So, the eagerly anticipated Champions League group stage draw took place this afternoon on the Cote D’Azur in Monaco. 32 teams have been divided into eight groups and from a Chelsea perspective, it is a draw which excites but will create apprehension between September and December.
Groups in full
Group A: Benfica, Manchester United, Basel, CSKA Moscow
Group B: Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Anderlecht, Celtic
Group C: Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, A.S. Roma, Qarabag F.K.
Group D: Juventus, Barcelona, Olympiakos, Sporting Clube de Portugal.
Group E: Spartak Moscow, Sevilla, Liverpool, Maribor
Group F: Shakhtar Donetsk, Manchester City, S.S.C. Napoli, Feyenoord
Group G: Monaco, Porto, Besiktas, R.B. Leipzig
Group H: Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham, APOEL Nicosia.
At first glance, it is refreshing to have fixtures that fans can look forward and be slightly apprehensive about. It is the first challenging and competitive group that Chelsea has had since the 2012/13 season where Shakhtar and Juventus qualified and Chelsea finished 3rd. Looking back through Chelsea’s group stage history in the UEFA Champions League encounters against Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Maribor, Dynamo Kyiv, Bordeaux are not mouth-watering. So, let’s get to know a little bit more about our Group C rivals.
Atletico Madrid: With respect to Roma and Qarabag, Atletico Madrid present our sternest challenge. Atletico Madrid is accomplished and resolute under Diego Simeone. Like most sides competing in the Champions League, there is quality all over the pitch. Jan Oblak is an accomplished successor to Thibaut Courtois – in April 2017, the 24-year-old kept his 58th clean sheet in his 100th appearance for the Club, surpassing Courtois 49 clean sheets in 100 appearances and De Gea’s 22 clean sheets in 84 appearances. Atleti pose a considerable goal threat throughout the side so our defence has to be waterproof– Saul Niguez has an eye for goal as we saw against Bayern and there is no need to describe the threat Antoine Griezmann poses. It will be a welcome sight to see familiar faces for Chelsea fans with Fernando Torres and Filipe Luis returning to the side and no doubt, it will be considerably more competitive than the 4-0 drubbing we handed to Atleti in 2009.
Roma: Antonio Rudiger will be returning to the Stadio Olimpico just months after joining Chelsea. A very well-equipped side who finished second in Serie A with 87 points. We may not have to deal with the explosive Mohamed Salah and the legend that is Francisco Totti but Roma should not be under-estimated. Like most Italian outfits, Roma is a side who like to play a three-man defence so it will be an interesting tactical battle. Roma have some high-quality individuals within their side – particularly Dutch midfielder Kevin Strootman and Radja Nainggolan, the latter who has been linked with Chelsea in the past. Chelsea have to be wary of former Manchester City striker and Bosnian international, Edin Dzeko who has scored 37 goals in 69 league appearances after completing a permanent move to the Olimpico in the summer of 2016.
Qarabag: Qarabag is something of an unknown quantity for most European football fans and Chelsea will host the Azerbaijani outfit during matchday one. Qarabag, only formed in 1993 won the Azerbaijani Premier League last season and made history by becoming the first Azerbaijani team to reach the Champions League group stages after defeating FC København on away goals. Qarabag deserves respect for making it to the group stages but due to the staunch difference in quality, the two encounters should be straightforward but Chelsea have to be vigilant.
Chelsea Group C fixtures
MD1: Chelsea v Qarabag – 12th September
MD2: Atletico v Chelsea – 27th September
MD3: Chelsea v Roma – 18th October
MD4: Roma v Chelsea – 31st October
MD5: Qarabag v Chelsea – 22nd November
MD6: Chelsea v Atletico – 5th December
This group is going to be both exciting and nerve-wracking for Chelsea and the loyal fans but it is fantastic to be competing against the very best in Europe once again. The fixture scheduling has been particularly tough on Chelsea with Champions League encounters preceding clashes against Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool. Computerised fixture organisation, however, is no excuse for underperformance since a club like Chelsea with the calibre of players should be able to manage two intense fixtures in the week. This group will be very difficult but the team has the quality to finish top of the group: essential when comparing the other groups.