There are few easy games coming up in the season’s UEFA Champions League, as a surprisingly balanced draw set up a series of intriguing and competitive groups. But what was a shock was how many rematches also arose, particularly between German and English sides — Bayern Munich and Manchester City; Chelsea and Schalke; and Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund — will all meet again as they did in last year’s group stages.
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If there is a “group of death” this year, it might be in Group E, where Manchester City, Bayern and CSKA will all renew hostilities. Last year, Bayern and City ran away with the group, burying CSKA Moscow dead last, but the games between the two giants were quite competitive. Manchester City lost to Bayern at home 3-1 last October in an imperious show sparked by Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, but recovered to down Bayern on the final day 3-2 after falling behind early. The unlikely hero James Milner scored the critical goal in what was actually a dead match as both teams had long since qualified.
But things are likely to be a bit trickier as this year they are joined not by minnows Viktoria Plzen — but by rising Italian powers Roma. And while Serie A is not what it once was, there are no easy games in Rome.
Elsewhere, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund will now meet for the third time overall, and second time in two years. Last season, Arsenal survived a final day loss to Napoli to squeak into the Round of 16 after Dortmund and Arsenal split their games, with both sides losing at home. The addition of a solid Anderlecht side to this year’s mix and an always tricky test in Turkey against Galatasaray do make this group the second-toughest overall.
But Jose Mourinho is likely to be smiling. His Chelsea will again face Schalke, a team they twice beat 3-0; a weak Maribor side that edged past Celtic; and a Sporting side that while sticky, is not the kind of threat they once were.
Elsewhere, Liverpool was grouped in with Real Madrid and Basel, two sides they know quite well. Liverpool knocked off the reigning champs in 1981 to hoist the European Cup — but were eliminated by Basel in 2002-03. Overall, with first-timers Ludogorets in the mix, Liverpool and Real Madrid have to be the favorites to progress.
Barcelona and PSG also got a kind draw, joined in Group F with Ajax and APOEL. Ajax beat Barcelona in a shock last year 2-1 — but that was after matters had long since been decided. In the opening game, Barcelona torched the former champs 4-0 with Lionel Messi scoring an impressive hat trick.
Atletico and Porto also got balanced draws, with the La Liga champs facing a solid but faded Juventus side along with Olympiakos and Malmo. A rising Porto side is grouped with troubled Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk, Basque powers Athletic Bilbao and minnows BATE.
But there is intrigue in Group C where any of the four sides — Zenit, Benfica, Leverkusen and Monaco — can lay claim to a berth in the next round. All four teams have estimable strengths and notable weaknesses, and these games could be the most balanced of the entire group stage.
The draw, in full. Matchday 1 will take place on Sept. 16-17:
Group A: Atletico Madrid (Spain), Juventus (Italy), Olympiakos (Greece), Malmo (Sweden).
Group B: Real Madrid (Spain), Basel (Switzerland), Liverpool (England), Ludogorets Razgrad (Bulgaria).
Group C: Benfica (Portugal), Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia), Bayer Leverkusen (Germany), Monaco (France).
Group D: Arsenal (England), Borussia Dortmund (Germany), Galatasaray (Turkey), Anderlecht (Belgium).
Group E: Bayern Munich (Germany), Manchester City (England), CSKA Moscow (Russia), AS Roma (Italy).
Group F: Barcelona (Spain), Paris Saint-Germain (France), Ajax (Netherlands), APOEL (Cyprus).
Group G: Chelsea (England), Schalke (Germany), Sporting Lisbon (Portugal), Maribor (Slovenia).
Group H: Porto (Portugal), Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), Athletic Bilbao (Spain), BATE Borisov (Belarus).