As ever, a predictable pause ensued as last year’s tournament was articulately recapped in a montage of highlights and commentary. It proved a mouthwatering supplement to this year’s competition as much as it wasted time for equally keen viewers.
Though a look back on that final at Wembley brought sweet memories back as we remembered why the Champions League remains the best club competition in the world. On a night when Barca truly turned up and rose to their acclaimed position of best team on the planet, Wembley provided a worthy arena for such a show.
As I reminisced fondly, proceedings were handed over to UEFA Official Gianni Infantino as his somewhat organised voice stole my attention, knowing the draw wasn’t far from commencing.
Former Real Madrid and Barcelona star Luis Figo drew the teams from Pot 1 while Munich ambassador Paul Breitner allocated groups to the Portuguese’s selections.
Like his career, he chose both Real and Barca once as they emerged to little drama but the greatest shock was the fact that Figo remained unscathed despite a number of Catalans in the crowd favouring Barcelona. I would have banked on, lets say a pigs head being lobbed in his general direction… Especially as Carles Puyol arrived in suitable attire for a fight as he delivered the trophy in surf shorts and training top pre-Figo. I wonder what the dress code on his invitation stated.
Wardrobe whining aside, Real took up the top spot in Group D while Barca penultimately grabbed the final group on offer, H.
The slick-looking Figo departed following the climax of his pot to relative applause. We forget what a player he once was (probably still is to be fair) with both teams either side of the El Clasico rivalry, winning the famed competition the once alongside fellow Galacticos at Real as well as two La Liga titles with both giants.
Despite my constant neglect for Figo due to his disregard for the El Clasico divide (I am neutral but I have a thing for loyalty) he was quite a player having won the World Player of the Year in 2001. He also works closely with Inter Milan and is a frequent character for their charity, Inter Campus and campaigns fervently for the Stop TB Partnership which fights against tuberculosis. He can also kick through TV if you’ve seen his cheesy Just For Men adverts so credit where its due.
Anyway, Real quickly found company in the shape of Olympique Lyonnais, who have a superb record against the 9 time champions, losing just once in 8 matches.
Valencia entered the draw at this point to be placed in Chelsea’s group, E. Ironic really that just a matter of hours ago Juan Mata made his move to the Blues from Valencia for a reported £25million. I think he’ll receive Juan warm welcome on his return to the Vicente Calderon…
But an even greater force will meet Pep Guardiola’s elegant blend of youth and experience in the group stages as 7 time winners, AC Milan travel to the Camp Nou once before Christmas. A serious threat to Barcelona has emerged already albeit with two qualifying places available. Group H looked promising even at this early stage!
Immediately after AC Milan’s devious placement, Villarreal got in on the act as Breitner threw them alongside his beloved Bayern in Group A.
Similar to the previous campaign, Ajax joined Real alongside Lyon. The Amsterdam Arena was the scene of some almighty cheating from Mourinho’s boys as Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos received red cards so that their previous yellow cards would vanish for further rounds of the tournament. He may not even find himself on the touchline for any games this year following his atrocious gouging display in the Super Cup.
Big spenders Manchester City accompanied Villarreal in Group A to set up a number of potential unmissable matches. Bayer Leverkusen joined Valencia alongside Chelsea which should be a competitive battle in the 4 matches against these teams.
Rubbing salt into Villarreal’s wounds, minnows BATE Borisov from Belarus joined Barcelona to soften their route to the last 16.
To finish up, Napoli invested more sky blue into Group A as they joined Villarreal and City (plus Bayern) to set up a thrilling battle for the top 2 spots and the Europa League consolation place. All 4 teams will expect to qualify, but perhaps only Napoli will be pleased with a Europa League berth come the final matchday.
Croatian champions, Dinamo Zagreb finished Real Madrid’s quartet of teams and should ease their way out of the group with routine wins over Zagreb and careful displays against the other two.
Viktoria Plzen from Czech Republic’s placement in Group H virtually sealed Barcelona and AC Milan’s qualification as they have two whipping boys to choose from. Plzen, making their debut, are quaking in their boots already.
And finally, Genk join Valencia to finalise a tricky group for the Sapinsh side but one that they can work around safely should they negotiate their home games correctly.