On few occasions has a Champions League draw been so unequal. It was magnificent for Madrid, good for Atlético and enough to have Barcelona and Sevilla shaking their fists at the sky. I have always thought that the true danger of these draws lies in the possibility of drawing a big gun from Pot 3. That is what happened to Barcelona and Sevilla, who were unpleasantly surprised to find Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund joining them in their groups. The latter may have lost Erling Haaland to Manchester City but they have strengthened well with the windfall. Inter have re-signed Romelu Lukaku. And to make matters worse the vagaries of Pot 1 did not smile on either Liga side. Barcelona drew Bayern Munich and Sevilla, City. The teams from Pot 4, Viktoria Plzen and Copenhagen, are really only in the running for the Europa League spot, which is scant consolation for them.
It was the opposite story for the Madrid teams. Real Madrid, who were in Pot 1, drew arguably the least fearsome of the Pot 2 sides, RB Leipzig, and Shakhtar Donetsk from Pot 3, a team playing under the shadow of the war at home and hosting group stage matches in Poland as a result. Celtic complete Madrid’s group, a former European champion but now one of the flagship sides for Europe’s second tier. Atleti, who were in Pot 2, drew Porto from the top seeds and Bayer Leverkusen from Pot 3. Club Brugge, where former Barça striker Ferran Jutglá, one of Xavi’s lifelines during his early tenure, is plying his trade round out the group. It is a decent group for Atlético, assuming they once again find their identity. Diego Simeone’s side had an odd pre-season, flirting with Cristiano Ronaldo, and the opening Liga game at the Metropolitano was very disagreeable, with fans abusing their own players after a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Villarreal.
Madrid and Alexia bring joy to Spanish football
Of course, before a ball is kicked it’s easy to suggest one group is less daunting than another, or one team offers less of a threat. Last season there were premature forecasts of doom for Madrid after they were beaten by Sheriff Tiraspol, but at the end of the season Carlo Ancelotti had won the Champions League again. This season there will be a slight change in proceedings, an acceleration of the usually serene pace of the group stage, which will have to be completed before the World Cup in November. The draw ceremony itself, without the forced pomp sometimes attached to such events, also delivered deserved prizes for Madrid and a wonderful speech from Ancelotti, who every time he appears in public wins over more hearts and minds, even among Madrid’s rivals. And to cap it all was the award of UEFA Player of the Year for a second consecutive year to Alexia Putellas, who also holds the FIFA equivalent and the Ballon d’Or. That was not as surefire as the awards for Ancelotti and Karim Benzema, and as such was all the more satisfying.