Hot on the heels of the Europa League playoff round ties’ conclusion, assorted club bigwigs and gravy train-riders assembled for the group stage draw in Monaco’s Grimaldi Forum.
As for the playoffs, fallers at the final hurdle included Spartak Moscow, AEK Athens, Torino and dauntless underdogs Linfield, whose hopes ultimately perished only in the 88th minute of their second leg in Baku; the winners now joined those sides with a ‘free pass’ into the group phase.
Plucked from UEFA’s elaborate salad bowls by former Chelsea players Paulo Ferreira and Ashley Cole, the 48 remaining teams were divided into four pots in accordance with their co-efficient ranking.
Due to a technical hitch – conspiracy theorists may think otherwise – there was a distinct contrast between how the draw unfolded on the Monaco stage and how it appeared on the UEFA website.
No blame was attached to Jose Mourinho’s favourite full-backs.
Once the slightly bewildering re-jigging of group allocations was complete (a process based upon factors such as TV coverage, geopolitical considerations – Russia and Ukraine kept apart for the sake of diplomacy – and possibly which clubs have the loveliest change kit) the tantalising prospect of exciting European away days became a reality for fans around the continent.
As budget airlines rubbed their hands together with glee, head coaches and sporting directors could begin to consider the logistical consequences of their draw.
It is clear that Manchester United will have come away muttering obscenities about their fortune in this regard, receiving a particularly awkward set of fixtures.
These include a nine-hour flight to play on Astana’s ‘plastic pitch’ and a daunting trip to Belgrade, where Partizan must play two matches behind closed doors after their home leg against Turkey’s Yeni Malatyaspor was again tainted by, according to UEFA’s report, their supporters’ “racist behaviour”.
Press reaction so far has thrown up adjectives such as “hellish” and “gruelling”.
United and Partizan last met in the European Cup, in 1966, when the Serbian side triumphed over two legs at the semi-final stage but they are a slightly diminished force these days.
AZ Alkmaar should offer a more comfortable shot at six points, especially as the Eredivisie club’s Europa League home matches will be held at Cars Jeans Stadion, home of ADO Den Haag, after their own stadium was spectacularly dismantled by fierce winds.
United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was predictably sanguine about his team’s chances:
We want to win this tournament of course. It’s a competition that we won a couple of years back and it can be a way into the Champions League for next season.
Naturally, he also plans to rotate. He continued:
We can use the squad and some youngsters will play these games.
Celtic’s grouping with both Coppa Italia and Coupe de France winners – Lazio and Rennes respectively – will prove a stern test for the Parkhead side, particularly given the fourth team in Group E are CFR Cluj, their erstwhile Champions League conquerors.
Those with an eye for next-gen talent will be keen for the opportunity to cast an eye over Rennes’ startlingly composed midfielder Eduardo Camavinga (aged just 16) who recently dictated play as the Breton side increased their claim as Paris Saint-Germain’s bogey team, having previously upset them in last season’s cup final.
Lazio looked sharp in dismantling Sampdoria at Marassi last week, with Ciro Immobile back amongst the goals. Perhaps the pick of the groups.
Elsewhere, the competitive-looking Group B features a near-derby as FC Kobenhaven and Malmö meet – the two cities sit across the Öresund strait from each other and are connected by a bridge. Top seeds Dynamo Kiev and Swiss side Lugano complete that quartet.
In Group C, Getafe are rewarded for their heroic fifth-place finish in La Liga with tricky trips to Basel, ‘Daniel Sturridge’s Trabzonspor’ and Krasnodar (who earlier knocked Porto out of Champions League qualifying).
Notably, the Russian club have also started well domestically and were active in the transfer market, bringing in able additions such as Dutch midfielder Tonny Vilhena, one-time star of Montpellier’s unlikely title win Remy Cabella and experienced forward Marcus Berg.
Rangers, in Group G, must tackle Swiss champions Young Boys, Champions League stalwarts Porto and Feyenoord – Jaap Stam’s side having destroyed Dynamo Tblisi and Hapoel Beer Sheva in qualification.
Feyenoord last made a European group stage in 2017, when they took part in the Champions League after ending an 18-year title drought.
Ex-Reading and PEC Zwolle boss Stam welcomed mercurial midfielder Leroy Fer back to De Kuip in the summer, as a free agent from Swansea City, and he has already been amongst the goals.
Group J looks to be a case of two from three, as Austrian minnows Wolfsberger stand in the shadow of Roma, Borussia Monchengladbach and an Istanbul Basaksehir side featuring 2011’s Demba Ba and Robinho.
New Gladbach boss Marco Rose guided his previous club RB Salzburg to the semi-finals two seasons ago and also to the last 16 – as group winners with a 100% record – last year.
UEFA Cup winners twice in the 70s, Die Fohlen are making their first Europa League appearance since dramatically going out on away goals in the last 16 of the 2016/17 edition, to fellow Bundesliga side Schalke.
It seems as though Portugal’s Vitória Guimaraes have been unfairly identified for a shafting, as they will have to play all of their Group F home matches – against favourites Arsenal, last season’s Bundesliga sensation Eintracht Frankfurt and Standard Liege – on Wednesdays at 3:50pm local time.
Located in the northern city of Guimaraes, long-standing UEFA rules stipulate that clubs within 50km of each other cannot play home matches at the same time, so Vitória (within 50km of both Porto and Braga) will be affected each time.
Rather than sharing out these Wednesday fixtures among the three Portuguese clubs, organisers will also make humble Vitória play all three home games earlier so as to avoid clashing with televised Champions League fixtures.
Another prime example of ‘fans first’, eh UEFA?
The first round of Europa League group-stage matches take place on September 19.
Group A: Sevilla, Apoel Nicosia, Qarabag, F91 Dudelange
Group B: Dynamo Kiev, FC Copenhagen, Malmo, Lugano
Group C: Basel, Krasnodar, Getafe, Trabzonspor
Group D: Sporting Lisbon, PSV Eindhoven, Rosenborg, Lask
Group E: Lazio, Celtic, Rennes, Cluj
Group F: Arsenal, Eintracht Frankfurt, Standard Liege, Vitoria
Group G: Porto, Young Boys, Feyenoord, Rangers
Group H: CSKA, Moscow, Ludogorets, Espanyol, Ferencvaros
Group I: Wolsfburg, Gent, Saint-Etienne, Olexandriya
Group J: Roma, Borussia Monchengladbach, Istanbul Basaksehir, Wolfsberger AC
Group K: Besiktas, Braga, Slovan Bratislava, Wolves
Group L: Manchester United, FC Astana, Partizan Belgrade, AJ Alkmaar