Champions League 2012-13, Group E
CHELSEAStatus: European champions
Nickname: The Blues
THE LEGEND: After so many agonising near-misses over the course of the last decade and around £500 million invested by the club's billionaire Russian owner Roman Abramovich in the pursuit of Champions League success, the Chelsea dream became a reality as they beat Bayern Munich on penalties in last season's final.
Contrast that triumph to the agony of 2008, when captain John Terry famously missed his spot kick while Europe's biggest prize was within his grasp and the host of semifinal setbacks and you could say Chelsea's time was bound to come eventually.
The Blues had previously lifted the Cup Winners' Cup in 1971, and they reclaimed that same trophy in 1998 before adding the UEFA Super Cup to their collection a few weeks later.
CALLING THE SHOTS: Roberto Di Matteo
Shedding the "caretaker" tag the youthful Italian tactician had next to his name when he led Chelsea to FA Cup and Champions League triumphs last season may be no easy task, even though Di Matteo merits a place among the greatest Blues managers of all time purely on his achievements in May.
The lengthy delay in handing the coach who started last season as assistant manager to Andre Villas-Boas a full-time management contract was viewed by many as evidence that the Chelsea hierarchy would have preferred Barcelona architect Pep Guardiola to take over, but he is not available just yet.
The trouble is, Di Matteo's modest profile and inexperience on the touchline leave him open to criticism if he oversees a sticky run of results, and the shadow of Guardiola will hang over him all season.
THE GAME PLAN: Chelsea were widely lambasted for deploying negative tactics to stifle Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the final two rounds of last season's Champions League, yet the man who was a stand-in boss at the time made no excuses for his approach. Di Matteo argued that he had no choice other than to try to nullify the threat of the gifted attacking sides, and his success in pulling off a miracle triumph meant his ploy was justified.
However, any coach working for Abramovich knows silky football is demanded in tandem with trophy success and the summer signings made by club officials confirm the hierarchy are expecting a positive change in the style on show.
Eden Hazard and Juan Mata will only thrive if Chelsea have plenty of the ball, and the use of the two twinkle-toed attacking stars should give the Blues a more enchanting complexion.
BIG HITTER: Fernando Torres
It has been impossible to refer to this complex striker in recent times without referring to the ludicrously inflated £50 million price tag that accompanied his move from Liverpool to Chelsea in January 2011, but a new Torres is emerging from the shadow of the failed striker who faltered so horribly after moving to Stamford Bridge.
The Golden Boot winner at Euro 2012, Torres claims to have rediscovered his confidence in the last few months and knowing he is the first-choice striker at Chelsea following the departure of Didier Drogba has reignited his burners.
The yard of pace that made him the most feared striker in the world appears to have gone for good, but a more creative team player is gathering some momentum.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: John Terry
For so long one of the most divisive figures in English football, Terry's regular appearances in the tabloid press may have overwhelmed many in his position, yet this talismanic leader seems to brush off controversy and even thrive amid it. Fearless in the tackle and with Blue blood pumping through his veins, his legendary status at Chelsea is assured for eternity.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Eden Hazard
After much debate and no little hype, this Belgian international turned down the Premier League's two Manchester giants to sign for Chelsea and has made an instant impact, with some sparkling performances in the first few weeks of the season.
Oozing raw talent, speed and class, 21-year-old Hazard is worthy of his title as one of the most promising players to emerge from Europe in the last decade and, while the comparisons with Lionel Messi may be a little premature, he will get his chance to prove his worth at Chelsea.
SHOOTING STAR: Ryan Bertrand
A surprise starter as he made his European debut in last season's Champions League final, this novice full back won plenty of admirers as he played out of position in a midfield role in what is likely to be the biggest game of his life, and he looks ready to emerge as the natural successor to left back Ashley Cole in the next couple of years. Now a full England international after making his debut against Italy in August, the rise and rise of this Chelsea youth-team product shows no sign of waning.
SECRET WEAPON: Frank Lampard
OK, as secrets go, this guy is hardly among the best-kept, yet Lampard's relentless ability to change the course of games does not appear to be waning as he enters the final chapter of a glorious career that has already seen him win ten major trophies in Chelsea colours.
His triumphant display as a holding midfielder in the latter stages of last season's Champions League suggests the free-scoring icon may yet have a few more years in the tank as he adapts to his new role as an elder statesman for club and country. Departed coach Andre Villas-Boas may have tried to end his Chelsea career last season, but his failure may be crucial to the team's short-term future.
THE WEAK SPOT: What happens if Torres picks up a serious injury, or loses his new-found confidence? The inconsistent Daniel Sturridge is Chelsea's only backup striker, so Di Matteo may be forced to play Hazard or Mata up front if his £50 million man is crocked.
Despite their stunning defensive work at the back end of last season, the sands of time are running out on Terry and Cole, and there is always a suspicion that David Luiz is liable to offer up an error. The Brazil centre back has improved defensively, but is far from flawless.
Finally, is Di Matteo really up to a job of this magnitude or did he just get lucky as he put his faith in some experienced, proven performers last season? We are about to find out.
VERDICT: Defending their Champions League crown seems improbable, but so was their success in this competition last May. A run to the quarterfinals is a more realistic target this season.
SHAKHTAR DONETSKStatus: Ukrainian champions
Nicknames: Kroty (The Moles), Hirnyky (The Miners)
THE LEGEND: After a decade of trying and failing to punch their weight in the Champions League, Shakhtar finally came good in 2010-11 as they made it all the way through to the last eight, where they were eventually outclassed by Barcelona. Their 6-1 aggregate defeat against the eventual champions was their heaviest continental loss.
UEFA Cup victors in 2009 -- beating Werder Bremen 2-1 in the final -- their best-ever European result was a 5-0 drubbing of FC Basel in the Champions League four years ago.
CALLING THE SHOTS: Mircea Lucescu
A wily and pragmatic Romanian coach who, despite his advancing years -- he is 67 -- and recent brushes with death -- a heart attack and car crash -- seems as hungry as ever to live up to the words he used on arriving at Shakhtar in 2004: "Together we can write history." Six Ukrainian league titles, four domestic cups and European silverware and respectability clearly are not enough to satisfy him, though, as he wants more in this season's Champions League.
A former Romania international forward, he has savoured Champions League achievements with other sides too, leading Inter Milan to the last eight in 1998-99 and Galatasaray to the same stage of the 2000-01 competition.
THE GAME PLAN: Normally plumping for a 4-2-3-1 system, Lucescu's basic aim is to marry the tactical discipline and physical strength of his Eastern European players with the flair and sense of adventure of the many Brazilian midfielders and forwards he has at his disposal. His philosophy basically has two tenets: keeping it tight at the back and turning defence into attack as quickly as possible.
Width is fundamental to the Lucescu offensive strategy, the trickery and penetrative powers of wide midfielders Willian, Douglas Costa and Alex Teixeira are perfectly complemented by the constant raiding of full backs Darijo Srna and Razvan Rat. With both full backs so attack-conscious, twin engine-room minders Tomas Hubschmann and Fernandinho have no margin for error at all.
BIG HITTER: Willian
An outstanding Brazilian left-sided midfielder who combines typical samba soccer virtuosity and daring with grit, wonderful crossing ability and a knack for scoring spectacular goals. He famously put Shakhtar on the road to qualification for the last eight of the 2010-11 Champions League with a double-strike against Roma and will aim to repeat those heroics this season.
Bought for a club-record £17 million from Corinthians of Sao Paulo in the summer of 2007, the forward who made his senior debut for Brazil in a friendly with Gabon last year was strongly linked with a move to Premier League side Tottenham in recent months.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Darijo Srna
The all-action Croatia right back or wing back is rightly a cult hero at the Donbass Arena, revered for his steely determination and unstinting loyalty to the colours. Signed in 2003 from Hajduk Split, he has become so embedded at the club that not even offers from the Premier League or Bayern Munich have tempted him. He is the best-paid player in the Ukrainian league with a monthly income of £335,000 and looks set to take up a management role at Shakhtar when he does eventually retire.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Marko Devich
With Ukrainian Premier League (UPL) top scorer Yevhen Seleznyov leaving for Dnipro, the onus will be on 28-year-old Devich, a recent acquisition from Metalist Kharkiv, to fill the gap. An aggressive and single-minded striker, he has a perplexing tendency to squander simple chances while tucking away the difficult ones. The leading marksman in the 2007-08 UPL.
Serbian-born, Devich took up Ukrainian nationality three years ago, a naturalisation process that was not to the liking of some fans in the country. He was the "scorer" of Ukraine's disallowed goal against England at Euro 2012.
SHOOTING STAR: Yaroslav Rakytskyi
An outstanding graduate of the Shakhtar youth system who is at his most effective in central defence, Rakytskyi is also comfortable as a left back or shielding midfielder. Among his most notable assets are his excellent positional play, bite in the tackle, accurate long passing and fierce shooting from distance. His work at the 2010 European Under-21 Championship led to his inclusion in the Team of the Tournament and he was selected for Ukraine's Euro 2012 squad.
SECRET WEAPON: Henrikh Mkhitaryan
The prodigiously talented Armenian attacking midfielder has not stopped improving over the past 12 months -- so much so that even the Brazilians in the Shakhtar side are impressed with his adhesive touch and eye for goal. Bought by Shakhtar from archrivals Metalurh Donetsk in 2008, Mkhitaryan has twice been voted his country's player of the year (2009 and 2011) and scored six times in the qualifiers for Euro 2012.
THE WEAK SPOT: Despite the massive wealth of oligarch owner Rinat Akhmetov, Shakhtar have not reinforced as much as they should have done in recent months, and it seems their squad depth may be an issue, especially in defensive positions.
Some of their Brazilian stars are reported to be keen to move on, so how committed will they be if their dreams of England or Spain do not come true? Then there is the thorny old issue of a dearth of quality in their domestic competition. They may have won the last three titles in Ukraine, but that is not the best way to ensure sharpness ahead of Champions League battles with Chelsea and Juventus.
VERDICT: After finishing dead last in the Champions League group stage last season, the Miners may find themselves down the shaft again, but they will at least fancy their chances of a third-place finish in Group E.
JUVENTUSStatus: Italian champions
Nicknames: La Vecchia Signora (The Old Lady), Bianconeri (Black and Whites)
THE LEGEND: Since reaching their first continental final in 1965 -- a UEFA Fairs Cup showpiece that they lost 1-0 to Hungarian side Ferencvaros -- the men in the famous black-and-white striped shirts have morphed into a trophy-winning machine. They have twice claimed the European Cup/Champions League (1985 and 1996), emerged victorious in the Cup Winners' Cup of 1984 and completed a record-breaking hat trick in the UEFA Cup (1977, 1990 and 1993).
Sadly for the Bianconeri, they have also made a habit of falling at the final hurdle in Europe's most prestigious competition, losing in the finals of 1973, 1983, 1997, 1998 and 2003.
CALLING THE SHOTS: Antonio Conte
In a 12-season stint with Juve as an all-action defensive midfielder, Conte won every possible honour (Champions League, UEFA Cup, Intercontinental Cup and five Serie A titles) and has proved equally impressive as a coach, not only leading the Old Lady to the 2011-12 Scudetto in his first season in charge but also achieving the remarkable feat of staying undefeated all campaign long. He has also coached Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta and Siena.
He was recently banned for ten months by the Italian federation for failing to report a match-fixing affair during his time at Siena, and the punishment means he will not be able to sit on the bench or enter the dressing room on domestic or Champions League match days. But he will still train his players and for the duration of the suspension will be "covered" by his assistant, ex-Atalanta and Juve centre back Massimo Carrera. Hardly an ideal situation, but Juve officials seem content with the arrangement.
THE GAME PLAN: Conte was the epitome of tactical flexibility last term, using a wide variety of templates (4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 4-4-1-1 and 3-5-2) and making every change of shape function to maximum efficiency.
However, if he has a favourite it is probably the 3-5-2, a system that has both the security blanket of a well-packed midfield and wing backs to provide valuable width. Conte's basic principles are easy to fathom: grabbing and keeping the initiative, the compact lines of his XI, good one-touch play and ball retention and swift transitions from defence to attack and vice versa. His Juve are solid, dynamic and hungry -- a winning combination.
The key area of his side is the central midfield triangle, formed by deep-lying veteran playmaker Andrea Pirlo at the tip and two hyperactive fetchers and carriers in the shape of Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio on either side. While Pirlo expertly pulls the strings, Vidal and Marchisio have the dual role of protecting their "quarterback" and taking turns to burst forward.
BIG HITTER: Andrea Pirlo
As he proved throughout Euro 2012, this veteran Italy schemer remains one of the very best creators in world football today, always with the ball under total control, able to see passing channels that no one else can, and laser-like in his distribution. The powers that be at AC Milan made a horrible error when they allowed him to leave for Juventus on a free transfer in the summer of 2011 as, while many thought he would not fit in, the maestro ran the Bianconeri's title-winning show with grace and class.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Gianluigi Buffon
Signed from Parma way back in 2001, Italy's No. 1 goalkeeper could have quit Juve when they were demoted to Serie B for match manipulation five years later but showed his character and sense of loyalty by sticking with the stricken outfit. Naturally, he went on to play a key role in their promotion back to the top flight and renaissance as a national force.
Over the past two seasons, the 33-year-old has had his share of injury problems but if fit is still both magnificent as a last line of defence and motivational focal point as well as an all-round positive influence on and off the pitch. He gained his one winners' medal in Europe in 1999, helping Parma go all the way in the UEFA Cup.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Lucio
By his own high standards, the 34-year-old Brazil centre back was far from his imperial best for Inter Milan last season and was released on a free transfer in May, but Juve believe this tremendously combative and athletic defensive rock still has much to offer and hope he will turn out to be another Pirlo, a so-called has-been who goes on to enjoy a new lease on life.
He has a vast Champions League pedigree, having won the cup with Inter in 2010, been on the losing side in the 2002 final while playing for Leverkusen -- indeed, he opened the scoring in that 2-1 loss to Real Madrid -- and regularly featuring at this level for Bayern Munich.
SHOOTING STAR: Kwadwo Asamoah
An excellent Ghanaian attacking midfielder recruited this summer from fellow Serie A outfit Udinese, Asamoah has been hailed as the heir apparent to Abedi Pele, the Black Stars' superstar of the 1980s and '90s. First brought to Europe by Swiss side Bellinzona, the 23-year-old is a guarantee of left-footed artistry, box-to-box forcefulness and clever assists.
SECRET WEAPON: Alessandro Matri
A tall, solidly built target man who has been on the scoresheet regularly since arriving from Cagliari in January 2011, Matri can be a highly effective substitute, as he proved when coming up with a vital equaliser in 1-1 draw with AC Milan at the San Siro.
The 27-year-old is something of a late developer, only really looking the part in the last three seasons. A graduate of the AC Milan academy, he spent the early part of his professional career with a string of Italian second- and third-tier teams, but scored on his senior debut for Italy against Ukraine last year.
THE WEAK SPOT: Juve lack a top-notch striker. Moves to sign Arsenal's Robin van Persie and Fernando Llorente from Athletic Bilbao came to nothing and they had to make do with Arsenal reject Nicklas Bendtner in a loan deal. It is fair to say few in Turin were impressed with the outcome of their striker hunt as, while a front-line of Mirko Vucinic and Sebastian Giovinco is technically brilliant, it is terribly short on physical presence, with the second-rate Bendtner unlikely to solve that problem. Buffon, Pirlo and Andrea Barzagli aside, they are also a very young side, unaccustomed to the harsh realities of the Champions League.
VERDICT: Even with coach Conte marginalised, a place in the last eight is not out of the question for this efficient winning machine.
Nickname: The Wild Tigers
THE LEGEND: These Champions League debutants who hail from the small Danish town of Farum have only appeared in four European campaigns to date, all of them in the UEFA Cup/Europa League.
Their record is not exactly one to write home about, as they were knocked out in the first round of the 2003-04 and 2008-09 UEFA Cups by the Greeks of Panionios and Olympiakos respectively and eliminated by Sporting Lisbon in the third qualifying round of both the 2010-11 and 2011-12 editions of the Europa League.
One depressing experience they will not want to relive is the 7-0 aggregate thrashing Olympiakos handed them four years ago.
CALLING THE SHOTS: Kasper Hjulmand
An enterprising and innovative young coach -- he is still only 40 -- who in his first season in charge at Nordsjaelland surpassed all expectations by leading them to their first-ever Danish league title. Formerly an assistant coach with the Wild Tigers, he was appointed first-team boss when previous incumbent Morten Wieghorst was prised away to run Denmark's Under-21 side.
Before working at Nordsjaelland, Hjulmand spent a decade coaching at Danish outfit Lyngby, first in charge of the juniors and then the first team (2006-08). He has an obsession for all things Barcelona, regularly heading to the Camp Nou and their La Masia academy to pick up ideas, notably in matters of youth development and playing style.
THE GAME PLAN: Predictably for someone so enamoured with Barca, his fluid 4-2-3-1 formation shares much in common with the Catalan recipe for success: the aggressive attacking style, the hunting down of the ball when they are not in possession, the perpetual movement, great appreciation of space and imaginative passing.
Arguably their key man is "false nine" Mikkel Beckmann, who is anything but the archetypal centre forward, always looking to drift wide or deep to create mismatches in other areas. Watch out too for the lung-busting overlaps of full backs Michael Parkhurst and Patrick Mtiliga and the way the three central midfielders -- Enoch Adu, Nicolai Stokholm and Soren Christensen -- ably control possession.
BIG HITTER: Jores Okore
Born in the Ivory Coast's capital of Abidjan but raised in Copenhagen, this 20-year-old centre back plays with a maturity and composure that belies his tender age. Very much on the radar of a number of Premier League sides, he has been with Nordsjaelland since 2007.
Okore really is a young man in a hurry, making his full international debut for Denmark last season just six months after breaking into the Nordsjaelland first team. Further recognition came his way when he was included in the national squad for Euro 2012, though he remained on the bench throughout the tournament.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Nicolai Stokholm
An indefatigable grafter in the midfield trenches with an excellent football brain and solid technique, this golden oldie (36) is arguably in the form of his life at the moment, performing so impressively last term that he recently was recalled to the Danish national team for the first time in six years. He has been with Nordsjaelland for three seasons, joining them in 2009 from Norwegian outfit Viking Stavanger. Formerly with Copenhagen side Akademisk Boldklub and Odense, he won his first full cap in 2006 against Israel.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Joshua John
This electrifying Dutch winger started his season-long loan move from FC Twente in a blaze of glory, scoring four goals in a 6-1 hammering of Silkeborg in a domestic league match. More of the same in the Champions League will do very nicely. Happy on either flank, the Netherlands Under-21 international had previously spent the bulk of his career to date with Sparta Rotterdam.
SHOOTING STAR: Andreas Laudrup
A young attacking midfielder with all the adhesive touch and balance you would expect from a member of Denmark's most prominent football family. His father is former national team star forward and current Swansea City coach, Michael; his uncle Brian was a European champion with the Danes in 1992; and grandfather Finn was both a fine attacker and outstanding coach with Brondby.
The 21-year-old Andreas scored the goal that clinched the league title for Nordsjaelland, coming off the bench to finish with aplomb in the win over Horsens.
SECRET WEAPON: Kasper Lorentzen
This excellent left-footer is known for his unique brand of razzle-dazzle on the flanks, as a central attacking midfield role or even in a slightly withdrawn front running role. There are few players in the Danish League as technically proficient as him, and some of his tricks and feints have to be seen to be believed.
Now 26, he joined Nordsjaelland from Randers early this year, having begun his professional career with Brondby. He has four full caps for Denmark, the first coming in August 2010 against Germany.
THE WEAK SPOT: It could be argued that they are not ruthless enough to last long in the unforgiving world of the Champions League. They have a refreshing, open approach to the game and it could rebound on them as they rub shoulders with reigning Champions League holders Chelsea and a revived Juventus in Group E.
Their full backs are exceptional going forward but not so effective defensively and that is an area that other sides loaded with quality will look to exploit. Squad depth is also an issue as two of their most important players from last season, central defender Andreas Bjelland and winger Tobias Mikkelsen, moved on this summer.
VERDICT: They are a small-town club who have punched above their weight, but the heavyweight division of the Champions League will be a bout too far. A first-round knockout is inevitable.