Champions League Group Stage Draw: Parity makes ‘Group of Death’ a tough label


Parity prevailed in today’s UEFA Champions League Group Stage draw where 32 teams were slotted into eight of the most evenly matched groups in tournament’s history.

The balance of the draw makes identifying a ‘Group of Death’ difficult but if it must be done, then Arsenal finds itself on the short end of the stick in Group F. The North London side, that qualified for the group stage by eliminating Fenerbahce 5-0 on aggregate in the play-offs, have been pitted against last year’s finalist, Borussia Dortmund, big spending Italian side Napoli and French outfit Olympique Marseille.

The matches are set to kick-off on September 17th. Below is a complete breakdown of all the groups.

source: Getty ImagesGroup A: Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad

David Moyes’ hopes at winning a Champions League title took a huge boost when his side enjoyed a favorable Champions League draw when it was paired with Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk, German side Bayer Leverkusen, La Liga outfit Real Sociedad. 

On paper, United should have little difficulty waltzing through this group, as their talent and experience is far superior to their competitors. On the pitch, however, they’ll do well to take nothing for granted.

Shakhtar are European veterans, having won the UEFA Cup in 2009 and produced some fine Champions League performances of late, including last year where they made it to the Round of 16 before falling to finalists Dortmund 5-2 on aggregate.

After losing starters Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Fernandinho and Ravzan Rat the Ukranian squad is in a rebuilding year and will face stiff competition for the second spot in the group with Leverkusen and Sociedad, who are both currently playing high quality football. The German side will look to goal-scorer Stefan Kießling to provide the edge while Mexican forward Carlos Vela will be primed to guide his side to the Round of 16.

Group B: Real Madrid, Juventus, Galatasaray, Copenhagen source: Getty Images

Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid face one of the most difficult groups in the Champions League as they match up with Italian champions Juventus, Turkish Super League champions Galatasaray and Danish Superliga champions FC Copenhagen.

Madrid and Juventus will be the heavy favorites to come out of this group but traveling to Turkey is never an easy feat, especially when Didier Drogba is leading the line. Copenhagen will be the long shot to advance but the Danish side has plenty of European experience of late.

source:  Group C: Benfica, Paris Saint-Germain, Olympiacos, Anderlecht

Big money spenders Paris Saint-Germain have what is perhaps the easiest route through to the Round of 16.

Traveling to Portugal to face Europa League finalists Benfica and to Greece to play Super League winners Olympiacos will not be easy but the quality of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani should be more than enough to overcome any hostile environments Le Parisiens may face.

Sacha Kljestan’s club Anderlecht, who won the 2012-13 Belgian Pro League, enter the tournament with a solid backbone of European experience but advancing through this group looks to be an uphill battle.

Group D: Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow, Manchester City,  Viktoria Plzen source:

Champions League title holders Bayern Munich have relatively clear-cut route through Group D as they face Manchester City, Russian champions CSKA Moscow and Czech champions Viktoria Plzen.

Manchester City will be relieved at having escaped the ‘Group of Death’ for the first time in three years and will look to the tactics of Manuel Pellegrini to guide them Champions League success as he did at Villareal and Malaga.

source:  Group E: Chelsea, Schalke 04, Basel, Steaua Bucharest 

2012 Champions League winners Chelsea will be licking their chops as they face German side Schalke 04, Swiss club Basel and Romanian outfit Steaua Bucharest.

Schalke have the talent to find their way out of Group E but doubts have been raised after the German side narrowly snuck into the group stage after defeating Panathinaikos 4-3 win in Athens.

Swiss champions Basel can’t be counted out after Mohamed Salah and Fabian Frei helped the RotBlau to some impressive performances in last year’s Europa League. Basel stands alongside Steaua Bucharest as long-shots to make it through the group and return to the stage for the first time since 2008-09, where they finished in last place.

Group F: Arsenal, Olympique Marseille, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli source:

If this group looks familiar that’s because three of the four clubs – Arsenal, Marseille and Dortmund – all met in Group F back in the 2011-12 Champions League.

Borussia Dortmund will enter the stage as slight favorites after progressing to last year’s final, where they lost 2-1 to Bayern Munich. BVB lost playmaker Mario Gotze to Munich this summer but managed to hang on to striker Robert Lewandowski and replenish the ranks with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, to name a few.

Dortmund is anything but safe, however, with Arsenal and Napoli in the group. Arsenal’s Champions League resume speaks for itself while Napoli have lost Serie A golden boot winner Edinson Cavani but have added quality signings that include Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon, Raul Albiol and Pepe Reina.

Marseille will struggle to do damage in the group after qualifying for the UCL after finishing as runners-up in last season’s Ligue 1.

source:  Group G: Porto, Atletico Madrid, Zenit Saint Petersburg, Austria Wien

Group G poses yet another incredibly competitive group, with Portuguese champions Porto the slight favorites to advance.

It will be anything but easy, however, as Zenit Saint Petersburg will look to make up for last year’s showing where they finished third and were banished to the Europa League. Atletico Madrid will also be fancying their chances after finishing third in last year’s La Liga and starting this year’s campaign in an equally bright light with two straight victories.

Austria Wien will be up against it but the opponents would do well to avoid underestimating the side that knocked off Dinamo Zagreb 4-3 in aggregate in qualifying.

Group H: Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax, Celtic source:

If Group F is worthy of the moniker ‘Group of Death’, Group H is a close second.

The group is highlighted by Lionel Messi’s Barcelona, who will look to re-establish their European dominance under UEFA Champions League neophyte Gerardo Martino. It will be up to the Argentinian boss to guide the Blaugrana past Celtic, who famously defeated Barca 2-1 in the second leg of the two sides’ meeting in last year’s group stage.

Barcelona will also face off with AC Milan in a repeat of last year’s Round of 16 tilt where the Spanish giants roared back from a 2-0 first leg loss to score four goals in the second leg and win 4-2 on aggregate. Completing the group is Dutch powerhouse Ajax, who impressed in last year’s tournament when they finished 3rd in a group with Dortmund, Manchester City and Real Madrid.

The Group Stage matches will take place over the course of six matchdays beginning September 17th and concluding on December 11th. The top two teams from each Group will move on to the Round of 16, while the third place side will drop into the Europa League and the fourth placed club will be eliminated from European competition.

The Round of 16 will be played over two legs in February and March 2014, with the winners continuing on to a two-legged Quarterfinal in early April. The winners will march on to the Semifinals, which will be played in late April, before the winners head to the final at the Estadio de Luz in Lisbon, Portugal on May 24th, 2014.

Mourinho “working like never before” to turn Chelsea around

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Jose Mourinho got the dreaded much-needed vote of confidence from Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich last weekend, seemingly giving the Portuguese manager a temporary stay of execution despite the Blues’ worst start to a season in 37 years.

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Speaking this week, Mourinho has revealed that while he’s thankful to have been kept on at the club for which he regularly professes his love, he still thinks it was no-brainer for Abramovich. In other words, Mourinho’s not backing down from his incredible, seven-minute rant to one question following Saturday’s defeat to Southampton.

Mourinho, on what he’s doing to turn Chelsea around — quotes from the Guardian:

“It shows the confidence of Abramovich in the manager who has won three Premier League titles with this club. I thank him and I keep working.

“What’s going on? I do not know. The results with Chelsea at the moment have been really bad. I cannot hide that reality, and I don’t want to. And I struggle to find an explanation. But I assure you: I’m working like never before and we will come out of this. And there is also the Champions League that we will not neglect, for certain.”

What did you expect from Mourinho? Well, you know, I should probably be fired, but thanks to Mr. Abramovich for not realizing this and keeping me employed? It’s simultaneously interesting and the least surprising thing ever, though, that Mourinho claims to not know what’s wrong with Chelsea at the moment. Of course he has a theory (or five), and of course he’s “working like never before” to correct it.

[ MORE: Ozil, Coquelin say Arsenal can win the title this season ]

The most fascinating thing about Chelsea’s sluggish start to the season is to see, hear and read Mourinho speaking from a position of powerlessness. Always the clever one, the one dictating where the discussion goes, the one in charge of every press interaction, Saturday’s rant felt like watching a desperate Mourinho grasping for anything by which to pull himself back up.

Reports link Guardiola with Manchester City summer move

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There are claims out of Spain that Manchester City has a verbal agreement to bring Pep Guardiola to town when his Bayern Munich contract expires in June.

Don’t expect comment from Guardiola, who bristles when discussing his future. In the past he’s hinted he might not be the right man for the Bavarian side, but has lamented any questions about clubs other than Bayern.

Now Mundo Deportivo writer Francesc Aguilar says there’s a secret agreement between Guardiola and Manchester City director of football Txiki Begiristain to reunite at the Etihad Stadium this summer.

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Both Barcelona buffs and former Spanish internationals, Begiristain was Barca’s director of football when Guardiola took over for Frank Rjikaard in 2008.

Manuel Pellegrini signed a contract extension this summer and has led the club to a Premier League title, though the club has struggled in European competition. For what it’s worth, the Manchester Evening News got rumor reaction from Sergio Aguero:

On the latest Guardiola rumour, Kun said: “It has been talked about a lot. I don’t know him, but he’s a great manager and it’s wonderful to have the best managers train you.”

But he also added: “I’m very good with Manuel Pellegrini, we talk a lot. I’m happy in the team and with him, but the club will be the one who chooses who comes in.”

In other words, “I’m really good, and they pay me well enough that I’m prepared to play for any big name that arrives.”

It’s a story to keep up with, even as it intrudes on the seasons of two big, rich European clubs.