For the third season in succession Chelsea found themselves pitched against the current European champions, Barcelona in group A. Werder Bremen and Levski Sofia make up the quartet and it would be a huge surprise if either of those teams progressed.
In group B Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Sporting Lisbon and Spartak Moscow will do battle. Bayern have been weakened by the loss of Ballack to Chelsea, but should still be good enough to get through. Inter Milan have strengthened at the expense of their scandal hit rivals in Italy and will be hard to beat.
Group C sees Liverpool, winners in 2005, returning to the scene of their Istanbul triumph to play Galatasaray. Turkish football seems to have gone off the boil and Gala might struggle against both PSV Eindhoven and Bordeaux.
Group D pitches Valencia, Roma, Olympiakos and the dangerous Shaktar Donetsk, and the first two should make the last sixteen.
Group E sees the most successful European team ever, Real Madrid against Lyon, Steau Bucharest and Dynamo Kiev. Real begin the campaign under the returning Fabio Capello and they should improve on last season’s dismal performance. Lyon under Gerard Houllier are still improving and should qualify.
Group F coughs up an Anglo-Scottish clash. Manchester United sent a reserve team up to Glasgow just before the season started and duly thumped the Scottish champions 3-0. Not many give Celtic much chance against United’s first XI who have started the season on fire. Benfica look dangerous again. They knocked both United and Liverpool out last term and will need to be respected. FC Copenhagen makes up the quartet and may surprise a few people.
Group G features Arsenal, last year’s beaten finalists, and they take on Porto, CSKA Moscow and Hamburg, not an easy group on paper for any of them and Arsenal will have to improve on early poor results at their brand new stadium. But expect them to qualify. No London team has ever won the European Cup/Champions League and Arsenal are desperate to beat their rivals Chelsea and Spurs (they’re in the UEFA cup this time) to that particular honour. But Arsenal have lost several notable players such as Pires, Campbell and Bergkamp and though they have young rapidly improving players like Van Persie and Walcott, it is hard to envisage them picking up the trophy this time round.
Group H sees the banned, but reinstated AC Milan host surprise qualifiers Lille, AEK Athens and Anderlecht. Expect AC to win the group comfortably, and the others to all take points from one another.
For those who like a bet, early odds quoted go: Barca 4/1 favourite, Chelsea 5/1, Real 9/1, AC Milan 10/1, Man Utd 11/1, Inter 13/1, Arsenal and Liverpool 18/1 and 20/1 plus on all the others. You can still get a free $30 bet at betfair.com by inputting the code 6CHE3VPWJ when required.
So who will land the pot of gold of the Champions League this year? Barca have added Thuram and Zambrotta from Italy, but they were surprisingly smacked 3-0 by their compatriots Sevilla in the Super Cup, the match between the Champions League and UEFA cup winners. Barca displayed a surprising weakness in the centre of their defence and John Terry and his pals at Stamford Bridge are certain to have noted that. Best of the outsiders is the fast improving Lyon.
Chelsea have added Ballack and the wonderful Shevchenko, and may be Ashley Cole too. As I have written elsewhere, I think Chelsea can do it this time. They would surely trade the Premier League title for the Champions League. But what do I know? I’m still working for a living. Make up your own mind. Good watching.
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