Luck of the draw for Bayern? Illustrious names, but ultimately feasible group
In the final stretch before the whole format gets messed up by the hideous Swiss system, FC Bayern have been drawn against FC Barcelona, Benfica Lisbon and Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League group stage. We introduce the opponents.
Barcelona. Ball possession. Beautiful combinational play. Do we really have to introduce them? Yes, indeed we do because the current crop has nothing to do with the old, great FC Barcelona. Carried for years by the superstar of all superstars Lionel Messi, his unfathomable skills papered over the club’s atrocious transfer policy. But even he was ultimately not good enough anymore to save his team’s day in the Champions League. Year after year, FC Barcelona failed early in the knockout stages. The most notorious of these exits memorably came at the hand of FC Bayern in the penultimate season when they deservedly knocked the then still great FC Barcelona out of a Lisbon summer night’s park by eight goals to two.
This threw Barça straight into full-out desperation mode, which resulted in a change of coach, a sale of Luis Suárez, and finally the loss of Messi. This is, of course, a familiar story. Barça’s management seems so unbelievably incompetent that for years they did their level best to steer the club right to the edge of financial ruin by, among other things, making a number of overpriced and ineffective transfers and paying so much in wages that they ultimately were unable to even keep the club’s greatest icon of modern times on board.
What does all this mean for the contest with FC Bayern in the year 2021? Well, the now former top club still has some world-class players. Especially the midfield line-up with Sergio Busquets and Pedri, who were so brilliant at the European Championship, and Dutch hotshot Frenkie De Jong stand out. In addition, Ter Stegen is one of the three or five best keepers in the world. And despite the departure of Antoine Griezman, in Memphis Depay the team has a dangerous counterattacking player who can be a weapon against Bayern on the break.
However, Barça’s biggest problem is not the quality of their individual players. The names have always been more than decent. Rather, the main problem in the last years has been that they have not been a team, even with Lionel Messi. They have not been a team that thinks together offensively and defensively. Koeman, too, was only able to instil a sense of teamsmanship to his team to a certain degree and only at certain points. And on top of that they have now also lost their life insurance policy. The outlook seems not to be all that bright for the great FC Barcelona.
A trip to Portugal is on the cards again. As always. This time, it is Benfica. After a disappointing season, the team had to make a detour via the play-offs to qualify for the Champions League in which they managed to just scrape through. They won 2-1 against Roger Schmidt’s and Mario Götze’s PSV in the first leg and then held on for a 0-0 draw with ten men in the second leg.
On the whole, Benfica is a pretty strange animal. Last year, the club turned its back on the usual club policy of assembling a hodgepodge of young (predominantly South American) talent. Instead, they signed bigger league players who seemed to have stagnated at their clubs like Julian Weigl and Luca Waldschmidt, or even aging stars like Nicolás Otamendi and Jan Vertonghen.
Waldschmidt may be gone again now, but still the team is older than you would expect a Benfica side to be. That has a lot to do with their current coach Jorge Jesus, who has made a name for himself in South America (winner of the Copa Libertadores 2019 with Rafinha’s Flamengo), but always relies more on stars and veteran players than fresh, young talent. Thus, against PSV, most of the players on the pitch, although unknown, were of an older semester and had long since outgrown the talent age group.
FC Bayern should not be too concerned by any of this, Portugal has been an excellent destination for them for years, and the quality of some of the players they are going to face leaves a lot to be desired.
From pot 4 comes a club with real tradition, perhaps even with the most tradition in Eastern Europe. “Dynamo Kyiv” already sounds a lot like the former European Cup of Champions. In recent times, however, the club has mostly had to surrender to the financial prowess of newly rich rivals Shakhtar Donetsk (although their wealth is not that new any more). Dynamo managed to win the Ukrainian championship only once in the last decade. In the current decade, however, the team from Ukraine’s capital bounced back by just winning the Ukrainian domestic double. In the end, they were eleven points ahead of their long-term rivals, which is a huge margin in a 14-team league.
Dynamo seem to be benefiting from a new generation of young Ukrainian talent. While Shakhtar is known to rely on expensive Brazilian imports, Dynamo is practically a lesser Ukrainian national team. And as we have known since the European Championship at the latest, Ukraine’s national team can hold its own among Europe’s big shots.
The best examples are left-back Mykolenko, winger Tsygankov and the head of the team, midfielder Mykola Shaparenko. All of them are young talents under the age of 23, and even if they would not make it at a club like FC Bayern already, it is quite possible that this season could see the breakthrough for some of them on the European stage.
Let’s face it: FC Bayern has once again had the luck of the draw. From pot 2 they got the weakest team, a confused FC Barcelona at a crossroads. A team that will have to stretch itself in the league to even qualify for the Champions League places again. PSG, Liverpool or Real Madrid would have been much tougher opponents.
Out of pot 3, Atalanta would have clearly been a much more formidable opponent than Benfica, and in my eyes, so too would all the other teams like Porto, Ajax or Salzburg. And while pot 4 besides Dynamo Kyiv included such teams as the Moldovan debutant Sheriff, it also contained AC Milan.
Personally, I regret that Bayern will not be facing either Atalanta or Milan. I have been hoping for a test of strength with Atalanta for years. But you have to take the draw as it comes. In any case, Bayern were not unlucky. That attribute applies more to RB Leipzig, who have to face PSG and ManCity and will probably go out to contest the Europa League.
The fans will be pleased to know that all three of Bayern’s opponents are traditional European clubs. Based on quality, anything less than a clear progression to the knock out stages would be a giant disappointment. This group sounds tougher than it is.