Much work to be done if Milan are to repeat these scenes of 2007
As a result of being placed among the top seeds in Pot 1 for the draw—UEFA’s coefficient somehow puts Porto in Pot 1 while undefeated Italian champs and seven-time finalists Juventus are in Pot 3, so Milan have seemingly ended up in their position more through recent participation than being the second most successful team in the tournament's history—Milan have managed to avoid the kind of “group of death” that Manchester City face.
Having had to deal with Read Madrid and Barcelona in the past two seasons’ groups, this will come as a welcome relief.
But to assume that qualification from this group will be automatic for the Rossoneri is to ignore three teams, all of whom will present certain difficulties for the seven-time champions of Europe. Coupled with the mounting injury crisis at the San Siro, Milan can ill-afford to take their group stage opponents lightly.
Spaletti on the Zenit sidelines
Of all the clubs in Europe, it may be fair to say that FC Zenit St.Petersburg have raised the most eyebrows of late.
Their recent big-money swoops for Hulk and Axel Witsel—the Guardian quotes the combined figure spent in one day as £64m—were a surprise to many observers, particularly since Hulk was being courted by many of the continent’s biggest teams.
On the face of it then, Zenit appear to be quite a strong outfit. In Luciano Spaletti, they have a tactician who impressed during his time at Roma and who, as an Italian, will be more familiar with the Rossoneri’s game than many coaches Milan will face.
In addition to their recent high-profile signings, Zenit have also picked up useful players such as Bruno Alves and Aleksandar Lukovic in recent years. During Spaletti’s term at the club, Zenit have won the last two Russian league titles, setting and breaking records for undefeated games in the Russian Premier League along the way. And in terms of European competition, this is not their first time at the dance—they qualified from the Champions League group stage for the first time last season and won the UEFA and European Super Cups in 2008.
Zenit, therefore, with their big-money backing, big-name players and big domestic success, could be the toughest challenge Milan face during qualification. Il Diavolo will certainly not relish travelling to St.
Petersburg in October if anything more than a point is required.
Anderlecht during their Champions League playoff
Anderlecht are the reigning Belgian champions but it has been quite some time since their successive European Cup (as it was then) finals of ’83 and ’84.
Last year, Paars-wit did set a new record when they became the first Belgian team to finish the group stage of a European competition—in this case the Europa League–with the maximum number of points. However, this was followed up with a second-round loss to Dutch side AZ, so their recent European pedigree is still lacking.
Ostensibly, Anderlecht appear to be the weakest of the three teams Milan will face but no games at this level of competition are ever easy. As we’ve seen in the English Premier League this season, Belgium is starting to produce some high-quality players and Anderlecht’s Guillaume Gillet is among them, with an impressive 14 league goals scored from midfield last season.
Chilean Manuel Pellegrini is in charge at Malaga
To many, it may seem unusual to see Málaga Club de Fútbol accompanying the omnipresent El
Clasico sides as Spain’s emissaries into European football. If it does, that’s probably because you’re
unaware that the club is owned by Qatari businessman Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani.
Like Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain then, the Malaguistas have benefitted greatly from the influx of investment from the middle-east. To the unfamiliar, Ruud Van Nistelrooy may have been the biggest name in the team last year, but the Dutchman actually struggled, only scoring five times, and has since retired.
New Arsenal man Santi Cazorla was signed from Malaga, another change from the side who finished fourth in La Liga last term, but big-name players such as Jeremy Toulalan and the returning Julio Baptista remain. Additionally, Roque Santa Cruz arrived on a season’s loan from Manchester City, and the Paraguayan will be looking to impress having bounced around Europe as an unwanted City player.
So while Atletico Madrid have taken the eye as a Spanish export capable of mixing with Europe’s best, it is Malaga who, along with Valencia, join Real and Barca in the Champions League.
Any team capable of getting a top-four finish in La Liga—and therefore besting Chelsea-killers Atletico over the course of the season—must definitely be taken extremely seriously.