The Champions League Draw And Eastern Europe

LONDON ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 17: A detailed view of the UEFA Champions League Trophy during the UEFA Champions League Final 2011 Ticket Launch at City Hall on February 17 2011 in London England. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Eastern European writer Eliot Rothwell takes a look at the UEFA Champions League draw from the perspective of the east.

The group stage of the UEFA Champions League draw always throws up a few interesting clashes and this year - especially from an eastern perspective - Platini's big-wigs at the head of the European table haven't let us down. 

Fans of last year's finalists - Manchester United and Barcelona - could be forgiven for confusing trips to Otelul Galati and Viktoria Plzen with a brand of delicious ice cream and a German super model but - to quote Forest Gump - life in the Champions League group stage is like a box of chocolates. One pick might be a sumptuous feast of football between Barcelona and AC Milan and another, presumably a coffee flavour, could be a less than glamorous battle between BATE Borisov and Viktoria Plzen. 

Although, for teams from the east of the continental landmass - seven in total - the group stage represents a chance to test themselves amongst the elite cartel of European football. Manchester United fans may not be able to reel of the tongue the name off Otelul Galati's reserve goalkeeper but the Romanian champions will, no doubt, know everything about their English counterparts. Another tasty encounter springs out of group D as two of the world's foremost footballing academies and youth recruitment centres go head to head as Ajax - for years providing the Netherlands with their greatest assets - face Dinamo Zagreb - for years providing Croatia with their greatest assets. 

What the group stage also represents for the teams from behind Churchill's Iron Curtain is the chance to test their Stakhanovite metal against each other. The two matches between Viktoria and BATE offer an interesting subtext to a group that should, at least on paper, be dominated by Barcelona and AC Milan. But the most interesting clash between eastern sides features old friends Russia and Ukraine and heavyweights Zenit and Shakhtar. 

Both clubs have dominated their respective domestic leagues over the last few years and both have attempted to add a commercial and worldwide marketing aspect to match their progress as football clubs. Shakhtar have, it has to be said, made more progress than Zenit, with international pop superstars Rihanna and Beyonce both performing at the recently constructed Donbass Arena and Mircea Lucescu's side performing admirably in past Champions League campaigns. A sporting and commercial success overseen by powerful and wealthy owner Rinat Akhmetov - a man with the ambition to drive Shakhtar to the round table of Europe's elite clubs. 

Zenit, meanwhile, have failed to match their Ukrainian chums both on the field and in the world domination side of their plans. However, they are making strides to equal and - if all goes to plan - exceed to the success of the Donetsk side. Based in the former Tsarist capital of St Petersburg, Zenit have recently constructed an excellent english language website to correspond with their Russian news provider and have (some might say foolishly) announced plans to open a Zenit merchandise store in the centre of Moscow, on the home turf of their biggest domestic rivals CSKA Moskva. Imagine Manchester United building a mega store around the corner from Stamford Bridge or Anfield. Gulp.

Whether its super model Viktoria, youth hoarders Dinamo, Mr BATE, miners Shakhtar, gas guzzlers Zenit, frozen food Otelul or league leaders CSKA, each eastern European side will add something to the competition and each has earned the right to be there. Zenit and Shakhtar, although facing the might of Porto and APOEL, could both realistically qualify for the knock out phase of the competition, as could CSKA in group B. And with clubs from the east, especially Russia and Ukraine, looking to implement consistent marketing and development strategies it may not be too long before we see some of these clubs consistently reach the quarters, semis and even finals of Europe's elite competition. 

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