herald

Thursday 17 October 2019

Group stages may not be that much of a drag in reality

Alexis Sanchez
Alexis Sanchez

The beginning of the Champions League group stages always seems to be greeted by negativity.

Last season's finalists Liverpool and Spurs only scraped through by the tightest of margins last term, but the perception remains that this stage of the competition can drag.

The draw was bereft of true drama, but there are still points of interest.

The underdogs

There is an Irish tendency to look at this phase through the prism of the English mindset.

Former Liverpool defender Stephen Warnock went on Sky on the day of the draw to state that Red Star Belgrade, the champions of Serbia, were a part-time club.

It was an extraordinary error but the fact that an ex-pro could think such a thing about the 1991 European champions says a lot about how much football has changed since then.

A massive wealth divide has created mismatches.

But it's still correct that the likes of Red Star, Dinamo Zagreb and Slavia Prague get the chance to compete in this company.

The competition will have lost any connection with its history when that door is closed.

The Man U misfits

Manchester United fans will be curious to see if Antonio Conte can get a tune out of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez in a testing Group F containing Barcelona and Borussia Dortumind.

Lukaku's limitations relate to his ability but he can still pose plenty of problems in a side that doesn't dominate possession - which should be the case against Barca.

With Sanchez, it's a question of his attitude and the suspicion that a non-stop couple of seasons with Arsenal and Chile blunted his effectiveness.

The Irish angle

Troy Parrott is a member of the Spurs squad and while Mauricio Pochettino has warned against piling pressure on the 17-year-old's shoulders, it's possible that a strong start to the group for Spurs could open up a stress free opportunity for Harry Kane's understudy.

Eoghan O'Connell's cameo for Celtic in 2016 was the last Irish involvement in the group stages and it's nine years since any of our players figured for an English club - with all due respect to Caoimhin Kelleher's non-playing medal win.

If Spurs can win away to Olympiakos tomorrow, they should be well set to be in a position of comfort ahead of the return match with the Greeks at the end of November. Maybe that could be the day.

Group H

The asset stripping of Ajax was predictable and it means that Chelsea, who were barred from signing any players, will view them as a beatable.

The early signs are that Frank Lampard's young side will be extremely entertaining to watch and it will be illuminating to see how they adapt to the European challenge. Valencia and Lille both have talent in their ranks and this group could go to the wire.

The PSG conundrum

It would be a shock of gargantuan proportions if Real Madrid and PSG failed to advance beyond Group A.

Their meeting in Paris tomorrow is a heavyweight encounter and it's PSG that are arguably the more interesting story as they continue to fall short in this competition.

Neymar and Kylian Mbappe will sit the first game out but with Mauro Icardi recruited to join Edinson Cavani and Angel Di Maria, PSG's lively cast of characters should be fun to watch, even if their overall project is lacking in charm.

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