Many football fans around Europe awaited their team’s fate in the Champions League draw on Thursday, hoping to avoid tough opposition. More than ever this season, the third and fourth pots of lower seeded teams contained very worthy opponents, including the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, Bayer Leverkusen, Lille and Manchester City.
As we have seen in recent years, no team relishes a trip thousands of miles away to the other side of Europe, and the teams with smaller squads can suffer in terms of domestic performance as a result. Thankfully, the English clubs appear to have avoided such arduous travels, with only Manchester United anticipating the prospect of visiting Romania to play FC Otelul Galati. Arsneal won’t particularly be looking forward to a trip to Olympiacos however, with their away form being called into question last season in Europe.
In terms of their opposition this year, Arsenal fans would have been fairly optimistic after Olympiacos and Marseille were draw out into their group, meaning they avoid potentially much more tricky ties with 2nd and 3rd seeded sides. However, when German champions Dortmund were pulled out of the proverbial hat to make up group F, it changed the complexion of Arsenal’s task ahead slightly, with the potential for slip-ups and no easy points. Even so, I would expect Arsenal to qualify from that group, probably along with Dortmund, however the key games for them may well be away at Olympiacos and Dortmund. If they can pick up points on their travels then they should be on their way to the last 16, but it is by no means a through route for them, particularly with a squad of limited depth.
Chelsea should also be expected to see off the opposition in their group, although can expect stiff competition from Valencia and Bayer Leverkusen. An interesting sub-plot for Chelsea fans, will certainly be a return to Spain to play his former club for Juan Mata, and a chance to see Michael Ballack play against them since leaving for Leverkusen. The other team to make up group E are Belgian outfit Genk who, even as champions of their domestic league, shouldn’t pose too much threat. I believe that Chelsea should qualify from their group, but should be wary of not losing to the other two heavyweights in either of the two matches if they want to finish top.
Manchester United perhaps received the kindest draw out of the four English clubs, matched against Benfica, Basel and Otelul Gelati. With the amount of rotational squad players that United have at their disposal who should be capable of taking maximum points away from these games, Sir Alex Ferguson may well exercise his option to rest players, particularly when travelling away. The only tricky game could be the away tie with the Primeira Liga runners up Benfica, who incidentally finished a massive 21 points behind the Portuguese champions Porto.
On the blue side of Manchester however, City have found themselves in a tough group alongside Napoli, Villarreal and Bayern Munich. Being third seeds, they weren’t expected to be given easy match-ups, but City have landed themselves in what may be conceived to be a ‘group of death’.
However, with a big squad and a good start to the season, I would back them to get out of it and into the last 16, alongside Munich. They obviously have quality players who are more than capable of playing at the level required and have experience doing so. Another advantage is the unknown factor as many teams in Europe will not have faced this new-look Manchester City side before and, although they wont be underestimated, they may be hard to play against tactically.
In general, I would expect all English teams to come through their groups, but perhaps not all in top spot. Arsenal and Manchester City may struggle to win theirs and this has the potential to set up a difficult knock-out phase. The key will probably be using the right players at the right time, keeping them fit and being disciplined enough to get keep clean sheets and pick up vital points away from home.
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