So, there it was. The awards handed out, the lots picked, and now teams know their opponents for the group stage of the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League campaign. One idiosyncrasy of the Champions League is its ability to conjure reunions, either through a player going to his old stomping ground or two teams meeting once more, and this season was no different, Group H’s pairing of Juventus and Manchester United covering the former, and the latter as well.
United and Juventus have history in this tournament, though they haven’t met since 2003, their titanic semi-final of 1999 will still linger in the memory. But that’s hardly the headline grabber from this particular pairing, but rather a return to Old Trafford for new Juve forward Cristiano Ronaldo, who spent six years in the red part of Manchester; while there’s also a return for Paul Pogba, who’ll face Juventus for the first time since departing in 2016.
For Juventus, it was probably the kind of draw you’d expect them to get, a team that grabbed the headlines in the summer window and signalled their intent to end their European drought was just about likely to get a headline-draw. For United, perhaps something quieter would have been the aim, as after the start to the season they’ve had, probably the last thing Jose Mourinho and his side need is a Champions League pairing that still puts them in the limelight. Not that qualification for both sides should be a given, they’re also paired with Valencia, back in the Europe after a two-season hiatus, a side well-drilled by Marcelino, and took points off Real Madrid and Barcelona last season. That they’ve quietly flown under the radar is likely to do their chances no harm.
Speaking of chances, there is Group D, comprising Lokomotiv Moscow, Porto, Schalke and Galatasaray. For all the complaints over the Champions League group draw being made for the behemoths, the prospect of a group so open, with four rather similar sides, will always make for good viewing. Porto were placed in a similar group last season, and they progressed from it, so will fancy their chances, as should the other trio. A pairing of this sort means a rather unheralded side will be in the next Champions League draw in December, although if any of them can advance beyond the last 16 remains the hard ask.
And then there’s groups B and C, perhaps jousting for the increasingly tiresome ‘Group of Death’ tag. Group B features five-time champions Barcelona, three-time winners Inter Milan- back in the Champions League after six years- as well as Tottenham, who, last season, were placed in a supposed group of death that ended up to be of little threat. But Group C definitely looks threatening, with Paris St. Germain, whose thirst for European glory remains unquenched, Liverpool, finalists last season, and Napoli, coached by a three-time Champions League winner in Carlo Ancelotti. One of these groups might just live up to the hype, or one of these groups might be nothing more than the hype.
All in all, the Champions League’s knack for re-igniting old battles remains, Porto and Schalke have met each other in this competition before, as they have Galatasaray, and they’ll renew acquaintances in Group D. Real Madrid and Roma will add 2018 to the years of their meetings, which have included, 2016, 2008, 2005 and 2001, Bayern Munich and Benfica are also one of the re-enacted old clashes, while it feels like Manchester City and Shakhtar Donetsk (group stage counterparts) meet every year.
Then again, it’s not unexpected, as, despite its promise to include the supposed smaller sides more and more, the revenue that comes with the appearance of the bigger clubs, plus the threat of some sides over creating the European Super League having led to increased security for the top leagues, means regurgitation. In a world where everything is marketed and monetised, the Champions League can’t get rid of recycling just yet.