Last Thursday and Friday saw Europe’s elite clubs (all 80 of them) discover their opponents in the upcoming Champions League and Europa League group stages, and it threw up some cracking match-ups to look forward to.
Scotland’s sole representatives, Celtic, drew Ajax, Fenerbahçe and Molde, all teams who failed miserably in the qualifiers for the Big Cup, meaning that the Europa League Group A is like a Champions League Anonymous meeting, where all the clubs will meet and get through the emptiness together and talk about how they long for the buzz again. They know they can’t have it any more and we need to use the 6 game, 12 step programme together. Seriously though, it’s a pretty good draw for Celtic, tough but attractive ties with a reasonable chance of progress, plus it’s easily the most entertaining so far thanks to the #thatsnotaknife hashtag. I also feel great sympathy for any football-oblivious US students who just happen to wander through Amsterdam on the night of Ajax vs. Fenerbahçe after a day on the ol’ space cake.
UEFA Champions League
Had Celtic defeated Malmo they would have also landed in Group A in the Champions League , where the draw was exactly what they would have wanted – 2 real big guns they haven’t played recently in PSG and Real Madrid, where, chances are, Celtic would have been murdered but would have been a chance to see some greats at Parkhead and great away trips for travelling supporters, plus one other team which they had a chance of pipping to the Europa League spot. If wishes were horses…
Prediction – 1st: PSG 2nd: Real Madrid
This group sees the return of Manchester United to Europe’s top table after a 7-1 aggregate win over Belgium’s Club Brugge. It could have been worse in terms of the draw, pulling PSV, whose best player they have already signed in Memphis, Wolfsburg who will be without talisman Kevin De Bruyne (although bringing in Draxler will go some way to help) and CSKA Moscow. They stand a really decent chance of getting through the group but I can’t see them going much further unless Anthony Martial proves to be worth every penny of the £36 million, I honestly have no idea if he is or not!
Prediction – 1st: Man Utd 2nd: Wolfsburg
First time qualifiers Astana from Kazakhstan meet Benfica, Atletico Madrid and Galatasaray. I’ve decided to adopt Astana: I always support someone likely to get hoovered when Celtic don’t make it to the Big Cup and they seem as good a shout as any! Looks very favourable for Atletico here, I can see them easily winning the group, Astana struggling to get a point and the other two running a tight race for the second qualifying spot.
Prediction – 1st: Atletico 2nd: Galatasaray
Group D is Manchester City, Borussia Monchengladbach, Juventus and Sevilla. Certainly could have been easier for City but I don’t think it’s as difficult as they’ve had in previous seasons, domestically City have been superb so far whereas Juventus have 0 point from a possible 6 following Tevez/Pirlo/Vidal’s departures. Sevilla have the same record and Monchengladbach have 0 points from 9, really struggling to combine domestic action with the Champions League, before it’s even started
Prediction – 1st: Manchester City 2nd: Juventus (with Sevilla running them close)
Defending champions Barcelona meet Bayer Leverkusen, Roma, and BATE Borisov in Group E, another where I expect the top seed to walk it, the 2nd and 3rd to be relatively close and the 4th seed to be nowhere even close. Roma have never really recovered from the 7-1 hiding from Munich in last season’s group stage but signings like Salah and Dzeko could be great for them and I fancy them to pip Leverkusen to second.
Prediction – 1st: Barcelona 2nd: Roma
Group F sees Arsenal meet their current European tormentors Bayern, who it feels like give them a lesson (read: hiding) every year, but at least they can qualify along with them this year, which I expect them to do at the expense of Olympiacos and Dinamo Zagreb.
Prediction – 1st: Bayern 2nd: Arsenal
Group G is Chelsea, who despite the poor domestic start, should comfortably get through against Jose’s old team Porto, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Dynamo Kiev, I’ll back Porto to qualify before being eaten alive by someone in the last 16.
Prediction – 1st: Chelsea 2nd: Porto
Group H is the group that will always be on last when it comes to the highlights, featuring as it does Zenit St. Petersburg, Valencia, Lyon and Gent. Ironically I fancy this to be the closest of the groups, with possibly only a couple of points separating all four teams.
Prediction – 1st: Valencia 2nd: Lyon
England’s Europa League representatives both drew perfectly winnable groups should they decide to take the tournament seriously, Liverpool are faced with Rubin Kazan, Bordeaux and Sion, while Spurs take on Monaco, Anderlecht and Qarabag.
Whether they take it seriously or not is totally up to them. I honestly find the English teams’ attitude to the Europa League incredibly depressing, especially the likes of West Ham fielding a reserve team in Romania this year, what an insult to the fans who have travelled all that way. It’s actually comical how these mid-table English teams sacrifice the chance of a run in Europe to try and finish slightly higher in the Premier League, where the best they can hope for is to qualify for the… err… Europa League.
It’s an obscure arrogance to treat European competition with such disdain, especially when the richest league in the world can’t get a single team anywhere near the big one these days. I could possibly understand the likes of Liverpool towards end of season giving preference to the league if they were in the hunt for a Champions League place, but West Ham dismissing the qualifiers? The argument would be that the riches are greater for finishing higher in league but if coming one spot higher in mid-table of an underperforming, cash rich league is preferable to European glory then the English game really does have serious problems.
Thankfully almost every other country sees European participation as the icing on the cake of a football season, and will battle it out for glory and treat it with the respect it deserves. Roll on 15th September, I’ll hopefully be over Malmo and on the road to recovery – and hopefully Basel – by then!