Commentary

UCL Draw: New Scheme, Similar Result

Prior to Thursday’s UEFA Champions League group stage draw, several of Europe’s biggest clubs were sweating about the introduction of new seeding rules this season. Instead of seeding teams based on their UEFA coefficient ranking or prior performance in the tournament, UEFA this season guaranteed the champions of Europe’s top seven leagues and the winner of last season’s UCL an automatic seed to the chagrin of the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City and Arsenal.

However, in the end, the draw yielded eight groups that more or less look like a UCL group stage from any prior season, with two or three extremely tight-looking groups, and two or three seemingly easy groups. 

Group A pits French champ Paris Saint-Germain with Real Madrid, Ukrainian champ Shakhtar Donetsk, and reigning Swedish champ Malmo. While the Real-PSG clashes headline this group, another big story is the return of PSG striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic to his boyhood club, Malmo. The big Swede, who is entering into the last year of his PSG contract, rather cryptically congratulated Malmo for earning a place in this season’s UCL by saying that he hopes to experience the competition as a Malmo player someday. Whatever that means, Ibra will get a chance to see what it’s like first-hand this season.

In Group B, Manchester United received what appears to be kind a draw alongside Dutch champ PSV Eindhoven, CSKA Moscow and German runner-up Wolfsburg. This would have been a much tougher draw if PSV hadn’t sold its best players to Manchester United (Memphis Depay) and Newcastle (Georginio Wijnaldum) this summer, and if Wolfsburg wasn’t preparing to offload its best players to Manchester City (Kevin De Bruyne) and Inter Milan (Ivan Perisic). Nevertheless, PSV always has youngsters waiting in the wings and though depleted, the Wolves will be a stern test for Louis van Gaal’s men. Don’t forget that playing on turf in Moscow in the winter is never fun or easy, either. 

Spanish giant Atletico Madrid was also handed a kind-seeming draw in Group C, where it features alongside seeded Portuguese champ Benfica, Turkish giant Galatasaray and Kazakh newcomer Astana. While tough trips to Lisbon and Istanbul will certainly present Atleti coach Diego Simeone with problems, the 2014 Spanish champ should coast through this group, with the former two clubs battling for second-place.  

Group D is by far the toughest group in this season’s UCL, featuring Italian champ and UCL runner-up Juventus, English runner-up Manchester City, Europa League champ Sevilla, and Borussia Moenchengladbach, the third-place finisher in the German Bundesliga. Group of Death notwithstanding, City should win this group, mostly because it has invested so heavily in a squad that has the quality to do so. It remains to be seen how Massimiliano Allegri’s new-look Juve gels, while Sevilla has brought in several new players, as well, particularly in the attacking department. ‘Gladbach, meanwhile, managed to hold onto most of its top players from last season, but it has begun the Bundesliga season poorly: zero points from two games and bottom of the table.

Group E could be tricky for defending champ Barcelona, whose squad will be tested to the limit during the group stage given its ongoing transfer ban. Bayer Leverkusen is an organized outfit capable of upsetting anyone on its day, and Belorussian champ BATE Borisov has taken some pretty impressive scalps in the past, too, most notably Bayern Munich in 2012-13 -- the year the German giant went on to win the UCL. AS Roma, meanwhile, has brought in some big talent this summer, particularly in former Man City striker Edin Dzeko. This is definitely a group that the Catalans cannot take lightly.

Group F is another group that could spring a few surprises, with German champ Bayern Munich, Premier League giant Arsenal, Greek champ Olympiakos and Croatian champ Dinamo Zagreb. Arsene Wenger’s men are the only non-champions in this group, in which the Gunners will be facing several teams that aren’t used to losing. Piraeus, home of Olympiakos, is always a tough place to play -- just ask Atletico Madrid last season -- while Zagreb is usually one of Europe’s tougher places to play, and Dinamo went undefeated last season. While Bayern should have the quality to claim first-place here, the Gunners could struggle—especially if Wenger takes the opposition lightly.

As it seems to just about every year in the UCL, Premier League champ Chelsea received another kind draw, appearing in Group G alongside Portuguese runner-up FC Porto, Ukrainian champ Dynamo Kiev and Israeli champ Maccabi Tel-Aviv. While Porto, Jose Mourinho’s former club, is always capable of posing problems (despite selling many of its best players), Dynamo could be the real wild card in this group. How the Ukrainian giant fares could depend on its ability to retain striking duo Andriy Yarmolenko and Artem Kravets before the end of the transfer window.

Group H is comfortably the weakest group in the UCL this season, featuring Russian champ Zenit St Petersburg, Spanish qualifier Valencia, French runner-up Lyon and Belgian champ Gent. Anything could happen with this group as Zenit may yet sell some of its biggest stars (rumors are swirling about Axel Witsel and Ezequiel Garay), before the window closes, while Valencia is a young team. Lyon, which retained most of its top players from last season, should really win this group, while Gent, the Jupiler League champ, could spring a few surprises. 

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