Breaking down the Champions League draw

Posted by Ravi Ubha

no_source / Valery Hache/AFP/Getty ImagesThe UCL draw was unkind to Manchester City.

The long road to Wembley has truly begun.
Thursday marked the group-stage draw for the Champions League, likely the most prestigious club competition in football, and most of Europe's big clubs were represented. They included holders Chelsea, pre-tournament favorite Barcelona, record champion Real Madrid, an overhauled AC Milan and last season’s finalist, Bayern Munich.

Here's a closer look at the eight groups, with, of course, our not-so fearless predictions.

Group A: Porto, Dynamo Kiev, Paris St. Germain, Dinamo Zagreb
Unlike fellow moneybags Manchester City, which found itself in the Group of Death last season, PSG couldn't have asked for a nicer section. It's just as well, since Carlo Ancelotti's squad -- several hand-picked from Serie A -- has underwhelmed thus far in Ligue 1. In Zlatan Ibrahimovic, however, PSG possesses a European veteran.

Porto, if it can hold on to striker Hulk, must be the second favorite, even if it failed to escape a soft group in 2011/2012. After an absence of three years, Dynamo Kiev returns to the Champions League, and Kiev possesses two sparks up front in Andriy Yarmolenko and fan favorite Ideye Brown. But defending, as evidenced in Wednesday's loss to Borussia Monchengladbach in the playoffs, is the problem. Zagreb is the outsider.

To advance: PSG, Porto

Group B: Arsenal, Schalke, Olympiakos, Montpellier
It's a homecoming for Olivier Giroud, who left French champion and Champions League newcomer Montpellier for Arsenal in the offseason. Arsenal supporters can only hope that Giroud opens his account before the two clubs meet.

Arsenal is reeling after the departures of Robin van Persie and Alex Song, but its three opponents aren't the most feared. Losing Giroud was a blow to Montpellier, which has started its defense so poorly in Ligue 1 that club president Louis Nicollin ripped into the team.

Like Montpellier, Olympiakos parted company with the top scorer in its league, Kevin Mirallas, although Kostas Mitroglou -- second in scoring -- returns from a loan spell. Olympiakos can give any team a game at home; on the road it's a different matter.

In a recurring theme in this group, Schalke, the surprise semifinalist in 2011, bid adieu to an inspirational striker, Raul, yet it hung on to marksman Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and signed midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta and Roman Neustadter.
In this instance, it's hard to go against the Premier League and Bundesliga.

To advance: Arsenal, Schalke

Group C: AC Milan, Zenit St. Petersburg, Anderlecht, Malaga
The undisputed European heavyweight in the group is AC Milan, but the offseason has proved to be nothing but awful for the Rossoneri.
Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Clarence Seedorf, Mark van Bommel and Gennaro Gattuso all left, and while some needed to go to freshen up Milan, doing it in intervals would have been more appropriate. The doom intensified after Milan lost its league opener.

Reaching the group stage was cause enough for celebration for Malaga, which went from rich, potential challenger to the duopoly in Spain to cash strapped in a hurry. Among those leaving were Santi Cazorla, Joris Mathijsen and Jose Salomon Rondon.

Zenit, the Russian champ, shouldn't be discounted after reaching the second round last season, especially if a new signing or two -- as rumored -- arrives.
Anderlecht's six-year wait to resurface in the group stage is over, and American fans will be particularly excited, since U.S. international Sacha Kljestan is a key performer.

To advance: Zenit, AC Milan

Group D: Real Madrid, Manchester City, Ajax, Borussia Dortmund
Did Manchester City make a deal with someone wearing red, holding a pitchfork and sporting horns? ‘We'll find you a rich owner, you'll win the league, but you'll have to suffer in Europe,' might have been uttered if so.

For the second campaign running, City landed in a tough group, although Ajax's inclusion precludes it from being called the Group of Death. Perhaps City manager Roberto Mancini will insist on more signings in an effort to reach the second round, leading to a frenetic transfer deadline day.

Real Madrid, a loser on penalties in the semis last season and drained from its clashes versus Barcelona, is certain to progress. And Borussia Dortmund can't do much worse than last season in the Champions League, can it?
While Dortmund sold a high-profile midfielder for the second season in a row, it bought Marco Reus and has kept a hold of Robert Lewandowski.

To advance: Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund

Group E: Chelsea, Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, FC Nordsjaelland
It was the best of times for Juventus: The Old Lady became the Italian "Invincibles," winning Serie A without losing a game.

It was the worst of times: Manager Antonio Conte was given a 10-month ban relating to another match fixing scandal in Italy. Conte probably won't be on the touchline, but his stingy defense remains, and Sebastian Giovinco made his way to back to Juve. However, Juventus hasn't signed the front-line striker it was seeking.

Chelsea was the team of destiny last season, knocking out Barcelona and upsetting Bayern Munich on penalties in Munich in the final. The Blues have been revitalized with a flurry of midfield signings and have started the Premier League strong.

Shakhtar will battle for second with Juve and won't be overlooked. Shakhtar reached the quarterfinals in 2011, and led by Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan, hasn't dropped a point domestically in seven games.
As for debutant Nordsjaelland, dubbed the Danish ‘Barcelona,' it should soak up the experience.

To advance: Chelsea, Juventus

Group F: Bayern Munich, Valencia, Lille, BATE Borisov
We hope that Bastian Schweinsteiger has recovered from Bayern's loss to Chelsea in the final. The image of a devastated Schweinsteiger lying prone on the pitch brought back memories of another Bayern player, Sammy Kuffour, who was distraught after Munich lost the final to Manchester United in 1999.

Bayern is set to make a deep run again, adding depth to its roster by signing towering Croatian Mario Mandzukic, who impressed at Euro 2012, Javi Martinez, Dante and Swiss winger Xherdan Shaqiri, who played an instrumental role in helping Basel advance to the knockout stage last December.

Valencia has made a promising start under new, inexperienced manager Mauricio Pellegrino. Pellegrino wasted little time putting his imprint on Valencia, bringing in a handful of players.

Lille toiled to reach the group stage, needing extra time in the second leg to see off Copenhagen, and the arrival of Marvin Martin won't make up for the loss of Eden Hazard.

BATE didn't win a game in the group stage last season, though it collected a morale-boosting draw against Milan.

To advance: Bayern Munich, Valencia

Group G: Barcelona, Benfica, Spartak Moscow, Celtic
When Celtic's name was pulled out of the proverbial hat on Thursday, cameras were focused on Celtic boss Neil Lennon. He appeared to be deflated, at least slightly, and who could blame him? Looking past Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak aren't pushovers.

Benfica progressed to the quarterfinals last season and topped a group that included Manchester United. Teams are circling around Benfica, in an attempt to sign defensive midfielder Javi Garcia, but the Eagles have thus far managed to retain Garcia, playmaker Nicolas Gaitan and Axel Witsel.
Spartak had to qualify the hard way, beating Fenerbahce, and is led by respected young manager Unai Emery, who just couldn't please Valencia's demanding (too demanding?) fans.

Celtic has the ability to beat Benfica and Spartak at home, but the road woes are a worry. Yes, the Hoops won twice in qualifying away from Scotland, but against lesser foes in Scandinavia. Celtic's European adventure will have to make up for no Glasgow derbies.

To advance: Barcelona, Benfica

Group H: Manchester United, Braga, Galatasaray, Cluj
You can bet reaching the second round is of the utmost importance to Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. The Red Devils were, rather embarrassingly, sent packing at the group stage last season -- the first time in six years that happened. Little Basel inflicted the final blow.

Van Persie was signed to not only help United domestically, but also in the Champions League. Missing out two seasons in a row?


Romania's Cluj is usurping Steaua Bucharest as the domestic No. 1, but Braga and Galatasaray will compete for the second spot. Braga, which advanced to the group stage when it ousted Udinese on penalties, is gaining a reputation in Europe, having also reached the Europa League final in 2011 and winning 13 straight games in the league last season.

Galatasaray and Fenerbahce spent handsomely in the offseason (relatively speaking, of course), with the former pulling off a transfer coup by luring Hamit Altintop back home. How Gala fans must have reveled in Fener's elimination Wednesday.

To advance: Manchester United, Braga

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