Thursday 17 October 2019

Champions League group stage can still deliver high-level drama

Parrott angle and market moves can enliven coming months on European front

Parrott answers call: Troy Parrott could fly the flag for Ireland in the Champions League group stages. Photo: Getty
Parrott answers call: Troy Parrott could fly the flag for Ireland in the Champions League group stages. Photo: Getty
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The beginning of the Champions League group stages always seems to be greeted by a barrage of negativity.

Last season's finalists Liverpool and Spurs only scraped through by the tightest of margins last term, but the perception remains that this stage of the competition is a poor relation of the business end.

That said, the draw for this year's competition was bereft of major talking points, especially for the Premier League representatives who will all fancy their chances of progression.

Nevertheless, there are points of interest with the potential to light up the coming months.

The underdogs

There is an Irish tendency to look at this phase through the prism of the English mindset.

Former Liverpool defender Stephen Warnock went on Sky on the day of the draw to state that Red Star Belgrade, the champions of Serbia, were a part-time club.

It was an extraordinary error but the fact that anyone involved at the highest level of football could even think such a thing about the 1991 European champions says a lot about how much football has changed in the intervening period.

The wealth of the Premier League, and the push of the super clubs in the other big four European leagues to make the Champions League even more exclusive, has created a massive wealth divide which leads to mismatches. It means that questions are asked about the presence of clubs from football-mad countries.

Paradoxically, the cash that the likes of Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb collect for being Champions League whipping boys has made them even more untouchable on their own patch.

Dinamo have won 13 out of the last 14 Croatian titles, yet have struggled to land a blow in Europe. Red Star have undergone a revival and did manage to defeat Liverpool last year, but they appear certain to suffer a similar fate to their Balkan neighbours.

They will always be punching above their weight in his sphere, but it's still correct and right that they get the opportunity to do so. Slavia Prague look doomed in the Group of Death with Barcelona, Dortmund and Inter Milan, but the competition will have lost any connection with its history when those match-ups aren't possible.

The Man U misfits

Inter Milan's efficiency will determine if the aforementioned Group of Death turns out to be the real deal. Borussia Dortmund have started the German season well, but they will be third favourites in Group F if Antonio Conte's Inter side really click into the gear.

They have started well in Serie A, but the high-profile European tests will measure their progress.

Manchester United fans will be curious to see if Conte can get a tune out of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez. Lukaku's limitations relate to his ability but he can still pose plenty of problems in a side that doesn't dominate possession.

With Sanchez, it's a question of his attitude and the suspicion that a non-stop couple of seasons with Arsenal and Chile blunted his effectiveness.

The Irish angle

Cork's Eoghan O'Connell, a cousin of rugby legend Paul, was the last Irish player to sample action in the group stages of the competition and that was a brief cameo in Celtic's 7-0 drubbing to Barcelona in 2016.

You have to go back to the 2010/'11 campaign for the last time that an Irish player was involved with an English club at this stage with John O'Shea and Darron Gibson both involved with Manchester United.

Caoimhin Kelleher did pick up a medal for being a part of Liverpool's match-day squad in Madrid but, with all due respect to him, that doesn't count as a proper contribution.

The real prospect of Irish involvement is an outing for Troy Parrott. He's a member of the Spurs squad and while Mauricio Pochettino has warned against piling pressure on the 17-year-old's shoulders, it's possible that a strong start to the group for Spurs could open up a stress-free opportunity for Harry Kane's understudy to get some minutes.

If Spurs can win away to Olympiakos tomorrow, they should be well set to be in a position of comfort ahead of the return match with the Greeks at the end of November.

Group H

The asset-stripping of Ajax was unfortunate yet predictable and they really had to work to get past PAOK to book a place in the group stages. It means that Chelsea, who were barred from signing any players due to their transfer ban, will view them as a beatable.

The early signs are that Frank Lampard's young side will be entertaining to watch and it will be illuminating to see how they adapt in Europe.

Valencia were picked apart by Arsenal in the Europa League semi-finals but they are capable of being a tricky opponent and added Uruguayan attacker Maxi Gomez in the summer.

Meanwhile, Lille were forced to sell star asset Nicolas Pepe but they have invested a fair portion of the £72m that Arsenal paid for his services to strengthen their next squad.

The most intriguing acquisition was Renato Sanches, who still has plenty of time to rebuild his reputation given that he's just turned 22.

It should be a good group.

The PSG conundrum

Brugge might turn a few heads and Galatasaray will always be regarded as the archetypal 'tough place to go' but it would be a shock of gargantuan proportions if Real Madrid and PSG failed to advance beyond Group A.

They meet in Paris tomorrow and it's PSG that are arguably the more interesting story despite Zinedine Zidane's Real return.

Their whole project is about creating a Champions League force and they continue to flounder at the business end. Neymar and Kylian Mbappe were linked with Madrid in the summer and will miss the game.

Still, with Mauro Icardi recruited to join Edinson Cavani and Angel Di Maria up front, and Ander Herrera and Idrissa Gueye drafted in to bolster the midfield, PSG should be fun to watch even if there's a distinct absence of charm in the overall plan.

Irish Independent

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