SSC Napoli v Bologna FC - Serie A

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

“Overweight” Costa comes to Mourinho’s defense

Diego Costa, Chelsea FC
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Diego Costa says he and his Chelsea teammates are to blame for Chelsea’s horrid start to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

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Speaking Thursday, during a bit of downtime over the current international break (Costa was left out of Vicente del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s final two EURO 2016 qualifiers this week), Costa placed the majority of blame at the feet of the entire team, but went on to most harshly critique himself for coming into the season unfocused and “overweight.”

Costa, on his lack of fitness and form to begin the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“We know we’re not in the form we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season. We need to blame the players because we came back from holiday very confident, thinking we could go back into how it was last season, and then realized the team was already in a bad situation.

“I’m going to be very honest: maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 percent as we were supposed to be when we got here. I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game. You can be selfish and blame it on the manager but I’m not going to do that. I’m responsible 100%, and so are the other guys.

Given that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with the defending Premier League champions, hearing someone — anyone — speak up and explain the club’s worst start to a season in 37 years will surely be a welcome sound to any Blues supporter’s ears.

[ MORE: Liverpool appoint Klopp as manager | Allardyce to Sunderland? ]

Costa, who is eligible to return from suspension next weekend when Aston Villa visit Stamford Bridge, has scored just one goal in league play this season (six appearances) after scoring 20 in 26 games last season.

Sam Allardyce to open talks with Sunderland

Sam Allardyce, West Ham United FC
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Now that Liverpool have selected and named their new manager, it appears Sunderland are finally ready to move forward with their own managerial search. (That’s clearly a joke, because it implies Liverpool and Sunderland ever duke it out for the same managerial candidate.)

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Anyway, the Black Cats will have to hire someone to replace the recently-departed Dick Advocaat at some point. We all knew that, despite the fact he’s probably earned a shot at that level, Bob Bradley was never really going to be considered for the job. With that in mind, if you’re not going to endear yourself to the entire United States of America with this hire, you might as well go for the best unemployed manager who’ll actually consider your approach.

That’s what Sunderland chairman Ellis Short appears to have done, as it was reported Thursday that despite an initial reluctance from Sam Allardyce — let’s be honest, he actually was holding out hope for the Liverpool job — the 60-year-old most recently in charge of West Ham United was willing and ready to enter into negotiations with the northeastern club.

One of the major sticking points during Sunderland’s courting of Allardyce is expected to be his demand for autonomy in the transfer market as well as a sizable transfer budget to sign his own players during the January window.

[ MORE: Advocaat: Sunderland squad too thin, chairman to blame ]

Allardyce seems like the no. 1 guy you’d like to bring in to steady a capsized ship — cough Sunderland cough — in any situation. Not only does he have a successful track record in the Premier League, but he’s the kind of no-nonsense leader a club like Sunderland so desperately needs as they find themselves in yet another relegation battle just eight games into the new season.

Short hopes to have Allardyce signed, sealed and delivered when the Premier League returns to action next weekend. In that event, Allardyce’s first game in charge of Sunderland would be a trip to West Bromwich Albion. His first home fixture? Home to Tyne-Wear derby rivals Newcastle United, a club whose boisterous fanbase still holds a great deal of disdain for Big Sam. Sometimes the football gods really are looking out for us.