The Champions League group draw is an odd spectacle. Current and former players converge on Monaco to join Michel Platini and a bevy of attractive women, no doubt carefully selected for their scholastic achievements, in what is otherwise a very football-averse little principality. One gets the impression that the location of the draw is chosen to ensure that the UEFA president doesn’t have to cut short his vacation on the Côte d’Azur, but after a long summer full of European Cup action, doesn’t he deserve a bit of rest?
For Barcelona, the 2012/2013 Champions League will start off with relative ease. Teams like Benfica, Celtic and Spartak Moscow are by no means cannon fodder, but compared to this year’s group of death, things could have been considerably worse. For a moment let us cast our eye’s towards Madrid (but be sure not to look directly into the light, lest you awaken Cristiano Ronaldo from his slumber). Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax (the respective champions of their leagues) would have presented quite a different picture for the Catalans, so let us rejoice in what should be a considerably smoother few months.
What, then, are they up against? It’s a mixed bag in Group G. Benfica, fresh from a victorious campaign in the Portuguese league, present arguably the most difficult obstacle of the three. Unlucky to be eliminated in the tournament’s quarter-final stage last season by eventual winners Chelsea, their attacking build-up left the Londoners looking outclassed over the course of both legs. Captained by the towering Luisão, and with the talents of Argentine veteran Pablo Aimar and former Barcelona youngster Nolito, the Portuguese champions pose a threat that should not be underestimated. I’m tipping them for a second place finish.
The least well-known of the group, Spartak Moscow qualified for the group stage after defeating Fenerbahçe 3-2 on aggregate, and if nothing else present what should be quite a frigid trip come the onset of the Russian winter. Nicknamed “Meat” by their supporters (one could not make this up), the Muscovites boast several international players that should be familiar to even casual followers of the game. Kim Källström, former Everton winger Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Nicolás Pareja (an ex-Espanyol player) have been joined by José Manuel Jurado on a season long loan from Schalke, while the rest of the squad is made up of the usual smattering of Russian internationals and second-rate South American exiles. One can never be sure with Russian teams, and the combination of freezing conditions and a long plane ride may just be enough to cause a scare or two. But it’s doubtful. More likely a fight for third place and the golden parachute into the Europa League is what awaits the Russians.
Of all years to face The Bhoys from Glasgow, this is perhaps the most interesting. Celtic now find themselves free of fierce rivals Rangers, whose very public fall from grace has been the talk of UK football all summer. How will this affect their game mentality? Will they turn their focus from domestic action towards Europe, now that no threats loom at home? Will they collapse under the collective pressure of their newfound freedom? Knowing Celtic, I’d guess the latter. This is a team that consistently manages to at once overestimate itself and underestimate its opponents, so an implosion of form seems a distinct possibility. This is, after all, the team that hasn’t made it to the tournament’s group stage since the 2008/2009 season, when they finished fourth in their group behind Denmark’s Aalborg.
Unsurprisingly (and without even a hint of hubris), I’m tipping Barcelona to easily top the group. I think we’ll see Benfica comfortably finish second, with Spartak Moscow dropping down to the Europa League and Celtic surprising nobody by finishing at the bottom of the table. What’s that you say, a difference of opinion? There’s a comment section down below, that I assure you I won’t read, but please feel free to thrash it out amongst yourselves!