x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Business ends get promising for Real Madrid after knockout phase draw for Uefa Champions League

Monte Carlo gave Real Madrid the full royal treatment on Thursday, centring the traditionally over-elaborate ceremony around the draw for the group phase of the Uefa Champions League on the club with the greatest history in the European Cup.

Spain's Iker Casillas draws Real Madrid during the draw ceremony for the Uefa Champions League group stage at Grimaldi Forum in Monaco, August 28, 2014.  SEBASTIEN NOGIER / EPA
Spain's Iker Casillas draws Real Madrid during the draw ceremony for the Uefa Champions League group stage at Grimaldi Forum in Monaco, August 28, 2014. SEBASTIEN NOGIER / EPA

Monte Carlo gave Real Madrid the full royal treatment on Thursday, centring the traditionally over-elaborate ceremony around the draw for the group phase of the Uefa Champions League on the club with the greatest history in the European Cup.

Real Madrid won the trophy for the 10th time in May, a milestone deserving of the red-carpet treatment, and as various Real Madrid captains, present and past, drew the club names from glass bowls, the prospect of an 11th such triumph certainly seemed no more distant because of the outcome.

Iker Casillas picked the first eight balls out and then watched as his Madrid was joined in Group B by Liverpool, one of a handful of notable returnees to the competition after a period outside club football’s glamour competition.

That guarantees a couple of resonant matches in pool play which, given the mini-league system and the need to cram a full 32 teams into a structure that only enters the knockout phase in the new year, can become predictable.

Nobody will foresee Madrid struggling too much over their 180 minutes against Ludgorets, the minnows of that group, but they will be cautious against Basel, who have impressed in the Europa League in recent campaigns. Liverpool will be motivated against the title-holders.

Elsewhere, a strong sense of deja vu took hold in Germany v England clashes that also were a feature of last season’s group phase.

Again, the Bundesliga and the Premier League each have a full quartet of clubs involved; again they will bump into one another. Chelsea versus Schalke, Arsenal versus Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich against Manchester City all are replica fixtures from last autumn.

All six of those clubs reached the last 16 in 2013/14, but City in particular will feel mildly jittery that Bayern are again on their menu and that Roma are in the same group.

City have only once in the last three attempts escaped the group segment of the tournament.

Group E also repeats the CSKA Moscow match against City that attracted attention last season for the racist chanting by CSKA followers. Uefa partially closed CSKA’s stadium as a result and any further offence will add credence to the push to ban the Russian club from participating in international tournaments.

Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain share a group, and their meetings have perhaps the starriest quality of all the matches.

In Group A, Atletico Madrid, runners-up in May and Spain’s champions, meet Juventus, the Italian champions.

Monaco get to test their upward mobility, 16 months after they were in the French second division, against Benfica, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Bayer Leverkusen. It represents a challenging reintroduction to the Champions League for the residents of Monte Carlo and its surrounds, but not an excessively daunting one.

Eastern Europe, source of so much of the new wealth in European football, will look on the draw with mixed feelings.

CSKA have it tough, Zenit less so, while Ludgorets and Maribor will probably set their targets at finishing third in Group B and Group G.

Perhaps the hardest pool to call is Group H. Porto, third in Portugal last term, meet Athletic Bilbao, fourth in Spain, plus Bate Borisov, who are becoming more used to the Champions League, and a Shakhtar Donetsk side whose pedigree in Europe is sound, but who currently are enduring a complicated political situation in their part of Ukraine.

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