The UEFA Champions League group draw is one of the most exciting things about the Champions League. It’s the most exciting draw in world football. Nothing even comes close to the drama of it.
For example look at this year: Napoli, runners up in Serie A last season, in pot four? Borussia Dortmund, last year’s finalists, in pot three? That could make for some serious problems for somebody – especially if they were to be drawn in the same group!
Of course, we know that they were, but I’m sure that nobody really expected it to happen. That is what makes the Champions League exciting. The prospect of that “group of death,” the prospect of a good team being somehow left out of the bigger “pot” and put into a smaller one giving us the opportunity to witness some major upsets.
Every year there is a “group of death.”
Manchester City have been involved in two “groups of death” in three years. Two years ago it was Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villarreal. The next year they squared up with Borussia Dortmund, Ajax and Real Madrid.
But while it’s easy to look at these groups and call them “the group of death,” it is not as easy to ascertain if it is the hardest group.
For example the media is branding Arsenal’s group as the “group of death.” Arsenal must face Borussia Dortmund, Napoli and Marseille. This, of course, was pre-Ozil for Arsenal – but regardless; is it the most difficult group to qualify from?
With this question in mind, for this year’s Champions League draw we created a points system to test each team's respective strength of schedule. Only club world rankings were factored in, not the scheduling of home and away games.
For me, this is a better indicator for which group is truly the “group of death” for this year’s competition.
Here’s how the rankings go - If a team plays another team ranked:
In the top 10 = +10 points
11 - 20 = +7
21 – 30 = +5
31 – 40 = +3
41 – 50 = +1
Below 50 = -1
Below 75 = -3
Below 100 = -5
Below 200 = -10
With that in mind, let’s go through the groups from easiest to hardest.
Chelsea (9), Strength of Schedule: -1
Schalke 04 (33), +6
Steaua Bucharest (96), +12
FC Basel (71), +10
Chelsea has the easiest schedule of any team in the Champions League this season. Schalke 04 should easily be able to qualify from this group too as most of their +6 strength of schedule comes from having to play Chelsea which is +10. Without Chelsea they are at -4.
Bayern Munich (1), +11
Manchester City (12), +14
Viktoria Plzen (28), +16
CSKA Moscow (51), +22
Bayern Munich and Manchester City should walk through this group. CSKA in Russia will be a tough test as they play on artificial grass. Many sides have come unstuck there but I expect Bayern Munich and Manchester City to cruise past them and Viktoria Plzen.
Real Madrid (2), +5
Juventus (7), +5
Galatasaray (29), +10
FC Copenhagen (213), +25
Though Galatasaray only have a +5 differential in their strength of schedule the difference between Juventus, the second best ranked team in group B, and Galatasaray is quite stark. Though this group seems more open, it is largely because each team SHOULD gain six points from playing 213th ranked FC Copenhagen.
Porto (6), +5
Atletico Madrid (18), +8
Zenit (31), +12
Austria Wien (198), +20
While group G is a rather uninspiring group it is pretty easy to predict. Zenit do definitely have a chance because they have to play 198th ranked Austria Wien twice, but Atletico Madrid and Porto will be tough opposition for Zenit to overcome. Zenit have only advanced past the group stage of the Champions League once. Atletico Madrid are a year removed from winning the UEFA Super Cup and have replaced Falcao with David Villa. They, as well as Porto, should advance.
PSG (8), +13
Benfica (14), +16
Olympiacos (26), +18
Anderlecht (46), +22
Group C is another uninspiring group. Olympiacos is ranked obscenely high in my opinion at 26 and that throws off the strength of schedule for everybody in this group. Expect PSG and Benfica to qualify comfortably. Because of Olympiacos’ ranking it just about edges out Group G. Barely.
Barcelona (3), +15
AC Milan (11), +18
Ajax (17), +18
Celtic (44), +24
First of all if this group was drawn 25 years ago then what an exciting and unpredictable group Group F could’ve been to watch. Nowadays Ajax are still competitive but largely in the Europa League and Celtic made it through to the group stages by narrowly beating Kazakh minnows Shakhtar Karagandy 3-2 on aggregate with a goal in the 91st minute.
All four teams have rich European history and even though Celtic SHOULD get beaten home and away by at least two of the three other teams in this group – they did beat Barcelona last year and Celtic Park is a very daunting place to play on cold Wednesday night in December.
This is one of the most evenly matched groups in terms of team rankings in the competition.
So now we’re down to the two hardest groups, the hardest being dubbed the “Group of Death.”
Borussia Dortmund (4), +16
Arsenal (10), +16
Napoli (19), +19
Marseille (70), +27
While this group is less evenly matched than the “Group of Champions” aka AC Milan, Ajax, Barcelona and Celtic. It does have higher ranked teams within it. Given that Arsenal have strengthened too with the introduction of Mesut Ozil this is a very daunting group to play in for any team. Despite Marseille having such a low ranking I actually believe they are stronger than where they currently reside at 70 and possess the ability to take points off of at LEAST two of the other three teams in this group.
It should be academic with Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund going through, but never count out Rafa Benitez and his Napoli team. Will it be Higuain who powers Napoli through and sends Arsenal into the Europa League? Time will tell.
THE GROUP OF DEATH:
Manchester United (5), +21
Shakhtar Donetsk (13), +24
Bayer Leverkusen (15), +24
Real Sociedad (20), +24
This group has that highest average strength of schedule in the entire competition. I expect anybody in this group to be able to get a result against any of the other three teams they must face. Shakhtar may have lost Fernandinho and Willian but they are very tough to beat in Ukraine and even held last year’s finalists Borussia Dortmund to a 2-2 draw. Leverkusen and Real Sociedad are capable of taking points off of anybody too. It is not an easy introduction for David Moyes into Champions League football that is for sure.
Everybody will be relishing taking on a Manchester United side without Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm and it could see United go crashing out at the group stage for the second time in three years.
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