For the 32 clubs involved, the UEFA Champions League group stage draw is perhaps the most anticipated date of the football calendar not to involve an actual football.
It’s an occasion when each club learns who they’ll face in the first stage of a competition on which so much importance is placed – not only due to its prestige, but also its financial benefits.
There’s often at least one group which is considered the “group of death” due to the strength of either three or four clubs involved, guaranteeing the early elimination of one of those clubs.
Whilst I strongly disagree with the suggestion that this year’s so-called “group of death” is that which brought Man City, Barcelona, Borussia Moenchengladbach and Celtic together, it’s nonetheless a fascinating group that reunites a series of former colleagues and rivals.
The most high profile is the return of Pep Guardiola to Barcelona, the club where he made his name as a manager and lifted two Champions League titles during a three year spell in charge.
Despite taking over at Bayern Munich at a time when the German club had arguably surpassed Barcelona as the continent’s most feared side, Guardiola failed to experience a Champions League final – comprehensively beaten in semi finals against Real Madrid and Barcelona in his first two seasons, then seeing his side unable to capitalise on a dominant display against Atletico Madrid in an away goals loss at the same stage last season.
There will inevitably be a huge amount of pressure on Guardiola to maintain the gradual progress which Man City have made in the competition, and although the Spaniard has already experienced a return to the Camp Nou as a visiting manager, it won’t be a place he’d have chosen to visit so early in the competition.
Also meeting again will be two of Brendan Rodgers’ former stars at Liverpool, with the £124million pair of Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling both set to be reunited with the manager who sold them to their current clubs.
Rodgers returned to management with Celtic in the summer, and successfully guided his new team into the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in three years.
Having entered the draw as one of the lowest ranked clubs, there’ll be less expectation of Celtic than the other three teams in the group, though there have been many famous European nights at Celtic Park, and there’s always a possibility of the home side rising to the occasion and adding to the list of shock results in the competition.
The group’s other team, Borussia Moenchengladbach, also have recent history with both Man City and their new manager, and proved to be a thorn in the side of Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, with two wins and two draws in the last four Bundesliga meetings. Man City had more success against Borussia, winning both group games between the sides during last season’s Champions League group stage.
City had to demonstrate their character to overturn a 1-0 deficit in Germany, before a comfortable home win in the last round of group games, having already guaranteed qualification from the group.
Rematches and personal reunions will occur in every round of Group C games, but the amount of quality and experience in the squads of Barcelona and Man City suggests that anything less than a top two placing for those teams would be a surprise.