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Analyzing Champions League draw


The great and good of European football piled into the Grimaldi Forum in Monte Carlo this afternoon for the Champions League draw, a moment that can make or break a team's season. UEFA president Michel Platini has extended this stage of the competition to more countries -- this season, 18 different nations are represented, including three clubs making their debuts, Nordsjaelland (Denmark), Malaga (Spain) and Montpellier (France) -- without an obvious drop in quality.

Last season neither Manchester City nor Manchester United made it past the group stage, while the feel-good story was provided by surprise quarter-finalist APOEL Nicosia. As today's draw unfolded, it quickly became apparent that Group D, containing the champions of England, Spain, Germany and Holland, would be known as the Group of Death, but which team will be this year's APOEL? Here is the breakdown of each group...

Porto, Dynamo Kiev, Paris Saint-Germain, Dinamo Zagreb

Key match: Dynamo Kiev vs. Paris Saint-Germain

These two sides could be battling it out for second place behind the perennial qualifiers Porto, and the tie in Ukraine could be decisive. Dynamo has held onto key players Andriy Yarmolenko and Artem Milevskiy, while signing Niko Kranjcar and Taye Taiwo to its squad. PSG is Europe's biggest spender this summer, and failure to qualify would be unthinkable.

Coach under pressure: Carlo Ancelotti

When Paris Saint-Germain sacked coach Antoine Kombouare last December, it sat on top of Ligue 1; but under new coach Carlo Ancelotti, it ended the season in second place. Over the summer, the bigger picture emerged. Ancelotti was a coach who could attract big players -- Thiago Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ezequiel Lavezzi, among others, joined the club (for a combined €99m). Many thought that winning the domestic league should be a formality, while the real target was making a splash in Europe. But after three draws in the first three matches of the season, Ancelotti is under intense pressure. One former player compared his unresponsive demeanor on the Paris bench to when he watched Milan's devastating 2005 Champions League final defeat to Liverpool. Ancelotti has tried four different formations, and Silva, set to make his debut this weekend, will be PSG's sixth center-back this year. As France Football magazine put it on the cover of Friday's edition: 'Ancelotti: Must Do Better.'

Spoiler candidate: Dynamo Kiev, whose European experience and canny coach Yuri Semin, could cause a shock.

Who will advance: Porto, PSG

Arsenal, Schalke, Olympiakos, Montpellier

Key match: Arsenal vs. Montpellier

Arsene Wenger likely breathed a sigh of relief with this group, which looks fairly comfortable. He might even get to face a team from his own country while Olivier Giroud will be competing against the team he left this summer after helping them into the competition. French champions Montpellier may not have started its season well but it could make life difficult for a few teams.

Owner to watch: Louis Nicollin

Montpellier owner Louis 'Loulou' Nicollin is one of the most outspoken, outrageous and out-of-shape bosses in the game. In charge of French champions since 1974, he combines his deceitful lovability with a foul mouth and tendency to take things a little far. On one hand, he's a sports fanatic who made his money in refuse collection and still tells press conferences, "Well, I'm just a lowly bin-man..." On the other, he's an overweight, out-of-touch homophobe with a habit of upsetting people. He has infuriated gay rights groups by calling then-Auxerre midfielder Benoit Pedretti "a little poof," and after one defeat, compared his players to his mistresses, "though my mistresses actually give me some pleasure". He was as good as his word when Montpellier won the title, though: he got himself a Mohawk and dyed his hair in the club colors of blue and orange.

Spoiler candidate: In Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Younes Belhanda, Montpellier has some individuals that could shine, but in its debut, expecting to qualify could be a step too far.

Who will advance: Arsenal, Shalke

AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg, Anderlecht, Malaga

Key match: Malaga vs. Zenit St. Petersburg

This match stands out in a group from which all four teams could qualify. Malaga's squad combines the Champions League experience of Jeremy Toulalan (2010 semi-finalist with Lyon) and Martin Demichelis (2010 runner-up with Bayern Munich), and the exciting young talents of Spanish winger Isco and 16-year-old forward Fabrice, who will be fun to watch. Russian champions Zenit always plays a strong attacking game under coach Luciano Spalletti.

Coach to watch: Luciano Spalletti

No one doubts that the export of Italian coaches is en vogue at the moment (with Mancini at Manchester City and Ancelotti in Paris), but the biggest surprise is perhaps that Spalletti is still in Russia. The Italian, whose pioneering striker-less system at Roma -- when Francesco Totti would drop deep -- led to copycat formations adopted by Manchester United and Barcelona, has won back-to-back Russian titles but has been handed a lucrative contract to bring European success to the club. This week, Zenit has been trying to buy Hulk or Nani but even without any new faces, it should have enough to qualify.

Spoiler candidate: Malaga will ensure that the group stays competitive; coach Manuel Pellegrini has maintained a professionalism in the squad that is not matched among the club's ownership, which is in disarray, but whether it can maintain consistency across the six group matches remains to be seen.

Who will advance: AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg

Real Madrid, Manchester City, Ajax, Borussia Dortmund

Key Match: Real Madrid vs. Manchester City

Where do you start with the sub-plots in this tie? Perhaps with the coaches, where Jose Mourinho (Madrid) has criticized Roberto Mancini (City) ever since replacing him at Inter Milan and winning the Champions League in 2011. It was something Mancini never managed, though he did claim Mourinho had done it "with my team." Then there is of course Cristiano Ronaldo, who 12 months ago was reportedly sounded out by City with a contract worth €17m, after tax. In this game, Sergio Aguero, formerly of Atletico, will be back in Madrid, and Sergio Ramos will face Mario Balotelli, who gave him a hard time at Euro 2012.

Player to Watch: Cristiano Ronaldo

Fatigue was given as an excuse after Ronaldo failed to score in Real Madrid's first two league matches of the season -- the first time he had back-to-back blanks since last October, astonishingly. While Lionel Messi was off on his summer vacation, Ronaldo was helping Portugal reach the Euro 2012 semifinal. This competition has been tough on the Portuguese player: he's won it with Manchester United in 2008, but despite scoring the first goal, he's more remembered for missing his penalty in the shoot-out. Messi has been the top scorer for the last four seasons, but a good group performance in the group stages should be enough for Ronaldo to clinch the individual award he really wants in January: the Fifa Ballon D'Or. Judging by his performance in Madrid's Spanish Super Cup win over Barcelona on Wednesday, he would deserve it too.

Spoiler candidate: Every team in this group is a spoiler candidate but the team everyone wanted to avoid from Group 4 was German champion Borussia Dortmund. The team only lost Shinji Kagawa from last season, and Jurgen Klopp's high-tempo young side, including Mario Gotze and Marco Reus, could add to Mancini's headaches in this competition.

Who will advance: Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund

Chelsea, Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, Nordsjaelland

Key Match: Chelsea vs. Juventus

No team has ever defended its Champions League crown, and this is hardly the easiest defense Chelsea, last year's surprise winner. In this game, coach Roberto di Matteo face an Italian side for the first time since his debut in charge, when the Blues somehow overcame Napoli in last season's Round of 16. This year's Chelsea is a more attacking, exciting force; though Juventus is also impressive, boosted by the summer arrivals of Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla from Udinese, and with a striker likely to sign before the end of the transfer window.

Player to Watch: Darijo Srna

The Shakhtar captain wore the armband when his team lifted the UEFA Cup in 2009, his pass setting up Jadson for the winning goal, while the following season, he was voted into UEFA's Champions League Team of the Year after five assists in five games. Srna, a dead-ball specialist, was close to moving to Chelsea in 2010 -- this could be his chance to prove it wrong.

Spoiler candidate: Shakhtar is an experienced European side with a defense composed of tough local players, and a fast-paced forward line packed with Brazilian flair provided by the likes of Willian, Douglas Costa and Fernandinho.

Who will advance: Chelsea, Juventus

Bayern Munich, Valencia, Lille, BATE Borisov

Key Match: Lille vs. Valencia

These teams met in the 2009 Europa League, with Valencia winning 3-1 at home and drawing 1-1 away. The difference this time around is that Lille will be playing in its new stadium, the Lille-Metropole, which was built to host European games like these. As the last team to qualify for the group stage -- Lille needed extra time to get past FC Copenhagen last night -- just being in the draw was a relief to president Michel Seydoux. But this group gives Lille a chance of qualification, which makes the stadium move even more timely.

Player to Watch: Javi Martinez

Some say that €40m was too much for Bayern Munich to pay for the Spanish holding midfielder, but more interesting will be where he actually plays for last season's Euro runners-up. Will it be in holding midfield alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger, so pushing Toni Kroos further up the pitch, or will it be as a ball-playing center-back, where his Athletic Bilbao coach Marcelo Bielsa picked him last season. For that much money, you'd hope Bayern know what to do with him.

Spoiler candidate: It might not have Eden Hazard any more, but Lille has Salomon Kalou, Marvin Martin and Tulio de Melo to create and score goals now. It is less reliant just on the inspirational Belgian. Yet, will that be enough to get past a Valencia side that looks more complete and more united under new boss Mauricio Pellegrino? It will be a tightly run thing.

Who will Advance: Bayern Munich, Valencia

Barcelona, Benfica, Spartak Moscow, Celtic

Key match: Celtic vs. Barcelona

It's fair to say that Scottish soccer is in a crisis at the moment. While this game might not determine the winner of this season's Champions League, it is hard to beat Celtic Park for atmosphere -- especially when Barcelona is in town. The Catalan side played there twice in 2004 (0-0 and 2-3) and returned in 2008 (winning 1-3). Since then, the clubs have veered in somewhat different trajectories but the mutual respect they share will ensure a memorable evening in Glasgow.

Player to watch: Lionel Messi

Okay, so Andres Iniesta was named UEFA's Player of the Season at the draw ceremony today but really, this Barcelona team is still all about Messi. Every year, he outdoes himself: a year ago, no-one thought he could better his 53 goals in 55 games, but then he scored 73 in 60 last season. Already, he has six in four games this season. He scored a record 14 goals in last year's competition, and has been top-scorer four years running. Surely he can't top that again... Can he?

Spoiler candidate: Unai Emery has joined Guus Hiddink, Slaven Bilic and Spalletti as top foreign coaches in Russia, and his Spartak side could cause some problems. But European matches proved to be Emery's Achilles heel at Valencia and the same problem may afflict him this season.

Who will advance: Barcelona, Benfica

Manchester United, Braga, Galatasaray, Cluj

Match to Watch: Galatasaray vs. Manchester United

Back in 1993, Eric Cantona was sent off in this game after the Turks drew 0-0 and knocked United out of the European Cup on away goals (3-3 on aggregate). Cantona fought with stewards and riot police as he left the pitch. It might be a more temperate affair this time around, although expect the United camp to remind everyone that "Turkey is a tough place to go". Galatasaray's squad should hold fewer fears: it reads like a retirement community for former Premier League players, containing the likes of Emmanuel Eboue, Johan Elmander, Albert Riera and Milan Baros.

Player to Watch: Robin van Persie

With Wayne Rooney injured for the first two group games, at least, new signing Van Persie has a chance to make the centre-forward position his own. If his home debut, when he scored with a sweetly-struck volley from the edge of the area, is anything to go by, Europe should be a smooth transition. The furthest he has gone in this competition is the semi-finals (in 2006, he came on as a sub against Villarreal but did not play in the final, and 2009, he played and scored in Arsenal's defeat by United) but he will be looking for an improvement on that.

Spoiler candidate: Braga showed in its qualifying penalty shootout victory over Udinese that it can be a tough opponent at home, where two seasons ago it beat Arsenal 2-0. Galatasaray may have a bigger name in Europe, but Braga are an emerging force in Portugal and a team to watch.

Who will advance: Manchester United, Braga