Manchester United (By John Brewin)
The team: The last time a Manchester United team played in the European Cup without Sir Alex Ferguson as manager was in April 1969, when The Beatles topped the UK chart with "Get Back" and the Billboard charts were headed by The Fifth Dimension's "Age of Aquarius." David Moyes' arrival brings a new dimension to Champions League perennials who have been ever-present in the modern competition since the 1996-97 season. Ryan Giggs, of course, remains from that campaign, in which United eventually reached the semifinals.
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Giggs and his teammates would probably settle for such an adventure this season. 2011's finalists suffered in Ferguson's final two seasons in the competition, first exiting at the group stage and then suffering the crushing disappointment of losing to Real Madrid last season. A promising position was either squandered or stolen -- depending on your viewpoint -- by the red card shown to Nani.
Moyes is a novice in this competition. The closest he has come to the group stage was Everton's defeat in the 2005-06 qualifying playoffs to Villarreal, which proved no disgrace when the Spaniards reached the semis. However, Moyes has a rather undistinguished record in the UEFA Cup and Europa League, too.
He has not been handed the easiest of groups. Bayer Leverkusen established themselves as the third force in a strong Bundesliga. Shakhtar Donetsk have shed some leading players from last season but possess plenty of experience. Real Sociedad are a surprise package, and will represent a difficult away trip to San Sebastian.
The Champions League newcomer has said he will be leaning heavily on the likes of Giggs for their experience, and his squad includes nine players with winners' medals from the 2007-08 season. His team will play like "Fergie's boys," as the terrace anthem implores, but show disconcerting signs of a lack of creativity in midfield. Abject failures in the summer transfer market failed to address that problem, and Marouane Fellaini, a destroyer by trade, is the only addition in the engine room. Wilfried Zaha, signed in January, is the only other new face, an inexperienced player competing for a place alongside a phalanx of underperforming wingers.
Such was Ferguson's comfort in the group stages that he often used it as a finishing school for younger players and new arrivals. Moyes has been allowed no such luxury. A season of firsts for United continues in the competition that provided both the highest highs and worst lows of the Ferguson era.
Star man -- Robin van Persie: No one enjoyed United's Premier League title win last season quite as much as the Dutchman, who moved northwest to win trophies. There is a clear regret that he did not get the chance to have another go at this competition with Ferguson, and two misses at Madrid in the last 16 proved costly last season. He was comfortably the best striker in the Premier League after joining United last summer, and now has to prove himself in the Champions League, which has not always been his happiest hunting ground. Moyes' task is to deliver him a decent supply.
Verdict: The first target is qualification from the group, which looks possible, if a little treacherous. The second is to go further than the last 16 so Moyes can surpass Ferguson's final campaign in charge. That may be more problematic. United have slipped badly from the perch that took them to three finals in four seasons. Arresting that slide is an arduous task for Moyes.
Shakhtar Donetsk (By Andy Brassell)
The team: It probably took last year’s emergence from a group stage containing Juventus and holders Chelsea for Shakhtar Donetsk to get widespread mainstream acclaim, but they had already been a force in Europe for some years. Financed by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov since the mid-1990s, Shakhtar really began to motor after the appointment of the experienced Mircea Lucescu as coach in 2004. The Romanian is still at the helm today and has guided Shakhtar to 18 major trophies, including seven Ukrainian Premier League titles and the 2009 UEFA Cup.
Shakhtar were already Champions League regulars by the time they beat a good Werder Bremen side in the 2009 final in Istanbul, and went on to reach the Champions League quarterfinals in 2011, where they lost to eventual winners Barcelona. Those who have seen Lucescu’s side know that his teams are elegant in possession, expressing their coach’s cosmopolitan nature that has led him to bring in a string of imports from Brazil in the past nine years.
In the last Champions League campaign, Shakhtar added a more ruthless, modern edge to their game in Europe, spurred on by a deeply disappointing 2011-12 last-place finish in a group containing Porto, Zenit St Petersburg and APOEL -- with Lucescu’s position even called into question. Led by the now-departed Fernandinho, they adopted a high press on the opposition that worked brilliantly when allied to their traditional quick movement of the ball. It will be a challenge to maintain that standard this time out.
Star man -- Douglas Costa: Given some of the recent departures, it’s a little surprising to see Douglas Costa still at the Donbass Arena. The Brazilian midfielder arrived from Gremio in early 2010 and has been heavily linked with Manchester United among others since, but remains at Lucescu’s disposal. A true No. 10 with twinkle toes, a devilish burst of pace and a handsome left foot, one wonders whether he has paid for his versatility, with Shakhtar often using him wide where his influence is only intermittent.
Of the old guard, captain Darijo Srna is still vital. Lucescu’s love affair with Brazil means he likes his full-backs to come all the way up the pitch, and it’s sometimes difficult to discern whether Srna is a defender or a wide midfielder. His spirit and leadership is as important as his distribution.
Among the new boys, a lot is expected of Bernard, freshly arrived from Atletico Mineiro, having been watched by Arsenal and Tottenham -- he has been bequeathed the No. 10 shirt. Bernard has exactly the sort of explosive energy that should suit his new team and, if used wide on the right, he could form a great partnership with Srna and free Costa to play centrally.
Verdict: Last season’s exploits mean that expectations for Shakhtar are high, but some key departures have to be factored in. Fernandinho (a major influence in the dressing room), Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Razvan Rat all left, following the exit of Willian to Anzhi in January. Shakhtar have stayed faithful to their policy of bringing in young South American talents, with Brazilians Fernando, Fred and Wellington Nem joining Argentinian forward Facundo Ferreyra in arriving.
Things are taking time to settle down -- with Wellington left out of the Champions League squad altogether, much to the exasperation of many back home in Brazil -- and Shakhtar go into the opener having drawn one and lost two of their past three league games, their worst run in more than nine years. In a highly competitive group, it may be a case of aiming for a repeat of 2009 after Christmas.
Bayer Leverkusen (By Stephan Uersfeld)
The team: In March 2011, Bayer Leverkusen left the Camp Nou pitch following a 7-1 humiliation in which Lionel Messi put five nails into the coffin of then-Leverkusen coach Robin Dutt. In the past 10 years, the 2002 Champions League finalists have made it to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup twice, and twice made the last 16 in Champions League.
Leverkusen finished their last Bundesliga campaign only a point and a place behind runners-up Borussia Dortmund. Like Dortmund, they are a counterattacking side, usually starting with a 4-3-3 formation.
Lars Bender, who wears the captain's armband, when skipper Simon Rolfes is rested, controls the game in central midfield. He is joined by the experienced but still young Gonzalo Castro, 26, and guarded by Stefan Reinartz, who plays behind them. Sidney Sam and Heung-Min Son, on the wings, and Stefan Kiessling are the other members of an exciting attacking formation.
It remains to be seen whether Leverkusen coach Sami Hyypia can implant defensive stability. Goalkeeper Bernd Leno, 21, might be highly talented, but he has to become more consistent. Hyypia is enjoying his first season as the only Leverkusen coach following a year of working alongside Sascha Lewandowski.
Star man -- Stefan Kiessling: Where would Leverkusen be without Kiessling? Certainly not in the Champions League. Last season’s Bundesliga top scorer added 10 assists to his 25 league goals. At the age of 29, Kiessling is in the best form of his life and will be the man to watch.
Son, 21, who turned down interest from Manchester United to join Leverkusen from Hamburg in the summer, is another to watch. He is set for his Champions League debut at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
Verdict: Leverkusen want to get out of their group and at least make it into the Europa League knockout stages in 2014. They hope to finish second behind Manchester United and, on a good day, can beat anyone. If they can cope with the extra workload of the Champions League, they will have a good chance of reaching the last 16, where they will want to stay away from the big clubs.
Real Sociedad (By Dermot Corrigan)
The team: There was some concern around San Sebastian when Real Sociedad -- having done so well to finish fourth in La Liga last season -- were drawn against experienced Ligue 1 outfit Lyon in the Champions League playoffs. But impressively composed performances in both legs, and outstanding goals from Antoine Griezmann, Haris Seferovic and Carlos Vela saw them sail through 4-0 on aggregate.
Playmaker Xabi Prieto said he wanted Manchester United in the draw. That wish was granted, with fans also happy as Group A's other sides, Shakhtar Donetsk and Bayer Leverkusen, are seen as tough but beatable.
This is La Real's fourth time in the competition, and their first appearance since 2003-04. Once qualified, they have a pretty decent record: In 1982-83, a side featuring club legends Luis Arconada in goal, Alberto Gorriz in defence and all-time record scorer Jesus Satrustegui in attack eased past Celtic and Sporting Lisbon before losing narrowly to eventual champions Hamburg in the semifinals.
This season's side are much less experienced, especially rookie coach Jagoba Arrasate, who stepped up when Philippe Montanier left for Rennes in the summer. Arrasate, 35, was coaching at regional amateur team Elgoibar just three years ago, but you would not have thought it from the way his players were tactically and mentally prepared for the Lyon ties.
Star man: One of the most impressive features of last season's campaign was how many different players contributed. They played some superb football, comfortable both in dominating games through possession or in waiting deep and hitting on the break.
Youngsters such as Inigo Martinez, Asier Illarramendi, Vela and Griezmann delivered on their potential and became key first-teamers. Meanwhile, previously unsung figures -- including full-backs Carlos Martinez and Alberto de la Bella, holding midfielder Markel Bergara and striker Imanol Agirretxe -- all played big roles in seeing off Valencia in the race for the final Champions League spot.
While La Liga's top three were very reliant on contributions from Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Radamel Falcao, the fourth-placed side shared the goals around. Agirretxe and Vela were joint top scorers with 14 in the league, though Griezmann (10) and Xabi Prieto (9) were also regularly on target.
Nine of the XI that started the second leg against Lyon were at the club four years ago when they were in Spain's Segunda Division. Of last season's regular starters, only Illarramendi has been tempted away, but his absence has been compensated for by the signing of Esteban Granero on loan from QPR. New signing Seferovic was hugely impressive against Lyon, but was only playing because of an injury to Agirretxe.
Verdict: Everyone at Anoeta is delighted to be in the competition though, having come this far, nobody is settling for just taking part. The Basques look capable of emulating neighbours Athletic Bilbao and fellow La Liga side Malaga by remaining in Europe past Christmas, and could well be the hipsters' choice/neutrals' favourites in this season's competition.
More previews: Group B -- Group C -- Group D