Thursday 18 January 2018

Tottenham and Celtic draw the short straws

Lionel Messi, Gianluigi Buffon and Cristiano Ronaldo share a joke at yesterday’s draw for the Champions League group stages. Photo: Reuters
Lionel Messi, Gianluigi Buffon and Cristiano Ronaldo share a joke at yesterday’s draw for the Champions League group stages. Photo: Reuters

Miguel Delaney

The feeling in the modern game is that the Champions League has become a troublesomely three-tiered competition, and so it was fitting that its 2017-18 grand opening round has been something of a three-tiered draw: for the English clubs, and the campaign in general.

As regards the Premier League sides, Manchester United and Liverpool have been given hugely forgiving groups; Chelsea and Manchester City have drawn relatively awkward groups in that they’re a bit tighter but still navigable; while Mauricio Pochettino’s bad luck in the European Cup seems to continue as Spurs were handed the unquestionable group of death with the defending champions. Celtic, meanwhile, should really just enjoy the experience.

Along the same lines – and as has become a little bit of an issue for the expanded Champions League in the last few years – the majority of the groups feel a little too easy to pick two qualifiers from.

Twists

It doesn’t always pan out like that, and there are of course always a few twists, but it would require some uncharacteristically severe twists for United-Benfica, Bayern-PSG and Barcelona-Juventus not to go through. It is harder to predict who will emerge from Chelsea-Atletico-Roma, Liverpool-Sevilla-Spartak and City-Napoli-Donetsk-Feyenoord but only because of questions about one of the places rather than properly tense groups of the type we saw in the mid to late ’90s.

The only two that have the capacity for those kind of high-octane early European games involve Monaco-Porto-Besiktas-RB Leipzig and of course that Spurs group.

Most eyes will be on Group H most weeks. Real Madrid and Dortmund certainly aren’t the ideal opposition for Spurs to upend this supposed Wembley jinx, especially since it was in the Champions League group stages last season when the idea of that jinx effectively became concrete.

There is also a theory around Spurs that their style is still a little bit too intense for the more patient approaches of Europe, explaining why they were so caught out last season.

Given they’re up against the champions and the strongest squad on the continent in Real, but an exciting Dortmund under new management as well as a very beatable APOEL, the difference of the challenges will tell a lot as to whether those previous struggles were down to style or mere lack of experience.

How Antonio Conte attempts to figure out Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid will be just as engaging – as well as perhaps the most eye-catching tie of the entire round. The presence of a Monchi-guided Roma will also ensure there is more intensity to such group games than usual. There is similarly the added edge of Conte’s relatively underwhelming record from his two seasons in the Champions League to date, something he is all too conscious of.

The Premier League has had an underwhelming record in the last few years, but – as is another general problem with the group stage – that is more a discussion for the knockout stages after Christmas, especially when United and Liverpool have such promising paths there.

Jose Mourinho and his club couldn’t have wished for a better draw in their respective returns to the competition, having avoided a heavyweight, just as Liverpool and City did.

Even if Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have more awkward challenges – particularly as regards Liverpool’s 2016 Europa League final rematch with Sevilla and City’s tantalising trip to Napoli – it would still take for something to go badly wrong for any of the three to go out so early.

The opposite is true for Celtic. It would take something miraculous for them to oust Bayern or a Neymar-powered PSG, and that’s leaving aside the fact that Anderlecht are a difficult challenge in their own right for a Europa League place.

One positive of this season’s draw is that the seeding and general pool of teams have ensured we won’t see a repeat of the same old ties we’d all got used to.

Bayern-PSG feels genuinely refreshing, while Barca-Juventus haven’t quite played enough to bring any ennui from the fact this is the second time they’ve faced off in three years.

If anything, that they have both won one of those ties – Barca’s victory bringing the 2015 title – will only add to it.

There are a few other touches of history that add to the fascinating, like Mourinho returning to his first job in management as Benfica and United replay the 1968 final, while Monaco and Porto replay 2004 in what is arguably the least glamorous group but the most competitive.

It’s barely worth even discussing title credentials at this point, given that most of the super-clubs and those closest to them are guaranteed to be in the next draw in December. (© Independent News Service)

 

SELECTED FIXTURES

Celtic: Sept 12: PSG (h); Sept 27: Anderlecht (a); Oct 18: B Munich (a); Oct 31: Bayern Munich (h); Nov 22: PSG (a); Dec 5: Anderlecht (h).

 

Man Utd: Sept 12: Basel (h); Sept 27: CSKA Moscow (a); Oct 18: Benfica (a); Oct 31: Benfica (h); Nov 22: Basel (a); Dec 5: CSKA Moscow (h).

 

Chelsea: Sept 12: Qarabag (h); Sept 27: Atletico (a); Oct 18: Roma (h); Oct 31: Roma (a); Nov 22: Qarabag (a); Dec 5: Atletico (h)

 

Liverpool: Sept 13: Sevilla (h); Sept 26: Spartak (a); Oct 17: Maribor (a); Nov 1: Maribor (h); Nov 21: Sevilla (a); Dec 6: Spartak (h)

 

Man City: Sept 13: Feyenoord (a); Sept 26: Shakhtar (h); Oct 17: Napoli (h); Nov 1: Napoli (a); Nov 21: Feyenoord (h); Dec 6: Shakhtar (a)

 

Tottenham: Sept 13: Dortmund (h); Sept 26: Apoel (a); Oct 17: R Madrid (a); Nov 1: R Madrid (h); Nov 21: Dortmund (a); Dec 6: Apoel (h)

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