29 August 2014

Champions League draw analysis: not bad. Not bad at all.

Sneer all you want at a fourth place finish. There's something to be said for being perennial qualifiers for the Champions League; it boosts our coefficient so that we can start in Pot 1 for the draw, pipping Liverpool and Man City even though they finished above us in the Prem last season (and, in Man City's case, for quite a few seasons beyond that as well). They dropped to pots 2 and 3, respectively, and drew much tougher groups than did we. As to our draw, I was prepared for yet another surprising and dispiriting after getting last season's Group of Death (Napoli, Dortmund, Olympiakos), facing Chelsea in the third round of the league cup, drawing Bayern again in the round of 16, and getting Tottenham, Liverpool, and Everton in the FA Cup. It felt at times like forces were conspiring against us. By comparison, and on its own, our group-stage draw looks manageable, even favorable.

Chelsea, of course, got an easy, easy draw that will nonetheless inspire Mourinho to moan about something unfair that only his club have to face. However, worrying about that is like worrying about weather. You know it's going to happen regardless of your attitude, so just smile and move on. As to us, on paper, our draw looks a bit fearsome. After all, looming there at the top of the list is none other than Borussia Dortmund, who put a scare into us last season and, lest we forget, very nearly won the Champions League in 2013. However, they seem to ghosts of their former selves, having seen Robert Lewandowski and Mario Götze leave for league-rivals Bayern "Behemoth" Munich. While Dortmund's UCL coefficient is among the highest in pot two, this derives largely from the success they enjoyed in past seasons. Going into the 2014-15 campaign, they may struggle to live up to the expectations they'd generated.

As to Galatasaray, it's starting to feel like an Arsenal season isn't complete without a trip to Turkey. We've already slipped past Beşiktaş this season; last year, it was Fenerbahçe in the play-off (and Galatasaray in the Emirates Cup, for what that's worth). If this keeps up, we can at least start claiming that we'd been going to Turkey before it was cool. As to their squad, they've lost Didier Drogba, who's gone back to Chelsea, although Mourinho-minion Wesley Sneijder still lurks in the shadows. More famously, of course, we'll get a joyous reunion with Emmanuel Eboué. Frankly, I'm more worried about slip-ups earlier in the group-stage that might make our final match, a trip to Istanbul, fraught with tension and uncertainty (you can see the group-stage fixtures here). Whereas Dortmund's coefficient might overstate their prowess, Galatasaray's might understate theirs. There's something intangible and unpredictable about them that I can't quite put a finger to, Drogba or no Drogba. Here's hoping, then, that we can take care of business against Dortmund and Anderlecht, rendering that final match irrelevant to our aspirations.

Speaking of Anderlecht, they do emerge as the best of pot 4, largely on the strength of their 2011-12 Europa League performance, winning all of their group-stage matches before bowing out in the subsequent round of 32 (for those with a historical bent, this was the season after Romelu Lukaku lead his club with 16 goals before moving to Chelsea). More recently, they've seemed content to make a quick cameo before bowing out in the group-stage of either the Europa or Champions League. Last season, for example, they managed one point in the Champions League group stage while facing PSG, Olympiakos, and Benfica. They surrendered 17 goals in six matches while scoring just four. In short, if we can't make mincemeat of them in two matches to earn six points while padding our goal-differential, we'll make life far-more difficult than it should be.

All in all, we've done pretty well for ourselves. It might have been too much to ask to draw Juventus, Athletic Bilbao, and Malmö, bottom of each of their pots, but the whole point of the Champions League is that it ain't easy to win. We've avoided a Group of Death, and that's progress of a sort. What we make of what we've been given is what really matters. Our autumn fixture-list just got a bit more-crowded. May our winter and spring schedule do the same.