Celtic draw Barcelona again in Champions League

Man City will face reigning champions Bayern Munich, Benitez to bring Napoli to Arsenal


The presence of Billy McNeil at the draw for the the Champions League group stages was a welcome reminder of Celtic’s greatest day in what used to be known as the European Cup but the slight frailty the now 73-year-old displayed up on the Grimaldi Forum stage underlined just how long ago that famous 1967 final victory over Inter in Lisbon was.

This year’s final will be back in the Portuguese capital but reaching it looks a more far-fetched dream than ever for the Scots after Neil Lennon’s side was drawn in a group that includes Barcelona, Milan (where they will play their first group game on September 18th) and Ajax: all of them former winners of the tournament too.

Indeed, their rivals for a place in the knockout stages this year have a remarkable 15 European titles between them and Celtic will start as distant outsiders to repeat the heroics of last season when group stage victories home and away over Spartak Moscow home and away, as well as their stunning defeat of Barcelona in Glasgow propelled them to the last 16 of the competition.

The club’s supporters will relish the prospect of another crack on home turf at the star- studded Spanish champions on October 1st as well as the visits of famous names like Ajax and Milan but there doesn’t appear to be a Spartak this time on which to build a path to qualification.

“It’s the best and the worst draw we could have got,” Lennon acknowledged.

“In terms of glamour it doesn’t come any better than AC Milan, Barcelona and Ajax but in terms of football, it’s probably the most difficult group we could have got.

Ajax director Marc Overmars was similarly frank about the difficulties involved in coming up against the group’s two top seeds and said that for the Dutch champions, whose last success in the competition came back in 1995, the games against the Scots would be key.

“I think we have the same as we had last year,” he said, “a very difficult group . . . I think it’s the hardest of them all. But we have to live with it and they will be good matches for your young players.

“The matches against Celtic will be very important though. We will have to get points from them but we know how difficult it will be, especially in Scotland; there is no stadium where the fans make more noise.

“Celtic is famous for the atmosphere at their games and we all know about this in Holland.”

There were less daunting draws for most of the big guns, with champions Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and, in particular, Chelsea all landing in groups from which they should emerge safely.

So too should Premier league outfits Manchester United and Arsenal, although both do face potential banana skins.

United will have to take on a Shaktar Donetsk side that effectively put Chelsea out last season and who have a formidable record at home.

Bayer Leverkusen, who finished third in the Bundesliga (albeit 26 points behind Bayern) and Real Sociedad complete a slightly tricky looking line up.

David Moyes will get his first real taste of life at the European game’s top table on September 17th when the Germans, who pack a particular goal threat in the form of Stefan Kiessling who was the Bundesliga’s top scorer last season, travel to Old Trafford.

But the trip to Ukraine a couple of weeks later should prove a far more stern test of the English side’s credentials this year.

Arsenal, meanwhile, were unfortunate to draw last year’s beaten finalists Borussia Dortmund as third seeds, as well as Napoli, who finished runners- up in Serie A before the summer from the fourth pot.

Marseille, the group’s second seeds, certainly wouldn’t be regarded as the worst draw the Londoners could have received at that point in the proceedings but they will be no walkovers either, having made the knockout rounds of this competition in the two most recent campaigns before last year, when they only reached the group stage of the Europa League.

“This is a brilliant, balanced group with four teams who have what it takes to survive the group stage,” said Borussia Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp.

Manchester City, meanwhile, appear to have been afforded a good opportunity to progress if they can deliver on their potential at this level under new manager Manuel Pellegrini, with CSKA Moscow looking to be vulnerable second seeds in a group that also includes the defending champions and Viktoria Plzen.

Real Madrid’s battle for top spot in their group will almost certainly be with Juventus, who they will face in back to back games mid-campaign on October 23rd and November 5th.

Benfica, for their part, must negotiate their way through a group that also includes Paris Saint Germain, Anderlecht and Olympiacos if they are to take a first successful step towards making the final their stadium will host on May 24th.