The draws have now been completed for both the Champions and Europa League group stages and as per usual there is the apparent ‘Group of Death’ and those where two clear favourites are emerging for qualification to the next knockout phase.
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea appear to have a fairly easy passage in Group E with the inconsistent Schalke 04 earmarked as their main challengers. Meanwhile, their London neighbours Arsenal have been selected to play in a particularly difficult group with Borussia Dortmund, Napoli and Marseille. Marseille may be regarded as the weakest of the four teams but they possess a strong attacking line-up which has been strengthened by the purchase of Dimitri Payet from Lille.
Defending champions Bayern Munich face Manchester City who have yet to perform well in the Champions League and the unpredictable CSKA Moscow, who, despite winning the Russian double, have fared poorly in European competition since winning the UEFA Cup in 2005.
Barcelona and AC Milan could be considered as clear favourites in Group H, although Ajax and Celtic may emerge as dark horses in the event of Milan displaying any of their frequent erratic fluctuations in form.
In contrast, Group A features several teams capable of qualifying. Manchester United are expected to be the strongest team but Bayer Leverkusen are a decent outfit having beaten Bayern Munich at Allianz Arena last season. Real Sociedad are an improving Spanish
team who beat Barcelona 3-2 in a league match during a strong finish in the last campaign while Shakhtar Donetsk will also provide their customary stern challenge.
A glance at the draw for the Europa League would suggest that Tottenham will not encounter any serious challengers until the later stages, when the third placed Champions League teams become involved. Their main challengers on paper in Group K would appear to be Anzhi Makhachkala, but their owner has decided to reduce the team budget leading to the loss of Samuel Eto’o among others.
One team worth watching could be Zulte-Waregem in Group D. Despite struggling to overcome APOEL of Nicosia in the play-off round, they are a progressive club who finished in their highest ever position of 2nd in the Belgian Pro League and have made a promising start to this campaign. Rubin Kazan, Wigan and Maribor await them in a very open group.
Group A has not been kind on Dutch team PSV Eindhoven who face the prospect of lengthy trips to Dinamo Zagreb, Chornomorets Odesa and Ludogorets Razgrad of Bulgaria. Although several players departed during the summer, including the impressive Kevin Strootman, they should progress to the next phase.
As ever, there will be a few shocks emerging as the teams contest the groups from September until December.
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