UEFA Champions League Group Stage of 32 Features Good, Bad, Ugly

When bingo balls were drawn from the big container Thursday in Monaco holding the destinies of 32 teams scattered through Europe, teams like AC Milan and Chelsea breathed a sigh of relief. Others like Manchester United and Celtic needed a stiff drink and prepared to draw weapons, for they would duel at the “OK Corral of Futbol,” the local pub, the streets outside Old Trafford or Celtic Park, or any place agreed to in principle by both “firms.”

Yes, the UEFA Champions League is getting back some of the old, like Man U/Celtic or Liverpool and its pairing with Turkish power Galatasaray of Istanbul, site of the machete incident, where a Turkish fan went after a Reds fan several years ago and got him good.

And there is some of the new, a whopping six teams representing the old Eastern bloc, which could be viewed as old, though in this case-and decade-it’s new.

Clubs were placed into groups of four and some felt good, some felt bad and some ugly.

I’ll break down the madness group-by-group and tell you who’s going to move on from the group stage and who’s going to the UEFA Cup, the booby prize for any club finishing third in this stage of the UEFA Champions League. The group stages starts September 12 and concludes six matchdays later, on December 6.

Group A
Barcelona, Chelsea, Werder Bremen, Levski Sofia

The first balls were drawn and to nobody’s surprise – since they had already met the past two years – Champion FC Barcelona will meet Chelsea FC again. Paired with German side Werder Bremen and Bulgarian club Levski Sofia, this group is a no-brainer. Unless Barca and Chelsea have terrible games, they will move on and Werder and Levski will play for the right to play in the UEFA Cup. For Barca and Chelski, this is just another battle, considering the Spanish club won the whole thing after the Blues beat them 5-4 on aggregate in the opening round last year. To boot Barcelona’s side is virtually intact from last year, including Ronaldinho (17 goals in 05-06) and Samuel Eto’o (26 tallies). For Chelsea FC, money is no object as usual and the Brits added Ukraine forward Andriy Shevchenko to the payroll in the off-season. Werder Bremen and Levski Sofia have done well to get to this stage. There is no tomorrow for the last-place team, though for Levski, just getting here for the first time ever is probably more than they ever hoped.
GOING THROUGH: Barcelona, Chelsea
GOING TO UEFA CUP: Werder Bremen
GOING HOME: Levski Sofia

Group B
Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Sporting Lisbon, Spartak Moscow
In Group B, there seems to be a dogfight between four teams, all of which have the potential of knocking each other off. The first team, Inter Milan, has added more star power to their already impressive lineup and so that means another serious run at the title. Bayern Munich is the other big name in this group and has won the tournament twice, the most recent in 2001. That said, this is not a group for slouchers. The team that seems most dangerous at this juncture is Sporting Lisbon with a slew of young talent coming out of its academy. But Lisbon is likely too young for a huge run, anyway. Spartak Moscow is the darkhorse here, though the Russian side is capable of an upset or two, given their talent pool orchestrated by Brazilian Mozart and mainstay Yegor Titov, an expensive payroll and a commitment to return to their glory days of the past. If either Inter or Bayern falters, look for Spartak to sneak in.
GOING THROUGH: Bayern Munich, Spartak Moscow
GOING TO UEFA CUP: Inter Milan
GOING HOME: Sporting Lisbon

Group C
Liverpool, PSV Eindhoven, Bordeaux, Galatasaray
The most open group, though may be Group C, which features 2005 champions Liverpool, a dangerous PSV Eindhoven team that is the only Dutch representative since Ajax was knocked out of the qualifying round, Bordeaux, the French Ligue 1 champs and Galatasaray, the 2003 UEFA Cup finalists known for solid squads and crazed fans. When Liverpool and Galatasaray meet, it’s only hoped that there are plenty of police around, considering the last time they met, there was some bad blood, most of it spilling from the arm of a Reds fan thanks to a machete (I’m not joking). By comparison, a French supporter would go after a PSV fan with a baguette and the Dutch fan would get a case of the munchies and eat it. Seriously, though, this group will cause some acid indigestion and some bad blood; it’s hoped the bad blood spilled does not spill over in the case of real blood.
GOING THROUGH: Liverpool, Galatasaray
GOING TO UEFA CUP: PSV Eindhoven
GOING HOME: Bordeaux

Group D
Valencia, AS Roma, Olympiakos, Shakhtar Donetsk
For Group D Valencia is the team to beat, but there is a very dangerous side in Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk at the bottom of the table. Brazil is the key word in this group, for each team has several Brazilians on its roster. Shakhtar is a regular in the Champions League, though they are usually a whipping post at best (15 wins, 5 draws and 14 losses in 36 appearances) and should not be a factor this time, despite a Nigerian-heavy strike force and a few Brazilians. With a diluted AS Roma side along with the Greek champions, an inspired and decidedly imported Olympiakos with Brazilian great Rivaldo makes this group a three-man horse race. But Roma and Olympiakos will provide some fireworks since Olympiakos has a lot to play for being the host team for the finals and Roma is always capable of putting lots of balls in the net with Francesco Totti. Remember Euro 2004? Greece is the word.
GOING THROUGH: Valencia, Olympiakos
GOING TO UEFA CUP: AS Roma
GOING HOME: Shakhtar Donetsk

Group E
Real Madrid, Lyon, Steaua Bucharest, Dynamo Kiev
Another weird group that could go any way is Group E, home to Real Madrid, Lyon, Steaua Bucharest and Dynamo Kiev. Real has added a new coach and Ruud Van Nistelrooy, among others; Lyon is the reigning French champs and whacked Real 5-0 the last time Madrid came to France in the Champions League; Steaua hasn’t had a lot of success in the Champions League but they have tasted some in the UEFA Cup, which is where they would likely be headed if not for a good Dynamo side. Steaua did defeat Real in the 1986 UEFA Champions League, when it was known as the Super Cup. And Dynamo Kiev is where Chelsea forward Andriy Shevchenko first tasted glory but the Ukraine side is headed nowhere except for UEFA Cup, even though Serhiy Rebrov has returned to help his home nation beside the likes of Brazilian Kleber. Dynamo may go far in the UEFA Cup, however. The UEFA Cup may be an old Eastern bloc affair.
GOING THROUGH: Real Madrid, Lyon
GOING TO UEFA CUP: Dynamo Kiev
GOING HOME: Steaua Bucharest

Group F
Manchester United, Celtic, Benfica, FC Copenhagen
The group of death, the foursome features English giant Man U., who finally got knocked off of their EPL pedestal only after Chelsea owner Roman Abromavich spent hundreds of millions on talent and Arsenal slipped a bit. Is this the beginning of the end for Sir Alex? So far so good for Man U, who sit undefeated in the EPL early on. This group will also say a lot for that argument. The Red Devils still have a full cupboard, though it has been emptied with the retirement of Roy Keane and departure of Ruud Van Nistelrooy. But with Wayne Rooney still the tops this could be his coming-out party to Europe. It’s too bad Keane isn’t still in a Celtic uniform, but so be it. Unfortunately Celtic is starting to show their age, and that will mean a UEFA Cup trip is in the cards as Benfica will sneak in as the No. 2 team in this group. Benfica is another Portuguese side capable of pulling off an upset, what with the combination of Luizao, Anderson in the back and Rui Costa in the midfield. To add more to it, there is Angolan striker Pedro Mantorras as well as Kikin, aka Jose Fonseca, the Mexican star. Finally there’s FC Copenhagen, who stunned Ajax Amsterdam in Amsterdam in the third qualifying round to make it to the lucrative group stage. If anybody can knock off Ajax, you have to watch out. But it won’t happen again.
GOING THROUGH: Manchester United, Benfica
GOING TO UEFA CUP: Celtic
GOING HOME: FC Copenhagen

Group G
Arsenal, FC Porto, CSKA Moscow, Hamburg
This group is getting lots of hype as the group of death, yet I don’t see it. Arsenal is still getting used to their new stadium and has some new faces. Also, they have struggled in their EPL matches and things don’t seem the same. Porto no longer has Jose Mourinho (he’s at Chelsea) so though they’re dangerous most of the homegrown talent they were known for producing is now elsewhere. CSKA had a nice run into the UEFA Cup several years ago, and they have some talent, but UEFA Cup is as far as they will go and they may go far in that tournament. Wagner Love and Ivica Olic are two CSKA strikers who can score quickly. The darkhorse in this group is Hamburg, who finished second to Bayern in the Bundesliga. UEFA Cup regulars, Hamburg seems to have made a run into the top clubs in Europe, recapturing the essence that made them tops in the 1970s and 80s. They have midfielders Mehdi Madakavidia of Iran and Nigel DeJong of Holland and could make a deep run into the tournament, mainly since there is so much speculation about this group. Any of the four teams could have been placed in any other group and had a chance to travel well into the elimination stages; it’s a shame all were placed here and two teams must go home.
GOING THROUGH: Arsenal, Hamburg
GOING TO UEFA CUP: CSKA Moscow
GOING HOME: FC Porto

Group H
AC Milan, Lille, AEK Athens, Anderlecht
This is by far the weakest group in the tournament. Milan should run away with top billing, though they are still fighting match-fixing allegations and so they could still not participate in the tournament (at last count they won an appeal) Then it would be a dogfight between Athens (since they are hosting the final and have added motivation) and Lille, the French club getting lots of buzz leading up to the tournament. In the end, AC Milan will escape their bad fortune, since they still have Brazilian star power in Dida, Cafu, Kaka and an Italian playmaker in Filippo Inzaghi. AEK will reprise their Greek role as tournament spoiler with Julio Cesar, another Brazilian leading the way, Lille will be in the UEFA Cup and could go a long way with Swiss mastermind Daniel Gygax and an African trio of strikers and Anderlecht is headed back to Belgium, though Mbo Mpenza is capable of scoring often.
GOING THROUGH: AC Milan, AEK Athens
GOING TO UEFA CUP: Lille
GOING HOME: Anderlecht

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