Relief and familiar faces for Barca in Group H

Posted by Dermot Ledwith

Stu Forster/Getty ImagesBarcelona will make a return trip to Celtic Park during this season's Champions League group stage

It can only be described as a good day at the office for Barcelona as AC Milan, Ajax and Celtic join "Los Blaugranas" in Group H when the 2013-14 edition of the Champions League kicks off on Tuesday, Sept. 17.

- Report: UCL group stage draw

Despite all three being legendary names in the European game, with Group H sharing an amazing 16 UEFA Champions League/European Cup titles between the four clubs, it could realistically have been a far more difficult baptism by fire for Gerardo Martino in his inaugural season in European club football.

If, as common sense dictates, Barca went into today's draw wishing to avoid PSG or Juventus from the second pot, Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund from pot 3 and Napoli from the fourth, then what the draw did throw up can only be considered as fortunate.

With the standard of the competition seeming to improve year on year, the number of floating dangers that each team would prefer to avoid seem to increase, and in Barca's case they were avoided, while archrivals Real Madrid were paired with Juventus.

The group will have a familiar feel to last season's competition when Barca beat and lost to the Scottish champions at the group stage and came back from a 2-0 reverse in the San Siro with a memorable 4-0 victory in the Camp Nou to knock out Milan at the last-16 stage.

Barca blew Milan away that night after a strangely lacklustre performance in Italy when Lionel Messi's two first-half goals were added to by David Villa and Jordi Alba strikes. Milan and Barca also met four times two seasons ago when Barca won 3-1 at home after a 0-0 draw in Milan in the quarterfinals.

Messi also hit two that night with Andres Iniesta getting the other, while in the group stage a 2-2 draw at home was followed by a 3-2 win for Barca at the San Siro. So with just one defeat from six games versus Milan in two seasons, the odds will again be with Barca to see off the Italians for the all-important top place in the group.

Although still dominant in Holland, Ajax has been unable to get past the group stage in the Champions League since the 2005-06 season when Inter knocked them out at the last-16 stage by the odd goal.

Celtic, despite last season's unlikely 2-1 win at Celtic Park against an already-qualified Barca, should offer little more than colour and noise to a clash that last season saw an increased friendship and respect developing between the two famous old clubs.

With 32 clubs divided into eight groups of four, the impossibility of drawing a team from the same country always favours the Spanish clubs at such events. The top teams are of course further protected by a seeding system that keeps them apart.

With Barca's Champions League pedigree second to none, winning three of the past eight editions, reaching at least the semifinal stage in each of the past six seasons and only failing once this century to escape the group, the stats tell us this stage should never be too much to worry about.

The draw, a now par-for-the-course rambling, incoherent jamboree, lasted 45 minutes as football legends helped UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino pull out pieces of paper and plastic balls -- no expense spared there -- from what looked like giant fruit bowls.

A large party from FC Barcelona was present in the Grimaldi Forum in Monte Carlo, Monaco, in part to support Lionel Messi who was nominated for the UEFA Best Player in Europe award, given afterwards to Franck Ribery.

Sandro Rosell accompanied Messi, while sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta, football director Raul Sanllehi and the club's UEFA delegates Amador Bernabeu and David Bellver were also in the principality. Other legends from Barca's past such as Johann Cruyff and Luis Figo popped up to help Infantino, and Figo did his old club a great favour, pulling out Ajax from the fruit bowl when the three possibilities left included the much tougher Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund.

Suffice it to say the Barca party will have left Monaco smiling; while Ribery's triumph was predictable, an overall collective sigh of relief will be made given that Martino could have had a much more complicated path through his first ever Champions League group stage.


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