Manchester City’s Uefa coefficient improves year on year but not their fortune at a Champions League draw. “A little more luck than the last few years” was Pablo Zabaleta’s one wish for the club before the group stage selection in Monaco but once again an arduous route to the knockout phase confronts thePremier League champions. Maybe next year, Pablo.
City and Arsenal landed in two of the most competitive groups but there was relief for Chelsea and a returning Liverpool, the latter drawn against the reigning champions, Real Madrid, but avoiding other potential pitfalls as Basel and Ludogorets complete Group B.
José Mourinho will not be unduly concerned at facing Schalke, Sporting Lisbon and Maribor in Group G. Arsène Wenger’s prize for guiding Arsenal to a 17th consecutive season in the Champions League proper is a challenging Group D with Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray and Anderlecht. For Manuel Pellegrini and City, however, there was no respite.
Bayern Munich, for the third time in four seasons, CSKA Moscow, where Yaya Touré was racially abused by home fans last season, and the strongest opponent in pot four, Roma, await Pellegrini’s team. City should fear no one – their presence in Group E will equally concern the representatives from Munich Moscow and Rome – but progress into pot two for the draw did not ease the club’s task of finally making a mark among the European elite.
“I think it’s the toughest group,” said City’s director of football, Txiki Begiristain. “We have what happened last season but also the fourth team is very tough – Roma are a strong team. It is a tough group but we know all the teams will try to play football. We are happy with the squad we have now for the season and we are ready to fight again. For all of us, the aim is to improve. We have signed good players, we made the last-16 last season and we want to improve. There is not more pressure on us this season. We try to win every game we play, whether it is in a domestic competition or in Europe.”
Bayern, smarting from last season’s 5-0 aggregate semi-final defeat by Real, topped City’s group when the Premier League club failed to advance beyond the German champions, Napoli and Villarreal in 2011-12. The following season brought elimination from a group featuring Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax – before City advanced at the third attempt last year, behind Bayern on goal difference. They could have topped the group with a 4-2 win at the Allianz Arena, thereby avoiding Barcelona and, potentially, a last-16 exit, only for Pellegrini to miscalculate the permutations as City ultimately secured a stirring 3-2 comeback win over Pep Guardiola’s then champions.
A return to Munich may not cause as much concern as another trip to CSKA’s Arena Khimki, however. The Moscow stadium was partially closed by Uefa after Touré was subjected to racist chanting during City’s 2-1 win in Russia last October. CSKA disputed Touré’s official complaint but were forced to close one end of their ground – a punishment that fell short of Football Against Racism in Europe’s wishes – for their Champions League tie against Bayern. In the aftermath, Touré suggested black players would boycott the 2018 World Cup should the problem persist. “If we aren’t confident at the World Cup, coming to Russia, we don’t come,” the midfielder said.
Last season’s Serie A runners-up Roma added to the complications for City, as well as raising the prospect of the former Chelsea team-mates Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard facing each other in the competition they won in 2012.
Arsenal also have familiar opposition in Dortmund, whom they defeated 1-0 in Germany thanks to Aaron Ramsey’s goal last season but suffered a 2-1 defeat against at the Emirates, and no obvious lightweight with Galatasaray awaiting in Istanbul and Anderlecht the fourth name drawn.
Chelsea secured arguably the most straightforward draw of the Premier League representatives and there was also encouragement for Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool, five years on from their last Champions League game against Fiorentina in December 2009.
Real Madrid, trounced 5-0 by Rafael Benítez’s team in the last-16 of the competition in 2008-09, pose an ominous threat as they seek to become the first club to retain the trophy in the Champions League era. Basel and Ludogorets, who reached the group stage for the first time courtesy of a remarkable penalty shootout defeat of Steaua Bucharest on Wednesday, winning when the defender Cosmin Moti saved two penalties after their goalkeeper was sent off in extra-time, leave Group B open, however.
“I’m pleased,” admitted Liverpool’s chief executive, Ian Ayre. “I spoke to Brendan on my way out. He watched it from his office in the training ground. They’re all tough groups, but I’m pleased with this group. It’s particularly special to have Real Madrid in the group. We respect everyone but we have great memories of games against Real Madrid and I think it makes for a great competition for us.
“If you look at Liverpool as a football club, this is our competition – five-times winners playing against somebody who has just won it for a 10th time. That just makes for a very special part of the competition. It makes it a very special group.”