Last week’s absurdly choreographed draw for the last stages of the UEFA Champions League in Monaco made me think what a waste of time and money it was. Why can’t this extravaganza, more suited for an NFL draft, just be a simple draw without all the sideshow nonsense?
In a perfect world we’d be done in 20 minutes, as opposed to what seemed to be an eternity of schlock TV.
It appears that UEFA, the body which controls European soccer, just like its über-ruler FIFA, has money to waste on such things instead of investing more in grassroots.
The most exciting part was waiting to see which of the smaller teams, if any, might have a chance at taking down one of the favorites. Forget about Barcelona and Real Madrid, I want to see a David v. Goliath-type slaying.
Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv has won the country’s league title for the last three seasons but, up until last week, hadn’t made it to the group stage for 11 years. But some unlikely results by the unfancied Israelis helped them surpass the highly-fancied Swiss team Basel, earning them a berth in the group stage.
Placed in a group with Chelsea, Porto and Dynamo Kiev, Maccabi’s chances are viewed by ESPN’s soccer power index (SPI) as highly unlikely to succeed. The ranking gives them a 1.5 percent chance of winning the group and a 9.3 percent chance of qualifying to the next round.
The Israeli champions, however, were able to beat the odds in qualifying, blessed with a secret weapon in their armory – striker Eran Zahavi.
“Some believe he is touched by God,” Gabriel Haydu, a soccer analyst with Israel’s Channel 5 Sports, told Fox News Latino about the team’s striker who was on fire during qualification. “Otherwise how can you explain that he scored 7 goals in five games in [Champions League qualifying rounds], and all that only shooting 10 times.”
“Against Plzen [from the Czech Republic] he shot twice, scored twice," Haydu noted. "The same against Basel in the first game [the teams played]. In the second game, the only shot was his, and he hit the net – unbelievable!”
Haydu said while Zahavi doesn’t have great technical ability, he does have “the uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, and he can score like the best of them.”
Other underdogs that caught my eye were the two teams from the former Soviet Union: Bate Borisov of Belarus and FC Astana of Kazakhstan.
Bate Borisov of Belarus, whose stadium has a capacity of just over 13,000 and fields a team almost entirely composed of Belarussian nationals, will have the chance to play in front of nearly 100,000 fans in Barcelona.
Coach Aleksandr Ermakovich told UEFA.com following the draw that facing Barça “makes our heart soar already.”
Drawn along with A.S. Roma and Bayer Leverkusen of Germany, his team is rated by ESPN’s SPI as having a 0.2 percent chance of winning its group and a 6.8 percent chance of qualifying.
“It is clear it will be very hard, but why should we stand aside?” said Ermakovich.
Players to watch are former Arsenal and Barcelona attacking midfielder, Aleksandr Hleb and group stage top scorer Stefan Babovic.
Then there’s FC Astana, wholly owned by the government of Kazakhstan, and according to a report in Radio Free Europe, it’s not so much looking toward the massive cash injection from being in the group stages, but rather the publicity gained for the country’s “newly-minted and remote capital of Astana.”
The official owner of the club is Samuryq-Qazyna, a $75 billion government owned sovereign-wealth fund.
FC Astana is drawn against Benfica from Portugal, Atlético Madrid and Turkish side Galatasary. Astana’s coach, Tanimir Stoilov, told UEFA.com that, “in every match, our opponents will be favorites, but we also have to do all we can and put in 100 percent effort. We want to win: we’ll play our natural football.”
Astana’s most dangerous man is home-grown striker Baurzhan Dzholchiyev, who scored two goals in qualifying.
The group round begins in earnest on Sept. 15.
Video of the week
Watch Eran Zahavi’s goal taking Maccabi Tel Aviv to the group stage of this year’s UEFA Champions League.
From the wires
Manchester United's early-season problems at both ends of the pitch were exposed in a 2-1 loss at Swansea on Sunday that ended its unbeaten start in the Premier League.
On the day Manchester City spent more than 50 million pounds ($77 million) on another attacking player, its cross-town rival again showed a lack of cutting edge up front to turn dominance and good build-up play into goals.
United was comfortable and perhaps should have been more than 1-0 ahead, through Juan Mata's 49th-minute strike, when Swansea launched its comeback with two goals in five minutes from Andre Ayew and Bafetimbi Gomis.
Gomis' winner in the 66th minute capped a brilliant, sweeping team move but should have been kept out by goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who failed to stop a low shot at his near post.
Romero is only playing because United's first-choice goalkeeper, David de Gea, isn't being picked while he is linked with a move to Real Madrid.
With Europe's summer transfer window closing in England on Tuesday, United has two days to resolve its goalkeeper situation and decide whether to sign a new striker to help out Wayne Rooney, who is yet to score in the Premier League since April.
"I have enjoyed our football," United manager Louis van Gaal said, "but you need the result and we lost again."
Swansea has no such problems up front. Gomis, who scored for the fourth straight game this season, and summer signing Ayew have netted all seven of the team's goals in the league and that combination is the reason why Swansea is fourth in the standings after four games.
United has lost three straight games to Swansea and fell five points behind Man City, which has won all four of its games.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.