outside Champions League’s top pot, the possibility of a group of death (or, groups of death) becomes more likely.

On Thursday, the 32 teams who’ve qualified for UEFA Champions League will be placed into four groups of eight, sorted by how well they’ve done in European competition over the last five years (a team’s UEFA coefficient). Each of the eight, four-team groups that make up the tournament’s main phase will feature a team from each pot. Most of the time, the system keeps Europe’s top performers from meeting too early in the competition, but in the case of teams that haven’t had major continental success in recent years — teams like Dortmund, Manchester City, Juventus and Napoli — the system can drastically underestimate their current quality.

All of which makes group stage much more fun. We could create a system that comes closer to a more accurate depiction of current quality – something that makes an attempt at looking at last year’s results while factoring in league strength; one that ignores Europa League results (this one does not). it’s be flawed and as debated as the current system, but it wouldn’t be difficult to come out with something “better.”  We’d end up with eight relatively even quartets.

But we’d also bringing an element of sterility to group stage. Our hypothetical system would be more fair to the clubs, but it’d also be boring. Besides, with half the teams in each group already advancing to the next round, the status quo is pretty forgiving, offsetting the unfairness. If you can’t finish in the top 50 percentile in your quartet, you don’t have much of a claim to being viable knockout round competition.

Come tomorrow, we’ll see the unintended virtues of UEFA’s system, with Napoli’s draw from pot four the key to a potential group of death:

Pot One: Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Benfica, Chelsea, Manchester United, Porto, Real Madrid

Pot Two: Atlético Madrid, CSKA Moscow, Juventus, Marseille, Milan, PSG, Schalke, Shakhtar Donetsk

Pot Three: Ajax, Basel, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray, Leverkusen, Manchester City, Olympiakos, Zenit St. Petersburg

Pot Four: Anderlecht, Austria Wien, Celtic, Copenhagen, Napoli, Real Sociedad, Steaua Bucharest, Viktoria Plzen

Europa League: Manchester United thumps Fenerbahce, Zenit avoids upset

Manchester United's Paul Pogba, left, celebrates scoring his sides third goal with Manchester United's Wayne Rooney, during the Europa League Group A soccer match between Manchester United and Fenerbahce at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, England, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Dave Thompson)
AP Photo/Dave Thompson
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Goals, goals, goals and several red cards dotted the landscape of Europa League football on Thursday.

Premier League teams saw mixed results despite controlling performances, while the day avoided a single 0-0 result.

Manchester United 4-1 Fenerbahce

United moved atop Group A, level on points with Feyenoord, after a fairly comprehensive home win.

Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils got a pair of deserved penalty kicks in the first 34 minutes, as Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial converted chances to make it 2-0.

Pogba scored a really nice goal from distance off a Jesse Lingard feed before halftime to put it out of reach, and then Lingard struck just after the break to make it entirely academic at Old Trafford.

Robin Van Persie did score upon this return to Manchester, and the fans gave his announced goal a warm cheer.

Inter Milan 1-0 SouthamptonRECAP

Saints were the better team on the day, but Antonio Candreva scored the lone goal as the hosts gave Southampton its first setback of this Europa League season in front of 7,000-plus traveling fans.

Dundalk 1-2 Zenit Saint Petersburg

The Lilywhites looked ready to leap atop the Group D table for a while, an achievement that would feel a bit like Leicester on PEDs.

The opening goal came from Robbie Benson in the 52nd minute, but Robert Mak equalized for Zenit in the 71st before Giuliano put the Russians ahead six minutes later.

The Irish semi-pro side is now 1-1-1 in group play and remains the first club from the republic to score a goal in a group stage or higher European when they drew at AZ Alkmaar.

Dundalk then became the first Irish side to win a European group stage match when it toppled Maccabi Tel-Aviv 1-0 at the Tallaght Stadium in Dublin. Take this moment to salute their performances, even with a loss on Thursday.

Celta Vigo 2-2 Ajax
Standard Liege 2-2 Panathinaikos
Konyaspor 1-1 Sporting Braga
Shakhtar Donetsk 5-0 KAA Gent
RB Salzburg 0-1 Nice
Krasnodar 0-1 Schalke
Steaua Bucuresti 1-1 Zurich
Osmanlispor 2-2 Villarreal
Hapoel Be’er Sheva 0-1 Sparta Prague
Slovan Liberec 1-3 Fiorentina
Qarabag 2-0 PAOK Salonika

Feyenoord 1-0 Zorya Luhansk
Young Boys 3-1 Apoel Nicosia
Olympiakos 4-1 Astana
Mainz 1-1 Anderlecht
Saint-Etienne 1-0 Qabala
AZ Alkmaar 1-2 Maccabi Tel-Aviv
Roma 3-3 Austria Wien
Viktoria Plzen 1-2 Astra Giurgiu
Genk 2-0 Athletic Bilbao
Rapid Wien 1-1 Sassuolo


Premier League and NBC Sports Group hosted at U.S. Embassy event in London

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The Premier League and NBC Sports Group were recognized today at a U.S. Embassy event in London.

The event, held at Winfield House, the residence of Ambassador Matthew Barzun, celebrated the growth of the Premier League in the United States, highlighted by NBC Sports Group’s innovative coverage and promotion of the league.

Attendees included Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, and NBC Sports Group’s U.K.-based Premier League announce team of Arlo White, Lee Dixon and Graeme LeSaux.

Ambassador Barzun introduced Scudamore and Jon Miller (President of Programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN) at the top of the program.

“We are honoured to represent NBC Sports inside the hallowed halls of Winfield House,” said White, who moderated a Q&A at the event. “We thoroughly enjoy bringing the excitement of the Premier League to fans in the United States, and are thrilled that we are playing a prominent role in growing the game stateside.”

As the exclusive U.S. home of the Premier League since August 2013, NBC Sports Group’s presentation of the Premier League has reached nearly 30 million American viewers in each of its three full seasons as the league’s exclusive U.S. home – more than double the U.S. audience in any year prior.

WATCH: Pogba puts Europa League match to bed for Manchester United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 20:  Anthony Martial #11 of Manchester United is cogratulated by teammate Paul Pogba after scoring his team's second goal from the penalty spot during the UEFA Europa League Group A match between Manchester United FC and Fenerbahce SK at Old Trafford on October 20, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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Manchester United’s first two goals of Thursday’s easy win over Fenerbahce came off penalty kicks, but the third was far more pleasing to the eye.

Paul Pogba nabbed his second of the night by tearing into a Jesse Lingard lay-off from 20 yards away, ensuring that halftime might as well have been full-time.

[ MORE: Saints fall in Milan ]

Anthony Martial joined Pogba in converting a penalty, while Lingard made it 4-0 just after halftime.

More than 7,000 Saints fans see Southampton fall in Milan (video)

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 20:  (R) Antonio Candreva of FC Internazionale celebrates his first goalduring the UEFA Europa League match between FC Internazionale Milano and Southampton FC at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Milan, .  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
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Antonio Candreva’s 67th minute goal gave Inter Milan a lead against the run of play, and dominant Southampton failed to take advantage of an Inter red card in a 1-0 loss at the San Siro on Thursday. (video)

The setback was Southampton’s first in Europa League play this season, and costs them the top spot in Group K at the group stage’s midpoint.

[ MORE: Atleti accepts January transfer ban ]

Saints had the edge in shots and attempts on target, but couldn’t get the better of their historic Italian opponents.

Sparta Prague beat Hapoel Be’er Sheva 1-0 to move ahead of Saints on six points. Southampton has four, as does Hapoel. Inter sits fourth with three points.

The winner was a classy goal, by the way, for the 43-times capped Italian winger:

Our own Joe Prince-Wright was on the scene as Saints were very well-represented in Italy.