Thanks to UEFA’s quirky system for seeding teams based on their prior performance in Europe, the draw for the group stage of the Champions League produced a blockbuster group of death and several others, where at least three teams will battle for two available spots.
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There is no doubt that the members of Group A will feel the hardest done by as Bayern Munich, Villarreal, Manchester City and Napoli were drawn together in the “group of death.” Manchester City was located in Pot 3 while Napoli found itself in Pot 4; when both "wild cards" landed in Group A, it created the most top-heavy group in the Champions League by far.
Favorites Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid all will have reason to believe they can comfortably secure one of the two top spots and automatic qualification for next spring’s knockout competition while three other sections look more unpredictable.
Although defending champion Barcelona is in Group H with fellow perennial power AC Milan, the other two in the group are lightweights: BATE Borisov and Viktoria Plzen. It should be plain-sailing for coach Pep Guardiola’s side.
Chelsea will have some concern about landing in Group E alongside Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen and the harmless Genk side. Chelsea has just purchased Valencia star Juan Mata, who will have a "homecoming" when the teams meet in group play, and if the odds favor the English side to advance, it could be a toss-up for the other place between Valencia and the Bundesliga side from Leverkusen.
Manchester United got what looks like a sweetheart draw, paired with Benfica, FC Basel and Otelul Galati. This kind of assignment should bring a smile to the face of Sir Alex Ferguson. Benfica is on the rebound, but the other two are European minnows who shouldn’t bother the men from Old Trafford or the Reds from Estadio da Luz.
Real Madrid’s Group D contains French perennial Lyon, as well as Ajax and Dinamo Zagreb. The draw should prove quite navigable for manager Jose Mourinho. Ajax is a shadow of its former glory days while the Croatians are also a cut below the European elite. Lyon lost its French crown last season but qualified smoothly in a playoff against Rubin Kazan.
Group B is headed by Inter Milan and should also offer a qualifying road for one of the two Russian entries, CSKA Moscow. French champion Lille will be in the fight, while Trabzonspor, who entered at the last minute when Fenerbahce was disqualified from the competition due to match-fixing investigations, is along for the ride.
FC Porto heads Group G where the other Russian entry, Zenit St. Petersburg, looks likely to make a run for the knockout stage. Last year’s surprise package, Shakhtar Donetsk and APOEL Nicosia, complete the section as the Ukrainians will fancy their chances to go forward.
Group F looks as wide open as Group A, but for quite different reasons. Arsenal – placed into Pot 1 by virtue of its past rather than its present value – joins Marseille, Olympiakos and Bundesliga champion Borussia Dortmund. If Arsenal got a break being seeded, that vanished when Dortmund — a wild card in Pot 4 – landed in their section. Marseille might change group expectations while Olympiakos would appear to be the rank outsider.
All of the action starts September 13-14 with everything live on the FOX family of soccer networks. UEFA will release the match schedule after balancing the needs of European television and analyzing the winter weather patterns in Europe.