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Arsenal fails to avoid unlucky draw
Arsenal were placed into Group F with Marseille, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli; while Celtic make up a bracket stuffed with former champions in Group H alongside Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax. David Moyes’ Manchester United face a trip to the Ukraine to play Shakhtar Donetsk and tough tests against rising sides Real Sociedad and Bayer Leverkusen.
Chelsea, landing in Group E, look to be favorites, with German side Schalke 04 the only other team of repute in a group made up of Basel and Steaua Bucharest. And Manchester City have to consider themselves fortunate despite landing in Group D alongside European champions Bayern Munich as CSKA and tiny Plzen make up the numbers there.
Below is a group-by group recap of the action to come this September:
Manchester United (England), Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), Bayer Leverkusen (Germany), Real Sociedad (Spain)
Manchester United face a tricky set of games, and might wish they had been able to bulk up in midfield as a result. Real Sociedad cruised into the Champions league with a dominant performance against Lyon, led by former Arsenal starlet Carlos Vela. Shakhtar have been a surprisingly difficult team to face over the years, and with Confederations Cup star Fred leading the line out, they seem to be both skilled and muscular. And Bayer Leverkusen look to be one of the better teams coming out of this year’s Bundesliga in spite of losing star Andre Schurrle to Chelsea. Stefan Kiessling is a monster up top and will test United’s aging back line. While Robin van Persie remains the go-to-guy for United, David De Gea will have to show solidity behind what can be an erratic and aging back four.
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Real Madrid (Spain), Juventus (Italy), Galatasaray (Turkey), Copenhagen (Denmark)
This is no cakewalk for Madrid, who will nonetheless be considered the favorites, especially after the expected signing of star Gareth Bale to make a rich team even richer. Perennial bridesmaids Juventus -- five-time runners up, a record they share with Bayern -- present Real with their stiffest test. Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente add firepower up top, Andrea Pirlo remains one of the greats in the game, whatever his age. Galatasaray have radically upgraded with the addition of Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder, and a trip to the Turk Telekom is never easy. Copenhagen look like cannon fodder.
Wider-open than some, PSG have to be the favorites to progress out of this group, with Benfica a close second. Money has made PSG a top-to-bottom tough squad, and Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are two of the best strikers in the game. Americans will be pleased to see Sacha Kljestan’s side back in, but the Belgians are no more than a wild card, lacking the depth to seriously challenge. Olympiakos have disappointed in recent years, a function of the poor competition they face in Greece. But Benfica -- diminished but not down -- will be the team to watch. Ola John and Rodrigo are hard to handle, and there is steel in the spine of this team, still anchored by Luisao.
Bayern Munich (Germany), CSKA Moscow (Russia), Manchester City (England), Plzen (Czech Republic)
If you have to take on Bayern Munich, you might as well also get to play a faded CSKA side and a making-up-the-numbers team from the Czech Republic. Manuel Pellegrini will surely be happy to take this draw, especially considering it could have been far worse: in Pot C, City could have been staring at a Group of Death, and instead, this should be a clear path through for them.
City of course played -- and lost -- to Bayern two years ago en route to a disappointing group stage exit. But City have spent almost $150m to bulk the side up, and if Pellegrini can get his side firing, they will be tough to handle. Bayern are the clear favorites here; CSKA have been successful at home but haven’t made an impact on Europe since 2010, when they reached the Champions League quarterfinals.
Chelsea (England), Schalke 04 (Germany), FC Basel (Switzerland), Steaua Bucharest (Romania)
Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho received a kind draw as he plots yet another assault on the Champions League. The prospect of facing the sputtering German side, the perennial Swiss champions and the Romanian giants will hardly cause Mourinho much of a worry in his quest to deliver the title he could not claim during his first reign with the club.
Most of the focus in this group will center on the identity of the likely second place finisher. Schalke must improve substantially from its narrow escape against PAOK in the playoff stage in order to hold off the expected challenge from a Basel side back in the group stage after a one-year absence. Bucharest did well to earn a place in the final 32 after surviving a stern test from Legia Warsaw, but it will likely make the up the numbers here.
Arsenal (England), Marseille (France), Borussia Dortmund (Germany), Napoli (Italy)
Last year's runners-up Dortmund must navigate through the Group of Death in a bid to return to a second consecutive final. The inclusion of Napoli out of Pot 4 increased the difficulty of the group substantially for the Germans and placed them in a position where they must tread carefully just to reach the knockout stage. Jurgen Klopp's side, however, retains the necessary quality to tackle this difficult assignment without a hitch.
Under-fire Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger will lament his luck to find his Gunners mired in a group where they could exit after the group stage for the first time since the 1999-2000 campaign. The pair of matches against Napoli -- including summer target Gonzalo Higuain -- loom particularly crucial for the London side in its bid to avoid such an undesirable fate. Marseille functions as a more than capable fourth side in this group, but the French giants may find themselves dispatched at the group stage for a second consecutive year nonetheless.
FC Porto (Portugal), Atletico Madrid (Spain), Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia), Austria Wien (Austria)
Is this the Group of Death? Hardly, but it could be wide-open. FC Porto has consistently performed well in Europe but also always seems to labeled as an outsider. For Atletico Madrid, the key would seem to be whether David Villa can produce the goals that Radamel Falcao took with him to Monaco. Zenit, with Danny back in top form, needs to prove itself at this level after failing to strike all of the right notes last season, and just might be the team to watch here. Austria Wien nearly threw away its spot on home soil in the playoffs and will be regarded as the long-shot here.
This could be the second Group of Death behind Group F. Four former champions even if only Barcelona still appears to be in that current form. With Lionel Messi and Neymar, the Catalans will be favored to top this section. AC Milan has had its recent problems but came very good against PSV in the playoffs and does feature a possible winning one-two punch in the Stephan El Shaarawy-Mario Balotelli combo. Dutch and Scottish football is not what is used to be, but Ajax continues to be difficult to beat while Celtic upset Barcelona in the group stage a year ago. Both teams always seem to transform the passion of their history and home fans into something special on European nights. AC Milan topped Barcelona 4-0 in Athens in the 1994 final; Ajax defeated AC Milan in Vienna in the 1995 final but Milan had beaten Ajax, 4-1 in the 1969 final in Madrid.
FOX Soccer's Jerry Trecker and Kyle McCarthy contributed to this report.
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