SB Nation

SB Nation Soccer News | September 11, 2014

Champions League Preview

+Introduction

This is the best football tournament in the world

The World Cup probably means more. The national leagues have longer histories. The other intercontinental competitions have their own measure of prestige. And Sepp Blatter's a big fan of the FIFA Club World Cup. But if you're interested in watching football being played as well as football can be played, then the Champions League is, quite simply, the pinnacle. As good as the game gets. The highest quality football tournament in the world.

Like everything else football has to offer at this particular point in human history, this cuts both ways. What was conceived as an international response to Wolverhampton Wanderers proclaiming themselves Champions Of The World, what developed into a chaotic tournament that made heroes of Nottingham Forest and let Maradona's Napoli crash out in the first round, is now an all-consuming juggernaut that looks, from its most unflattering angles, like a European Super League in all but name. Barcelona will play Paris Saint-Germain, you say? Again?

From its most flattering angles, though, there's nothing to compare. It helps, of course, that the core idea is still a simple and brilliant one. Wouldn't it be fun if the best teams from around Europe played each other? Wouldn't it be great if all the best players in the world came along? Well, duh.

As ever, there are plenty of continental titans with points to prove, with records to tick off, with ambitions to be sated. The union of Pep Guardiola and Bayern Munich has led to domestic dominance, yet the Bavarians never really convinced in Europe last season, and eventually found themselves exposed by a rampant Real Madrid. An undignified exit for such a union of club and coach, particularly since they'd been handing out the thrashings just the year before.

Elsewhere, Guardiola's old rival José Mourinho is attempting to become the first coach to lift the big-eared beauty with three different clubs, while Carlo Ancelotti attempts to become the first manager to win the thing for the fourth time, an achievement that would make Real Madrid the first side in the modern era to retain the trophy. Barcelona, wounded on and off the pitch, have an aura to repair, and Juventus are carrying the ailing reputation of Italian football on their shoulders.

Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City are starting to reach the stage where colossal spending needs to yield continental results, while Spanish champions Atlético Madrid come into the tournament with revenge on their mind, having got within seconds of perhaps the most surprising triumph since Liverpool's 2005 comeback. And, since we're on the subject, Liverpool, five-time winners, are back in the big time; asked before the tournament began who he wanted to play, captain Steven Gerrard ignored an easy draw for the glitz and glamor of Real Madrid. And he got his wish.

There's individual glory to be had as well, as a new front opens up in the (perhaps imaginary, but never mind) battle for supremacy between two of the finest footballers ever to grace the game, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Both sit on 67 goals, just four behind the all-time top scorer Raul's total of 71. Given that they scored 25 between them last time around, it's a near-certainly we'll have a new record holder by the time the sharp end of the tournament rolls around.

All that stuff comes at the end, of course. In the beginning is the group stage, a sprawling exercise in big teams trying not to trip over smaller teams, smaller teams trying their damnedest to trip them over, and the occasional group of death. But if things are perhaps a little more predictable early on, then the significance doesn't diminish; it simply moves on to those sides who don't and can't rely on being here every season. Liverpool and Roma, back from the wilderness; Swedish side Malmö FF, taking their first crack at this new format; Bulgarian upstarts Ludogorets, flying higher than they've ever flown before and getting a trip to the Bernabéu as their reward.

Ultimately, the worth of any football tournament rests on the games it produces near the end, and the journey it provides while getting there, and it's here that the Champions League simply cannot help but deliver. The structure, perhaps cynically, ensures that the majority of the big teams get the majority of the big places, and so ensures that the viewers get the big matches; meanwhile, at the level of the individual matches, the ingredients are just right. The perfect blend of footballing excellence, nervous tension, prestige, arrogance, hubris, floodlights, emergent hilarity, lingering injustice, enmity, and that wonderful anthem. No, it is wonderful. No, you shut up. Here's the preview. Get excited.

+Teams

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H
Atlético Madrid +
Juventus +
Olympiacos +
Malmö +
Real Madrid +
FC Basel +
Liverpool +
Ludogorets +
Benfica +
Zenit Saint Petersburg +
Bayer Leverkusen +
Monaco +
Arsenal +
Borussia Dortmund +
Galatasaray +
Anderlecht +
Bayern Munich +
Manchester City +
CSKA Moscow +
Roma +
Barcelona +
Paris Saint-Germain +
Ajax +
APOEL +
Chelsea +
Schalke 04 +
Sporting Lisbon +
Maribor +
Porto +
Shakhtar Donetsk +
Athletic Bilbao +
BATE Borisov +
Real Madrid
Atlético Madrid
Sporting Lisbon
Benfica
Porto
Athletic Bilbao
Barcelona
Paris Saint-Germain
Monaco
Chelsea
Arsenal
Liverpool
Manchester City
Anderlecht
Ajax
Schalke 04
Borussia Dortmund
Bayer Leverkusen
Bayern Munich
Basel
Juventus
Roma
Maribor
Malmö
Zenit Saint Petersburg
CSKA Moscow
BATE Borisov
Shakhtar Donetsk
Ludogorets
Galatasaray
Olympiacos
APOEL
Real Madrid

Real Madrid are the most successful team in European football, and they added to their trophy case last year by winning the Champions League for a record 10th time. La Decima, as they call it in Spain, was a return to glory for the Merengues, who had gone 12 long years without being crowned the continent’s best.

Spending has never been a problem at the Bernabéu, where Real Madrid have long been splashing the cash. They have collected stars, sometimes to the detriment of building a team. There was concern last season, when they spent €100 million to add Gareth Bale, that he was simply another in a long line of Galácticos, but he and Cristiano Ronaldo worked together beautifully to capture the Champions League trophy.

To nobody’s surprise, Real Madrid have continued to buy up stars, this time adding World Cup sensation James Rodríguez. Now Carlo Ancelotti has another star to fit in, and the question of whether they can all work together is one again dogging the Merengues. But now La Decima serves as a constant reminder that, as unorthodox as it may be, their free-spending ways and collection of stars can indeed lead them to European glory.

How they got here

Real Madrid only managed third place in La Liga last season, level on points with Barcelona, and behind Atlético Madrid, the team they beat in the Champions League final. Their league finish matters little, however — after lifting the prestigious European trophy for the 10th time, Real were guaranteed a place in this season’s Champions League.

How they play

Last season, Real Madrid won the Champions League with brilliant counterattacks. The blinding pace, brutal physicality and sublime skill of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale made them nearly unstoppable if the match opened up, even for a moment. Toss in Karim Benzema lingering, waiting to poach goals, and the near-perfect passes of Luka Modrić and Xabi Alonso that spark quick counterattacks, and Real Madrid were nearly unstoppable.

This season, Real might remain unstoppable, but the problem is they’re unable to stop other teams. The summer was spent adding even more glamorous signings, meaning they need to find a way to fit in James Rodríguez, while ignoring defense entirely. Carlo Ancelotti is undoubtedly brilliant, but figuring out how to create a balanced team from this collection of stars may be the biggest challenge of his long career. The current solution is to field another new boy, Toni Kroos, as the deepest, most defensive midfielder. Unsurprisingly, since that's not his best position, it’s not yet working.

Key Player: Sergio Ramos

We know what Cristiano Ronaldo can do. We know what Gareth Bale can do, and Luka Modrić, and Karim Benzema. The problem with Real Madrid is not their attack, but their defense. And without a midfield to help screen the back line, Real need a defender capable of being sublime. That man is Sergio Ramos.

For all the talk about Ramos’ cards (many) and petulance (often), there are times when the 28-year-old is simply marvelous. For Real to topple the best and repeat as Champions League winners, they will need Ramos to be at his very best, covering up the holes and deficiencies around him.

Anticipated finish: Top

There is no doubt that Real Madrid are flawed, but there is also no doubt that they are the most talented team in Group B. Liverpool may give the Merengues a run, but they too have issues and they are counting on a slew of players new to the Champions League. Real Madrid don’t just have Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and James Rodríguez, they have a distinct experience advantage too.

Atlético Madrid

After 94 minutes of last season's final, Atlético Madrid were beating Real Madrid and were about to become the champions of Europe for the first time in their history. After 95 minutes, thanks to a towering header from bearded destroyer of dreams Sergio Ramos, they were going into extra time a knackered team, their dreams broken and their legs heavy. The eventual 4-1 scoreline wasn't really fair, but as soon as the equalizer went in, it was inevitable.

Still, if the final didn't quite go their way, Diego Simeone's men spent most of last year's tournament making the established sides of the Champions League feel thoroughly uncomfortable. Their victory over Barcelona in the quarter-finals served notice that there was a third power rising in Spain, while the semifinal victory over Chelsea so impressed José Mourinho that he bought half the side.

How they got here

Though they missed out on the European Cup, Atlético were not to be denied back at home. The first not-Real, not-Barcelona title-winners in living memory — er, since Valencia in 2003-04 — Atléti squeezed home three points ahead of both classico superclubs in one of the most enjoyable Spanish title races for some time. That secured them direct entry into the Champions League group stages.

How they play

According to Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti, Atlético "play like Diego Simeone played." He meant this as a complimentary reference to their toughness, focus and tactical rigor, but here we note that Simeone once claimed to play like a man "holding a knife between his teeth." That's what Atlético are like: not just superhumanly committed and exceptionally well-drilled, but surrounded at all times by an air of latent menace. This doesn't just mean that they foul a lot, though they do. It's more that they're utterly miserable to play against.

Typically arranged in a 4-4-2, Atléti are perhaps Europe's best side without the ball, keeping a narrow defensive shape and clogging up the pitch, much to the frustration of their opponents. Teams are reduced to shuffling the ball back and forth across the pitch, as any attempt to pick through the middle is shut down. Inevitably, either the opposition lose focus and the ball, or Atléti, standard bearers for the dying act of the tackle, nip in and steal carelessly-shielded possession; either way, they counter with speed and precision. Such an approach doesn't yield as many goals as their more illustrious compatriots — they only scored 77 league goals last season, where Real and Barça both reached three figures — but it does make life exceptionally difficult for everybody else.

Key Player: Mario Mandžukić

Last season, Diego Costa scored around a third of Atlético Madrid's competitive goals, picking up 27 in 35 league games, and 4 from 6 in the Champions League. The very definition of a hard act to follow. Luckily for Atléti, Costa's departure to Chelsea coincided with Mario Mandžukić and Pep Guardiola taking against one another, and the Croat arrived at the Vicente Calderón as a ready-made replacement. Though not as skilful as Costa, and perhaps not as dead-eyed a finisher, Mandžukić is strong, excellent in the air, and possessed of an almost inhuman work rate.

He scores goals, too: 26 in all competitions for Bayern last season, despite his claims that "the playing style of coach Pep Guardiola" didn't fit his game. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for Simeone's Atlético, he seems to share his predecessor's gift for needling his opponents. In just his second game for the Spanish champions, Mandžukić managed to irritate Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos to such an extent that the defender punched him in the face. An auspicious omen.

Anticipated finish: Top

If Juventus were still under the direction of Antonio Conte, then this might be a little less clear. However, we suspect that Max Allegri's Old Lady is going to be a little less intimidating. And we can't see Olympiacos or Malmö posing too much of a threat to last season's finalists. Expect them to qualify first from the group.

Sporting Lisbon

Despite being classed as one of Portugal’s ‘big three’ alongside Porto and Benfica, Sporting Lisbon have traditionally had less success than their two rivals, and haven’t won a domestic league title in over a decade. But last season's league campaign has earned them a shot at the Champions League group stages for the first time in six years.

How they'll fare is anyone's guess, with this summer having been one of big change for the Lions. The man who led them to second place last season, Leonardo Jardim, has departed for Monaco, and been replaced by Marco Silva, a 37-year-old whose only prior experience of management came in a three-year stint at Estoril, who he led from the second tier to an unlikely Europa League spot.

There have also been big changes to the playing staff: first-team defenders Marcos Rojo and Eric Dier have moved to the Premier League, paving the way for several new arrivals. The most notable is former Manchester United winger Nani, though MLS fans will doubtless remember watching former Seattle Sounders striker Fredy Montero, whose loan deal at Sporting has been made permanent.

Sporting's scouting network is vast, and this summer alone they've brought in players from five different continents. If everything comes together they may just have a chance of sneaking through into the knockout stages. But realistically, they’re probably going to finish behind both Chelsea and Schalke.

How they got here

Sporting qualified for the group stages by finishing second in the Portuguese Primeira Liga. They wound up seven points adrift of champions Benfica, but an impressive six above the underperforming Porto.

How they play

Marco Silva’s Estoril team was characterized by quick counterattacks, and he’s continued with such a style of play at Sporting. His side will almost certainly shape up in a 4-3-3, press high, and transition rapidly from defense to attack. It’s a system based on industrious defending, quick passing and stretching the opposition as wide as possible.

As such, Sporting’s main attacking threat comes from out wide, where the pace and trickery of their pure wingers, Nani and André Carrillo, can terrorize opposition defenders. Attack-minded young right back Ricardo Esgaio also loves to overlap, while shuttling runs from the two advanced central midfielders help to create overloads out wide. The tall, powerful center forward Islam Slimani doesn’t tend to get overly involved in the build-up play, though his strength and aerial ability makes him an excellent target man.

Key Player: William Carvalho

With Sporting’s two advanced midfielders in their 4-3-3 — usually André Martins and Adrien Silva — both allowed to roam forward and support the front three, the main defensive midfield duties fall on the shoulders of William Carvalho. The Portuguese youngster is a colossus in the centre of the pitch, showing a superb positional awareness and the strength to halt the opposition in their tracks. Sporting have kept him through the summer despite interest from the likes of Manchester United, and he’ll no doubt prove to be a key player in their Champions League campaign.

Anticipated finish: Third

Sporting should be competitive in Group G, but they’re not as strong on paper as either Chelsea or Schalke. They’ll probably be eliminated at the first hurdle, though they should have enough to finish above Maribor and earn a spot in the Europa League knockout stages.

Porto

Last season was a disappointment, perhaps almost an embarrassment for Porto. They were knocked out of the Champions League with just one win from six group stage games, subsequently dumped from the Europa League quarterfinals and finished third in the Portuguese Liga. They were well out of the title race early, with hated rivals Benfica running away with the crown.

Despite that, however, they've qualified for the Champions League again, and managed to avoid a mass exodus while picking up some good players as well. Stars Alex Sandro, Héctor Herrera, Jackson Martínez and Juan Quintero all stuck around despite being linked to big moves away, though they did lose Fernando and Eliaquim Mangala to Manchester City. A group of four young players — Casemiro, Cristian Tello, José Campaña and Óliver Torres — signed on loan. A dozen other players signed on, most notably defender Bruno Martins Indi and midfielder Yacine Brahimi, two players who impressed at the World Cup. Porto's transfer window couldn't have realistically been more impressive.

This team is likely to be disassembled soon, so enjoy them while you can. Porto likely spent the money they did in this window and brought in such a high volume of players because they know that three or four of the aforementioned stars will be gone next summer. This is the best Porto squad since the 2010-11 season, when they won a treble.

How they got here

The separation between the big clubs and everyone else in Portugal is huge, and last season, that worked to Porto's benefit. Even though the league is relatively poor, the success of Benfica and Porto, along with some impressive European runs by Braga, means the third-placed side in Portugal enters the playoff round.

So, despite finishing 13 points behind Benfica, Porto went on to face Lille in qualifying. They had no trouble with the French side, winning 3-0 on aggregate.

How they play

New manager Julen Lopetegui has come to Porto by way of the Spanish youth setup, where he won UEFA titles at the Under-19 and Under-21 levels. Porto were a stylish passing team before his arrival, but they look to be a bit more about possession and a little less about directness this season.

However, Porto have played few games under their new manager, and it’s likely Lopetegui has quite a few ideas he’s yet to fully implement. With all the new talent that arrived in the summer, the starting XI may change considerably over the next couple of months, and it could be a while before we really know how Porto will play.

We do know they’re almost sure to be fun. Porto have both athleticism and technical talent, and they've always tried to play attacking football. They won't be defending deep and booting the ball to Martínez’s head.

Key Player: Jackson Martinez

There's too much talent at most positions for Porto not to experiment and rotate heavily, but there should be one constant in the starting XI: Jackson Martínez, who will be the focal point of his team's attack.

Martínez is currently wearing the captain's armband and was key in the playoff against Lille. Heavily involved in the away goal in the first leg, he then scored the tie-clinching third goal in the second. He's a complete striker, with both size and pace, good with his back to goal, running at defenders or winning balls in the air.

He's already scored 64 goals in 95 appearances for Porto, and he's going to make them a lot of money when he moves on next summer.

Anticipated finish: Top

As good as Porto are, they were probably weakest team assigned the top pot for the Champions League draw. They lucked out, however, landing in arguably the weakest group in the competition. Athletic Bilbao will provide a serious test for the Dragons, but Shakhtar Donetsk are a total wildcard and BATE Borisov are clear favorites to finish bottom of the group.

Athletic Bilbao

Athletic Bilbao's bizarre Marcelo Bielsa experiment went the way of most Marcelo Bielsa experiments. There were serious growing pains until the squad adapted to his system. Once they did, they played some of the best football in Europe and were widely praised for being so entertaining. Then, Bielsa started throwing temper tantrums while Athletic's opponents began figuring them out. They crashed and burned, almost got relegated and had to start over.

Enter Ernesto Valverde, who inherited a broken team that had just lost Fernando Llorente and Fernando Amorebieta on free transfers. But Athletic still had one of the best squads in Spain, and some pretty simple, sensible tactics turned them around. Finally, Athletic is playing up to their talent level.

They lost another star this summer, with Ander Herrera departing for Manchester United, but as always there's plenty of depth in this squad. How far they go in Champions League depends on how big a step up their young talent can take this season.

How they got here

Athletic were never anywhere near Spain's big three last season, but managed a comfortable fourth-placed finish. With Europa League making life tough for Sevilla, Los Leones were able to end the year seven points clear of their nearest rivals for La Liga's final Champions League slot.

They were then handed a brutal draw in the Champions League playoff round, but impressed with the ease in which they dispatched Rafa Benítez’s Napoli. Athletic secured an away goal in the 1-1 draw in Italy, then scored three times in the second half at San Mamés despite giving up an early goal to Marek Hamšík.

How they play

Valverde's style is something about halfway between Bielsa's approach and the more defensive style that preceded him, which is probably the sweet spot for the type of players Athletic has. They’ve settled into a 4-2-3-1 that places an intelligent two-way player in the No. 10 spot and lets the wingers be the stars.

While Athletic are perfectly capable of keeping the ball, they're at their most threatening on the counter. They're very good at winning the ball back after retreating into a defensive shape, then turning defense into attack with lightning speed. Well-rounded midfielder Beñat is the man who makes this work, but wide men Iker Muniain and Markel Susaeta are the players fans will notice, as they will either score or assist most of Athletic's goals.

Their central defenders are also fun to watch, for entirely different reasons. Veteran Carlos Gurpegui, a former defensive midfielder converted to center back, partners 20-year-old wonderkid Aymeric Laporte, a French Basque player. Watch Laporte because he's a future superstar, and Gurpegui because he's absolutely psychotic.

Key Player: Beñat

Despite rumors of interest from bigger clubs, Beñat decided to join Athletic Bilbao when he left Real Betis two seasons ago. Now that Ander Herrera has moved on, Athletic revolves around the midfielder, so he likely doesn’t regret his decision. He can play in a double pivot or a three-man midfield, but he's probably at his best as a central attacking midfielder with defensive responsibilities, the role he’ll most often assume for the team.

Beñat plays in a position that's generally associated with assists, but Athletic's focus on wing-play means his primary responsibility is spreading it wide to Muniain and Susaeta. His role is no less important, but don't expect him to be playing the final pass.

Anticipated finish: Second

FC Porto have a very strong side and should be considered the favorites to win Group H, but Athletic will like their chances to advance past Shakhtar, who have moved to a temporary stadium and training facility in Lviv due to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. If Athletic had to go to a raucous Donbass Arena, playing against perfectly settled in players, they'd be in for a very rough time. But when squads look as even as Athletic and Shakhtar's, picking the team that hasn't recently been uprooted due to nearby armed conflict … well, that seems reasonable.

Barcelona

Barcelona has been a mostly unhindered superclub for the last decade, save for a couple of hiccups. Last season was one of those hiccups. They were embarrassed by comparatively tiny Atlético Madrid twice, first in the Champions League quarterfinals, then on the final day of the La Liga season, when Atléti drew them at Camp Nou to win the title.

Despite their disappointment, Barcelona are smart enough to know they don't need to reinvent the wheel. Gerardo Martino was simply a stopgap between Tito Vilanova — now sadly deceased — and whatever was going to come next, which turned out to be former Barcelona B and Roma manager Luis Enrique. He worked wonders with Celta Vigo last season, and was rewarded by being handed his dream job.

He has the players to help Barcelona make a deeper run than last season, even if the club's summer transfers raised a few eyebrows. Jérémy Mathieu, Thomas Vermaelen and Douglas aren't the kind of big name, high-quality signings Barcelona usually make, but they are real, actual defenders, which alone should make the team better this season. There’s little need to worry about Marc-André ter Stegen taking over from Víctor Valdés in goal, or Ivan Rakitić replacing Cesc Fàbregas in midfield. Plus, they have added one shiny new star, although Luis Suárez won’t be able to take to the pitch until Oct. 25.

If superstars Lionel Messi, Neymar and Andrés Iniesta stay healthy, Barcelona will be able to compete for a European Cup.

How they got here

While Barcelona's league performance last season was their worst in years, they still had no trouble qualifying directly into the Champions League group stage. They finished second in La Liga on 87 points, which is 17 more than fourth-placed Athletic Bilbao, the last team to qualify for the tournament from Spain. Yeah, it’s difficult for Barcelona to miss Champions League.

How they play

If their signings and early matches are any indication, Barcelona are stepping into a slightly more modern and balanced version of Pep Guardiola's famous tiki-taka system. They're going to play 4-3-3 with the ball on the ground, dominating possession, making use of Lionel Messi as a false nine … nothing new yet. Still, greater balance should lead to better transitions and stronger defense.

Their new, non-glamorous signings should help in this regard. The presence of genuine defenders means Javier Mascherano can be deployed in midfield, while Ivan Rakitić is much better defensively than Cesc Fàbregas.

Barcelona’s failure to reach the final for the past two seasons should mean they’ve learned a few lessons, but this is a club that’s stubborn about its philosophy. That possession-oriented game will remain.

Key Player: Lionel Messi

For all the criticism heaped on Lionel Messi last season for daring to look mere mortal at times, he still scored 41 goals in 46 games. He was then criticized for failing to deliver in the World Cup final, but he still won the Golden Ball. This is what constituted a down year for Messi: losing in the World Cup final and scoring 41 club goals.

Barcelona's system is built around Messi's movement and playmaking abilities from the center forward position and it will continue to be built around that until he's no longer physically capable of performing at the highest level. That's a few years off.

Expect quite a few spectacular goals and assists from Messi, but also expect Barcelona to struggle if he has an off day. Neymar’s yet to show he can shoulder the burden alone, and Luis Suárez won’t be able to play until four group games have passed.

Anticipated finish: Top

In a two-legged knockout tie, picking Paris Saint-Germain to beat Barcelona wouldn't be ridiculous at all. But they won't be playing their group stage games against each other like they're knockout matches, and PSG are going to be more prone to a slip-up against the two lesser sides in the group than Barcelona are.

PSG will probably put a scare into Barcelona in at least one of their two matches and get people questioning whether or not Barcelona has what it takes to win the tournament, but three points from the two PSG games and a higher goal difference than the Parisians seems likely.

Paris Saint-Germain

Paris Saint-Germain always had potential, with the glamor and lure of the French capital, but rarely made good on it. Then the Qatar Investment Authority swooped in, buying the club and giving them so much money that they could not only buy their way to a Ligue 1 title, but European relevance as well.

All that money was not intended to make PSG merely relevant though. They are supposed to join the elite, something they have failed to do in the last two years as Chelsea and Barcelona have knocked them from the tournament. The Parisians proved they were good, but there remains that gap between them and Europe’s best.

PSG are all but guaranteed another league title, and the real focus is on Europe. They want to make that leap, make all that spending worth it. PSG intend to see Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, David Luiz and the rest of the cast, which cost hundreds of millions to bring in, stand among the world’s top clubs. That means beating the best the Champions League has to offer.

How they got here

There was a time when PSG were perennial underachievers and generally anonymous despite the glamor of being the biggest club in France's capital city. They went nearly 20 years without a league title, but everything changed after heavy investment from their new owners. PSG have lifted the trophy for two seasons on the trot, qualifying for the Champions League group stages in the process.

How they play

PSG have no problem scoring goals. Such is the nature of a team with Zlatan Ibrahimović, Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lucas Moura and Javier Pastore, but what about the rest of the team?

For all of the money PSG have spent in the midfield and at back, they leave a lot to be desired when they play the best teams in the world, and that inability to dominate in either of those lines is why they don’t have a specific way of play. They are relatively well-rounded, but it is more about being solid and responsible, then hoping the attacking talent can be brilliant, which they often are.

Key Player: Marco Verratti

Zlatan Ibrahimović is going to be his brilliant self and Thiago Silva — once fit — will get the job done in the back. There is no obvious flaw in the PSG team, except that they can’t really impose their will in the midfield. Marco Verratti has the best chance of changing that. Undoubtedly talented, yet wildly inconsistent, the 21-year-old could make this midfield shine. Or he could cause disaster. Either way, he’ll be key in how deep a run PSG will make.

Anticipated finish: Second

PSG have spent their way to Ligue 1 titles and European relevance, but can they make the jump into the elite? That is the question for PSG and, at least in the group stage, the answer will be no. Barcelona have had their number in recent years, and will get the best of them again, but they’ll still advance to the knockout stages and get a crack at one of Europe’s best again in the spring.

Monaco

Ah, Monaco. By the schedule we had all envisioned a short few years ago, Monaco should be competing at the upper end of this tournament and, if not quite the favorites, a team nobody would be keen on facing. That’s because they have their oh-so-fashionable Russian petrobillions, and thanks to their existence in a tax haven, they didn’t even have to pay their players particularly high wages for them to be getting a better deal than almost anywhere else. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the club may exist in Monaco, but it’s registered in France, and their rivals in Ligue 1 took umbrage to that advantage. Combined with a variety of other off-field problems, Monaco sold their two biggest stars this summer in James Rodríguez and Radamel Falcao, and also other players such as Emmanuel Rivière. The squad is now a limited one, with little real firepower, and they certainly won’t be expected to achieve anything in the tournament this year.

How they got here

By finishing a fairly comfortable second in Ligue 1 last season, when said stars were still at large,and thus automatically qualifying for the group stage. They failed to put up a seriously convincing title challenge, but there was no doubt they were the second-best side in France last year. Now, having picked up four points from their opening four games amid uncertainty on and off the field, nobody’s really sure if they’re still a decent team or if they’re really awful.

How they play

Last season they were a fairly dull team despite the talent in their attacking ranks, and it might be the same this year. The fact their summer acquisitions were two defenders and a goalkeeper does little to suggest the alternative.

Yet despite that, there are still some fun players in this side who could provide a spark. João Moutinho has been poor and clearly wants to leave the club, but he can still provide some class in midfield. Lucas Ocampos looks like he could be a genuine star, and Anthony Martial, expected to be one for the future, could, without Falcao and Rivière, offer something now. Oh, and they have Dimitar Berbatov. And Dimitar Berbatov is never, ever not worth watching.

Key Player: Lucas Ocampos

Berbatov might be the key attacker, and Moutinho the key midfielder, but the former is getting on in years and the latter is unlikely to be particularly bothered about the campaign. It’ll therefore be left to Ocampos to provide the real star quality and creative spark in the side. A young player who can score and create goals from nothing, this could be a very important year in his development.

Anticipated finish: Fourth

Unfortunately, Monaco have ended up in something of a group of death (albeit without one elite team) where all the teams are pretty well-matched. Although Leverkusen struggled in the Champions League last season, new coach Roger Schmidt already has the side looking far better. That means Monaco will be banking on either Zenit or Benfica imploding, though the former have made a great start to life under André Villas-Boas, and the latter have a pretty impressive European record. Don’t be surprised if Monaco finish rock bottom of their group.

Chelsea

Though Chelsea have won the Champions League just once, they have been one of the competition's most successful clubs over the past decade. The first José Mourinho era featured deep runs, while less-than-accomplished managers Avram Grant and Roberto Di Matteo managed a final appearance and a title respectively. Last year, in the first season of his second stint, Mourinho guided Chelsea into the semifinals once again. They're very much part of the furniture.

Chelsea made some big transfer moves in the summer, but it's not clear if the new faces can help them win the Champions League. Cesc Fàbregas has dominated thus far in the league, but embarrassing minnows is his specialty — he struggled against top opposition at Barcelona.

But there's one position where Chelsea have greatly improved, and that's up top. Diego Costa's energy was crucial for Atlético Madrid in their run to the final last season, and he looks like he'll be just as much of a terror for his new team. Loïc Rémy should be a better backup than Fernando Torres and Demba Ba were, while Didier Drogba adds both leadership and a true target man to the mix.

Mourinho's Blues look good on paper and on the pitch thus far. It's not hard to envision them being very successful in this competition.

How they got here

Losing the title was a disappointment for Chelsea last season, but they still managed to qualify for the Champions League very comfortably. Poor results against average teams led to them finishing in third in England, four points behind champions Manchester City, but they also racked up three more points than Arsenal, putting them directly into the group stage.

How they play

While Mourinho's critics will call his team's style of play overly negative and defensive, Chelsea do have more than one way of playing. Between the purchase of Fàbregas and the never-in-doubt retention of Eden Hazard, who Mourinho criticized at the end of last season, it's clear that the Blues aren't just going to sit back and counter against everyone. They're going to knock the ball around and attack aggressively against most teams.

They won't do that against everybody, however, and certainly not if they come up against a team like Barcelona or Bayern Munich in the knockout rounds. This is where Chelsea's versatile players prove their value. Ramires can play as a box-to-box midfielder or defensive winger, while Oscar can play as a very attacking central midfielder or defensive No. 10. Nemanja Matić can play with any kind of partner in a double pivot or operate as a single holder. And all of these players are equally comfortable with and without the ball.

Chelsea's identity is that they have no identity. They're ultra-attacking when their manager feels the situation calls for it and occasionally ultra-defensive for the same reasons. Depending on your view, what Chelsea does is either the smartest way to play the game or anti-football.

Key Player: Nemanja Matić

It's difficult to pick out a key player for Chelsea because of how heavily José Mourinho rotates his squad, based on form and opposition, but it's equally difficult to envision a situation in which Matić isn't first choice. He's one of the most versatile and well-balanced defensive midfielders in the world, allowing him to play in a variety of roles.

Matić is most likely to play as the more defensive of two central midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him used as either a single holder or an advanced, pressing player in a 4-3-3. His ability to switch between these three positions will allow Mourinho to use Ramires, Oscar, Fàbregas and John Obi Mikel however he wants.

Anticipated finish: Top

While Schalke and Sporting certainly aren't poor teams, Chelsea definitely lucked out with their draw. Schalke are off to a terrible start in the Bundesliga and might be the first team in that league to fire their coach, while Sporting were forced to sell their best two young defenders over the summer. These two teams are weaker than the ones that did well enough to qualify for this tournament last season. Maribor, meanwhile, are an afterthought and will do well to get more than a point from this group.

Arsenal

In the leaner years that have mostly defined the late Arsène Wenger period, simply qualifying for the Champions League by a string of fourth-placed finishes was seen as a success. But now Arsenal have opened their wallets, signing Mesut Özil last summer and Alexis Sánchez this, and are supporting the spending with the formidable Aaron Ramsey in midfield and a good understanding between their defenders. Now, they’ll be expecting to do better, and will hope for more than a brave defeat when they come up against the elite of the tournament. In theory. Their starting team is an excellent one, but their squad is thin, and fighting on several fronts could pose problems.

How they got here

Well, how do you think they got here? "Arsenal" actually derives from an old Latin word that means, roughly, "finished fourth in the Premier League and then made slightly heavy weather of a playoff". This time their victims were Beşiktaş, and qualification came after a two-legged tie that began with Arsenal nearly conceding from kick off, ended with the Turks missing a seriously decent chance to steal the victory, and in between times contained some pretty football, a neat goal, and a couple of silly red cards. They're Arsenal. This is how they go.

How they play

In the much-vaunted Wengerian style, easy on the eye and looking to play intricate passes in the final third. They certainly have the players to do it, with Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez, Jack Wilshere and others providing exactly the sort of player who can thrive in the style.

Traditionally, however, while the attack has been glorious, defensive frailty has dogged Arsenal. The understanding between Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny has strengthened things significantly, but there is a worrying lack of depth in defense, while they still arguably lack a strong midfielder. The problem against bigger sides is more likely to be an inability to control a game rather than giving away daft goals.

The striker position had also posed a problem, but Arsenal made the intriguing acquisition of Danny Welbeck on deadline day from Manchester United. He’s never been prolific, but his energy and hard work will not only help Arsenal in Europe but could also give their more lightweight players the foil they need in attack. It’ll be interesting to see how it works out.

Key Player: Mesut Özil

It would not be harsh to say that the German playmaker’s time in London since he made his move from Real Madrid has been something of a disappointment. He’s clearly a very good player, and he’s impressed in flashes for Arsenal, but he’s not been the all-conquering dangerman that fans of the club had hoped when they paid so much money for him.

Now, with a year to settle in, he might be able to step up his game. In tight European encounters, he should theoretically be perfect for finding the killer pass to unlock a determined opposition defense. And now, he’ll have Alexis Sánchez and Danny Welbeck to find, rather than Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud.

Anticipated finish: Second

Despite their regular Premier League chokes, Arsenal have made a habit of perennially doing enough to squeeze into the Champions League knockout stages. They've been eliminated in the round of 16 for four consecutive seasons, and haven't been knocked out in the group stages in over a decade. They aren’t likely to top Borussia Dortmund, but they should finish above both Galatasaray and Anderlecht.

Benfica

One of the grand old clubs of European football, Benfica have been regulars in the Champions League under Jorge Jesus, and made the quarterfinals in 2011-12. They arrive in this season's tournament off the back of one of the most successful seasons in the club's history: not only did they reach the final of the Europa League, eventually losing on penalties, but they became the first Portuguese club to complete a domestic treble.

However, the price that Europe's second-tier clubs pay for success is to have their squad pillaged, and it's been a busy summer for the Benfica exit door. First-team regulars Lazar Marković, Ezequiel Garay and Guilherme Siqueira have all gone, as have young goalkeeper Jan Oblak and goal machine Óscar Cardozo. Jesus has already acknowledged that it will be "impossible for this team to have the same capabilities as last season." Unless their coach can alchemize some more gold out of an unfancied squad, it won't just be the curse of Bela Guttmann that keeps them from European glory.

How they got here

By crushing all of Portugal beneath their bootheels. They lost 2-1 to Maritimo on opening day, they lost by the same scoreline to FC Porto on the last day of the season, but in between, Benfica went 28 games unbeaten, 23 of them wins. Top before Christmas, they were never dislodged on the way to their 33rd title and automatic Champions League qualification.

How they play

With the obvious caveat that they've sold several important players and so things are a little unsettled at the moment, Jorge Jesus' Benfica sides have been slick, quick and fluid attackers. Going forward, a lone striker — likely to be Lima — is supported by Nico Gaitán, making play either from the No. 10 position or tucked in on one flank. Then, one or two flyers bring the pace: last season, Marković (now at Liverpool) and Rodrigo (now at Valencia) were charged with terrifying defenses. This season, former Ajax player Miralem Sulejmani will need to step up, along with perhaps Bebé; the ex-Manchester United transfer curiosity scored some spectacular goals for Paços de Ferreira last year, earning himself a move to Lisbon.

The retention of Argentine midfielder Enzo Pérez — who spent much of the summer being chased fervently by Valencia — means that Benfica haven't lost his energetic midfield presence. Things have changed at the back, however; veteran captain Luisão remains at the club but the departure of Garay breaks up a well-established pairing at the heart of defense. Towering Brazilian Jardel appears to be the nominated successor, but Garay will certainly be missed.

Key Player: Nico Gaitán

For all that this has been a summer of hard selling, nobody seems to have been that interested in picking up Nico Gaitán. Even Manchester United, who have been on the verge of swooping for the Argentine playmaker since records began, didn't seem particularly interested. This is good, since Gaitán is the creative heart of this Benfica side and, as such, perhaps the one player they couldn't afford to lose. And they didn't! Hurray!

Able to play off either wing as well as centrally, Gaitán is everything a South American playmaker is supposed to be: short, physically unprepossessing, skillful, visionary, tricksy, and blessed with one of those left feet that make people purr, swoon and grope blindly for words like "cultured" and "educated" when they mean to say "damn sexy." The dribbling skills are good, but the passing, long and short, booming and delicate, is better. Oh, and he once scored a Panenka free-kick. No, that doesn't make sense. But nonetheless, he did.

Anticipated finish: Third

Group C is arguably the least predictable of all the groups, but Benfica's high turnover of players suggests that they might miss out on the last 16 to Bayer Leverkusen and Zenit Saint Petersburg. They should be too strong for the ailing disaster that is Monaco, however, and so will likely drop into the Europa League.

Liverpool

Liverpool have been crowned champions of England 18 times and champions of Europe five times, yet they’ve been absent from the Champions League since 2009-10. It’s been a painful period for the Reds, who like to fancy themselves one of the continent’s biggest and best clubs, but haven’t had much hard evidence to back up that claim in recent years.

Last season changed things at Anfield. Brendan Rodgers’ system took hold and they had the talent to compete with the Premier League’s best. Some misfortune, as well as shambolic defending, doomed their title hopes in the end, but they were comfortably back among the best England had to offer.

Yet this Liverpool side is not without its weaknesses. Up top, they’ve needed to replace top goalscorer Luis Suárez, and in the back, they’ve needed a complete overhaul. If the new additions can make up for these deficits, the Reds will make a glorious return to the Champions League, and the traditionally rocking Anfield support will have even more reason to roar on European nights.

How they got here

It looked like Liverpool were in the pole position to claim the Premier League last season, but a slip by Steven Gerrard and collapse at Crystal Palace doomed them to second place. It may have been a disappointing end to a remarkable season, but it was more than enough to send them directly into the Champions League group stage.

How they play

Brendan Rodgers preaches active football and a defensive press to win the ball back as quickly as possible. Exactly what formation and personnel he uses to achieve that can change, but the basic principles don’t.

More often than not, the Reds will play a three-man midfield, and the addition of Mario Balotelli means it’s likely both he and Daniel Sturridge will play up top. That leaves Raheem Sterling’s exact role unclear, but he can drift to the wing or play in the hole, and, in reality, it doesn’t matter what the preferred lineup looks like. Rodgers will change things from match to match, but the style and swagger will remain.

Key Player: Daniel Sturridge

Liverpool have to be better in defense, which makes Dejan Lovren vital. Mario Balotelli leads a group of players who could replace Luis Suárez. Steven Gerrard, no matter what is role will be, remains influential. Still, it all comes down to Daniel Sturridge. No Liverpool player is more likely to use his brilliance to win a match or turn a tie on its head. Sturridge has been lauded for his goalscoring exploits since joining Liverpool, but he’s done it as the Robin to Suárez’s Batman — now it’s time for him to take the lead.

Anticipated finish: Second

There are many questions to be asked of Liverpool on their return to the Champions League. Can Steven Gerrard anchor the midfield at the highest level? Can Mario Balotelli and and Daniel Sturridge do what Luis Suárez and Sturridge did? Can the defense, which has been shredded in the Premier League, hold firm in Europe? The Reds will need good answers, as there certainly isn’t a lot of room for error in a group with Real Madrid.

Manchester City

Last season, Manchester City made it to the knockout rounds of the Champions League for the first time in their history. Of course, they’ve only recently returned to Europe’s premier tournament, qualifying for the group stages in 2011-2012.

As a "Welcome to the Elites!" present, City were drawn into a group with Bayern Munich, who went on to finish second in the competition. The next year, City were rewarded with Borussia Dortmund. Who went on to finish second in the competition. To Bayern Munich. Who were drawn into the same group as Manchester City for the next season.

And yes, you guessed it, City get the pleasure of playing the Bavarians once more, although this time they’ll have a bit more of a swagger about them. Last time around, after beating Bayern 3-2 in Munich, the Citizens finished tied for first in the group, but Bayern ultimately took top honors due to goal difference. That left City to face Barcelona, against whom they adopted an extremely defensive mindset. Pellegrini’s tactics backfired, dumping his side out of the tournament.

How they got here

As winners of the 2013-2014 Premier League title, Manchester City earned automatic entry into the group stage. But UEFA doesn’t add extra points to a club’s coefficient for finishing first in their domestic competition, so City were stuck only with points earned over the last few seasons — not many, considering their early exits. Still, they managed to snag Pot 2, so it looked like they’d get a fairly easy draw. And then they ended up with Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow and AS Roma …

How they play

Manuel Pellegrini tends to stick with a 4-4-2 or use its cousin, the 4-4-1-1, when Stevan Jovetić is healthy. But make no mistake: Pellegrini isn’t a tactical dinosaur. He knows how to best use his players and is able to adapt his approach mid-match. City can play a high-tempo game, pressuring their opponents from all areas of the pitch, or they can sit back, take a more direct approach and hit hard on the counterattack.

Of course, it’s possible to stop this free-scoring side – simply imitate Tony Pulis. The Citizens can be frustrated by an organized defense, sitting deeply. Yet if none of City’s opponents swallow their pride and do just that, they’ll likely keep knocking in the goals.

Key Player: David Silva

Not Yaya Touré? Not this time. Of course the Ivorian will continue to be influential for Manchester City, but this season’s one-to-watch goes to David Silva. The group could well come down to the number of goals scored, and it’s the midfielder who is instrumental in creating them. Silva’s intelligence allows him to cause havoc amongst the opposition, dragging them out of position. He’ll then speed past the defense himself or play the perfect through-ball for one of City's talented forwards. Silva may not be the one scoring the goals, but he’s the one that the rest of Group F should be doing their best to contain.

Anticipated finish: Top

A big call, with Bayern Munich in the mix. But does anyone really trust what Pep Guardiola is bound to do? He’s certainly got a complete squad, but sometimes even they can’t overcome the strange formations and positions assigned by the coach. Roma will be a threat, but a lack of experience, combined with the pressure to make a title run, will likely keep them from advancing. As for CSKA, they’ve got a rather shaky defense that’s likely to crumble when faced with any of these sides. City have had some tough luck in the group stages over the past few years, but this could be their time to shine.

Anderlecht

Anderlecht may have captured the Belgian title 33 times, but they’ve yet to truly impress in Europe. They’ve made the semifinals twice, back in the mid-80s, but the last time they appeared in the quarterfinals was 1988.

While they’ve made it to the group stage for the third time running, they finished dead last in their group in their last two outings. Last time around, their great triumph was a 1-1 draw against Paris Saint-Germain – the only point Anderlecht collected.

Now they’ll have to contend with both Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund. And Galatasaray aren’t exactly a pushover either, especially in Istanbul.

How they got here

First place in the Belgian Pro League goes directly into the Champions League group stage. Anderlecht are likely relieved, as compatriots Standard Liège were thoroughly dismantled by Zenit Saint Petersburg in the playoff round.

Anderlecht have already proven their worth in tournaments, however – Belgium decide their title winners via a complicated playoff system. Anderlecht finished third on points on the season, but won seven of their 10 playoff games, winning the division for the third year straight.

How they play

Anderlecht play fun. They’re open, they’re attacking – and they’re vulnerable. This is a side of kids, with only two players in their 30s. The majority of the squad is around 20 years old. It’s working at home, as Anderlecht are top of the Belgian Pro League. They’ve won four and drawn two, scoring 11 goals along the way.

What’s more concerning is that they’ve conceded five. Yes, that’s less than one per game, but it’s a weakness that can be exploited by decent opposition. When Anderlecht get forward, as they so love to do, they’ll leave themselves open on the counter. Without an experienced defensive core, they’re almost certain to get ripped to shreds, particularly by Dortmund.

Key Player: Aleksandar Mitrović

He’ll turn 20 the day the group stage begins, but Mitrović is already thought to be going places. He moved from Partizan Belgrade to Anderlecht last season and went on to score 18 goals for his new club. This season, he’s already knocked in four, from just six matches. Mitrović is a typical center forward, tall and strong, while his speed also enhances the Anderlecht attack.

Mitrović is also famous for his exploits in last season’s group stage. In the final minute of the last round, when Anderlecht were already unable to advance, goalkeeper Silvio Proto got himself sent off, and Mitrović stepped into goal. He was unable to save the resulting penalty, however, and Olympiacos won 3-1.

Anticipated finish: Fourth

Life in the Belgian Pro League doesn’t prepare these youngsters to face the big guns. And when those big guns are Alexis Sánchez or a healthy Marco Reus, well … well, it’s likely Anderlecht will be exposed, caught out, torn apart. A point would be a good return, three would be impressive, and a third-place finish would be outstanding.

Ajax

Poor Ajax. Not only do the best of Europe continue to poach their top talent, but even some average clubs are starting to flash the cash and leave Ajax’s cupboards bare.

And just to make matters worse, they can’t catch a break in the Champions League draw. A year ago, they were grouped with Barcelona and AC Milan. The year before that, it was Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City. Now, it’s Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain.

Ajax continue to be the class of the Eredivisie, and if they could hold onto their players for another year or two, they might be able to make some noise in Europe. Their academy continues to churn out some magnificent talent but, as has been the case for some time now, what remains after other clubs poach isn’t good enough to go toe-to-toe with Europe’s best, while the draw keeps ensuring they have to face them from the very start.

How they got here

Once again, Ajax proved themselves to be the best the Eredivisie had to offer. They finished four points clear of second place despite a significant roster overhaul to capture their fourth consecutive league title and fifth straight trip to the Champions League group stages.

How they play

It’s easy to get caught thinking that Ajax play in their famous 4-3-3, but it isn’t the same style of play that took the club to the top of world football decades ago. What they play now it closer to a 4-1-4-1, although it can sometimes resemble a 4-3-3, and is usually much more rigid than the Ajax of old.

Ajax try to overwhelm teams in the midfield, outnumbering them and and playing quickly in transition, but that has proven tough for them to do in Europe. The teams they play are too good, and the losses of Siem de Jong and Daley Blind this summer have weakened them further, so when it comes to the Champions League, their 4-1-4-1 will likely look a lot more defensive than usual.

Key Player: Kolbeinn Sigþórsson

There was a time when Kolbeinn Sigþórsson was a complimentary player at Ajax. He was undoubtedly good, but he was behind Christian Eriksen, Siem de Jong and Miralem Sulejmani in the attack. Now the three have gone and Sigþórsson is in the spotlight, depended on to provide not just the goalscoring, but the playmaking that Ajax have lost.

Especially in the Champions League, when Ajax will be more defensive than they are in the league, Sigþórsson will have to be brilliant. Whether it’s creating a goal from nothing, setting up a teammate, or even being dangerous enough that opposing teams can’t push defenders forward without being exposed, Sigþórsson will carry a heavy burden of expectation for Ajax.

Anticipated finish: Third

Ajax will be much closer to the bottom than they will qualifying for the knockout stage. It was bad enough that their team was raided in the summers of 2012 and 2013, but then to lose Daley Blind and Siem de Jong leaves them in way over their heads in Europe. The academy is continuing to produce some promising players, but that won’t make Ajax competitive in the Champions League for at least another year — and that’s if they hold on to those youngsters.

Schalke 04

Schalke had a rather tough time of things in last season’s Champions League. First, they had difficulty edging a narrow victory over Greek side PAOK. A weak group allowed them to progress to the knockout stages, despite a 6-0 aggregate loss to Chelsea, after which they were hammered 9-2 over two legs by Real Madrid.

That makes it all the more surprising that the Royal Blues went on to stage a comeback in the Bundesliga, overcoming Bayer Leverkusen and holding off Borussia Mönchengladbach. However, all that energy appears to have weakened Schalke. They haven’t lost any key players, holding on to both Julian Draxler and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, yet they looked dismal in pre-season, got knocked out of the DFB-Pokal by third-division side Dynamo Dresden, and lost their first league match after a comeback from Hannover 96. They somehow managed a point against Bayern Munich, but no one’s really sure how that happened, considering Schalke looked close to helpless throughout.

So this tournament should be fun.

How they got here

By virtue of Germany’s rise as a footballing power, the top three Bundesliga sides are now sent straight to the Champions League group stages. But Schalke nearly failed to make it this far, despite having gone through to the knockout rounds for the past two seasons. They were sitting seventh when the winter break rolled around, and only managed fourth in February. Bayer Leverkusen’s stumble helped them into third, but Schalke were only able to hold on by a mere three points.

How they play

There were rumors that the arrival of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting would prompt Jens Keller to shift to a 4-4-2, but it looks like he’ll stick with a 4-2-3-1 instead, with the Cameroonian playing out wide when everyone is available. The center forward will, of course, be Huntelaar, provided he stays healthy. The 31-year-old made just 18 league appearances last season, but he scored in 12 times and was a big reason Schalke were able to secure their entry into the group stage.

Choupo-Moting can also move up top, depending on who Keller is attempting to wedge into his lineup. Sidney Sam came over from Bayer Leverkusen in the summer, Julian Draxler wants to prove himself once more, and 18-year-old Max Meyer, called upon after Schalke’s rash of injuries last season, also deserves a look. Keller will just be hoping everyone stays fit.

As you may have guessed, Schalke love an explosive attack. They’re sometimes lacking in the midfield, which means the opposition are able to catch them out. But with defenders that get forward, and the ability to rapidly transition from defense to attack, the Royal Blues are almost always good for at least one goal.

Key Player: Benedikt Höwedes

Huntelaar needs to keep demonstrating his nose for goal. Draxler needs to recover his form of two seasons previous, the form he had as an 18-year-old. But it’s Benni Höwedes that needs to set this Schalke side on the path to the knockout rounds.

Höwedes is well known for his versatility. He’s able to play all across the back line, and in a pinch can be played in midfield. Should any defensively minded player contract the injury virus that often seems so prevalent at Schalke, the 26-year-old will be able to step in, without a noticeable decrease in quality.

More than that, though, Höwedes is the leader of this team, and he may need to exercise that trait in order for Schalke not to lose their heads completely. Their first group stage game is at Chelsea, a side Schalke could do nothing against last season, and the Blues are even stronger now. Should they be overrun early, Höwedes is going to need to ensure they move on from defeat. Otherwise, they may be unable to recover, and forced to spend Thursdays traveling to distant European clubs.

Anticipated finish: Second

This Schalke side have yet to kick into gear, but they’ve got the strength to move into the knockout stages. They’ll not be thrilled to be drawn with Chelsea once again, but it may be best for them to shrug off their fellow Blues and concentrate on the other sides in Group G. Sporting’s defense is likely weaker this season than last, so Schalke should be able to knock in a few goals, while Maribor seem to be there just to make up the numbers.

Borussia Dortmund

Borussia Dortmund won the Champions League for the only time in their history back in 1997, marking the high point of the club's golden age. Sadly, it wasn't long after that famous win over Juventus that they began to struggle, with financial difficulties manifesting themselves through increasingly disappointing performances on the pitch. No longer were they a German powerhouse, but a relegation struggler.

That all changed with a renaissance led by new manager Jürgen Klopp, who took over the team in 2008. A string of wonderkids came off the club's famous production line, or arrived from all corners in the globe. In 2011, the project paid dividends, as Dortmund won their first Bundesliga title in almost a decade. It was a feat they repeated a year later, thanks to the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Shinji Kagawa and Mario Götze.

Their recent success has come at a price, with many of their top players poached by their wealthier domestic rivals Bayern Munich. However, intelligent, opportunistic transfer business combined with Klopp's brand of high-tempo football has ensured they're still one of the top teams in the tournament. They managed to reach the final of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago, only to be defeated by Bayern.

After coming ever so close to their second title, Dortmund had a fairly successful Champions League campaign last season, falling 3-2 against Real Madrid in the quarterfinals. Considering the injuries that Klopp was dealing with at the time, many viewed their run as an overachievement. That mindset was reinforced by the match against Real, in which Dortmund lost the first leg 3-0. Marco Reus scored a brace in the second game, but their comeback bid came up short, and BVB wound up eliminated by the eventual champions for the second straight year.

How they got here

Dortmund qualified directly into the group stages of this season’s Champions League after their second-place finish in the Bundesliga last season. It’s the fourth straight season that BVB had started their campaign in the group stages, an impressive run that’s included two league titles and two second-place finishes.

How they play

Part of what makes Dortmund so much fun to watch are Klopp’s high-energy, borderline maniacal attacking tactics. Dortmund are a team that can score against virtually anyone, at any time, which is fantastic for the neutral fan hoping to enjoy an entertaining football match.

Klopp has primarily been a 4-2-3-1 guy during his time at Dortmund, but we’ve seen him changing things up a bit this season, using a two-striker formation on several occasions as he looks to get both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and new signing Ciro Immobile on the pitch together. The duo will be tasked with replacing Robert Lewandowski’s goal production, but they’ll have help in the form of Marco Reus (when he’s not injured) and a returning Shinji Kagawa.

Mario Götze left a hole when he signed with Bayern last summer, and the lack of an influential creative player in the middle hurt BVB last season. Now, after two unsuccessful seasons in England, Kagawa’s return to Dortmund finally gives Klopp a true central attacking midfielder. Kagawa knows Klopp’s system and will be allowed to play his style of football again, which should lead to a renaissance for the Japanese star.

Key Player: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ciro Immobile

We’re well aware that that’s two players and not one key player. In this case, it’s important to include both Aubameyang and Immobile because as a duo they have to replace the goal-scoring prowess of Lewandowski. That could be one of the hardest tasks given to anyone this season in European football. Lewandowski was a monster up front for Dortmund over the past four seasons, and his departure could be a huge blow for BVB. Aubameyang and Immobile both have the potential to be prolific goalscorers, but they need to prove they have what it takes to take the lead in a post-Lewandowski Dortmund.

Anticipated finish: Top

If Dortmund’s defense can stay healthy, chances are good that BVB can win Group D. Their biggest challenge will once again be Arsenal, whom they pipped to the top spot last year based solely on goal difference. Neither Galatasaray or Anderlecht figure to have the necessary firepower to keep up with BVB or the Gunners.

After watching Arsenal defeat Beşiktaş in rather unimpressive fashion in a playoff qualifier, Klopp has to like his team’s chances. If Kagawa settles back in quickly, and Aubameyang and Immobile perform, first place in Group D is a realistic goal.

Bayer Leverkusen

It’s time for Bayer Leverkusen to prove to the world that they’re a much better side that stepped onto the Champions League stage last season. Leverkusen did manage to finish second in their group last time around, but a 9-2 aggregate loss to a Manchester United side that was the punchline to every joke in England took some of the shine off moving on to the knockout round. The resulting 6-1 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain didn’t help matters – although it wasn’t quite as humiliating as the 10-2 aggregate to Barcelona in 2011-2012.

But there’s no reason for anyone to be laughing at Leverkusen this season. Roger Schmidt, whose Red Bull Salzburg side won the Austrian Bundesliga with 110 goals scored and just 35 conceded, is now in charge. Leverkusen started their season with a goal against Dortmund after less than ten seconds played, going on to win 2-0. They then came from behind to beat Hertha Berlin 4-2. This team is all about the attack, and they’re not going to be shy, even when going up against big-name sides.

How they got here

Bayer Leverkusen finished fourth in the Bundesliga last season, putting them into the third qualifying round for Champions League play. They were drawn against FC Copenhagen, who’d managed to make their way to the group stages last season. This year, however, Leverkusen resoundingly beat the Danish side, coming back from behind to win 3-2 in Copenhagen, then administering a 4-0 thumping at the BayArena.

How they play

Last season, watching Leverkusen became something of a chore. Around December, the goals seemed to dry up, and Leverkusen managed just one win from twelve games. As a result, head coach Sami Hyypiä left, and Leverkusen barely clung on to fourth.

But this season, they’ve been given a new lease on life. Schmidt is an admirer of Jürgen Klopp and there’s nothing boring about this revitalized side, which plays a Klopp-esque 4-2-3-1 that’s hell-bent on attacking and applying plenty of pressure on the opposition.

Leverkusen have injected some creativity into the side as well, rescuing Hakan Calhanoglu from Hamburg. The 20-year-old is not only able to set up the goals, but score them as well, having notched 11 from midfield last season. Stefan Kießling, now 30, still leads the attack, and he’s already scored nine goals in all competitions. The defense may still be a little shaky, but this is not the sort of side that’s going to lose 9-2 to the weakened Manchester Uniteds of the world.

Key Player: Stefan Kießling

The forward scored just 15 goals last season, a shocking drop from the 2012-2013 campaign, when he knocked in 25 goals and provided ten assists. As Kießling’s goals dried up, so did his side’s wins, and Leverkusen plummeted from the comforts of second to having to cling on for fourth place.

This season, the 30-year-old has already scored five goals in a single match, albeit against opponents from the sixth division. But he also scored the last-minute goal against Dortmund in Leverkusen’s opener, as well as knocking in three goals in the two-legged Champions League qualifier against FC Copenhagen. Leverkusen have others that can get them on the scoresheet, including Josip Drmić, Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Karim Bellarabi, but Kießling continues to be the heart of this side.

Anticipated finish: Top

While Group C is a fairly balanced group, featuring Benfica, Zenit and Monaco, it’s one that Bayer Leverkusen should be able to top. Benfica did well in both Champions League and Europa League last year, but they’ve lost a number of their star players once again. Monaco, of course, are now without Radamel Falcao and James Rodríguez.

Zenit could well be the biggest challenger for the top spot in Group C. Under new manager André Villas-Boas, Zenit have yet to concede a goal in Champions League qualifying, beating AEL Limassol 4-0 over two legs, then doing the same to Standard Liège in the playoff round. In fact, Zenit are perfect over five games in the Russian Premier League, and have conceded just twice.

Still, it’s not a stretch to say that Leverkusen will present stronger opposition than Zenit have yet to face this season. The defense – as long as it’s not scoring own goals – should be able to contain the likes of Hulk and Andrey Arshavin, while Stefan Kießling, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Josip Drmić and Karim Bellarabi provide a threatening enough attack to put the German side top.

Bayern Munich

Bayern Munich failed to defend their Champions League title last season, falling in the semifinals in rather shocking fashion against Real Madrid. The eventual winners from Spain dismantled Pep Guardiola’s side 5-0 over two legs, leaving fans of der FCB with smoke streaming from their ears.

This season, Germany’s biggest and richest club is prepared to prove they are still the best team in Europe. The core of the squad that won it all two seasons ago remains, so now it’s time for Guardiola to prove he can lift the trophy with another club. The addition of Robert Lewandowski, who scored 28 goals in all competitions last season, could well be the key.

How they got here

Bayern qualified for this season’s Champions League by winning the Bundesliga in record fashion, clinching first on March 25. Taking the title not only meant Bayern could coast through their remaining seven matches, but that they’d also won yet another place in the Champions League group stage.

How they play

Guardiola typically starts his team in a 3-4-2-1 formation that is fairly fluid, able to adapt depending on the given situation. It can morph into a 4-2-3-1 or look like a 3-4-3, or get even quirkier should the need arise. The basic idea is to control the match through possession, something Guardiola mastered with his tiki-taka system at Barcelona. Things haven't gone particularly smoothly at Bayern, however, forcing the Spanish head coach to tinker relentlessly with formations and player positioning. That leads to some strange-looking lineups. Expect central midfielders in defense, full backs in central midfield, and far more Rafinha than is good for any self-respecting club.

That said, when they're on, Bayern are more than capable of blowing opponents away. Weird isn't always bad.

Key Player: Robert Lewandowski

The prolific Polish striker was signed on a free transfer from rivals Borussia Dortmund with two things in mind: scoring LOTS of goals while being more involved with buildup play than predecessor Mario Mandžukić. Lewandowski was a monster for BVB when they made their run to the Champions League final in 2013, and now Guardiola is looking to him to be Bayern’s primary goal scorer this season. Lewandowski has proven he can score goals on the biggest stages, and Bayern will need him to be at his best if they hope to claim their second Champions League title in three seasons.

Anticipated finish: Second

For the second straight season, Bayern meets Manchester City in the group stages. If things play out as they should, City will be their primary rival for the top spot in the group and cases can be made for how either team could end up in first place. Ultimately, Bayern’s fate will be decided not by City, but by Roma and CSKA Moscow. Neither should derail Bayern’s march to the knockout rounds, but trips to Moscow and Rome won’t be certain victories for the Germans.

Roma are the real wild card in the mix, and should provide a more difficult opponent than Viktoria Plzeň did last year. It’s unlikely that Bayern and City will both end up with 15 points again, so the team that performs better against Roma will likely find themselves at the top.

Ultimately, Guardiola’s obsession with tactical tinkering might be enough to lead to a loss or draw at a key moment. That could be all City needs to take the top spot in the group away from Bayern.

Basel

Swiss giants Basel have become known as the Champions League’s giant-killers over the last few seasons, with Manchester United and Chelsea having both fallen at the hands of the Super League champions. However, this year they’ve been given their toughest test yet. Drawn in a group alongside reigning champions Real Madrid and Premier League runners-up Liverpool, Basel are going to have to pull off a few major upsets to stand any chance of progressing into the knockout stages.

Fortunately, coach-cum-style icon Paulo Sousa — who took over from club legend Murat Yakin in the summer — does have a talented team at his disposal. Through the years, the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Ivan Rakitić, Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Salah have all come through the ranks at the Swiss club, who’ve made a name for themselves as fine talent-spotters. The likes of Fabian Schär, Taulant Xhaka and Derlis González will be hoping to be the latest to hop off the prestigious production line.

If Basel are to stand any chance of progressing into next round, they’re going to need their youngsters to step up and deliver on the biggest of stages once again.

How they got here

Basel qualified for the group stages by winning the Swiss Super League for the fifth season running. As usual, they dominated throughout the season, and lost just twice en route to glory.

How they play

When coaching in Britain, Basel boss Paulo Sousa earned a reputation as an idealistic manager, placing an emphasis on innovative, possession-based football. Indeed, Swansea's standing as one of the Premier League’s most attractive sides is partly thanks to the Portuguese tactician, who picked up where Roberto Martínez had left off by combining their short passing style with a more solid defense during his time in charge.

It’s little surprise, therefore, that his Basel team like to have as much of the ball as possible. Shaping up in a 4-3-3, defensive midfielder Taulant Xhaka will drop between the center backs in possession; allowing his teammates to push forward and play out from the back. However, that can leave his midfield counterparts outnumbered in the center, and it invariably forces the Swiss champions into building their attacks out wide. It’s on the right they’re the most dangerous, with the offensively-minded fullback Philipp Degen overlapping the Paraguayan starlet Derlis González, whose trickery and movement can make him a nightmare to mark. However, if these players can be kept quiet, Basel will struggle.

Without the ball, they’re a pretty conservative, well-organized team. They’re quite happy to let their opponents have the ball in defense, with every player dropping behind the ball to cut off passing lanes. Only when the ball comes into their own half do they press with any intensity.

Key Player: Taulant Xhaka

There isn’t a more influential player in Paulo Sousa’s system than defensive midfielder Taulant Xhaka. Dropping between the center backs to distribute from defense when in possession, and pushing up to halt opposition attacks when Basel don’t have the ball, he’s vitally important in both phases of play. At just 23 years old, the new Albanian international could well be the next player to leave Switzerland for a bigger club. If he does so, he’ll emulate his younger brother Granit, who swapped Basel for Borussia Mönchengladbach two years ago.

Anticipated finish: Third

Basel are a team usually on the fringes of knockout stage qualification, though this group is, unfortunately, an impossibly difficult one. They should top Ludogorets Razgrad and make it into the Europa League, but there’s virtually no chance of them surpassing Real Madrid or Liverpool.

Juventus

One of the most illustrious sides in the world, Juve have, in recent years, not shone quite so brightly in Europe. The decline of Serie A is a debate well beyond a Champions League preview, but there’s no doubt that Italian sides have struggled in the 21st century, with even José Mourinho’s treble with Internazionale not coming from one of the greatest sides of all time but from a band of grizzled veterans enjoying their annus mirabilis. Juventus have the components of a great team, but they’re still a class below the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and they’ll consider getting to the semifinals a huge plus.

How they got here

By cantering to a Serie A title, essentially. Italy is still struggling to produce a serious rival to Juve’s dominance, although with the Antonio Conte era at an end after the manager resigned this summer, that could change.

Yet despite their domestic dominance, Juventus have failed to set Europe alight. Last season they ended up shunted out of the tournament by Galatasaray in a blizzard-induced meltdown in the group stages. They’ll be expecting to do better, but Max Allegri has not been a popular appointment, and it’ll be intriguing to see how much farther he can take the talented squad he’s inherited.

How they play

Having kept their two big stars in Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba this summer, they’ll continue to be the identity of this team. Allegri will likely use several systems, but all of their play will be dominated and run through their powerful midfield. With Claudio Marchisio and Kwadwo Asamoah alternative options who are hardly shy of a tackle either, they can put central players on the field who can bring energy, dynamism and goals regardless of injuries or suspensions.

That, however, misses one key component. The reason that midfield is so powerful is that it has to be, because it also has to babysit Andrea Pirlo — a not-infrequent genius but also lightweight, frail and elderly. Allegri was the man who initially let him go to Juventus. The legendary playmaker is currently injured, but he could well find himself back in the side at some point in the group stages.

Juventus have a solid defense, with veteran campaigners marshaling their back line, but have typically struggled up front. The addition of Carlos Tevez has vastly improved their frontline, however, and their team has never looked better. Whether they’ll click under Allegri is another matter.

Key Player: Arturo Vidal

A throwback to a bygone era of box-to-box midfielders who tackled, scored goals, controlled games and created chances for their teammates, Vidal is probably the best central midfielder on the planet right now and easily the most complete. His partner, Paul Pogba, may well go on to eclipse him, but for now nobody can match Vidal’s dynamism and consistency. A knee injury led to him giving a sub-par (by his own high standards) display at the World Cup, but if he recovers fully, he’ll single-handedly make facing Juventus a terrifying prospect, particularly for any dainty playmakers.

Anticipated finish: Second

The battle for second place in this group is probably going to be fought between Juventus and Olympiacos. It’s tough to see the Old Lady managing to top Atlético Madrid, meaning they just have to avoid being upset by the reigning Greek champions. Juve certainly have the stronger squad, so providing they don’t let complacency get the better of them, they should make it through to the knockouts.

Roma

Before last season started, Rudi García was under immense pressure; Roma had finished a disappointing sixth, had been left in a mess by the chaotic ministrations of Luis Enrique and Zdeněk Zeman, and had just lost the Coppa Italia final 1-0 to loathed rivals Lazio. By the time last season finished, he was a hero: Roma had been brilliant all season, had finished second in Serie A, and were back in the Champions League for the first time since 2010-11. So what did they get as a welcome back gift? A group of death! Thanks, UEFA!

Still, if Roma won't be too pleased to have been drawn with Manchester City and Bayern Munich, it's unlikely that either of those two are particularly excited about visiting the Eternal City. Roma lost just once at home last season — to Juventus, obviously — and have managed to hold on to most of their players over the summer. While the outstanding central defender Mehdi Benatia has moved on to Bayern Munich, Roma have secured a direct replacement in Greek international Kostas Manolas. Last season's top scorer Mattia Destro has stuck around despite interest from Chelsea and Real Madrid, midfielder Miralem Pjanić has recently signed a new, long-term contract, and Kevin Strootman is soon to return from a serious knee injury.

How they got here

Last season began in record-breaking fashion, with Roma going seventeen matches unbeaten and only conceding one goal in the first ten games. Though they were overtaken at the top of the table by Antonio Conte's Juventus machine in November, they stayed second for the remainder of the season, comfortably superior to the 18 teams below them. Second place in Italy is still just about good enough to qualify straight for the group stage, but a recent lack of European football condemned Roma to pot four and earned them a nightmare group.

How they play

García, like almost every other manager in the history of football, claims to like playing attacking football with a solid defensive base; unlike most, however, he seems to have cracked it. His Lille side won Ligue 1 in fine style and his Roma side have continued that tradition, lining up in a fluid 4-3-3. In attack, the central striker often drops deep — you may whisper the words "false" and "nine" here if you like — in the hope of pulling the defense out of shape, leaving spaces for the wide forwards to exploit. Particularly Gervinho, who, freed from his Arsenal shackles, has rediscovered the art of reliable finishing.

Behind the attack, the midfield is versatile and flexible. Daniele De Rossi sits the deepest as the designated defensive midfielder, while in front of him two from Pjanić, Alessandro Florenzi, Radja Nainggolan and the currently injured but soon-to-return Kevin Strootman support the attack; Pjanić is perhaps the most conventional attacking midfield option, while Strootman is tall, powerful and an exceptional passer of the ball. Add to that lot two attacking fullbacks — including Ashley Cole — and the constant magnificence of Francesco Totti, and they're a formidable offensive unit.

Key Player: Daniele De Rossi

Though Francesco Totti shows no sign of stopping, his advancing years mean that the mantle of key giallorosso passes to Daniele De Rossi. Now a 31-year-old veteran embarking on his 13th season in the capital, with over 400 appearances for the club, De Rossi anchors the space in front of the Roma defense with a tigerish, slightly terrifying commitment that only occasionally spills over into actual violence and card collection.

That said, he's more just a destroyer. Way back in 2006, Claudio Ranieri dubbed him "the most complete central midfielder in Italy," and since then, De Rossi has matured into one of the world's very best box-to-box midfielders. If Roma are going to challenge City and Bayern then De Rossi will be key in both attack and defense, prompting his own players as much as inconveniencing his opponents.

Anticipated finish: Third

Groups of Death, hey. Faced with the twin juggernauts of Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich and Abu Dhabi's Manchester City, it would be a surprise if Roma beat either to a spot in the last sixteen. Not a shock — this is a good side with some great players, a sharp coach and the ability to score against anybody — but definitely a surprise, particularly in view of their failure to really trouble Juventus in their league games last season. They should certainly have enough about them to beat CSKA Moscow to the Europa League spot, and if they decide to take it seriously, could well end up running deep in the second-choice competition.

Maribor

Maribor, the winners of the Slovenia first division for the past four seasons, are the only team from the rather young country that’s made their way to the Champions League group stages. But the last — and only — time that happened was in 1999-00, when the Purples finished rock bottom. Still, the four points obtained last time, which include a narrow victory over Dynamo Kiev, may look like a positive bounty compared to this season's likely haul. Maribor may be dominant within Slovenia, but the squad certainly looks paltry, particularly when set alongside the likes of Chelsea.

However, historically Maribor have been implicated in a more nefarious route to the winners' podium. In 1960, NK Branik Maribor was involved in a fight for promotion with NK Karlovac, who won the first leg 2-0 but whose squad was ravaged by food poisoning ahead of the return game. Although Branik was eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing, the club was disbanded in the aftermath, and NK Maribor was formed to take their place.

How they got here

Maribor are one of four teams that remain from the second qualifying round, where they beat Zrinjski Mostar 2-0 at home to overcome a goalless draw in the first leg. Maribor then beat Maccabi Tel Aviv 3-2 to progress to the playoff round. The reward was a meeting with Celtic, who’d originally lost 6-1 to Legia Warsaw, but qualified on away goals when it was determined the Polish side had fielded an ineligible player in the second leg. It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, when Maribor won 1-0 in Glasgow, qualifying for the Group Stage for the first time in fifteen years.

How they play

Nothing fancy to be found here. Maribor follow the style that the Slovenian national team plays, namely a disciplined approach that doesn’t require too many risks, with any surprises coming from quick counterattacks. And yes, you’ve guessed it, Ante Šimundža usually sets his players up in a 4-4-2, although he’ll sometimes use a 4-2-3-1, and he likes to have Marcos Tavares sitting slightly deeper.

Key Player: Marcos Tavares

Like many of the lower-ranked sides hoping for a chance at glory, Maribor’s key player is a forward that’s pushing on in years. For the Purples, that player is Brazilian-born Marcos Tavares, who’s been with the club since 2008 and is now their all-time leading goalscorer. He’s the one that scored the winner against Celtic, pouncing on a loose ball to lift the ball in. As befits the stereotype of those raised in Brazil, Tavares is technically gifted and good with the ball at his feet.

Anticipated finish: Bottom

Maribor were never going to be anyone’s favorites in this tournament, so it likely matters little who the competition is. Perhaps they’ll be heartened by being drawn against Chelsea, who could easily win all their matches, leaving the remaining three to duke it out amongst themselves. But while Sporting doesn’t have a strong defense, their forwards will easily cut through Maribor’s back line. And while Schalke haven’t had the best start to their season, they’ve still got plenty of quality in their squad.

So while Maribor may be prioritizing the Champions League – they can win the Slovenian title easily – that doesn’t mean their hopes will translate to results. Honestly, finishing with three points may well end up being viewed as a success.

Malmö

Group A's official minnow, Malmö return to the European top table for the first time since the competition reinvented itself in 1992; they are the first Swedish side to make the group stage since Helsingborgs in 2000-01. By UEFA's reckoning they are the weakest team left in the competition, ranked a lowly 137th on the continent, but after coming through qualifying and dispatching two stronger teams in the process, they're well used to being on the wrong end of the odds.

That said, even if they do surprise a few people, they're unlikely to top their greatest European adventure. In 1979, under the management of Englishman Bob Houghton, Malmö defeated Monaco, Dynamo Kiev, Wisla Krakow and Austria Vienna on the way to the final. Though they didn't win the trophy — thanks to Brian Clough, Nottingham Forest and Trevor Francis — it remains the biggest impact any Swedish side has had on Europe's grandest tournament, and secured the club the Bragdguldet, the gold medal for the most significant Swedish sporting achievement of the year. Have some of that, cross-country skiing.

How they got here

Historically the Allsvenskan's bestest and most winningest side, Malmö won their 20th title in 2013 with a game to spare. But gone are the days when being champions of Sweden entitled a team to an automatic place in the European Cup. Into the second qualifying round they went, first defeating Latvian champions Ventspils 1-0 on aggregate, then toppling Czech champions Sparta Prague; after losing 4-2 in Prague, the Swedes won 2-0 back at home.

This set up a playoff tie with Red Bull Salzburg, the despised corporate monsters of Austrian football. Coach Åge Hareide took the unusual step of exiling his wife to the Norwegian mountains so that he could "be in peace and prepare", and while her reaction has not been recorded, it paid off: a 2-1 away loss in the first leg was overturned in spectacular fashion back home. Two goals from Markus Rosenberg bracketed a thirty-yard side-footed dipping lob-volley — a thirty-yard side-footed dipping lob-volley! — from Magnus Eriksson. Three nil, and into the group stages in fine style. Have some of that, modern football.

How they play

The 2013 league title was the culmination of a transformation process that saw Malmö move into a new stadium and completely revamp their youth development program; as a result, the victorious squad was the youngest to win the Swedish title since the turn of the century. Their coach doesn't lack for experience or confidence, however; when in charge of Helsingborgs in 2012, he caused something of a stir in Glasgow when, ahead of a game against Celtic, he pronounced that his side were "better than Celtic at everything". This despite having lost the first leg 2-0.

Hareide sets his side out to play 4-4-2, though against Salzburg defensive midfielder Markus Halsti spent a lot of time acting as an auxiliary center back. While the spectacular second goal took all the headlines, the first and third goals in the playoff second leg came from quick breaks following a turnover in midfield, and against stronger opposition the template seems likely to stay the same: defend deep, cede possession, and then advance into the spaces. That's the theory, anyway.

Key Player: Markus Rosenberg

Up front for the minnows, the herring. 31-year-old Markus Rosenberg — so nicknamed because he smells faintly of pickle — has returned to his hometown club for the 2014 season, following a profoundly unsuccessful spell with West Bromwich Albion. Signed in August 2012, and hailed as "a real coup for the club", Rosenberg played 24 league games for West Brom without scoring a goal. Not a good look for a striker, and his contract was terminated by mutual consent on 1 February 2014.

However, such profligacy isn't quite typical for the Swede. While he's never been exactly prolific, he's scored fairly regularly in Germany and the Netherlands and, since returning to Sweden, has notched 11 league goals in 20 games. Perhaps more importantly, he's been contributing in Europe as well, scoring the crucial goals in the playoff and the third qualifying round. Though he's not as quick as he once was, he's tall, versatile, and takes a decent free-kick. If Malmö are going to get anywhere, he'll need to be feeling more German, less Bromwichian.

Anticipated finish: Fourth

It's hard to see Malmö getting anything out of either Atlético Madrid and Juventus, and so the extent of the Swede's aspirations will probably be nicking third ahead of Olympiacos. The suspicion is that the more experienced Greek side, who reached last season's knockout stages and managed to embarrass Manchester United before exiting, will probably have too much for the young Swedes. Though don't be too surprised if one or two teams find visiting Malmö tricky: in three qualifying games, no opponent's managed to score a goal at the Swedbank Stadium.

Zenit Saint Petersburg

Despite having spent a ton of money over the past few seasons, Zenit have been a consistent disappointment in the Champions League. Thus head coach Luciano Spalletti, who’d led the team since December 2009, was out and André Villas-Boas arrived, tasked with trying to translate on-paper talent into European success.

While they’ve advanced to the knockout stages in two of the last three tournaments, they’ve failed to win their group on any of those occasions. Even in 2011-12, when a group win seemed like a certainty, they found a way to finish second to APOEL on goal difference.

How they got here

After finishing one point behind CSKA Moscow in the Russian Premier League, Zenit were forced to enter the Champions League in the third qualifying round against Cypriot side AEL Limassol. After losing the first leg 1-0, Zenit recovered with a 3-0 second leg win. Zenit next faced Standard Liège in the playoff round and had no troubles with the Belgian side, winning 4-0 on aggregate.

How they play

André Villas-Boas has used a 4-2-3-1 as his primary formation since taking over at Zenit in March. The former Spurs and Chelsea boss prefers to play an aggressive system with a high line, which often leaves them vulnerable to counterattacks. Villas-Boas also loves effective goal-scoring wingers, something he never really had at Spurs. Hulk has become a regular on the right wing for Zenit, but the left wing has remained unsettled with the coach having used Viktor Fayzulin, Danny and Oleg Shatov through qualifying.

Key Player: Hulk

After a rocky start to his career with Zenit, which saw him nearly leave the club last year, it appears that the Brazilian attacker has settled down. His 22-goal performance last season was a tremendous rebound from a tough 2011-12 campaign, and given Villas-Boas’s reliance on the wing position, Hulk will get a chance to shine under his new head coach. If the Russians are to break their impressive streak of second-place finishes in group play, they’re going to need their €60 million man to perform.

Anticipated finish: Second

Zenit could win Group C or they could finish third in Group C, but they most likely won’t finish last in Group C. Given recent history, the safest bet is to predict they’ll finish second. They’ve made being a runner-up in Champions League group play into an artform, and the real question is whether or not Villas-Boas can get them over the hump.

Leverkusen are the strongest side in the group, so the other knockout round place could come down to Zenit and Benfica. AS Monaco are not expected to be much of a threat after the summer departures of James Rodríguez and Radamel Falcao.

CSKA Moscow

Despite Zenit Saint Petersburg's recent rise to prominence in the Russian Premier League, CSKA Moscow are currently Russia’s most formidable outfit. Under Leonid Slutsky they’ve won the last two Russian titles, and despite a tough start to the current campaign, they’ve got a squad capable of making it three in a row.

However, they’ve struggled rather more in the Champions League, and, drawn in a group with Bayern Munich and Manchester City for the second year running, they’re unlikely to fare any better than last season. On that occasion they finished bottom of the group; even below Czech minnows Viktoria Plzeň.

This year, they’ve got an even harder task. Thanks to the silly quirks of UEFA’s seeding system, CSKA will face Italian giants AS Roma alongside the German and English domestic champions in what is this year’s Champions League group of death. The odds of the Russians making it into the knockout stages are as slim as ever.

How they got here

CSKA Moscow qualified for the group stages by winning the Russian Premier League. They eventually saw off second-placed Zenit Saint Petersburg by just a point after an exciting climax to the campaign.

How they play

Coach Leonid Slutsky invariably sets his side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which is intended to combine a compact, disciplined defense with a fluid, creative attack.

The midfield pivot contains tough-tackling anchorman Pontus Wernbloom, though he's usually paired with a more offensively minded counterpart like Georgi Milanov or Bibras Natkho — the latter having scored four goals in his first three league games since joining from Greek side PAOK in the summer.

Meanwhile, the front four is a fluid unit, with coach Slutsky rotating his flexible attackers across all positions. Seydou Doumbia provides a powerful presence up front, though pacey winger Ahmed Musa has also been used to good effect as a striker, as well as out wide in his more natural position on the left. Roman Eremenko, Alan Dzagoev and Kirill Panchenko can all play various roles behind the center forward, while the direct running of Zoran Tošić causes problems on the right.

The positional versatility of these players means they can be extremely mobile in attack, and drag stubborn defenses apart with their intelligent movement. However, against the giants they’ll face in their Champions League groups, the pace of wingers Musa and Tošić will be most helpful, as they look to hit their opponents on the counterattack.

Key Player: Ahmed Musa

Since moving from Dutch club VVV-Venlo in 2012, Nigeria international Ahmed Musa has become one of CSKA's most important players, and he's still only 21. Though he's been used up front this season, he's arguably most impressive out on the left side, where his pace and superb technique means he's an excellent counterattacking outlet. His impressive performances throughout Nigeria's World Cup campaign earned him interest from the Premier League, though CSKA have managed to hold onto him for a while longer. If they’re to have any joy at all in this tournament, Musa will be a big part of it.

Anticipated finish: Fourth

Despite their domestic success, CSKA Moscow are significantly worse than every other team in their group. Anything other than finishing bottom would be a success for Leonid Slutsky’s side.

BATE Borisov

BATE are a relatively new club, but have already become familiar faces in European competition. This is the fourth time they’ve qualified for the Champions League group stages, and they’re also regulars in the Europa League.

That doesn’t mean these journeys are easy for the Belarusian side, however. The domestic league isn’t rated highly, so BATE enter the competition in the second qualifying round. Last season, they lost their first match to Kazakhstani side Shakhter Karagandy, and the early exit meant they missed out on a chance of Europa League play as well.

They struggled a bit in qualifying this season, too, but they held on to be rewarded with a rather easy group — unlike two years ago, when they were drawn with Bayern Munich. They’re favorites to go down, but they could still make a decent impression, especially on any side remembering their 3-1 victory over the Bavarian giants.

How they got here

Winning the Belarusian Premier League meant BATE entered Champions League qualifying in the second round, and they haven’t exactly impressed against fellow minnows. Albanian side KF Skënderbeu Korçë gave them a scare with a 0-0 draw in Belarus, but BATE drew the second leg 1-1 to advance on away goals.

The third qualifying round was even trickier, with BATE losing 1-0 away to Debrecen in the second leg, then giving up an early away goal in the second leg. But they rallied, completing their improbable 3-2 comeback with a 94th minute winner from star Sergey Krivets … who has since been transferred to FC Metz in France. Ouch.

BATE were much more convincing against a seemingly superior opponent in the playoff round, drawing away to Slovan Bratislava before winning handily in Borisov.

How they play

If you remember BATE from previous campaigns, not a lot has changed stylistically. They change formations and personnel a lot, but they're going to put men behind the ball, play defensively and look for opportunities on the counter. However, Alexander Hleb and Renan Bressan are long gone, while Krivets is recently departed, so this team will be more direct and less tricky than the one that upset Bayern Munich two years ago.

The side's midfield lynchpin is still, somehow, club legend and captain Dzmitry Likhtarovich. The 36-year-old has played for BATE since 2001 and remains the first choice defensive midfielder. His midfield mates — Edhar Alyakhnovich and Alyaksandr Valadzko in both legs of the Bratislava tie, the beginning of their post-Krivets world — are going to have to do a lot of running.

Key Player: Vitali Rodionov

Long-serving manager Alyaksandr Yermakovic, at the helm since the days when BATE surged past Dinamo Minsk in the Belarusian football hierarchy, knows better than to attempt to play too open against their superior Champions League opponents. That means striker Vitali Rodionov will spend most of the time ploughing a lone furrow in attack, with plenty of his teammates back behind the ball.

Rodionov is going to have to work very hard to help his team win the ball, then hold it up when they actually do win possession. Most of their sparse chances are going to fall to him as well, so he's going to have to be excellent in front of goal for BATE to have a chance to snag some points and challenge for third place in this group.

Anticipated finish: Fourth

Sorry, BATE fans. Your team is clearly the worst in this group and likely needs a miracle to get into a Europa League spot. But at least no other team in this group can claim a name as cool as Borisov Works of Automobile and Tractor Electric Equipment. Best team name in the Champions League, by a mile.

Shakhtar Donetsk

It's been a tough few months for Shakhtar Donetsk, with the political turmoil in the east of Ukraine having had big sporting ramifications. The Ukrainian champions started their season without six of their South American stars, who refused to return to Ukraine after a pre-season friendly in France because of the ongoing violence in the region. Eventually, the decision was taken to move the team as a whole more than 600 miles to the west, meaning Shakhtar are set to play their Champions League matches in Lviv.

The relocation at least means they’ll kick off their European campaign with a full complement of Brazilians back at the disposal of long-serving coach Mircea Lucescu. With Shakhtar’s business plan over the last few years based on buying young South Americans before looking to move them on for big profits, it’s just as well. They have a remarkable 13 Brazilians in their first-team squad, with many of them featuring regularly in their starting lineup.

Such a strategy has enabled Shakhtar to become one of the more intriguing teams in the Champions League over the last few seasons, their roster constantly jam-packed with technically-skilled youngsters. Willian and Fernandinho, now of Chelsea and Manchester City, are just two of many players who made their name at Shakhtar before moving on to bigger clubs.

They were both part of the Shakhtar team that reached the Champions League quarterfinals in 2010-11 — the farthest the team has ever progressed. This season, having been given about as even a group as they could’ve hoped for, they may well be optimistic of matching their previous best.

How they got here

Shakhtar qualified for the group stages by winning the Ukrainian Premier League for the fifth time in a row. They lost only five of their 28 matches, and eventually saw off closest challengers Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk by six points.

How they play

Unlike the majority of Champions League teams from outside Europe’s major leagues, Shakhtar come into the tournament looking to play exciting, attacking football. Mircea Lucescu’s side is expected to line up in a fluid 4-4-2, with an emphasis on quick combinations and wing-play, and a proactive pressing game in the defensive phase. Key to this style of football is the industry and pace of their front six players, which enables them to contribute with and without the ball.

Of course, it isn’t a style without weaknesses. Sometimes their central midfielders are a little too eager to press, leaving the deepest of the duo — usually Fernando — isolated and outnumbered on the counterattack, and forced to commit a tactical foul. Similarly, their fullbacks are relied upon to provide width, particularly down the left, with winger Taison spending most of his time roaming around the middle of the pitch. This can leave space in behind, and drag the center backs out of position. The best teams will undoubtedly be able to exploit such flaws.

Key Player: Taison

Though Douglas Costa is often seen as Shakhtar’s shining star, his compatriot Taison is arguably more influential for the team.

While Costa spends most of his time glued to the right wing, Taison loves to drift central from his nominal position on the left. It’s in this area that he can do the most damage, with his terrific eye for a pass ensuring he can always find the darting runs of strikers Luiz Adriano and Olexandr Gladkiy. Don’t be surprised if he picks up assists for fun during the group stages.

He’s also a useful player defensively, with his determination and workrate ensuring he’s a crucial part of Shakhtar’s high pressing. If opponents find a way through, he’s industrious enough to sprint back toward his own goal to cover. Much like his old teammate Willian, he has a terrific blend of technique and tenacity, and will be a big part of any success Shakhtar have in this year’s tournament.

Anticipated finish: Third

In such a tight group as Shakhtar’s, it’s very tough to predict whether they’ll be able to squeeze into the knockouts. In Porto and Athletic Bilbao they'll come up against two strong and fairly evenly-matched teams, meaning they can’t afford to have a single off-day. They’ll probably end up dropping down to Europa League, but expect the margins to be very tight.

Ludogorets

By now, you've probably seen the video of Ludogorets defender Cosmin Moți stepping into goal and guiding his team to a penalty shootout win after starting goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov was sent off in the second leg of the playoff round. If you haven't, go educate yourself. It was beyond a shadow of a doubt the best moment from Champions League qualifying.

If you've never heard of Ludogorets, that's because they're a tiny club that became a rich guy's hobby, and subsequently are on the rise. The team was founded in 2001, bought by Kiril Domuschiev in 2010 and went from the third division to winning the Bulgarian title in three seasons. They made the Europa League round of 16 last season, and this campaign marks their first in the Champions League group stage.

Ludogorets are from a town of under 100,000 people and play in an 8,000 seat stadium, but they've won the Bulgarian title four years running. They're competing with the two big Sofia clubs to poach the best players from the smaller Bulgarian clubs and have a lot of very solid foreign pros, like the aforementioned Moți. They have no history, and they probably don't care.

How they got here

Ludogorets had it pretty easy in the second qualifying round, demolishing F91 Dudelange from Luxembourg, but then things got tricky. Partizan held them to a scoreless draw, but when Ludogorets traveled to Belgrade, an early brace from Marcelinho meant the ultimate 2-2 result sent them through on away goals.

They came up against an even bigger challenge in the playoff round, when they faced Romanian giants Steaua Bucharest, and unsurprisingly lost the first leg 1-0. But a 90th minute equalizer took the game to added time, and then to penalties. With Vladislav Stoyanov sent off in the 119th minute, defender Cosmin Moți stepped between the sticks, and after his heroics, he’ll never be buying another drink in Razgrad.

How they play

Unlike a lot of the other smaller sides that made it to the Champions League by switching up their formation and personnel based on their opponent and available players, Ludogorets have stuck with the same style and formation throughout their qualifying campaign.

It might be basic, but it works. Ludogorets set out in a 4-2-3-1 with an all-around attacking midfielder behind a very active striker. Two true widemen exploit space on the flanks, and there’s usually a defensive player and a deep-lying playmaker in the center. It's very Rafa Benítez-esque, and it might lead to them getting some shock results if they can defend well enough.

Key Player: Svetoslav Dyakov

For any team in Ludogorets' spot — the minnow against huge clubs — positioning and decision-making at transition points is going to be key. They need to be very disciplined with their defensive shape, and they can't afford to waste the precious little time they have on the ball after winning it back. In both cases, most of the responsibility will fall on Svetoslav Dyakov.

The Bulgarian international and captain is usually the more defensive of Ludogorets' two midfielders, partnering the more attack-minded Fábio Espinho or Hristo Zlatinski. He’ll provide cover when they go forward, and he'll be the one providing the pass when Ludogorets win the ball.

Anticipated finish: Fourth

It's a bit of a bummer that the team who pulled off such a great win in the playoffs is completely screwed in the group stage. While Ludogorets have a pretty deep squad and went through tough competition to get here, they've never seen anything like Real Madrid and Liverpool.

Ludogorets could potentially sneak their way past Basel and into Europa League — they do own wins over PSV Eindhoven and Lazio from last season, after all — but there's no good reason to pick them to finish anything but last. And if you're one of those people who despise made-up teams with no long-standing traditions, you’ll be ok with that.

Galatasaray

Fenerbahçe’s loss is Galatasaray’s gain: last year’s second-place finishers in Turkey go into the group stage of the Champions League thanks to UEFA banning Fener for two years. That’s not about to put Gala off their lunch, however. After losing 6-1 to Real Madrid in Istanbul last year, Fatih Terim got the sack, replaced by Roberto Mancini. The Italian managed a draw with Juventus in Turin, and a win over Copenhagen, but again fell to Real, 4-1. However, a late win over Juve, on an absolutely atrocious pitch in Istanbul, lifted Galatasaray into the knockout rounds. They drew against Chelsea at home, but wound up losing 2-0 at Stamford Bridge, with even Didier Drogba unable to get past his former side.

Gala go into this year’s Group Stage boasting another Italian at the helm – this time it’s the man that most recently lead Italy to yet another rather embarrassing World Cup exit. But Cesare Prandelli is a pragmatic man, and should Galatasaray manage to progress, it will be due in large part to his tactical ministrations.

How they got here

Galatasaray finished second in the Turkish Süper Lig last season, but they went straight into the Champions League group stages regardless. How? Last June, UEFA adjudged Fenerbahçe to have been involved in a match-fixing scandal that helped them win the 2011 title. They were promptly banned from European competition for two years, and so despite winning last season’s title, it’s Galatasaray that go into the Group Stage.

How they play

Former Italy boss Cesare Prandelli is often hailed for his clever tactics, but that doesn’t mean they never come back to haunt him. Against Uruguay in the World Cup – a game in which certain other events came back to bite Prandelli, overshadowing his tactical approach – the manager played things too conservatively, knowing a draw would be sufficient. The azzurri defense nearly rescued the team, but once they were caught out, there was no firepower available to save the side.

While Prandelli is unlikely to use a three-man defense this season – despite it working out alright for Roberto Mancini’s Galatasaray – that’s not to say he won’t be erring on the conservative side. After all, the cimbom need to emerge from a group that includes Arsenal and Dortmund, both who’ll certainly need to be contained. If Galatasaray can hold them to draws, they just might edge through.

Key Player: Burak Yılmaz

Galatasaray’s key player remains Burak Yılmaz, who scored eight goals in the Champions League two seasons ago, when his side made it to the quarterfinals. That was the same number scored by Lionel Messi and Thomas Müller, but with significantly less minutes played. Surely Galatasaray didn’t think they’d be able to hold on to their star, but they’ve somehow managed it.

Last year, however, Yılmaz scored exactly zero goals in the tournament, helping his side not one bit. He did manage 16 in the league, however, so the goals are still there. From where else will they come? A random stunner from Wesley Sneijder, such as the one he pulled off against Mexico in Brazil? A hard-won penalty from new-boy Goran Pandev? Galatasaray can’t rely on these possible occurrences, so Yılmaz needs to be firing.

Anticipated finish: Third

It’s a tough call as to where Galatasaray might end up, but it’s almost certain they won’t be able to topple the star-studded squads of Arsenal and Dortmund, even if those sides are forced to travel long distances and play in snowy Istanbul. Seven points was enough to get them through last season, but considering BVB and Arsenal each took twelve, it’s highly unlikely Gala can get by on the same sort of luck this time around.

That leaves them battling with Anderlecht for the dubious honor of a Europa League place. Prandelli’s men likely have the edge, if only slightly, mostly because this team has shown itself able to wiggle points from tight positions.

Olympiacos

Olympiacos have made it into the last 16 of the Champions League on six separate occasions, and would've squeezed into the quarterfinals for only the second time in their history last season had they not thrown away a two-goal aggregate lead against Manchester United. They may not have the star names of many of the sides in this competition, but no one should make the mistake of underestimating them.

Under the leadership of Real Madrid legend Míchel, who took charge of the Athenian club last February, Olympiacos have looked as ambitious as ever. Playing a proactive, attacking game, the Spaniard has swept up two consecutive domestic titles, and has now set about gearing the team toward making a serious dent in European competition.

This summer they've lost a handful of first-team players, with talented defenders Kostas Manolas and José Holebas leaving to AS Roma, midfielder Andreas Samaris joining Benfica, and attacking loanees Joel Campbell and Hernán Pérez returning to parent clubs. However, the return of striker Kostas Mitroglou from Fulham, and the arrival of big names like Ibrahim Afellay and Éric Abidal should ensure they’re still competitive.

How they got here

Olympiacos qualified for the group stages by winning the Greek Superleague for the 41st time in their history, and the fourth year in a row. They were beaten just four times throughout the season, eventually finishing 17 points clear of second-placed PAOK.

How they play

Last year, Champions Matchday magazine asked Olympiacos boss Míchel which coach he’d most like to meet. He replied Arrigo Sacchi, saying he "changed football." Sacchi coached AC Milan in the 1980s and ‘90s, and swept up a Serie A title and two European Cups with a revolutionary game based on "controlling space," through intense zonal pressing and a high offside line.

Alas, at Olympiacos, Míchel doesn't have Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit or Frank Rijkaard at his disposal, but his admiration of Sacchi does reveal how he likes his side to defend. Without the ball, Olympiacos often press high up the field, looking to win back possession almost as soon as it is lost. In order to achieve this style, positional discipline is of paramount importance, and Míchel has drilled his team excellently.

With the ball, Olympiacos are a slightly less spectacular team. While they do try to dominate games by passing out from defense, their attacking play against the best teams largely relies on the success of a target man in attack, who can hold the ball up for deep runners like playmaker Alejandro Domínguez, or who can use their strength and aerial ability to attack crosses into the box.

Key Player: Kostas Mitroglou

Imposing striker Kostas Mitroglou earned himself a move to the Premier League last January, with Fulham snapping up the Greek international after an impressive few seasons at Olympiacos. However, Mitroglou’s English move turned out to be an expensive disaster for the Cottagers, who paid £12 million to bring the 26-year-old to London. He started just one game in an injury-ravaged few months, and Fulham ended up being relegated to the second tier.

This summer, Olympiacos moved to bring him back on loan for the season, and Fulham were only too happy to oblige. Mitroglou will likely immediately become Míchel’s first-choice striker, where his strength and hold-up play will enable him to pick up exactly where he left off last summer. Feasting on crosses from fellow summer signing Ibrahim Afellay, Mitroglou will be out to prove he’s better than his time in the Premier League suggests.

Anticipated finish: Third

Olympiacos are a good team, but just not quite as good as Atlético Madrid or Juventus. They’ll make life difficult for said duo, but they probably won’t have enough to squeeze into the knockout stages. Expect to see them in the Europa League before too long.

APOEL

APOEL have always been a big club in Cyprus, but the rest of Europe gave them little notice until changes to Champions League qualification made it easier for teams from smaller leagues to make the group stage. Then in 2011-12, they stunned everyone in their second appearance in the competition proper, getting out of their group and beating Lyon in the Round of 16.

Europe was rough on APOEL last season. They lost to Maribor on away goals, which dropped them into Europa League qualifying, where they lost once more. A match-fixing scandal at Fenerbahce meant APOEL were reinstated, but were then knocked out in the group stage.

But thanks to some decent offseason transfer business, APOEL are expected to be competitive this season. They added John Arne Riise and Rafik Djebbour from English sides, signed loanee Tomas De Vincenti permanently, stole Cypriot international Georgios Efrem from rivals Omonia and signed defender Carlão from Sochaux.

How they got here

APOEL won the Cypriot first division last season, albeit barely. They finished tied on points with AEL Limassol, and so had to rely on their superior head-to-head record to snatch the title. Both sides entered the Champions League in the third qualifying round, although AEL fell at the first hurdle. APOEL, however, downed Finnish side HJK 4-2 on aggregate in the 3rd round, then comfortably defeated Aalborg 5-1 in the playoff round.

How they play

APOEL's technical quality isn't too bad, but by nature of being a Champions League minnow, they're going to have to play slightly defensively.

If APOEL had one defining characteristic in qualifying, it's that they played a bit narrow, something they've done in previous Champions League campaigns as well. Constantinos Charalambides, Tiago Gomes and De Vincenti are all natural central attacking midfielders, but play on the wings for APOEL very frequently. It's not that they don't have natural wingers; Gustavo Manduca played in the second leg against Aalborg, and both Efstathios Aloneftis and the aforementioned Efrem are best on the flanks, but manager Giorgos Donis may well prefer to play with a more narrow, compact attack.

APOEL have a variety of forwards, but the consistent starter so far has been Irishman Cillian Sheridan, a classic target man. He's 6'5", amazing in the air, and not particularly quick or great technically. He's there to be large, which he's pretty good at.

Key Player: Constantinos Charalambides

Is that not the best name in this competition? Fawning over alliteration and nine-syllable names aside, Charalambides is APOEL's captain and most versatile player. The side remains unwedded to any particular formation, mostly because Charalambides can play anywhere. He's most commonly found on the right wing, but he can also play on the left, in central midfield and behind a striker. He creates, defends and is a threat to score goals from all positions. For a team of APOEL's size and resources, a player like Charalambides is a manager's dream.

Anticipated finish: Fourth

Unfortunately, after singing APOEL’s praises, we’re now tipping them to finish bottom, seeing as they’ve been stuck in one of the most difficult groups. An easier draw and they'd have a very legitimate shot at a Europa League place and an outside shot at finishing second. But Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain are two of the best teams in the world and they're going to finish above APOEL. The best they can hope for is beating Ajax to Europa League.

+Groups

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

There are two European giants in Group A, with Spanish champions Atlético Madrid set to face Italian champions Juventus. However, they'll probably both be pretty pleased with the draw, which pits them against the comparatively weak Greek side Olympiacos and even weaker Swedish club Malmö FF.

Topping the group: Atlético Madrid

The idea of a Spanish team breaking the dual dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid seemed impossible — until last season. Diego Simeone's Atlético Madrid took La Liga by storm in an extraordinary campaign, eventually pipping Barça to take their first league title since 1996, as well as finishing runners-up to Real Madrid in the Champions League. They lack the depth of world-class players of their domestic rivals, but Simeone's compact, counterattacking style should mean they're competitive in this tournament once again.

Sitting second: Juventus

Juventus have won the Italian title comfortably for the last three seasons, with their powerhouse duo of Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba ensuring they could just break their domestic competitors down with brute force, while Andrea Pirlo added some silky smooth passing into the mix. However, this season they could find life a little more difficult, since coach Antonio Conte has been replaced by a rather less-reputable tactician, Massimiliano Allegri. They should still progress into the knockout stages, but it remains to be seen whether they have what it takes to genuinely challenge Europe's biggest teams.

Heading for the Europa League: Olympiacos

Reigning Greek champions Olympiacos are certainly no European powerhouse, but that didn't stop them from pulling off an upset to finish ahead of Benfica and Anderlecht last season. Under coach Míchel they'll be extremely well-organized, using the attacking talents of the likes of Kostas Mitroglou, Ibrahim Afellay and Pajtim Kasami on the break, though they shouldn't have enough to overhaul either Atléti or Juventus.

Finishing last: Malmö FF

The last side in Group A is Swedish outfit Malmö FF, who comfortably saw off Red Bull Salzburg in the playoffs to make the group stage. They may be reigning champions in the Allsvenskan, but it's difficult to envisage Åge Hareide's side picking up even a point from such a tough group. If they do avoid a big fat zero, their European campaign should be considered a success.


Schedule

Tuesday, Sept. 16 at 7:45 PM BST/2:45 PM ET: Olympiacos vs. Atlético Madrid
Juventus vs. Malmö
Wednesday, Oct. 1 at 7:45 PM BST/2:45 PM ET: Malmö vs. Olympiacos
Atlético Madrid vs. Juventus
Wednesday, Oct. 22 at 7:45 PM BST/2:45 PM ET: Atlético Madrid vs. Malmö
Olympiacos vs. Juventus
Tuesday, Nov. 4 at 7:45 PM GMT/2:45 PM ET: Malmö vs. Atlético Madrid
Juventus vs. Olympiacos
Wednesday, Nov. 26 at 7:45 PM GMT/2:45 PM ET: Atlético Madrid vs. Olympiacos
Malmö vs. Juventus
Tuesday, Dec. 9 at 7:45 PM GMT/2:45 PM ET: Olympiacos vs. Malmö
Juventus vs. Atlético Madrid

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