Man City enters perfect UCL storm
Call it a fluke. Call it an aberration. Call it a perfect storm.
On a shiny podium in Monaco, a handful of football legends, scrubbed up to the nines, drew the defending domestic champions of England, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands into a single group of the 2012-13 edition of the UEFA Champions League on Thursday. From the little balls emerged tickets reading Real Madrid, Manchester City, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund: all of them subsequently assigned to Group D.
And thus emerged the dominant narrative for this year’s tussle for Europe’s premier club trophy: the Group of Death. Whereas the other favorites were drawn into relative equitable and eminently survivable groups, these four, who boast 14 Champions League trophies between them – even though City has none – were saddled with each other. They will face a grueling three and a half months of group stage play whereas others will have an easier path to the knockout stages, which will certainly take a toll on both continental and domestic chances.
Standing on the stage following the draw to watch yet another Barcelona player snatch a piece of personal silverware away from him – Andres Iniesta claiming the UEFA European Player of the Year award for 2011-12 – Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo sighed deeply when he was asked about his side’s draw. “It’s the most difficult group,” he conceded. “The most competitive group.”
Group D will pit Real Madrid, the continent’s deepest side, which finally broke through Barcelona’s hegemony last season; Manchester City, which has spent lavishly to join Europe’s elite; Borussia Dortmund, which has dazzled its way to back-to-back Bundesliga titles; and Ajax, Europe’s finest producer of young talent.
The formation of this ominous Group of Death is a boon to competitors. By virtue of three of the best sides in the field – Real, City and Dortmund – having fallen into the same group, others have a much simpler course to navigate. Barcelona, for instance, was drawn into Group G with Benfica, Spartak Moscow and Celtic, a simple assignment for a club that needed no favors to compete. It is no accident that Barca’s dynastic European run – winning it in 2008-09 and 2010-11 – has coincided with a series of favorable draws. The group stage draw cannot anoint the tournament’s winner, but it certainly can hamper a club’s campaign from the outset.
Whereas Manchester City will slog through six challenging mid-week games, its cross-town rivals Manchester United will merely face Braga, Galatasaray and CFR Cluj in Group H. This will likely leave United fresher heading into the knockout stages in December and give it a significant edge in the Barclays Premier League.
Bayern Munich, another favorite, will similarly feast on a much-weakened French Lille side and Belarusian upstarts BATE Borisov, while settling for some sort of split with Valencia that would see both teams advance from Group F. Chelsea and Juventus will likely come to a likewise implicit non-aggression arrangement to move out of Group E, laying waste to Shakhtar Donetsk – which could lose star player Willian – and FC Nordsjaelland, which boasts American defender Michael Parkhurst.
AC Milan, a European power with seven Champions League trophies, trailing only Real Madrid’s nine, was handed a convenient Group C, wherein Zenit St. Petersburg will offer its stiffest competition. This should allow a rebuilding club, which lost star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and defender Thiago Silva to cash-showering Paris Saint-Germain and parted with a slew of long-serving veterans, a chance to integrate new players without having to fight for its life from the first game onwards. Because Anderlecht – and its American midfielder Sacha Kljestan – and the imploding Malaga, whose sugar daddy sheikh has cut off funds, shouldn’t offer too much resistance.
That leaves Groups A and B as the other wide-open battle grounds to watch in this year’s edition. The aforementioned Paris Saint-Germain, flush with a host of pricey new stars, will battle with FC Porto and Dynamo Kiev for one of the two places in the next round from Group A, as Dinamo Zagreb will look on enviously. In Group B, a decaying Arsenal will hope to save face by holding off German power Schalke 04, Greek champions Olympiacos and French champions Montpellier.
Yet before the first shrill whistle has rung out, a threesome of once-favored clubs is already facing long odds.
The group stage kicks off on September 18 on FOX Soccer. The final will be held at Wembley Stadium in London on May 25, 2013.