Finally, the 2009-10 UEFA Champions League draw is done and we know who's playing who and when.
I really don't like predicting who's going to advance from the group stage, if only because I often get it wrong. (The last time I did this, for the 2007-08 season, I got 11 out of 16, marginally better than a blind monkey picking out of a hat might do).
I'd rather talk about what the toughest groups this year are (Group C: AC Milan, Real Madrid, Marseille and Zürich) and the easiest (Group G: Sevilla, Rangers, Stuttgart and Unirea Urziceni, with the former two owing their seedings to their performance in the UEFA Cup).
Still, there's a job to do. The group stage kicks off on Sept. 15, so here goes...
Louis van Gaal had a wobbly start at Bayern Munich, but after all the money spent following last season's disappointments, this is one heck of a side. ArjenRobben (who looked set to sign on Thursday) and Franck Ribéry are one of the most terrifying winger combos in Europe (when fit). Mario Gómez may or may not be the answer, but given the wealth of forward options, it almost doesn't matter who plays up front. Juventus' new midfield pairing of Felipe Melo and Diego is a huge upgrade over last season, while Laurent Blanc's Bordeaux can trip up anyone, especially if Yoann Gourcuff repeats last season's performances. Even Maccabi Haifa has shown in recent history that it can put up a fight as well. To advance: Bayern, Juventus (but it's going to be very tight).
Manchester United looks weaker than last season on paper without CristianoRonaldo and Carlos Tévez, but it remains a genuine juggernaut and its many young players are a year older and wiser. CSKA Moscow hasn't replaced YuriZhirkov and, as ever, will be penalized by the timing of its domestic season. Besiktas has a crafty manager in Mustafa Denizli and looks tough at home. Wolfsburg is the team everyone wanted to avoid: It has hung on to its biggest stars (Edin Dzeko, Grafite, Zvjezdan Misimovic) and added Obafemi Martins. To advance: Man. United, Wolfsburg.
The Galácticos II experiment runs through the San Siro, with Kaká's homecoming, Ronaldinho squaring off against Ronaldo and countless subplots. It's hard to judge Real right now, but there's no question that, this time around, FlorentinoPérez also has brought in guys who can defend. Milan looks considerably weaker than last season and will likely live or die on Alexandre Pato's whim. Controversy is never far away from Marseille, but new boss Didier Deschamps has plenty of weapons, including some intriguing new ones in Lucho González and Stéphane M'Bia. FC Zürich is a settled, tidy team, but it's hard to see it anywhere but bottom. To advance: Real Madrid, Marseille (squeezing out Milan in a shocker!).
Chelsea's recent record in Europe speaks for itself. Carlo Ancelotti just has to tweak a few things and the Blues will be competitive, as it's a largely unchanged team, manager aside. It's a rebuilding year for FC Porto after losing three of its biggest stars and that could throw up some question marks for JesualdoFerreira's crew. Atlético Madrid, the epitome of underachievement, once again has plenty of spark going forward but look a little bit light at the back. APOEL Nicosia is one of those clubs that seems along for the ride. To advance: Chelsea, Atlético Madrid.
Liverpool, at least until we find out if Alberto Aquilani can replace Xabi Alonso, looks weaker than last season. But as long as Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres are on the pitch, you wouldn't want to bet against the Reds. Lyon has spent very big (Lisandro López, Aly Cissokho, Michel Bastos and Bafé Gomis) and it remains to be seen how quickly Claude Puel can make the new parts fit together. Fiorentina had a muted summer in terms of campaign and, with Adrian Mutu distracted by events off the pitch (such as the $22 million he owes Chelsea), it could be tough going. Debreceni, on the other hand, is a largely unknown quantity. To advance: Liverpool, Lyon.
The other "Group of Death" (if "Group of Death" weren't such an idiotic term). There will be a number of homecomings when Barcelona (Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Maxwell) and Inter Milan (José Mourinho, Samuel Eto'o) square off. The champions of Spain (and Europe for that matter) have added depth and strength in Ibrahimovic, the champions of Italy have picked up work rate and energy in Eto'o. Of the two, Inter has the most question marks, though the arrival of Wesley Sneijder could help answer some of them. Dynamo Kiev has scaled back its big-spending ways but remains a tough proposition, whereas Rubin Kazan is a tricky, well-drilled side that won the Russian league last year against better- funded opposition. To advance: Barcelona, Inter.
This is the classic balanced group where anything can happen. Sevilla is favorite on paper, and Álvaro Negredo adds a further option to an already potent front line. Rangers, mired in financial freefall, lost skipper Barry Ferguson but is tough to overcome at home. Stuttgart -- led by one of Europe's brightest young managers in Markus Babbel -- will be hoping that Pavel Pogrebnyak can do his best Gómez impression. Unirea Urziceni may not be the most glamorous team, but as anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Romanian league will tell you, anyone who can overcome the likes of Dinamo, Steaua and Timisoara shouldn't be taken too lightly. To advance: Sevilla, Stuttgart.
Arsène Wenger's new-look Arsenal (no Emmanuel Adebayor, no Kolo Touré, a modified 4-3-3) has started the season brightly as the many youngsters continue to mature. AZ Alkmaar lost a little gem in Demy de Zeeuw and Ronald Koeman has a huge job in filling van Gaal's big shoes at the helm of the club. Perennial Greek champion Olympiakos picked up some quality veterans in Enzo Maresca and Olof Mellberg. Laszlo Boloni has achieved miracles in brining the good times back to Standard Liège and the Belgians could well spring a few surprises. To advance: Arsenal, Olympiakos.