Analyzing the Champions League draw (continued)
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
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