MONACO — The UEFA Champions League draw is complete and the 32 teams know the opponents standing between them and the knockout rounds (or, for some, the Europa League). Here are five thoughts on Thursday’s draw.
1. Pep Guardiola vs. Maurizio Sarri
One was a superstar Champions League winner whose first job was at Barcelona. (Well, Barca B, but it still counts.) The other worked in a bank until he was 40 and coached part-time until he decided that maybe he was good enough to make a living off football.
But what unites Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri is an ingrained belief in the power of geometry. Few managers are as obsessed with movement and coordination on the pitch and the belief that there’s an ideal sweet spot where system and creativity meet. That’s also where they want their teams to be.
Obviously, Manchester City are a more talented side than Napoli, but the parallels are there in every area of the pitch. Some argue that everything there is to invent in football has already been done; there’s nothing new, just stuff you haven’t seen in a while.
These two most definitely do not agree.
2. The Diego Costa derby
There’s a week to go in the summer transfer window, and history tells us that anything can happen. But what we know most definitely will not happen, because of the FIFA transfer embargo, is that Chelsea’s Diego Costa won’t be lining up for Atleti when the two teams meet — although he could well be playing for them in the knockout phases.
The Spanish-Brazilian striker’s situation — with his manager Antonio Conte telling him via text message that he’s free to find another club only for the player to decide he wants to join the only team that’s not actually allowed to sign him — remains one of the most remarkable transfer blunders of the summer. It’s also one that has had an uncomfortable coda, with Diego Costa holed up somewhere in rural Brazil defying Chelsea’s plans for his return.
There’s plenty of history on the pitch between Conte and Diego Simeone (with the former essentially laying down his own version of “cholismo“) but off it, the parallels are clear: Few coaches live the game as intensely as these two. What’s more, while Atletico and Chelsea are the favorites, their head-to-heads most definitely will matter. With an ambitious Roma side ready to take advantage, as well as a 5,000-mile round trip to Qarabag ahead for both teams, there’s little margin for error.
3. Bartomeu can’t escape the boos…
The carpet outside the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco is blue, not red, but things at the Champions League draw work pretty much like galas everywhere: stars and celebrities inside, thronging masses of fans eager to get a glimpse of their heroes outside. It doesn’t matter if, as in this case, we’re in Monaco, where the per capita gross domestic product is around $150,000. Rich folk love their football, too, and as Josep Maria Bartomeu discovered, they too like to boo as well.
The Barcelona president and his entourage were met with a hail of catcalls, boos and cries of “fuera!” (“out!”) as they navigated their way out of the draw venue. The noise was so loud, you could only conclude there are plenty of cules on the Cote d’Azur. Either that or expressing contempt for Bartomeu was one thing Barca and PSG fans (who, between the Neymar lawsuit, the pursuit of Marco Verratti and the FFP-related threats brought by the Catalans, have their own reasons to dislike him) could agree upon.
Some relief came from the draw itself. Juventus (a rematch of the 2015 final) are obviously a top-drawer opponent but on paper, Olympiacos and Sporting (despite the heroics of Bas Dost) are more manageable opponents.
4. Good day for the Northwest of England … less so for London
I’m not sure Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool could have done much better if Richard Scudamore himself had made the draw on the back of a cocktail napkin. All three teams avoided a juggernaut top seed like Bayern, Real Madrid or Juventus. Especially for United, the rest of the group is fairly straightforward as well, although Napoli and Sevilla could spring a surprise.
The recent rule changes, with national champions automatically seeded in Pot 1, meant Chelsea were always going to face a tough out from Pot 2 (which is now packed with talent), though they would probably have been happy to avoid Roma from Pot 3 and a long, long trip to Qarabag from Pot 4.
Tottenham have it even worse. Real Madrid look untouchable on paper and Borussia Dortmund have tons of young talent and an intimidating home ground. APOEL should offer a bit of a respite (though they did shake up the world in reaching the quarterfinals six seasons ago) but even then, it’s going to be a rough ride.
5. Totti giveth and Totti taketh away
Francesco Totti was here to collect his UEFA President’s Award, a prize resurrected this year by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin to recognize outstanding achievement over a career. Seeing him in a suit for the occasion was a rare sight indeed: other than team photos ahead of World Cups and Euros, he rarely goes for the coat and tie look.
UEFA pressed him into service for the draw, and one of his more memorable moments came when he drew Barcelona and placed them in Juve’s group. A wide smile broke across his face and you suspected that the “uber-Romanista” enjoyed throwing Lionel Messi in the path of his archrivals.
Any suggestions that he was part of some kind of anti-bianconeri conspiracy were dashed, however, when he put his own team, Roma, in a group with Chelsea and Atletico Madrid when he could have given them a “softer landing” in the company of, say, Sparta Moscow and Sevilla.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.