The Champions League group stage draw was cause for mild desperation and exaggerated despair, as per the norm. With five English clubs in the competition this year (and no Arsenal), there are hopes that they can make it deep into the knockouts. The Premier League’s coefficient can do with a boost after several years of underperformance in European competition, and with the rarity of having five English sides, this year is England’s big shot.
The draw provided varying levels of difficulties for the sides. Manchester United got the easiest draw amongst all five teams by a mile. Basel, Benfica and CSKA Moscow should provide United’s deep squad ample game-time as Mourinho seeks to balance the various competitions United are in. One storyline will be new signing Victor Lindelöf’s return to Benfica, where he’ll hope he plays. Basel and Benfica are both comfortable away trips, while CSKA Moscow, though comfortable opposition, will be a long and arduous away trip. United will do well not to underestimate the three sides, as they could pose several banana skins, but if all goes well qualification will be wrapped up earlier and United home wins will likely feature strongly in many football accumulator bets during the group phase.
The same can be said for Liverpool. Sevilla are the toughest side in the group and will pose questions both home and away with their plethora of skilful players. Spartak Moscow, while champions last season, have started badly this season with coach Massimo Carrera under immense pressure. Former transfer target Quincy Promes will pose a danger. Maribor on the other hand should be the whipping boys of the group. Despite the away trip to Moscow, this group looks gentle enough for Liverpool to go through without any hassle.
Manchester City may have landed the most pleasing clash of the group stages in Napoli. Maurizio Sarri has Napoli playing some of the best football in Europe right now, which makes their two games against Guardiola’s City a mouth-watering clash. City also landed the champions of Netherlands (Feyenoord) and Ukraine (Shakhtar); with the exodus of players at Feyenoord, they will struggle to hit the heights of last season, but the Brazilian-led Shakhtar are always a tricky proposition, especially the away trip to Ukraine. But City should be able to progress with minimal issue.
Chelsea landed one of the toughest groups, facing both Atletico Madrid and Roma. The Atletico game will be a re-union for Courtois, Luis and the exiled Diego Costa; the Roma clash a return for Antonio Rudiger. The Blues will be wary not to drop points early on, for the two sides pose considerable danger to their hopes of progression. Qarabag are the unknown entity here, and with a long away trip and unknown opposition, could be the dark horses in home games. All in all, not a welcome draw for Conte’s thin squad.
Lastly, Tottenham will host both Dortmund and Real Madrid in their temporary Wembley Stadium. While fans complain of the unlucky draw, it is a big opportunity for them to show the extent of their progression through several big games, especially the away trips to a Dembele-less Dortmund and Madrid. Gareth Bale facing Tottenham will be one storyline to watch. The fourth team, APOEL, should ensure Tottenham’s worst-case scenario is a spot in the Europa League.
The Champions League is back. English clubs will hope for some long-needed success. Roll on the first game.