UEFA Champions League: Looking at both the deadly and perfectly safe groups

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Amid the tidal wave of instant analysis that ravaged us in the wake of yesterday’s UEFA Champions League draw came a seminal moment in the etymology of “Group of Death.” The subtle conflict between two, competing definitions ended in a rout, the “no easy games” view eviscerated like the paper slip-carrying balls Steve McManaman relentlessly twisted in two. What survived was the idea that every tournament must have a “Group of Death,” with Group D earning this year’s unfortunate moniker.

The group drew Real Madrid, a co-favorite, out of Pot A. When English Premier League champions Manchester City came out of Pot B, Death Watch was on, though most flicked it off when Paris Saint-Germain, destined to go to group A or D, were slotted with Porto and Dynamo Kyiv. When Dutch champions Ajax took PSG’s place, Group D became a difficult though not exceptional group, even after German champions Borussia Dortmund ratcheted up the level of difficulty. Ultimately, the foursame was almost but not quite as fearsome as last year’s toughest group: Bayern Munich, City, Napoli and Villarreal.

That the group wasn’t as deep as last year’s toughest should have precluded the loose use of “Group of Death.” Or perhaps there’s a more commonsensical reason to avoid a term that would be at home in a History Channel documentary or Hunger Games sequel. The cliché is crass, lacks elegance, creativity, or cleverness, evoking emotion and imagery that has little place in sport. Us obsessives who devote too much time to things like soccer already have overused, overdramatic Bill Shankly quotes to buttress our passions. We don’t need to imply the ultimate stakes when talking about a stupid tournament draw.

But let’s, for the sake of discussion, put aside all these qualms about the label. Even if you’re fine with using “Group of Death,” applying it to Group D overstates some of the clubs’ credentials. Borussia Dortmund is a quality side, but having finished fourth on their group upon returning to Champions League last season, BVB showed it takes more than winning a major European league to be a relevant in UCL. The same logic holds for Manchester City, who also failed to get out of their group last season. As for Ajax, it’s nice that people still feel romantic about the long passed glory of the club and its league, but Ajax haven’t advanced to the knockout round since 2005-06. Despite the talents of City and Dortmund (and the past at Ajax), these are not the resumes of continental powers.

But here, I’m making the mistake of using the old definition of “Group of Death”. Does it matter that City, Ajax, and Dortmund still have something to prove in Europe? Yes, but only relative to the other groups, and when you look at the draw’s other seven quartets, Group D seems strongest.

Group A

Teams (in order of pot draw, A-to-D): Porto (Portugal), Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine), Paris Saint-Germain (France), Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia)

PSG’s the clear favorite, with Porto and Dynamo likely fighting for second. They’ll do so on the third and fourth match days of the group (Oct. 24 and Nov. 6). Porto will be bolstered by having won in Ukraine last year (over Shakhtar Donetsk, in group stage), but they also lost group stage matches at Zenit (Russia) and APOEL (Cyprus). They’ll be favored to go through.

Group B

Teams: Arsenal (England), Schalke 04 (Germany), Olympiacos (Greece), Montpellier (France)

Depending on how high you are on Arsenal, this may be the weakest group (though the foil hats touting warm ball conspiracies will focus on Manchester United’s group). Schalke, semifinalists two years ago, will be favored to go through over Olympiacos, though the teams’ Sept. 18, group-opening match in Piraeus will quickly render pre-tournament odds irrelevant.

Group C

Teams: Milan (Italy), Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia), Anderlecht (Belgium), Málaga (Spain)

Zenit got a monkey off their back by getting out of group last year. With Milan and Málaga both having taken steps back (talent-wise) from last year, Luciano Spalletti’s team have a chance to take this group. Anderlecht, Belgium’s biggest club (but one that hasn’t been in the tournament in six years), will have a chance if they play to their talent; however, it’s a big ask for a squad to leap into Champions League and have an immediate impact. Look for Milan to join Zenit in the Round of 16.

Group D

Teams: Real Madrid (Spain), Manchester City (England), Ajax (Netherlands), Borussia Dortmund (Germany)

Real Madrid should win this group, though trips to Manchester and Dortmund ensure they’ll have a tougher time this year than last, when they went 6-0-0 in group with a +17 difference. The quartet’s second spot will come down to City and Dortmund, with the clubs meeting in Germany on Dec. 4 on the last day of group play. Give City the slight edge.

Group E

Teams: Chelsea (England), Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), Juventus (Italy), Nordsjaelland (Denmark)

Chelsea should have no problem with this group, with their Nov. 20 trip to Turin one of the more intriguing nights of group stage. Juventus is coming off a tumultuous summer that ended with their head coach suspended while the club added Lucio, Kwadwo Asamoah, Mauricio Isla and Sebastian Giovinco to a team that went undefeated in league. They have the talent to beat Shakhtar, but as we saw the last time Juventus returned from a Champions League sojourn (failing to make it out of group in 2009-10), it’s difficult to hit the ground running after taking a break.

Group F

Teams: Bayern Munich (Germany), Valencia (Spain), Lille (France), BATE Borisov (Belarus)

F is a refreshingly straight-forward group. There’s a clear first, second, third and fourth choice, a dynamic that usually means the two-vs.-three games will be the best of the group. Valencia host the first of those matches on Oct. 2, with Lille getting the return game at the Grand Stade on Dec. 5. Winner of that mini tournament likely moves on with Bayern

Group G

Teams: Barcelona (Spain), Benfica (Portugal), Spartak Moscow (Russia), Celtic (Scotland)

Last season, Benfica defeated Russia’s best (Zenit) in the Round of 16 to make the quarterfinals. This year, their main obstacle to a return trip to the knockout round will be another, lesser Russian side. Spartak has added some valuable pieces since January (Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Kim Kallstrom, Romulo, Juan Insaurralde), but bringing back nearly the same team that made the final eight last year, Benfica should go through with Barcelona.

Group H

Teams: Manchester United (England), Braga (Portugal), Galatasaray (Turkey), CFR Cluj (Romania)

The foil hats got more ammunition on Thursday. How does Manchester United continue to get these types of group stage draws? If only there was some kind of – oh, I don’t know – actual proof of a pro-United conspiracy, this would be something worth talking about. As is, the Red Devils get a quartet so easy it would take an even greater breakdown than last year’s to miss out on the knockout round. Braga, having gone 3-3-0 (W-L-D) in their Champions League debut two years ago, could have trouble with Galatasaray, but with Turkish teams perpetually underperforming in Europe, it’s hard to pick the Super Lig champions.