Narrowing the Field
Up until this past weekend it has been a start-stop to the new season in Europe. The domestic leagues got underway in the likes of England, Germany, Spain, France and Italy before the transfer window closed. Then there was a break for World Cup qualifiers last weekend. This week the UEFA Champions League group stage kicks off (games scheduled on Tuesday and Wednesday) and the Europa League has a plethora of games scheduled on Thursday.
The Champions League is the competition that every team and every player in Europe wants to play in. The quality of the play over the last two decades has been exceptional even though the number of potential winners seems to come from an ever shrinking pool of teams.
No team has won the title in consecutive seasons since the European Cup morphed into the UEFA Champions League. Over the last six seasons only eleven different teams (five with multiple appearances) representing five countries have made it as far as the semi-finals.
Spain (9) – Barcelona (6), Real Madrid (3)
England (8) – Manchester United (3), Chelsea (3), Arsenal, Liverpool
Germany (5) – Bayern Munich (3), Schalke 04, Borussia Dortmund
France (1) – Lyon
Italy (1) – Inter
The winners over the last six years have been Barcelona (2), Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Inter.
Last season no English team went further than the round of 16 with Manchester United and Arsenal losing to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich while Chelsea and Manchester City never made it out of the group stage. The media knifes were sharpened last season and any repeat of last season’s overall poor performance by the four English teams will no doubt lead to some metaphorical blood being spilled as well as some robust forms of self-flagellation.
Here is a rundown of what is in store for each of the four English representatives .
On Tuesday United opens against Bayer Leverkusen of Germany at Old Trafford in Group A. Shakhtar Donetsk follows away from home then comes a double header against Real Sociedad – the first away and the second at home. Match day 5 takes United to Germany to play Leverkusen before the group stage finishes at home to Shakhtar Donetsk.
Prospects – Not as an easy a group as some would have you believe but United’s experience of the UEFA Champions League trumps Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad. Shakhtar Donetsk has been a difficult away fixture for many as Chelsea discovered last season but United’s success or otherwise will be largely dictated by their home form.
Odds to qualify – Manchester United -700, Bayer Leverkusen and Shakhtar Donetsk 130, Real Sociedad 170
Arsenal travels to play Marseille on Wednesday before back-to-back games at the Emirates against Napoli and Borussia Dortmund. Match day four brings a trip to Germany to play last season’s Champions League runners-up Dortmund. Marseille at Emirates is then followed by a trip to Italy to play Napoli.
Prospects – Group F is widely regarded as the Group of Death and it is easy to see why. There are no league champions in the foursome but there does appear to be parity. Both Napoli and Borussia Dortmund sport 100% league records so far while Marseille’s one loss in five games came away to Monaco. Not an easy group at all and a case could be made that Arsenal really does need to return from France with at least a draw or even better a win.
Odds to qualify – Borussia Dortmund -275, Arsenal – 150, Napoli evens, Marseille 250
The 2012 European Champions and the 2013 Europa League winners are attempting to complete a European hat trick. Chelsea starts on Wednesday when Swiss side Basel travels to Stamford Bridge. Then there is Steaua Bucharest (away) and Schalke of Germany first away then at home on match day three and match day four. The last two rounds of play have Chelsea in Switzerland and Steaua in London.
Prospects – Group E looks to be pretty straight forward and Chelsea should not only qualify but do so as group winners. All three opponents had to negotiate a way through the qualifying competition. Schalke started the domestic season poorly and also had to fight all the way before knocking off PAOK of Greece in the Champions League play-off round. Steaua also had their work cut out in beating Legia Warsaw at the same stage.
Basel was Chelsea’s opponent in last season’s Europa League semi-final won by the London side 5-2 on aggregate. The Swiss side is easy on the eye and do carry the potential for a shock or two along the way.
Odds to qualify -Chelsea -2,500, Schalke 04 -250, Basel 250, Steaua Bucharest 550
Group D includes Bayern Munich with City at home to the European Champions on match day two and then these two conclude the group stage in Munich on match day six. City plays in the Czech Republic on Tuesday against Viktoria Plzeň of the Czech Republic and the Czechs will be at the Etihad Stadium on match day 5. The back-to-back rounds 3 and 4 have Manchester City traveling first to Moscow to play CSKA with the return encounter two weeks later.
Prospects – Manchester City has exited at the group stage in their only two Champions League appearances in 2012 and 2013. Both times City was drawn in extremely difficult groups but this time City appear to have landed a break. Bayern Munich proved too much for City two seasons ago and so there will be no better measuring stick for the blue side of Manchester. A visit to Moscow seems to threaten more in the anticipation than in actuality while the Viktoria Plzeň offers nothing more than a potential banana skin for the other three teams.
Odds to qualify -Bayern Munich -3,300, Manchester City -500, CSKA Moscow 350, Viktoria Plzen 1400
Other Groups (odds to qualify in brackets)
Group B – Real Madrid (-2,500), Juventus (-500), Galatasaray (333.33) and FC Copenhagen (1,800)
Group C – PSG (-1,200), Benfica (-300), Olympiacos (300) and Anderlecht (500)
Group G – Atletico Madrid (-333.33), Porto (-187.50), Zenit St. Petersburg (-120) and Austria Wien (650),
Group H – Barcelona (-5,000), Milan (-333.33), Ajax (350) and Celtic (800)
The six game group stage concludes December 11 with two qualifiers from each moving into a knock out round of 16 that will start February 18th.
My two teams to buck the odds and qualify – Napoli in Group F and Basel in Group E.
Check back on Monday for an article on the money that is at stake and who the big winner was last season – it might surprise you.