Rafa Benitez is not having much luck in the Champions League.
Last year, his first game in the competition after taking over at Chelsea was also his only Champions League game with the club. The result was a 6-1 victory over Rosenborg, but such was the position that Chelsea found themselves in under Roberto Di Matteo, it wasn’t enough.
Shakhtar Donetsk, already through to the last 16, lost at home to Juventus. That Benitez’s team won by a margin not bettered by any other side in the competition over the whole season became irrelevant. Delivering the only other European trophy to compete for was the most he was able to achieve during a difficult time at the club – and the former Liverpool manager faces more of the same this season after Napoli became the first team in Champions League history to be eliminated with 12 points.
Billed as this season’s “group of death”, it was always set to be a fierce battle between Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli. The strength of the group is highlighted by the fact that Marseille, runners-up to PSG in last season’s Ligue 1, were not considered by many to even be contenders for a place in the next round.
In contrast, Zenit St Petersburg became the first team ever to make it past the first round with only 6 points from their group stage games. A heavy defeat in their final game against bottom-of-the-table Austria Vienna and a solitary win – by a 1-0 scoreline – left Zenit with a record that is unlikely to concern any of their potential opponents in the next round.
Champions League history was also made by Man City, whose tally of 15 points is the highest possible for a side finishing as runners-up, and the first time it has been achieved.
Of the four English sides to make it into the second round, it’s City who look most likely to mount a challenge for the trophy, and although they go into the draw with the certainty of facing tough opponents, they’ll fancy their chances against anyone. From the perspective of the group winners, Man City will be the team to avoid in the draw.
Chelsea and Man United may not go all they way but both sides should reach the quarter finals having topped relatively straightforward groups. Both will start as strong favourites in their last 16 ties, and regardless of Jose Mourinho’s comments about the strength of potential opponents, Chelsea and Man United each have the quality and experience to overcome any of the teams they could face.
La Liga’s contingent of sides left in the competition is typically strong, and although Real Sociedad failed to make an impression on group A, their Spanish counterparts all cruised through and will be difficult to stop.
Barcelona are always amongst many people’s favourites, but their best chance to add to their recent collection of European trophies may have disappeared by in their semi final defeat to Chelsea two seasons ago. Last season’s run to the semi final ended with a 7-0 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich, and it’s difficult to imagine that Barcelona would be strong enough to achieve a different outcome this time around, should the sides meet again. A more experience PSG also pose a greater threat, while the two Madrid clubs have to be considered genuine contenders for winning the competition.
Usually taking place on the final Friday before Christmas, fans of the teams involved will have less time to wait this year with the draw set for Monday. It’s the next step of what promises to be an exciting road to Lisbon in 2014.