UEFA Champions League 2012 Group Stage Draw: Winners and Losers
The draw for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League was made on Thursday, and we now know the challenge awaiting Europe's finest when the action kicks off on September 18.
As ever, we were dealt a "group of death." Real Madrid, Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund all won their respective league titles last season, but that hasn't stopped them being drawn together in Group D with Ajax.
Defending champions Chelsea have also drawn one of Europe's big hitters in Italian champions Juventus, but both will feel confident of finishing ahead of Nordsjælland and Shakhtar Donetsk in Group E.
Elsewhere, there were relatively straightforward draws for Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich, while Arsenal will also be fancied to emerge in the knockout stages.
Here are my winners and losers from the draw in Monaco.
Winners: Manchester United
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Three-time winners Manchester United suffered a miserable campaign last season—going out at the group stage after losing their final game to Swiss side Basel.
United should have strolled through a group that also contained Benfica and Otelul Galati, but they failed to impose themselves at Old Trafford and shipped too many soft goals.
A year later, the group stage draw has once again been kind on Sir Alex Ferguson's team.
Portuguese side Braga, CFR Cluj of Romania and Turks Galatasaray are all from outside of Europe's major leagues, and none have gone further than the group stage in recent Champions League history.
Going to Galatasaray is not a trip for the faint-hearted, but their shiny new stadium should make things more hospitable than in years past.
Losers: Madrid, City, Dortmund and Ajax
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The four biggest losers from the draw can be found in Group D.
Manchester City are Premier League champions. Real Madrid are La Liga champions. Borussia Dortmund are German champions. Ajax are Dutch champions.
You'd think the seedings would have kept them apart. But the seedings are based on more than what happened just last season.
The reason they could come together is that both Dortmund and City have only recently begun their upward trajectory—meaning their UEFA coefficient score is yet to reflect their true standing in the European game.
Roberto Mancini's City had a similarly nightmarish draw last season, when they came up against Napoli, Bayern Munich and Villarreal—and fell just short.
This time around, you could argue they've got it even harder. Jose Mourinho's Madrid toppled Barca in Spain last season, while Dortmund have reigned in Germany for two seasons running at the expense of Bayern.
This draw is the last thing any of these four teams will have wanted.
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Barcelona's Champions League dream ended in shock defeat to Chelsea last season, at the semifinal stage.
With Pep Guardiola gone, new coach Tito Vilanova could make no better argument for his credentials than leading Lionel Messi and Co. to glory in May 2013.
Barca should cruise through Group G, where they're up against Celtic of Scotland, Portuguese side Benfica and Spartak Moscow of Russia.
Celtic's feat in reaching the group stages is likely the ceiling of their capabilities.
Spartak Moscow were runners-up in the Russian League last season and were seen off with ease by Chelsea in the group stages of the 2010-11 Champions League.
Benfica owed their progress to the quarterfinals last season to Manchester United's poor showing in the group stages and a kind draw against Zenit in the last 16.
Could Have Been Better: Chelsea
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Chelsea were in crisis at the halfway point of their last-16 tie with Napoli last season.
Andre Villas-Boas left, Roberto Di Matteo came in, and from there it was the stuff of miracles for the Blues—who mounted a stirring comeback against Napoli at home, then beat Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern Munich to win their first European title.
Di Matteo will have been hoping for a slightly easier group stage draw, as his team set about defending their crown.
Juventus are Italian champions and come with plenty of European experience on the big stage. They might be without their suspended manager Antonio Conte for a while, but the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Giorgio Chiellini and Arturo Vidal still pack a heavyweight punch.
Shakhtar Donetsk might not be a pushover, either. The Ukrainians were UEFA Cup winners in 2009 and are becoming a mainstay of the Champions League group stage.
Nordsjælland are an unknown quantity. This is the first time in the big cup for the Danish champions.
Winners: AC Milan and Zenit
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AC Milan and Zenit will be expected to progress comfortably from Group C, where they're up against Anderlecht and Malaga.
Anderlecht last appeared in the group stage in the 2006-07 season, when they lost four of six and left without a trace.
Malaga of Spain looked like a team on the rise, and they still have some excellent players, but financial problems are threatening to derail their operation.
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Big-spending Paris Saint-Germain were in Pot 3, so they arguably got off lightly in a group that contains Porto, Dynamo Kiev and Dinamo Zagreb.
The French side could have drawn a real heavyweight, or even two, so they will count themselves fortunate to have avoided any of the pre-tournament favorites.
They'll be expected to go through to the knockout stages.
Could Have Been Better: Arsenal
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Arsenal have been drawn in Group B with Schalke, Olympiacos and Montpellier.
Arsene Wenger's team lost 3-1 in Greece to Olympiacos in last season's group stage, so they will know what to expect there.
Schalke reached the semifinals in 2011 and are experienced Champions League campaigners, while Montpellier enter as French champions.
It won't be easy, but you'd still fancy Arsenal to come through.
(I initially had Arsenal as losers here, but had a rethink after a barrage of your comments. I don't think it's an easy draw, but it could have been much worse)
The Draw in Full
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GROUP A—Porto, Dynamo Kiev, PSG, Dinamo Zagreb
GROUP B—Arsenal, Schalke, Olympiacos, Montpellier
GROUP C—Milan, Zenit, Anderlecht, Malaga
GROUP D—Real Madrid, Man City, Ajax, Dortmund
GROUP E—Chelsea, Shakhtar, Juventus, Nordsjælland
GROUP F—Bayern Munich, Valencia, Lille, BATE Borisov
GROUP G—Barcelona, Benfica, Spartak Moscow, Celtic
GROUP H—Man United, Braga, Galatasaray, CFR Cluj