If the Uefa Champions' League, in its 15th season, is inevitably developing a tendency to throw the same big clubs together year after year, last Thursday's draw for the group stage offered a pleasing mix of the old and the new. While Chelsea's potentially combustible pairing with Barcelona understandably attracted most attention, Manchester United and Celtic, Britain's first European Cup winners within 12 glorious months of each other, were brought together for the first time; Arsenal found themselves meeting three teams they have not previously encountered; and even Liverpool, after 16 campaigns, managed to find new ground to break in the vineyards of Bordeaux.
One of the reasons the same élite group (not exclusively G14 members but not far from it) tend to make the latter stages of the competition each season is, of course, a self-perpetuating seeding system based on previous performance rather than current form. Chelsea have entered the competition four times, always progressing to at least the last 16, but even after two successive years as runaway winners of the Premiership, and two Champions' League semi-finals, they were still not among the top seeds - unlike the three other English teams, who have trailed in their wake since Jose Mourinho's arrival in London.
The danger of that has been illustrated to them in Europe these past two years: it is the top seeds who tend to win their groups and therefore have the better chance of coming through the first knockout stage. Last season Mourinho unwisely claimed he was not bothered about finishing top, a position Liverpool claimed ahead of his team after a surprisingly tame goalless draw in the final group match at Stamford Bridge. As runners-up, Chelsea then found themselves pitted against Barcelona - which proved a Bridge too far - instead of Benfica, whom they might have expected to overcome, though Liverpool could not do so.
Whether he admits it or not, Mourinho's worst fears have materialised again in being drawn with Barcelona for the third season running. It is too early, however, for him to worry about the disadvantage of again only finishing in second place, which would increase the possibilities of meeting a Milan or Real Madrid in the knockout round. Of greater concern will be ensuring that his revamped squad have settled down properly by the time of the key games.
The important dates are not just the back-to-back meetings with Barça on 18 and 31 October (the first of them in London) but also one that occurs much earlier; on 12 September they take on Werder Bremen, a third-seeded side well capable of taking points off either of their supposed betters. Runners-up and much the most entertaining team in the Bundesliga last season, with the leading scorer domestically and later at the World Cup in Miroslav Klose, the north Germans should provide a real test in just a fortnight's time. Chelsea will have had only a couple more games under their collective belt by then to integrate Andriy Shevchenko (who failed to score in two Champions' League games against Barça last season) into the 4-4-2 system that Mourinho now appears to favour.
In two seasons he rarely deviated from 4-3-3 with two wide players, and on the exceptional occasions - such as the FA Cup semi-final against Liver-pool, when Joe Cole, Arjen Robben and Damien Duff were all left out - Chelsea often looked at their least effective. Wednesday's defeat at Middlesbrough was hardly their finest hour either, though at least the casual attitude that the manager detected should hardly be a problem for matches against Barça. Calming the players down will be more of a problem than hyping them up.
The same applies to United's meetings with Celtic, a regularly good-humoured testimonial fixture now taking on competitive status for the first time, oddly, in either club's distinguished history.
Only if Roy Keane was still in the green-and-white would the two games (13 September and 21 November) have attracted greater interest, though that would have had the benefit for Celtic's Gordon Strachan of shifting some of the spotlight from a relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson that became fractured during their time with Aberdeen and was never repaired at Old Trafford. Strachan is already doing his best to play down the ties as having "lost much of their magic" because of the frequent testimonials, but do not expect anyone else to see it that way.
Quite aside from those games, United have a score to settle with Benfica, who extracted partial revenge for George Best's "El Beatle" night and then Wembley '68 by knocking them out at the group stage last season. The Portuguese went on to do the same to Liverpool, on a 3-0 aggregate, before going out to Barcelona in the quarter-finals, which suggests that Group F could also become a three-cornered contest.
Benfica still finished 12 points behind Porto in their domestic League, which gives Arsenal a hint of what they can expect when the Emirates Stadium first stages European football on 26 September against Mourinho's former club. Before that, Arsène Wenger's side must travel to Hamburg and an equally impressive stadium, rebuilt for the World Cup, now the home of a proud club their new coach, Thomas Doll, has revitalised.
He took them to third place last season behind their northern rivals Bremen after doing the double over champions Bayern Munich. CSKA Moscow may be the outsiders of the group but have benefited from the influx of money into Russian football and could trouble all three opponents with more than the Muscovite winter.
THE KEY DATES Who plays who - and when
GROUP A: Barcelona, Chelsea, Werder Bremen, Levski Sofia.
Fixtures: 12 Sept: Chelsea v Werder Bremen; 27 Sept: Levski Sofia v Chelsea; 18 Oct: Chelsea v Barcelona; 31 Oct: Barcelona v Chelsea; 22 Nov: Werder Bremen v Chelsea; 5 Dec: Chelsea v Levski Sofia.
GROUP B: Internazionale, Bayern Munich, Sporting Lisbon, Spartak Moscow.
GROUP C: Liverpool, PSV Eindhoven, Bordeaux, Galatasaray.
Fixtures: 12 Sept: PSV Eindhoven v Liverpool; 27 Sept: Liverpool v Galatasaray; 18 Oct: Bordeaux v Liverpool; 31 Oct: Liverpool v Bordeaux; 22 Nov: Liverpool v PSV Eindhoven; 5 Dec: Galatasaray v Liverpool.
GROUP D: Valencia, Roma, Olympiakos, Shakhtar Donetsk.
GROUP E: Real Madrid, Lyon, Steaua Bucharest, Dynamo Kiev.
GROUP F: Manchester United, Celtic, Benfica, FC Copenhagen.
Fixtures: 13 Sept: Manchester United v Celtic; 26 Sept: Benfica v Manchester United; Celtic v FC Copenhagen; 17 Oct: Celtic v Benfica, Manchester United v FC Copenhagen; 1 Nov: FC Copenhagen v Manchester United; Benfica v Celtic; 21 Nov: Benfica v FC Copenhagen; Celtic v Manchester United; 6 Dec: Manchester United v Benfica, FC Copenhagen v Celtic.
GROUP G: Arsenal, Porto, CSKA Moscow, Hamburg SV.
Fixtures: 13 Sept: Hamburg SV v Arsenal; 26 Sept: Arsenal v Porto; 17 Oct: CSKA Moscow v Arsenal; 1 Nov: Arsenal v CSKA Moscow; 21 Nov: Arsenal v Hamburg SV; 6 Dec: Porto v Arsenal.
GROUP H: Milan, Lille, AEK Athens, Anderlecht.
THE BRIT CHALLENGE: OPENING FRESH WOUNDS AND RENEWING OLD RIVALRIES BY ANDREW TONG
GROUP A: CHELSEA
Jose Mourinho criticised Uefa for not putting the champions among the top seeds. So it's no surprise that Chelsea came out in the same group as the holders, Barcelona. They face each other for the third time in as many years, with plenty of enmity. Werder Bremen and Miroslav Klose pose a threat after scaring Juventus; Levski Sofia will be brushed aside.
GROUP C: LIVERPOOL Rafael Benitez faces a nostalgic return to Istanbul, the scene of Liverpool's comeback from 0-3 to win the 2005 final against Milan. However, they will not be in the Ataturk Stadium but at Fortress Galatasaray, always an intimidating proposition. PSV Eindhoven could provide a stern test, Bordeaux less so. After a tough qualifying tie, Liverpool's progress should be untroubled.
GROUP F: MANCHESTER UNITED
At last, two competitive games with Celtic after all the countless testimonials, including Roy Keane's in May. The ties will be as fraught as they were when Celtic played Liverpool three years ago. But the big banana skin for Sir Alex Ferguson as he looks to restore United's European lustre is Benfica, who knocked them out in the group stage in Lisbon last year.
GROUP F: CELTIC
Gordon Strachan renews his acquaintance with his former gaffer at both Aberdeen and Manchester United, but there is little love lost between the two. Celtic will hope to go through in second place but even the lowliest team in this group, Copenhagen, are now seen as dark horses after surprisingly knocking out Ajax during last week's qualifiers.
GROUP G: ARSENAL
Arsenal have never met any of their three opponents, Porto, CSKA Moscow or Hamburg, in the competition before. Last year's runners-up were forced to qualify but came through unscathed. Arsène Wenger has had lean times in the depths of the Russian winter but he would hope to take points off a club closely linked with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.Reuse content