Chelsea could walk to Champions League final
By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Chelsea is just a few miles from its first Champions League title. Getting there, even after receiving an easy group play draw Thursday, remains the elusive last step in the club's incredible journey.
Since billionaire Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea in the summer of 2003, it has quickly ascended through the ranks to join Europe's elite clubs. Now, with Wembley Stadium in London - less than 10 miles from Chelsea's home at Stamford Bridge - hosting the Champions League final, the lure has never been stronger.
Chelsea has advanced to the semifinals in five of the last seven years, with a penalty kick loss to Manchester United in 2008 its lone finals appearance. The two years Chelsea failed to make at least the semifinals, it was eliminated by the eventual champion.
With its third English Premier League title in the last six years last season, and a pair of 6-0 victories over West Bromwich and Wigan to kick off 2010-11, Chelsea is displaying the form necessary to reach the last summit.
Chelsea has a clear path through the group stage, as Marseille, Spartak Moscow and Zilina were drawn into Group F along with the English champions. Marseille could pose a bit of a problem, but not enough to derail the Blues.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti has almost the same exact club that last season produced 103 goals in just 38 EPL games, and a healthy Michael Essien will turn midfield into an even stronger area.
Chelsea has advanced to the semifinals in five of the last seven years.
Of course Abramovich tossed around a little cash this season, adding Brazilian midfielder Ramires from Benfica and Israeli midfielder Yossi Benayoun from EPL rival Liverpool. And the transfer window remains open - billionaires can never spend enough - so do not rule out a late addition or two.
English clubs have won the Champions League final in London (United in 1967-68 and Liverpool in 1977-78 at the old Wembley Stadium), but never has a club from the city lifted the title.
Arsenal and Tottenham join Chelsea in the chase this season, but the Blues are the team most likely to raise their first trophy at Wembley in May.
With Chelsea a lock to escape the group stage, here's a look at all the groups, as well as some prediction on which teams will advance:
GROUP A - Inter Milan (Italy), Werder Bremen (Germany), Tottenham (England), Twente (Netherlands).
Winner: Inter Milan
Inter won the treble last season by capturing the Champions League, Italy's Serie A and the Coppa Italia, and despite the loss to coach Jose Mourinho to Real Madrid, remains a major factor this season.
Tottenham survived a scare in the playoff round of the Champions League when it lost the first leg to Young Boys of Switzerland, but scored the final six goals of the series to secure a group berth.
GROUP B - Lyon (France), Benfica (Portugal), Schalke (Germany), Hapoel Tel Aviv (Israel)
Lyon quietly extended its streak of reaching the knockout stage to seven straight seasons last year and, although the French club is overlooked at this point, remember it advanced to the semifinals last season.
Schalke pushed Champions League runner-up Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga title last season and couldn't have asked for a better draw. Although Benfica or Hapoel Tel Aviv could easily grab this spot, Schalke should do enough.
GROUP C - Manchester United (England), Valencia (Spain), Rangers (Scotland), Bursaspor (Turkey).
Winner: Manchester United
United had its streak of three straight semifinal appearances ended last year, but after a quarterfinal exit don't be surprised if Sir Alex Ferguson's men are back in the final four this season.
The Scottish Premier League has not been represented in knockout play in the last two tournaments, but Rangers has just enough talent to edge Valencia and surprise Turkish champions Bursaspor.
GROUP D - Barcelona (Spain), Panathinaikos (Greece), FC Copenhagen (Denmark), Rubin (Russia).
The rich got richer with the addition of Spain striker David Villa, and Barca will again challenge for the title. Barca has reached the semifinals in four of the last five events, including titles in 2006 and 2009.
Rubin stunned Barca in the group stage last year with 2-1 win at the Camp Nou and tied the second meeting in Russia but failed to advance. This time, Rubin will not get points against Barca, but will advance.
GROUP E - Bayern Munich (Germany), Roma (Italy), Basel (Switzerland), CFR Cluj (Romania).
Winner: Bayern Munich
Bayern squeezed into the knockout stage last year, then used away-goals wins to get past Fiorentina and Manchester United. Inter spoiled Bayern's run with a 2-0 win in the final, but the Germans are even better this season.
Roma went an incredible 21-1-6 over its final 28 games, including a win and a tie against Inter, to challenge for the Serie A title. Roma finished first in a group with Chelsea in its last CL appearance two seasons ago.
GROUP F - Chelsea (England), Marseille (France), Spartak Moscow (Russia), Zilina (Slovakia).
Chelsea has lost just five of its 42 group-stage matches in the last seven tournaments and should have no trouble again this season, despite trips to Russia and Slovakia.
Former Chelsea midfielder Didier Deschamps is Marseille's manager, and with a confidence-boosting Ligue 1 title and the recent addition of strikers Loic Remy and Andre-Pierre Gignac, the group stage is attainable.
GROUP G - Real Madrid (Spain), AC Milan (Italy), Ajax (Netherlands), Auxerre (France).
Winner: Real Madrid
Mourinho is a good coach (the best even?), but he hasn't exactly taken over any struggling teams. Real has reached the knockout stage 13 times in a row, but has been eliminated in the round of 16 six straight years.
Runner-up: AC Milan
AC Milan trails only Real for all-time titles with seven compared to nine for the Spanish side, and should have no problem returning to the knockout stage for the seventh time in the last eight events.
GROUP H - Arsenal (England), Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), Braga (Portugal), Partizan (Serbia).
Arsenal has reached at least the quarterfinals in five of the last seven years and manager Arsene Wenger always finds a way to have the Gunners prepared for the big stage.
Runner-up: Shakhtar Donetsk
Shakhtar won the UEFA Cup two years ago and advanced to the round of 32 last season before losing to eventual runner-up Fulham. Shakhtar will meet the same fate in the knockout round, only this time in the Champions League.