The 2013-14 Champions League group stage was drawn on Thursday afternoon at the Grimaldi Forum in Monte Carlo and as usual, the soccer world's great and good were present, apart from Cristiano Ronaldo (who didn't win any award and was playing for Real Madrid against Deportivo la Coruna).
For once Ronaldo and his rivalry with Lionel Messi was not the chief talking-point, especially as Franck Ribery scooped UEFA's Player of the Year gong, opening up the intriguing possibility that Messi's four-year stranglehold on the Ballon d'Or could be coming to an end. Instead, the focus was on a rather tasty head-to-head between Real Madrid and Juventus and a Group of Death for Arsenal. Here is the draw breakdown:
Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad
Key Match: Manchester United v. Shakhtar Donetsk
It's hard not to warm to Shakhtar coach Mircea Lucescu, with his commitment to attacking football and love of Brazilian forwards. He may have lost Fernandinho, Willian and Dentinho this summer, but he has brought in three more from Brazil: Bernard, Fred and Fernando, all already impressing in the Donbass region. It will be fascinating to see how David Moyes, a rookie in this competition, takes him on. At least he will know how Lucescu will approach the match.
Team to Watch (hipster alert): Real Sociedad
In previous seasons, the hipsters' choice in Europe has been Athletic Bilbao and Borussia Dortmund. This time around, 'La Real' could fill that role: it has a batch of exciting young players -- including Antoine Griezmann, Carlos Vela, Iñigo Martinez and Ruben Pardo -- an attacking but tactically astute style of football and a 'rags to riches' back-story, in which nine of the 11 starters of the playoff first leg against Lyon were at the club when it was in Spain's Segunda Division four years ago. It also has the youngest coach in the competition: 35-year-old Jagoba Arrasate, who is in his first season as a top-flight manager. As Dermot Corrigan, a writer for El Pais, put it: "Just getting to the group stages of the competition is a fairy-tale for 'La Real', but they will want to go much further now. They've a young, hungry, but also really talented, group of players, who all know their roles. It's going to be fascinating watching how they get on, especially in the games against Manchester United."
Spoiler Candidate: Real Sociedad
Who will advance: Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk
Real Madrid, Juventus, Galatasaray, FC Copenhagen
Key Match: Real Madrid v. Juventus
As the balls came out, it looked increasingly as if Group B would become the Group of Death, with two potential winners the first names out. There were gasps in the arena when Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti and his assistant Zinedine Zidane were drawn against their former side. Madrid has been in the semifinals for the last three seasons and, having signed Isco, Asier Illaremendi and being on the verge of adding Gareth Bale to its roster, is a real candidate for its sought-after 'decima' title. Juventus is making the Champions League its priority this season and by signing Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente, finally has the goals to add to its superb defense and dynamic midfield. This will be a compelling tie -- and one that could conceivably be repeated next spring in the latter stages.
Bench to Watch: Real Madrid, for Iker Casillas
When Jose Mourinho benched captain Iker Casillas last season, it was seen as a political move to prove a point in a power-battle with his dressing-room. When his successor Ancelotti did the same, he was lauded as a brave coach picking his team on form. The truth is somewhere in between, though the issue is a thorny one. Current number one Diego Lopez has done nothing to deserve being dropped and until he does, Ancelotti has made his preference clear. That has not stopped pundits all over Spain weighing in on the debate, as the idea of Spain's captain spending the year in the run-up to a World Cup on the bench is almost unthinkable. "He deserves to be treated with more respect," said Spain coach Vicente del Bosque. So, too, does Lopez though.
Spoiler Candidate: Galatasaray
Who will advance: Real Madrid, Juventus
Benfica, PSG, Olympiakos, Anderlecht
Key Match: PSG v. Benfica
The joke in Paris after the draw was that the most popular team in Paris had been drawn to play PSG in Group C. It's not quite true, though there is a large Portuguese community supporting Benfica in the French capital. This tie should determine who comes top of the group, while for the second season running, PSG have escaped with a fairly comfortable draw.
Lucky coach to watch: Laurent Blanc (PSG)
Blanc may not have been first (or second or even sixth) choice as PSG coach but it's easily forgotten that he coached Bordeaux to the quarterfinals of this competition in 2010. His task with PSG is to go one better than that, as Carlo Ancelotti's PSG almost managed last year, giving Barcelona an almighty shock before its elimination on away goals.
But PSG will have to improve if early-season form is anything to go by: after promising to play Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani as a pairing in a 4-4-2, Blanc shunted the Uruguayan out wide in last weekend's 2-1 win at Nantes. In that 4-3-3 system, Blaise Matuidi, one of PSG's best players last season, played a left-sided role that considerably reduced his influence. Blanc needs a rethink and, as it was for Ancelotti before him, the Champions League will be where Blanc's reign in the French capital will be deemed a success or not. His first problem -- getting through the group stage should be a doddle, at least.
Spoiler candidate: None
Who will advance: PSG, Benfica
Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow, Manchester City, Viktoria Plzen
Key match: Bayern Munich v. Manchester City
Ah, what memories for City fans, in particular of Carlos Tevez, whose refusal to get off the bench against Bayern in September 2011 kicked off the mother of all rows and culminated in his six-month absence from City's title-winning campaign. How times have changed: With Manuel Pellegrini now at the helm, City is a calmer place that keeps any problems in-house; it's no accident that it coincides with not just Tevez and Mario Balotelli departing, but also with the exit of confrontational coach Roberto Mancini. It's all change at Bayern too, as the reigning champion, whose new coach, Pep Guardiola, once coveted by the City hierarchy, is installing a new 4-1-4-1 system of play and encouraging multi-positional players so he can switch systems mid-match.
Coach to watch: Pavel Vrba (Plzen)
While Group D may have two of the best, and most highly-paid, coaches in the world in Guardiola and Pellegrini, it also has one of the most highly-rated from outside the top leagues. Pavel Vrba took over Viktoria Plzen in October 2008, after he had been sacked by Slovak side MSK Zilina, and within three years, Plzen stormed to the top of the league, setting a new Czech record by winning 11 matches in a row.
His influence has extended throughout the Czech league, where average goals per game have increased as teams try to replicate his attacking style of play. Plzen was the first Czech team from outside Prague to make it to the Champions League group stages in 2011-12, and took points off Milan in that season. This has all been done on an annual budget of about $4.5 million. "We have created a very strong team that plays offensively and it shows that you don't need to be the richest club around," said Vrba. "I hope it can inspire other clubs to do something similar."
Spoiler candidate: Viktoria Plzen
Who will advance: Bayern Munich, Manchester City
Chelsea, Schalke, Basel, Steaua Bucharest
Key match: Schalke v. Chelsea
If this is a nice draw for Europa League winner Chelsea, the same can be said for Schalke, enduring a tough time in the Bundesliga but sneaking through to the group stage after a dramatic 4-3 win over PAOK in Athens. Their hero was Julien Draxler and any clubs looking for a midfielder who can do everything -- break up play, pass superbly, create goals and break from midfield to score them -- should look no further than the 19-year-old who almost single-handedly dragged Schalke into the group stages, scoring one goal and setting up another. The big surprise is that no-one has met Draxler's €45m buy-out clause yet -- maybe they were hoping Schalke would miss out and so have to sell its crown jewel.
Owner to watch: Gigi Becali (Steaua Bucharest)
Steaua Bucharest, European Cup winners in 1986, is back in the Champions League for the first time in seven years, and that means outspoken owner Gigi Becali will be making his opinions heard, despite his current incarceration over a dodgy land exchange deal. "Steaua are a national symbol and all the success at this club is 100 percent down to me," he said.
Becali, a right-wing Christian politician with designs on the Romanian presidency, is not a man known for his modesty: He once commissioned a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" with himself depicted as Christ and the Steaua players as disciples. When Steaua won its first group game in 2006, Becali immediately targeted a spot in the quarterfinals. "This clearly shows we are in the top eight in the world," he said, before calling two-goal hero Nicolae Dica "the second best player in the world, just behind Ronaldinho." Steaua ended up bottom of its group. Expect more bizarre pronouncements before the group stage is out.
Spoiler candidate: Basel
Who will advance: Chelsea, Schalke
Arsenal, Marseille, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli
Key match: Arsenal v. Borussia Dortmund
Two years ago, Arsenal took four points from Dortmund home and away, and the German side, also paired with Marseille in the groups, missed out on qualification after Mathieu Valbuena scored a stunning last-minute winner on Matchday Six. How the landscape has altered since then: Arsenal have sold Robin van Persie (who scored both goals in the win over Dortmund) and Alex Song, while Dortmund, though losing Shinji Kagawa and Lucas Barrios, reached the Champions League final last season. Marseille, meanwhile, have managed to hold onto its spine from last season, Valbuena included, and recruited sensibly, picking up the best of Ligue 2 in Gianluca Imbula and Benjamin Mendy. Marseille and Dortmund are stronger than in 2011 -- can the same be said of Arsenal? I wouldn't be so sure.
Coach to watch: Jurgen Klopp
Kloppo was the darling of Europe last season, smiling his way to the Wembley final and, with his easy media presence and ready quips, ensuring neutrals fell in love with BVB. "Not having money doesn't mean not being able to keep on working, it means you must find other ways," he said as his team swept past Shakhtar Donetsk, Malaga (just) and Real Madrid. "The club followed a path with a coach from the second tier and a young team. And we've been champions twice [in 2011 and 2012], which has surprised us." What modesty.
Klopp, in fact, would be an ideal replacement for Arsene Wenger, surely approaching his end-game at Arsenal. Though a word of warning for clubs looking to sign the man christened 'the German Mourinho': While he is undoubtedly a fantastic coach, much of BVB's success stems from sporting director Michael Zorc and his eye for a player. It was Zorc who signed Shinji Kagawa from Cerezo Osaka for €350,000; Zorc who bought Robert Lewandowski from Lech Poznan for €4.5m; and Zorc who bought Ilkay Gundogan, 'the new Schweini' from Nuremberg for a similar price. Klopp would thrive at a club with a similar structure; given the lack of transfer activity at the Emirates this summer, it's impossible to see Arsenal as that attractive an option for him.
Spoiler candidate: Napoli
Who will advance: Borussia Dortmund, Napoli
Porto, Atletico Madrid, Zenit, Austria Vienna
Key match: Zenit St Petersburg v Porto
The sub-plots to this tie are fascinating: Zenit likes to shop in Portugal, having signed Hulk, Axel Witsel and Danny from the Superliga. It also likes to use super-agent Jorge Mendes as its preferred method of signing players; the same Mendes that has just helped Porto get top-dollar for selling Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez (coming to the Champions League next season with Monaco); oh, and the same Mendes who brokered the deal that took Radamel Falcao from Porto to Atletico Madrid, and then on again to Monaco this summer. The action on the pitch will be great -- this is a tight group with the top three teams closely-matched -- but the real action could be in the boardroom. Mendes will no doubt be there.
Coach to watch: Diego Simeone (Atletico Madrid)
Most people would assume that if Simeone continues with his success at Atletico -- it has won five trophies since he became coach, including the Europa League and the Spanish Cup final, beating Real Madrid in the final last season -- then he would get poached by a bigger club. But there is an argument that the Argentine and the Rojiblancos are made for each other: where else could he go? As a player, Simeone was tough and not afraid to win ugly. The same is true as a coach: perhaps his philosophy is best epitomized by forward Diego Costa, who likes to push the boundaries, whether he's getting booked against Barcelona, or flirting with Liverpool in order to earn a double-your-money wage hike. Thanks to Simeone, Atletico is on the verge of breaking La Liga's duopoly. He might just fancy a run to the last eight, or better, in this competition.
Spoiler candidate: Zenit St Petersburg
Who will advance: Atletico Madrid, Porto
Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax, Celtic
Key match: Barcelona v AC Milan
This is the third successive year these two sides have faced each other -- and the last time they did so in the group stage, in 2011-12, both progressed. Winning the competition looks beyond Milan these days -- with its weak defense and reliance on the individual brilliance of Kevin-Prince Boateng and Mario Balotelli -- but it could still trouble a Barcelona side coming to terms with a new coach and a superstar forward, Neymar, still getting the hang of his new role playing second fiddle to Messi.
Philosophy to watch: The Cruyff model
So much has been written about the link between Barcelona's modern-day success and Ajax's treble-European Cup-winning side from the 1970s: the thread between the two is Johan Cruyff, who was in the Grimaldi Forum as part of the Ajax delegation (along with Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars, the start of a pretty decent five-a-side team there) and is credited with developing Barcelona's 4-3-3 system when he coached the 'Dream Team' to the European Cup in 1992. It was a special day for Cruyff: his foundation was the recipient of UEFA's generous annual charity donation, while the draw, which will no doubt throw up memories of great Dutchies at Barcelona, from Neeskens, Koeman, Kluivert and Van Gaal to, er, Winston Bogarde and Ibrahim Afellay. Surprisingly, though, this will be the first time the two sides have faced each other in European competition.
Spoiler candidate: Ajax
Who will advance: Barcelona, AC Milan