The draw for the Champions League took place yesterday, and Arsenal ended up in Group H for the second year running. The Gunners will face S.C. Braga (Portugal), Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), and Partizan Belgrade (Serbia) in this season's group stage. The draw is perhaps deceptively simple; as Orbinho points out on Twitter, "...in summary Arsenal have never won away in any competition in any of the three countries that they have to visit in Group H." Nevertheless, Arsenal are favorites to head up the group, despite facing clubs that are among the most frighteningly-named in all of football (each sounds like either an alien invader/emperor or a stereotypical Eastern European villain from the collective unconscious of children raised in the 1950s).
A quick look at each of Arsenal's opponents below the jump:
SC Braga ("The Archbishops"; "The Arsenalistas"; "The Minho Warriors"); 1252 miles from Islington
The 2nd place finishers in Portugal's top flight have been building up a good head of steam domestically and in the UEFA Cup in the past five years. The last winners of the UEFA Intertoto Cup, Braga nearly got the better of AC Milan in last year's Europa League, and they qualified for the Champions League this year after eliminating both Sevilla and Celtic from the qualifying rounds, no mean feat. Braga don't score a ton of goals, managing only 48 tallies in 30 matches domestically last year, but they only conceded 20.
The club is known as "The Arsenalistas" because after their manager visited Herbert Chapman's Arsenal club in the 1920s, he decided that it was time to make their own identity and ditch their association with Sporting Clube de Lisbon and the green hoops that come with it for the red and white colors of Arsenal. So, at least there's that.
FK Partizan ("The Black-Whites"; "The Steamroller"); 1303 miles from Islington
Partizan Belgrade won the Serbian Superleague in 2009-10, gaining entrance to the qualifying rounds of the Champions League. The team secured group stage play with a victory over Anderlecht. They were last in the Champions League in 2003-04, when they came in last in group featuring Real Madrid and eventual champions FC Porto as well as UEFA cup runners-up Marseille. The club's best European finish came in 1966, when they lost 2-1 in the European Cup final to Madrid. Partizan also contest the Red Star-Partizan derby, which is one of the most intense derbies in all of football.
Playing in front of approximately 32,000 "Gravediggers" (the name for the supporters of Partizan--no joke), the 22-times Yugoslavian/Serbian champions will be led onto the pitch by captain and defender Mladen Krstajic and manager Dragan Duric.
FC Shakhtar Donetsk ("The Miners", "The Moles"); 1960 miles from Islington
Shakhtar are no joke and probably the team favored to challenge Arsenal for top spot in Group H. The miners (Shakhtar are named for a coal mining propaganda hero named Alexsei Stakhanov, originally) are led by Croatian national captain Darijo Srna and play in the brand-new 50,000-seat Donbass Stadium, a UEFA five-star facility.
The Miners, of course, won the UEFA Cup's final contest in 2009, defeating Werder Bremen, and have more or less paired up with Dynamo Kiev, their main rivals, to dominate Ukranian football since the fall of the USSR.
And then, of course, there's Eduardo. Suffice it to say, Arsenal supporters were sad to see the Croatian striker depart for the east earlier this summer, but the opportunity to play regularly and with his national team captain surely were tempting prospects. And so far, so good for Edu: two goals in his first three games have already endeared him to the Shahktar fans. Now he must return to the Emirates to face his friends and former teammates, which he had said would be difficult to do. No doubt it will, but it will also be a welcome return for a player who most Arsenal supporters will get behind to do well--just not in the Champions League against the Gunners.
All in all, Group H looks to be another reasonably favorable draw for Arsenal, although nothing can be taken for granted, of course. Late autumn journeys to the industrial regions of Ukraine do not sound like much fun. Nevertheless, the guns of Arsenal should be okay against guys equipped with holy blessings, construction equipment, and pickaxes, right?