Champions League guide: Groups E-H
Celtic, Chelsea and Man United are in action tonight. Check out our guide to their groups, plus last year's losing finalists and their pals...
The somewhat improbable holders are ranked third by Uefa, which is at least two places too generous. Likely to become a better, more adventurous unit than last season, but impossible to see a repeat performance. Atletico Madrid showed them to be a work in progress in the Super Cup, so no further than the quarter finals.
The champions of Ukraine seemed to take the step up to the Champions League in their stride, reaching the quarters in 2011. Was normal service resumed last season when they finished bottom of their group? We don’t know, clearly, but in midfielder Alan Patrick they have the least Brazilian-sounding Brazilian in all of Brazil. Rank: 16. Out early.
At home, a club reborn – Juve took her 28th Scudetto under Antonio Conte, going unbeaten all season. But in Europe the Old Lady is a shadow of her former self – ranked 43rd and not past the quarters for nine seasons. Their current standing is summed up by the fact they’ve just signed misguided egomaniac Nicklas Bendtner. Last 16.
Finally, a club we haven’t seen here before. The Danish debutants took their first domestic title last season on the final day, ahead of the more fancied FC Copenhagen. The ‘Danish Barcelona’ have a penchant for short, sharp passing and play with a ‘false nine’. Ranked 172nd, they don’t have a prayer. An early exit, then.
If you can’t win it when the final’s in your own stadium and you’re one up with seven minutes to play against a team set up only to defend, will you ever? But FC Hollywood will be as dangerous as last season. Last took German title in 2010 and Champions League in 2001, yet star names justify Uefa ranking of fourth. Bare minimum: semi-finalists.
The glory days of 2000 and 2001 (if back-to-back final defeats can be described as such) are long gone. Valencia have since accepted they are a selling club, with David Villa, Juan Mata and David Silva all pawned in recent seasons. The Spanish Arsenal: third in La Liga for the past three years, no real hope of winning their league or this cup. Ranked 13. Last 16.
Ligue 1 winners in 2011, Les Dogues (The Mastiffs) finished third last time and scraped in via the playoffs. That they were fired domestically by the goals (20) and guile (15 assists) of Eden Hazard, who has since left for Chelsea, can only temper hopes this season. Given hopes weren’t high and that Uefa rank them 59th, we suggest out at the group stage.
The defending Belarusian champions, nicknamed Zholto-Sinie (Yellow-Blues) and named after the Borisov Automobile and Tractor Electronics factory in which they were born. This is their third foray into the Champions League groups stages – and they have yet to win a game. Ranked 68th. No hope.
New coach, but Tito Vilanova has sensibly stuck to the same death-by-a-thousand-passes blueprint. That, though, isn’t always enough, as Chelsea proved in last season’s semi finals. It’s hard to disagree with Uefa ranking them first, but they’re still not the likeliest winners, largely on account of a soft defensive centre. Even so, semi finals at the very least.
Portuguese runners-up last season, As Aguias (The Eagles) also found time to top Man Utd’s group before narrowly going out to eventual champions Chelsea in the quarters. They’ve lost the defensive discipline of Javi Garcia to Man City and added the goals of Braga’s Lima, but that doesn’t make them stronger. Ranked 14th. Will last until it gets serious. Last 16.
Known, for a spell, as ‘Myaso’ – meaning ‘The Meat’ (we didn’t ask why) – Spartak have been Russian champions 21 times, but not since 2001 as the power has shifted north to Zenit and south to Rubin Kazan. Never been past the quarters in the Champions League (1993-94 and 1995-96) and they won’t this time either. Ranked 46th. No progress.
SPL champions for the first time in four years last season (and the 43rd time in all), Celtic remain synonymous with the European Cup thanks to the Lisbon Lions of 1967. But that was then. In the Champions League, their two round-of-16 exits in 2007 and 2008 are high points, and this is their first group-stage appearance in four years. Rank: 63rd. Out: early.
Laughably ranked second by Uefa because of victory in 2008 and the two finals that followed. England’s second-best team exited hopelessly at the group stage last season, ousted by the mighty Basel. Less predictable with Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, they’ll go further this time but fail when the midfield is found wanting. Last eight.
The ‘Portuguese Arsenal’ (‘the Arsenalistas’), Braga finished third in the Primiera Liga and scraped in here through the playoffs. Europa League finalists in 2011 and Intertoto winners three years earlier, but have no Champions League pedigree. Selling top scorer Lima to Benfica won’t help their cause. Ranked 29th and falling at the first.
After a six-year hiatus, the Lions of Istanbul return as Turkish champions for the first time in four years and will be hoping to improve on their last showing – bottom of their group in 2006. Now featuring the likes of Milan Baros, Emmanuel Eboue and Albert Riera, making Uefa’s ranking of 60th look pretty accurate. Last 16, then home.
Romanian champions from Transylvania. In Champions League terms, CFR aren’t very good. Their two previous appearances at this stage – in 2008-09 and 2010-11 – saw them finish bottom of their group. Sneaked in through the playoffs and will be straight back out after the groups. Ranked 101st.