November 9, 2001

Uefa CL second-phase draws are tight

Last Friday saw the draw for the second group phase of the Uefa Champions League. Though for me it is hard to readjust the focus of my mind to the realm of the foot after having witnessed the best sporting game of my life, the D'Backs game seven win at BOB, (which by the way is the exact same scenario that unfolded in the Champions League final of '99 when Manchester put two past Bayern in injury time to win it 2-1), the analysis of the draw will definitely help.

In Group A, German and European champions Bayern Munich, English champions Manchester United, French champions Nantes, and Portuguese champions Boavista occupy the four berths. Group A's defining characteristic is of course its entire constitution of national champions, though this hardly makes it a tight contest. Barring Bayern and Boavista, who top the German and Portuguese league respectively, the remaining two clubs are absolutely horrifying and embarrassing to watch in their domestic competitions. Nantes are last in France while Manchester is close to it, in sixth place. The French champions' saving grace is their wicked form in Europe, a button their English counterparts have yet to push. Bayern seems too strong not to win the group, and Boavista will likely follow them into the quarter-finals in second place. But beware the Red ghosts of former greatness.

We come now to Group B, the so-called group of death. Liverpool, Galatasaray, Roma, and Barcelona will take to the pitch. There isn't a single team in this group that is not a legitimate title contender. Liverpool is not only excelling in the English League, currently second but with a game in hand, their European campaigns thus far have been reminiscent of their '80's glory years. Galatasaray may lack squad depth, but if they are able to field an A-team, not a single squad will find it easy to come away with a win in Istanbul, setting the stage for qualification pending their away performances. Italian champions Roma faltered somewhat in the first group stage, but under the patient guidance of Fabio Capello, they have reemerged in Italy as title contenders. Morevoer, their epic duels with Real Madrid in the prior phase will have certainly bolstered their confidence and given them the know-how to play the power houses of continental football. Though suffering a defeat in last weekend's Derby of Spain against archrivals Real Madrid, Barcelona has been in cruise control all year, lying third in La Liga and topping their phase-one group. They seem to have shaken off last year's humiliating first-phase exit, and seem poised for genuine title contention. Let fate decide the outcome of this group as there is no clear dominant club in it.

Group C hosts Czech champions Sparta Praha, Spanish champions Real Madrid, Porto, and Pananthinaikos. Favorites for the European title, Real Madrid could not have asked for an easier group. Merely based on the depth and quality of their squad, Real should require neither luck nor impressive form to qualify for the quarter finals. With Real topping the group as a given, the battle for the second qualification berth seems much tighter. Sparta Praha has been devastating in the Czech Republic as well as in Europe so far this season, having held Bayern Munich to a draw away from home in the initial phase, but the same can be said for Porto, and Pananthinaikos, the former finishing a narrow second to Juventus in the first phase, while the latter won its group. The experience of past European champions Porto seems to give them the edge to finish ahead of Sparta and Pananthinaikos.

The remaining Group D falls just short of the scooping depths of hell, but it's close enough to feel the heat. The group consists of three runners-up in their domestic leagues last season: Juventus, Arsenal, Deportivo La Coruna, and fourth-place Bayer Leverkusen. Spanish champions of two years past, Deportivo has already proven their caliber by dropping Manchester twice in the first group phase, in addition to the fact that they head the Spanish La Liga. Juventus, while struggling in the Serie A, has at times looked lethal in the prior phase of the Champions League and merit their status as hot contenders by virtue of their experienced and world-class squad. Arsenal boast five of the World Cup '98 and Euro 2000 winning Frenchmen on the squad, and in conjunction with their newly beefed up bench they pose a credible threat to the more established giants of Europe. Bayer Leverkusen must reluctantly admit to the dubious title of weakest team in the group, but as history has so often shown (most recently last year with Leeds) that might work well to their advantage. Juventus and Deportivo look good to qualify from Group D on their current form, but a resurgent Arsenal and Leverkusen might upset their plans.

Following the conclusion of the fall classic, let's hope the Champions League can substitute its tense and dramatic games, just as it did in Barcelona, May '99.