Let’s a take a quick gander over the Champions League draw:
Group A: Bayern, Juventus, Bordeaux, Maccabi Haifa. This is an interesting group as three clubs sort of “left behind” recently by European success find themselves grouped together. That said, any group that features Yoann Gourcouff, Franck Ribéry, Gianluigi Buffon, etc. can’t be all that bad. As much as I’d love to see them go through, I can’t see Haifa sneaking through. The key to clubs like Haifa advancing is to present the “big boys” a really dreadful roadtrip full of threatening fans, crumbling stadiums, and terrible weather. Haifa won’t really have any of that. Picks: Juventus and Bayern (especially if their signing of Robben goes through)
Group B: Manchester United, CSKA Moscow, Besiktas, Wolfsburg. Everybody is going to say what a stroll United is going to have here but I am going to say otherwise. Will they advance? Sure, but the trips to Moscow and especially to Istanbul will be very difficult. While United are a safe bet to advance, that second spot is far harder to predict here. Picks: United and Besiktas
Group C: Milan, Real Madrid, Marseille, Zurich. Another tough group as this one features three former champions. I think that, barring complete internal meltdown, Madrid will go through, but that battle for second between l’OM and Milan could be very tight. Milan has more names, but I could see surprise here. Picks: Madrid and Marseille.
Group D: Chelsea, Porto, Atletico, APOEL Nicosia. This group all hinges on whether Atletico will melt down this early in the season. They always blow up internally, it’s just a matter of when. If they do, then Porto will go though, if not, then Atletico will advance. Picks: Chelsea and Atletico.
Group E: Liverpool, Lyon. Fiorentina, Debrecen. Considering how they’ve looked so far, I should pick Liverpool to fail to advance. That said, all Rafa does is win in Europe and I get that feeling that the Lyon dynasty might be coming for a big fall. I know absolutely nothing about Hungarian soccer, so I have nothing to say about Debrecen other than that they’ve won the league four out of the last five years but never advanced to the CL group phase until this year. Looking at Fiorentina’s squad, I am not all that wowed, but they seem to be on the rise in Italy since going broke in the early part of the decade and getting caught up in calciopoly later on. Picks: Liverpool and Fiorentina.
Group F: Barcelona, Inter, Dynamo Kiev, Rubin Kazan. Now this is the group of death. You’ve got two legit powers and two teams with more than a bit of cash and possessing very difficult road trips. It’s hard to pick against the big two clubs here, but if Mourinho struggles to get Inter oriented, they could bomb out early in this group. Picks: Barca and Inter
Group G: Sevilla, Rangers, Stuttgart, Unirea Urziceni. This is the easiest group to pick with Stuttgart and Sevilla standing head and shoulders above the other two. Let’s not forget that Rangers has only advanced out of the group phase once since its inception in the early 90s while losing in that time to FK Kaunas, CSKA Moscow, Fenerbahçe, IFK Gothenburg, and AEK Athens. Picks: Sevilla Stuttgart.
Group H: Arsenal, AZ, Olympiacos, Standard Liège. They are popping champagne corks at the Emirates tonight as they don’t get any Spanish or Italian teams while only facing one moderately difficult roadtrip (Athens) and two easy ones (Alkmaar and Liège). Needless to say, I am thrilled. It’s a new world when Arsenal has an easier route to the group phase than Manchester United. Olympiacos has become some kind of halfway house for wayward players from Premiership and La Liga clubs including Matt Derbyshire, Didier Domi, Olof Mellberg, Raúl Bravo, and Enzo Maresca. They don’t worry me that much. Picks: Arsenal and AZ