Analyzing Champions League draw
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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
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