Aug 29 (Reuters) - The Champions League group stage draw threw up two heavyweight clashes and plenty of intriguing ones on Thursday, yet there was a general air of predictability about who would eventually qualify.
The meetings of Real Madrid and Juventus in Group B and AC Milan and Barcelona in Group H may be mouth-watering at first glance but are less dramatic in the overall context of their respective groups.
The group stage, as drawn out as Thursday’s hour-long draw ceremony, has promised more than it has delivered recently with teams from smaller leagues often being embarrassingly outclassed by the big fish.
For all the talk about “no easy teams” and a “a very even draw”, it is hard to imagine Manchester United, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Juventus, AC Milan, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund or Paris St Germain failing to reach the last 16.
Last year’s group stage threw up only the bare minimum of upsets and 13 of the 16 places in the knockout stage had been settled with one round of matches still to play.
The format also means that, even if there is a shock, the big teams still have five more group games to put it right.
Even teams such as Steaua Bucharest, Ajax Amsterdam and Celtic, all former European champions whose names still carry a certain aura for older fans, can no longer compete with the financial power of the big clubs.
Milan, knocked out by Barca in the previous two seasons, will face their bogey team again, yet both sides should progress from a group which also includes Celtic and Ajax.
The Dutch champions won the last of their four European titles in 1995 and have more recently become producers and sellers of young talent rather than a great team in their own right.
Last season, they went out in the group stage after suffering two 4-1 home defeats.
Celtic, though progressing to the last 16, were ultimately outclassed by Juventus and coach Neil Lennon complained about the difficulty of attracting top players to the Scottish Premier League.
Real Madrid and Juventus will be expected to go through from Group B where Galatasaray, who pose a mildly dangerous threat at home, and rank outsiders FC Copenhagen are the other teams.
Group G is likely to be fairly plain sailing for Porto and Atletico Madrid unless Zenit St Petersburg can improve dramatically on a dismal outing last season or debutants Austria Vienna produce a stunning upset.
Chelsea and Schalke 04 are the obvious candidates to qualify from Group E although Swiss champions FC Basel pulled off one of the competition’s few real upsets by eliminating Manchester United two seasons ago and will be hoping for another shock.
Chelsea comfortably disposed of Basel and Steaua, the other team in the group, on the way to winning the Europa League last season.
Defending champions Bayern Munich landed CSKA Moscow, Manchester City and Czech champions Viktoria Plzen in Group D, giving them a seemingly straightforward passage to the knockout stage.
Chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge appeared to be going through the motions when he said: “We have to go into the competition with a lot of respect and a lot of focus from the very start. This will not be an automatic qualification but our aim is to make the knockout stage.”
Big-spending Paris St Germain drew Benfica, Olympiakos, from austerity-hit Greece, and Anderlecht in Group C in what should be another fairly easy stroll with the Portuguese side most likely to accompany them through.
Manchester United meet Ukraine’s Brazilian-inspired champions Shakhtar Donetsk along with Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad in Group A.
Shakhtar were a revelation when they reached the last 16 at Chelsea’s expense last season but then paid the inevitable penalty as they saw their top players leave for richer, more glamorous clubs.
Group F is arguably the toughest, pitting Arsenal against Olympique Marseille, last year’s runners-up Borussia Dortmund and Napoli, spearheaded by Gonzalo Higuain.
“This is a brilliant, balanced group with four teams who have what it takes to survive the group stage,” Dortmund coach Juergen Klopp said.
It is what the Champions League should be but rarely is, at least in the group stage. (Reporting by Brian Homewood; Editing by Sonia Oxley)