It’s been a difficult summer for the Premier League’s ‘Big Four’. Transfer spending is markedly down on last summer as the credit crunch has bitten, three of their number have lost key players to rivals both domestic and abroad, and their very existence as the elite has been thrown into question by Manchester’s nouveau riche and, whisper it, Tottenham. Yet today’s Champions League draw in Monaco should have given them all something to smile about.
Progress in Europe’s premier club competition can never be taken for granted, and certainly Manchester United and Liverpool in particular will be likely face some testing times – especially on the road. But looking at the overall picture it is difficult to see any of the English entrants falling at the first hurdle, and the stage is set for our domestic fleet to once again advance to the tournament’s sharp end unscathed.
Some early reactions to the draw described Arsenal’s fixtures as a ‘bye’ into the last 16. This is admittedly harsh and somewhat disrespectful to those other teams in Group H, as well as their domestic leagues, yet it is hard to see how Arsène Wenger’s team – especially in their current vein of form – will not comfortably top the group. AZ Alkmaar, as reigning Eredivisie champions, finished last season ahead of teams with a more illustrious European pedigree and should not be taken lightly, and we saw what trouble a Temuri Ketsbaia team can cause the big guns when his Anorthosis Famagusta side drew 3-3 with José Mourinho’s Inter Milan at the same stage last season. Yet Arsenal have more than enough to see themselves through, with Standard Liege rounding off the foursome, and things look rosy for the North London club.
Their opponents this weekend, Manchester United, find themselves facing a somewhat tougher proposition. CSKA Moscow, as Sir Alex Ferguson pointed out in his reflections on the draw, are a side who have been steadily improving over past seasons – along with the Russian league itself – and the 2005 UEFA Cup champions posses some dangerous players such as Vágner Love and Daniel Carvalho. Not the easiest of away trips certainly, although the Luzhniki Stadium to which United travel should provide some comforting memories as the site of their European triumph in 2008. Trips to Turkey are never high on Ferguson’s agenda – witness his statement ‘We’re going back to hell’ upon learning that his side were drawn alongside Galatasaray in 1994, having been dumped out of the competition on away goals by the same opponents the previous season. Certainly United can expect a hostile reception when they travel to face Besiktas, even if it doesn’t quite resemble that of the Ali Yami Sen Stadium in days gone by. Wolfsburg were Pot 4’s danger side, and their run to the UEFA Cup final last year demonstrated why. However, anything less than group winners should be deemed a failure for the English champions, and they’ll be glad to have avoided the possible big name opponents.
Liverpool also avoided Real Madrid and Inter Milan lurking in Pot 2, yet they seem to have the toughest task of the four. Lyon, despite letting their domestic crown slip for the first time in 8 seasons, are tricky European opposition, and have strengthened this summer. Bafétimbi Gomis, Lisandro Lopez and Aly Cissokho have all been brought in this summer – at notable expense- to try and regain the French title, but upsetting some of Europe’s biggest names will not be too far behind in their list of priorities. Fiorentina also provide a significant danger, having finished 4th in last season’s Serie A. They came through a tough qualifying encounter against Sporting Lisbon on away goals, but have a talented squad well managed by Cesare Prandelli. Hungarian champions Debrecen are the underdogs of the pack, this being their first year in the competition proper. Given their draw, and early season teething problems, Rafa Benitez’ side do look like the most vulnerable to an unceremonious early exit, but it should not be expected. Liverpool and Lyon to progress, but in a very tightly fought group.
Finally then to Chelsea, who face the club with whom José Mourinho launched himself onto the world stage and subsequently into the Stamford Bridge hot-seat. Porto have won the Portuguese league four years running now and made it to the knockout stages in this competition for the last three, falling only to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Old Trafford thunderbolt last campaign, so their track record is not to be sniffed at. Lisandro Lopez will be missed from their forward line, but Hulk should provide energy and threat, not to mention some well worn ‘comedy’ for the British commentators. Yet it is Atlético Madrid who perhaps pose the biggest threat, spearheaded as they are by, reputedly, Chelsea’s number one summer transfer target Sergio ‘Kun’ Agüero. His partnership with European Golden Boot holder Diego Forlán is one of Europe’s finest, while in midfield Maxi Rodriguez and Simao Sabrosa pull the strings, and young ’keeper Sergio Asenjo looks a talent. But Chelsea are a side in form, and the only one of England’s quartet not significantly weakened during the transfer window, and with Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia also making their group stage debut and unlikely to progress, it does look like it’ll be an Iberian battle fight for second place.
With Arsenal vanquishing Celtic last night Rangers are this year’s only representatives from north of the border, and they too will not be disheartened by what the balls have handed them (so to speak). Sevilla are undoubtedly a side of great quality and likely group winners, yet although Stuttgart too are dangerous, and Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni are…well, Romanian champions (anyone?), Walter Smith and his men will see this as an excellent chance to make it through the knockout phase for only the second time in their history.
This year’s draw sees nothing to which one could easily affix the moniker ‘group of death’, although Bordeaux and Maccabi Haifa are unlikely to be too chuffed facing up against Bayern Munich and Juventus in Group A, whilst the pairing of AC Milan with Real Madrid’s Galácticos Mk. II will draw significant interest.
It does, though, look undeniably good for the Premier League’s representatives. A tough summer it has indeed been, and the flocking of some of the world’s best players to La Liga has called into question our domestic competition’s claim to be the best in the world. But although the Champions League trophy no longer resides on these shores, British domination in the competition in recent years is undeniable, and tonight’s events have given every hope that it might continue.