The biggest smiles will have been coming from the Vicente Calderon when Thursday’s Champions League draw revealed the lengths Spain’s four participants will have to go to if they want to qualify for the knockout stages in the New Year.
Atletico Madrid, who have won the Europa League twice since their last Champions League appearance in 2009, have been pitted against Portuguese champions Porto, Russia’s Zenit St Petersburg and Austria Vienna. Under Diego Simeone they have already won three trophies, and just this week missed out on the Supercopa de Espana to Barcelona courtesy of away goals. It’s fair to say they are a match for anyone in cup competitions. Last season’s 4-1 hammering of Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup and their hoodoo-ending Copa del Rey win over Real Madrid are more than testament to their credentials. Europe will not doubt be wary.
For Barcelona and Real Madrid, the draw could have been kinder. However, whatever it presented, questions will be asked if Spain’s big two fail to qualify from their respective groups.
There was plenty of déjà vu for the Catalans. Celtic, who they lost to during this stage last season, and Milan, who they overcame in the Last 16 last term, joined them alongside former European heavyweights Ajax – the Dutch side managed by former Barca defender Frank de Boer. In terms of the history of the four clubs, it’s about as an exciting and traditional a group as you can get, even as Celtic’s Neil Lennon sees the other side of the coin: “It’s the worst draw we could have got. In terms of glamour it doesn’t come any better, but in terms of football it couldn’t have been worse.”
Real Madrid being pitted against Juventus promises to be one of the first round’s most intriguing ties. Juventus Coach Antonio Conte has already spoken of his side’s ‘tough draw with fascinating challenges’. Both will expect to come through a group also involving Galatasaray and FC Copenhagen though, although Los Blancos won’t need reminding of how they almost let the Turkish side back into their quarter-final meeting earlier this year.
Meanwhile in San Sebastian, local residents will be scouring for flights to Manchester, after Real Sociedad drew the red half of the city. La Real won’t need reminding of their fierce rival Athletic Bilbao’s success against United two years ago. Also standing in their way of a place in the knockout stages will be Bayer Leverkusen, managed by Sami Hyypia, and Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk.
There will no doubt be some special nights at Anoeta, and, while a top two finish could prove complicated, a ticket into the Europa League wouldn’t be the end of the world.
On the other hand, Atleti, Barca and Madrid will be disappointed if they don’t make it any further. All three sides should escape their groups and it’s not out of the question that Real will too, leaving Spain’s ‘declining league’ with four participants in the Last 16 once more.