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Aug 28, 2014

Champions League draw kind to Chelsea, tough on Man City

ESPN FC's Shaka Hislop predicts the sleepers and biggest disappointments for this year's group stage.

MONACO -- There's not much to argue about when it comes to draws, unless you're one of those "hot ball/cold ball" truthers. There are coefficients based on European performances over the past five years and they yield seeds (or "pots" as UEFA calls them, rather quaintly).

Former greats (this year, in honor of Real Madrid's decima, they were all Madridistas: Iker Casillas, Fernando Hierro, Manuel Sanchis and Francisco "Paco" Gento) draw one team from each pot into each of the eight groups. They're helped out by UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino (who, yes, does look a little bit like the evil baby from "The Simpsons") and a representative of the city that will host the final, Berlin.

Actually, that last one was a bit problematic. Berlin is a great city; it just hasn't produced too many superstars of note and hasn't been home to too many outstanding sides (no offense to Hertha). So UEFA drafted in Karl-Heinz Riedle, who isn't actually from Berlin -- or even from that part of Germany -- but did play a season, when he was 21, for Blau-Weiss Berlin (a club that went bankrupt in 1992, but that's another story).

Cristiano Ronaldo added another trophy to his collection in winning the UEFA Player of the Year bauble, ahead of Manuel Neuer and Arjen Robben. It's voted on by 54 journalists -- one for each UEFA member nation -- and while it's nice to win, it's not something worth losing sleep over if you don't.

Cristiano Ronaldo collected another individual award after a Champions League draw largely devoid of intrigue.

Group A looks relatively straightforward for Diego Simeone's new-look Atletico Madrid and Juventus -- who lost the inspirational Antonio Conte and have handed the reins to Massimiliano Allegri -- though Olympiacos did come within minutes of reaching the quarterfinal last season. Swedish champions Malmo FF make their first Champions League appearance.

Similarly, Liverpool and Real Madrid look a notch above in Group B. The Reds lost Luis Suarez but spent big on a gaggle of players including Mario Balotelli, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Emre Can. As for the defending champions, they did pick up Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez but must face the campaign without Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso. Flash over worker bees, some might say.

Basel beat Chelsea home and away last year, evidence that they can trip up anybody, but they, too, have lost talent in goalkeeper Yann Sommer and winger Valentin Stocker. As for Ludogorets, they're another Champions League debutante and their very presence here borders on the miraculous. They qualified by beating Steaua Bucharest with a last-minute goal in their return leg. That took the match into extra-time and, with seconds to go, their keeper was sent off. Defender Cristian Moti stepped in during the spot-kicks, saving two and converting his penalty. (Watch the highlight here, U.S. only.) Whether they have more miracles left in them remains to be seen.

Basel are a deceptively difficult opponent for Real Madrid and Liverpool in Group B.

Group C, on the other hand, looks finely balanced. It features UEFA Cup finalists Benfica, Andre Villas-Boas' Zenit St. Petersburg, ambitious Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco, who (for now at least) still count Radamel Falcao in their ranks. You're tempted to give a slight edge to Leverkusen and Zenit, but, really, there's all to play for.

Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, albeit without Robert Lewandowski, again have the squad and the pedigree in Group D. Galatasaray -- with former Italy boss Cesare Prandelli at the helm, looking for redemption -- had a quiet transfer summer and lost Didier Drogba, while Anderlecht, despite a proud history with five European trophies to their name, haven't advanced to the knockout round since 2001.

Man City and Bayern were drawn together last season, too, with both sides advancing.

You may get a sense of deja vu in Group E. Bayern, Manchester City and CSKA Moscow were all drawn together last season, too, with the Russian side finishing bottom and the other two dominating. The difference is the other team in the group: last year it was Viktoria Plzen; now it's Rudy Garcia's ambitious AS Roma. They can make things more competitive, though both the German and English champions have strengthened substantially in the summer.

Barcelona and Paris St. Germain lead the way in Group F, another of those two-speed groups -- at least on paper. The Catalans have a fearsome front three with Luis Suarez joining Lionel Messi and Neymar, PSG have a season's experience (and, crucially, cohesion) under their belts and hope to have stiffened up the defense with David Luiz. Frank de Boer's Ajax could yet lose Daley Blind (in addition to the already departed Siem de Jong) which is why they look headed toward the bottom half of the group, along with APOEL.

(Of course, the last time the Cypriots were written off so summarily, in 2011-12, they reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League and, yes, sometimes lightning does strike twice.)

Chelsea's summer signings and gentle group make them runaway faves to top Group G.

Chelsea are favorites in Group G as you'd expect given their recent history and the addition of three of last year's finalists -- Atletico Madrid's Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and on-loan Thibaut Courtois -- as well as Cesc Fabregas. It looks as if Schalke and Sporting will slug it out for second place, though it remains a tough call as the Portuguese club could yet lose one or more of their young stars (like William Carvalho) before the window closes. Maribor make only their second appearance in the Champions League and their first since the 1990s.

Group H is a tough call and -- again, on paper, no offense to anyone -- possibly the softest landing for any of these teams. Porto have had to revamp their squad after losing Eliaquim Mangala and Fernando (both to Manchester City), while Athletic Bilbao start over with Ander Herrera. BATE Borisov, champions of Belarus for eight straight seasons and with an almost entirely domestic squad, are not to be taken lightly. This is their third Champions League qualification in the past five seasons and in 2012-13, they beat the likes of Lille and Bayern Munich.

Then there's Shakhtar Donetsk. Ordinarily a tough out for anyone -- it's their fifth straight Champions League appearance -- they're currently forced to play their home games 300 miles away in Lviv because of the political situation in Donetsk, while their stadium, the Donbass Arena, was shelled and damaged last week. You only hope some level of normality will return soon.

Gabriele Marcotti

A London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer, he is the author of three books, the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere dello Sport. You can catch him on ESPN FC TV and read him here twice a week.

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