After the draw for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League was made several weeks ago, many pundits were discussing Arsenal’s difficult task of being drawn in the same group as Napoli, Borussia Dortmund and Marseille, while Manchester United’s group, Group A, was dismissed as another easy opening group for the Red Devils. However, the deceptively benign Group A can be an easy trap for any potential complacency shown by Manchester United as qualification to the round of 16 will be a very difficult task.
Group A may lack the big names, but David Moyes recently revealed that Sir Alex Ferguson had pointed out that United faced their toughest Champions League group in years. While the average Premier League fan may write off Shaktar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad, the United management team will be aware of the daunting assignment that lies ahead.
Shakhtar Donetsk surprised everyone last season. The Ukrainian champions displayed their strength and attacking verve as they beat Chelsea to the second place spot in the group that was topped by Italian champions Juventus. They have compensated the losses of Willian, Mkhitaryan and Fernandinho with the signings of Taison, Bernard and Douglas Costa. The jury is still out on Shakhtar after selling their three best players but the replacements they have brought in should be able to adequately sustain them. Regardless, Shakhtar will remain a daunting prospect for any side that travels to Ukraine and attempts to nick a point in what will be an intimidating atmosphere in the Donbass Arena. Lucescu, who remains in charge of Shaktar, is a highly competent manager and will ensure that Shakhtar continue to play a vibrant and attacking style of football that has seen them grow in recent years. United could easily struggle against Shakhtar in a similar fashion that Chelsea did last season.
Manchester United fans will remember their side’s loss suffered at the hands of Leverkusen in the Champions League semi-finals in 2002, but may still deem them to be a spent force. However, such a perception is misguided. After Bayern and Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen have rightly earned their title as the next best side in the Bundesliga They have been on a steady rise over the past year. As German football received plenty of plaudits last season due to the exploits of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich in Europe, Leverkusen quietly went from strength to strength in the Bundesliga. Sami Hyypia’s side strung together a record number of consecutive victories and finished in third place behind Dortmund by a single point. Bayern, in particular, struggled against Leverkusen last season, losing to them at home and clinching a rather fortuitous away win. Die Werkself have thrived under the leadership of Liverpool legend Hyypia and have a robust squad that have proven to be very difficult to beat.