This coming Tuesday and Wednesday mark the triumphant return of the group stages of the UEFA Champion's League, always a glorious and wonderful thing. At least until clubs like AC Milan and Liverpool decide that boring 0-0 draws are the best way to advance. Wait, you mean they weren't doing that on purpose? Ohhhhhhhhh.
Anyway, for some clubs, it seems that the World's biggest club competition may have led to subpar performances this weekend. Barcelona lost to, and to be fair, were soundly beaten by, newly promoted Hercules. AC Milan also lost to a new member of Serie A. AS Roma drew on Saturday, and I think we all know (and took immense pleasure from) what happened to Manchester United.
Most of the clubs in European competition, at least this European competition, are pretty much guaranteed to be dwelling in the upper echelons of their domestic league table, so they often put an almost irrational emphasis on the Champion's League. Given the prestige involved, as well as the financial benefits, it is hard to blame them.
There are some clubs making their first appearances in the competition this week, and I want to look at them for a moment. First, Tottenham Hotspur, who can be forgiven for having one eye on Werder Bremen. Truth be told, it could have been worse than a draw against West Brom. A club like manchester United or Barcelona is very unlikely to drop out of the top three, but Spurs will have a fight on their hands to make a return appearance in next year's Champion's League, so that one point they did manage to pick up away from home is a decent result. Considering Manchester City and Everton also drew, Tottenham will be satisfied I think. They will be without Jermain Defoe and Michael Dawson through most of the group stages, but Luka Modric's early substitution on Saturday looks only to have been cautionary. Now they just have to do a better job in their first match against Werder Bremen than they did against the Swiss team they played in the qualifiers.
This brings us to Braga, runners-up in last season's Portuguese league. The schedule-makers in Portugal did them no favors, as they had to play powerhouse Porto yesterday. Porto won 3-2, and it was a statement game for them, as the 2004 winners have missed the big competition this time around. And to continue the bad luck for Braga, they receive a real baptism by fire in their first ever Champion's League match, as they are away at Arsenal. If nothing else, Braga look versatile, as they were able to grind out a 1-0 win at home against heavy favorites Seville, then were able to outscore them 4-3 in a wild match in Spain.
I am looking forward to the Arsenal-Braga match, as well as Manchester United's clash with Glasgow Rangers. Werder Bremen has lost a lot of talent the last few seasons, and they are nowhere near the threat they used to be, but I think they will give inexperienced Tottenham problems. Olympique Lyon and Schalke 04 is a star-studded affair, although some of the big names no longer deliver on the pitch. Bayern Munich are missing Arjen Robben, but I suspect they will be happy to draw with Roma in what is a very weak group.
I will be back later with some comments on what I think are a few possible upsets on Tuesday and Wednesday.