Fate largely smiled on Manchester United and holders Chelsea in Thursday’s UEFA Champions League draw, but Manchester City found themselves drawn into a daunting group with Real Madrid, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund.
Chelsea, who beat Bayern Munich on penalties in last season’s final to claim the trophy for the first time, were drawn in Group E alongside Italian champions Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk and Danish debutants Nordsjaelland.
Juventus, appearing in the Champions League for the first time since the 2009-2010 season, are likely to present the strongest threat to Roberto di Matteo’s side.
“Against Chelsea it will be a great match, but a big challenge,” said Juve coach Antonio Conte, who is currently serving a 10-month ban after becoming embroiled in the Calcioscommesse illegal betting affair.
“Ukrainian football has been solid for several years now and against the Danes it will be a formidable physical challenge. We absolutely cannot underestimate them,” he said.
United found themselves in fairly benign surroundings in Group H, having been pitted against Portugal’s SC Braga, Galatasaray of Turkey and Romanians CFR Cluj in the draw in Monaco.
However, manager Sir Alex Ferguson did not need reminding that it was from a similarly straightforward group — containing Benfica, Basel and Cluj’s domestic rivals Otelul Gelati — that the three-time champions failed to progress last season.
“We have the experience of playing against Galatasaray in the past and we will always remember the ‘Welcome to Hell’ banners,” Ferguson told United’s Web site. “Obviously, we’ve never played Cluj before, but after the experience of last year, we don’t want to make any stupid errors this time. We will play our strongest team to make sure we get through.”
United, beaten 3-1 by Barcelona in the 2010-2011 final, are appearing in the group phase for a record 18th time.
As in 2010-2011, this season’s final will also take place at London’s Wembley Stadium, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Football Association.
City’s pool, Group D, unites the reigning champions of England, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, with the Manchester club the only team never to have won the Champions League.
Roberto Mancini’s side were drawn in a similarly taxing group last season and failed to reach the knockout phase, with Bayern Munich and SSC Napoli finishing above them on their first appearance in the Champions League.
Along with Spain, England are one of only two countries with four teams in the group phase and their fourth representatives, Arsenal, face Schalke 04, Olympiacos CFP and debutants Montpellier Herault, the French champions, in Group B.
There was one other newcomer in the draw in the shape of Malaga, who qualified by overcoming Panathinaikos in the playoff round earlier this week.
The Spanish side were drawn in Group C with Zenit St Petersburg, RSC Anderlecht and seven-time champions AC Milan, who will have been relieved to avoid a more difficult group after a summer in which they lost a glut of leading players.
Barcelona, finalists in two of the past four seasons, landed in Group G, where they have fellow former champions SL Benfica and Celtic for company, as well as Spartak Moscow.
Meanwhile, big-spending Paris Saint-Germain will fancy their chances of qualifying from a group that also includes Porto, Dynamo Kiev and Dinamo Zagreb.