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Aug 28, 2014

Barcelona can expect to progress

ESPN FC's Shaka Hislop gives his take on the UEFA Champions League's group of death and teams that may surprise us during the group stage.

Barcelona can be fairly happy with the draw that paired them with Paris Saint-Germain, Ajax and Apoel in Group F of the 2014-15 edition of the Champions League, which kicks off on Tuesday, Sept. 16.

With Barca's Champions League pedigree of three titles in the past 10 years and having reached at least the semifinal stage in six of the past seven seasons, the stats tell us this stage should not be too much of a worry.

- Brewin: New look Barca to face Ibra
- Report: Barca, PSG headline Group F
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However, the Blaugrana will have to fight it out with the Parisian side for first place, and while they may have been one of the teams to avoid in pot two, Barca will know they have the measure of PSG in recent years after the 2012-13 knockout stage victory on away goals.

Barca struggled on that occasion when Zlatan Ibrahimovic was out for revenge against his former side, but goals from Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez in Paris followed by a 1-1 draw in the Camp Nou saw Barca through.

An injury-hampered Lionel Messi memorably came off the bench to help Barcelona earn a 1-1 draw in their 2012-13 Champions League quarterfinal versus PSG.
An injury-hampered Lionel Messi memorably came off the bench to help Barcelona earn a 1-1 draw in their 2012-13 Champions League quarterfinal versus PSG.

While PSG continue to strengthen in their bid to become a European power, they have had a strange start in the French league with two draws and a win from their first three matches. Ibrahimovic has two of their goals, and he will always be up for a battle with a club with which he feels he has unfinished business.

Luis Suarez -- when he does eventually get to play in a Barca shirt -- will face his compatriot Edinson Cavani, as well as play his old side Ajax. PSG can also boast other big talents in Javier Pastore, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marco Verratti, Yohan Cabaye and Thiago Silva.

Previously, PSG beat Barca on the only other occasion that the two sides met in the Champions League, a last eight match-up in 1994-95 when the French defeated Johan Cruyff's side 3-2 on aggregate.

It will be a good early European test for a Barca side that hopes to do better than last season's 1-0 quarterfinal aggregate defeat to Atletico Madrid, but it should not determine whether either side gets through the group.

The prospect of four games against Ajax and Apoel should be enough for both sides to collect enough points to ensure passage to the knockout round.

From pot three, there were more dangerous sides than Ajax -- such as Liverpool, Bayer Leverkusen and Olympiakos -- to avoid, so Barca will relish what seems like the now-annual pairing with the Dutch champions. Ajax of course beat them 2-1 last season in the away tie of their group stage match, after an already-qualified Blaugrana had comfortably put the Dutch to the sword in a 4-0 victory in Camp Nou.

That was Gerardo Martino's first defeat as Barca coach after 10 consecutive victories at the beginning of the season, and it was then followed up with a league defeat at Athletic Bilbao, as the first cracks began to appear last November.

Although still dominant in Dutch football, Ajax have 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, and they will not fancy their chances of reaching the knockout round.

Cypriot champions Apoel reached the quarterfinals stage as recently as 2011-12, but again, more important sides such as Roma and Monaco were avoided in pot 4, so Barca can be more than happy to take a trip to Cyprus.

For a club that has only failed once this century to escape the group, it would indeed be a huge surprise if manager Luis Enrique was unable to guide his side out of Group F.

The club will be thankful that it could have been a more difficult baptism by fire for Enrique in his inaugural season in European club football; he will have to learn quickly about managing in the Champions League because, as we all know, the competition only really heats up after Christmas, but after Thursday's draw, expect Barca to be there.

Dermot Ledwith

Dermot lives and works in Spain where he watches a lot of football and does freelance work for a number of magazines and news agencies, including AFP, the Press Association, Vavel.com and Soccerex. Follow him on Twitter @dermotled.

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