UEFA Champions League Preview: A Complete Guide to All 32 Teams
The Champions League Group Stage draw, held Thursday afternoon in Monaco, informed the 32 teams qualified for this season's competition of the three teams they would face off against from mid-September to the start of December.
The groups fell this way:
Zenit St. Petersburg
Europe's premier club competition constitutes one of the finest mediums in which to watch a game of football. Contrasting styles mix into the furious pace of top-flight, continental football. At its best, there's nothing quite like it.
The action kicks off on Tuesday, Sept. 18. Here's a complete guide to every team in the competition.
Disclaimer: All transfer information used in this article was culled from Transfermarkt.
Former manager Carlo Ancelotti celebrates the Lombard club's 2007 title.
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: Lost in the quarterfinals to Barcelona 1-3 on aggregate
How They Qualified for 2012-13: Second place in Serie A, automatic
Manager: Massimiliano Allegri (third season)
Captain: Massimo Ambrosini
Stadium: San Siro (cap: 80,018)
Key Additions: M'Baye Niang (forward), Giampaolo Pazzini (forward), Bojan Krkic (forward, loan from AS Roma), Riccardo Montolivo (central midfield), Sulley Muntari (midfield), Christian Zapata (defender, loan from Villarreal), Francesco Acerbi (center back)
Key Departures: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (forward), Antonio Cassano (forward), Thiago Silva (center back), Mark van Bommel (central midfield), Clarence Seedorf (central midfield), Alessandro Nesta (center back)
It was a summer marked by tumultuous turmoil at the red end of the San Siro, with some of the final players linked with the club's European brilliance in the past decade either hanging up their boots (Filippo Inzaghi) or moving on to other clubs (Seedorf, Nesta).
Those legends were joined out the door by Ibrahimovic and Silva, both of whom commanded exorbitant fees from upstart Paris Saint-Germain.
Some will look at the moves as a show of diminished ambition from Silvio Berlusconi's club, or at the very least the signaling of a new, more fiscally responsible era, but the new arrivals still bear the veneer of intrigue.
Pazzini is no stranger to scoring in Serie A, having enjoyed terrific success at Sampdoria, his previous stop before Inter Milan last season, and Niang, while raw at the age of 17, is a tremendous prospect.
He is joined by compatriot Montolivo, who came in on the same sort of free transfer Juventus used to prise Andrea Pirlo from the Lombards last season.
Montolivo is a vastly different player than Pirlo, but his creative ingenuity in central midfield could go a long way toward helping Milan find success in this season's Champions League. He'll join with the likes of Antonio Nocerino, a talented technician, and Kevin Prince-Boateng in the middle of the Lombard park.
Player to Watch: Giampaolo Pazzini
Montolivo might be the more popular option, but Pazzini seems tipped to rediscover some of the sterling form he enjoyed at Sampdoria.
Part of a double-switch made with Inter that saw Cassano go the other way, the 28-year-old hit man will be counted upon to provide goals, and provide them fast, as Milan look to weather the storm of Ibrahimovic's departure and the tremendous amount of goals he took with him.
An intriguing addition could be Krkic, who since his Barcelona days has always seemed stuck in the role of burgeoning starlet. He has yet to really settle at a club, although he's found playing time everywhere he's gone.
The club was founded as a football and cricket club on December 16, 1899 by British expatriates Alfred Edwards and Herbert Kilpin, who came from the British city of Nottingham. In honor of its British origins, the club has retained the English spelling of the city's name, as opposed to the Italian spelling Milano which it was forced to bear under the fascist regime of the early 1900s. (Wikipedia).
Winners of the Eredivisie last time around.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: 3rd place in Group D, DNQ for knockout stages
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st in Dutch Eredivisie
Manager: Frank de Boer (third season)
Captain: Siem de Jong
Stadium: Amsterdam ArenA (cap: 52,342)
Key Additions: Christian Poulsen (central midfield), Nicklas Moisander (center back), Tobias Sana (winger)
Key Departures: Jan Vertonghen (defender), Vurnon Anita (midfielder)
The focus will begin and end with attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen, who has been linked with moves to Europe's top clubs for years now.
Still only 20, Eriksen is a sublime talent, but there is another player with a vested interest toward making his own imprint upon this season's competition.
Gregory van der Wiel has seen his stock dip into a rather precarious position since the right-back burst onto the international scene with Holland in the 2010 World Cup.
Now in the last year of his contract in Amsterdam, a move to a big club will likely be on van der Wiel's mind, and a strong European campaign would go a long way toward furthering that goal.
The additions of Poulsen and Sana could be particularly intriguing. The former's best days are starting to filter in behind him, but he is a proven campaigner who was starting for Denmark as recently as the 2010 World Cup. Following a disastrous move to Liverpool ahead of the 2010-11 season, Poulsen found his feet somewhat while with Evian Thonon Gaillard last season.
Sana is considered a burgeoning talent in Sweden, and his league debut against AZ Alkmaar in the first game of the season was quite intriguing.
A pacy winger with savvy dribbling, Sana could play an intriguing role as a starter or impact substitute.
Player to Watch: Christian Eriksen
Possessor of a tremendous left foot, Eriksen has long been the focus of talent scouts who have made the trip to Amsterdam ArenA, and he will continue to be the man Ajax's opponents focus upon during this season's Champions League.
His effectiveness can be stemmed by dogged defensive approaches, as was seen by Denmark's opponents in the European Championships, but it's hard to keep a talent of that register quiet for long.
Expect him to enjoy a stirring run of games in the group stages, particularly when Ajax are in the raucous confines of the ArenA.
Ajax originally played in an all-black uniform with a red sash tied around the players' waists, but that uniform was soon replaced by a red/white striped shirt and black shorts. Red, black and white are the three colours of the flag of Amsterdam.
However, when under manager Jack Kirwan, the club got promoted to the top flight of Dutch football for the first time in 1911, Ajax were forced to change their colours because Sparta Rotterdam already had exactly the same outfit. Ajax opted for white shorts and white shirt with a broad, vertical red stripe over chest and back, which still is Ajax's outfit. (Wikipedia).
2011-12 Champions League: DNQ
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in Belgian Pro League, defeated AEL Limassol 3-2 on aggregate in playoffs
Manager: John van der Brom (first season)
Captain: Lucas Biglia
Stadium: Constant Vanden Stock Stadium (cap: 21,163 seated, 6,900 standing)
Key Additions: Cyriac (forward)
Key Departures: None of note
Anderlecht were able to shrug aside Matias Suarez's protracted transfer to CSKA Moscow and earn a crucial 2-0 victory over AEL that won them entry into the group stages.
Scorer of 10 league goals last season, Suarez had not featured in the two-leg tie, obviously with one eye bent on not using up his eligibility in the competition should CSKA qualify against Fenerbahce.
They had Dieumerci Mbokani to thank in large part for that. The rangy striker enjoyed terrific success in a previous spell in the Belgian top division with Standard Liege, with whom he scored 35 goals over three seasons (2007-10).
With Anderlecht since last season, Mbokani has shown an impressive nose for the goal, scoring 15 league goals last season—a tally that tied him for fourth.
There are plenty of intriguing components to this Anderlecht side. American international Sacha Klejstan anchors the midfield, and ex-Liverpool winger Milan Jovanovic has taken a liking to his Belgian accommodations.
Biglia has been watched by many of Europe's top sides, with moves linking him this summer to the likes of Arsenal. The Argentine is a dogged defender in midfield and possesses a keen technical skill set.
Player to Watch: Dieumerci Mbokani
Scorer of two of his side's three goals in the playoffs, Mbokani will be counted upon to add more scoring punch as Anderlecht face the tall order of navigating the group stages.
The Champions League can be a time to shine for talented strikers, and Mbokani has every reason to believe he can thrive.
Founded as Sporting Club Anderlechtois on May 27, 1908 by a dozen football lovers at the Concordia café in Anderlecht. They won the 1975–76 and 1977–78 European Cup Winners' Cups against respectively West Ham United and FK Austria Wien, as well as the two subsequent European Super Cups (Wikipedia).
Song (top right) and van Persie (holding flag) have left this season.
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: Lost 3-4 on aggregate to AC Milan in the Round of 16
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 3rd place in English Premier League, automatic.
Manager: Arsene Wenger (17th season)
Captain: Thomas Vermaelen
Stadium: Emirates Stadium (cap: 60,361)
Key Additions: Lukas Podolski (forward), Olivier Giroud (forward), Santi Cazorla (central midfield)
Key Departures: Robin van Persie (forward), Alex Song (central midfield)
Arsenal have undergone one of the most drastic transformations in all of Europe these past several seasons. Five of the first-choice outfield starters from the 2010-11 season (Gael Clichy, Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie) have left the club, with winger Theo Walcott reportedly ready to pack his bags as well.
Yet somehow, someway Wenger has persevered, producing one of his best bits of managing in over 16 seasons of work to lead Arsenal to a third-place finish in the Premier League, thus obtaining the invaluable payday that accompanies qualification to the Champions League group stages.
The departures of van Persie and Song have again drudged up the question of whether Arsenal can hang onto its best players. The answer to this is simple: if the Gunners win trophies (their last silverware came in 2005, when they won the FA Cup), the stars will have better reason to stay.
Wenger's offseason recruitment seems a concerted effort toward rectifying the drought. Continuing a trend begun last summer—the average age of Arsenal's last 10 transfers, loans included, is 27.2 according to ESPN's Michael Cox—the Frenchman has brought in Lukas Podolski (27), Olivier Giroud (25) and Santi Cazorla (27).
Cazorla has gotten off to a flying start during league play for the Gunners, with Podolski shining against Stoke City. Giroud may take the longest time to settle of the three, but that is to be expected from any striker playing in a new league.
The ex-Montpellier man should come good. Turning to the rest of the midfield, Wenger appears ready to make Mikel Arteta the most withdrawn midfielder in his central group of three. Arsenal don't play a defensive midfielder, in the truest nature of the term, but the revolving, morphing shape of the group means that at least two are called upon to fulfill tackling and tracking duties (Diaby's been the other central mid to start the season, with Cazorla granted license to roam in attack).
Vermaelen has assumed ownership of the captain's armband, and will pair with either Laurent Koscielny or Per Mertesacker in central defense.
Bacary Sagna will return from a long-term leg injury in the coming weeks, and Jack Wilshere also appears ready to come back from a debilitating succession of ankle problems that kept him out all of 2011-12.
Goals have been hardest to come by in the early going (Arsenal have gone scoreless in their first two league games), but the improved defensive showing (they also haven't conceded in those games) is a welcome sign.
Player to Watch: Santi Cazorla
The Spanish technician called his move to Arsenal his last chance to make a move to a big club, and he's hit the ground running ever since arriving in London.
Just 5'6" and not blessed with the most impressive natural athleticism, Cazorla's impeccable control and sterling passing more than make up for those would-be deficiencies. He was far and away the best player on the park in Arsenal's season debut, and continued that form with a good showing in his first league match, away to Stoke.
Arsenal lacked a consistent playmaker last season after the departures of Fabregas and Nasri, but in Cazorla, it appears Wenger finally has the man to make his 4-2-3-1 system thrum.
Arsenal celebrated its 125th year in existence last season.
David Ramos/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: Lost 2-3 on aggregate in the semifinals to Chelsea
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 2nd in La Liga, automatic
Manager: Tito Villanova (first season)
Captain: Carles Puyol
Stadium: Camp Nou (cap: 96,636 for UEFA competitions)
Key Additions: Jordi Alba (left-back), Alex Song (central midfield)
Key Departures: Seydou Keita (midfield)
Winners of the 2009 and 2011 Champions League crowns, Barcelona saw their 2011-12 campaign cut short by a resilient Chelsea bunch, who followed the script Inter Milan had set in 2010, when the Nerazzuri had also defeated Barcelona in the semifinals. Tellingly enough, Inter went on to win the title that season as well.
Barcelona always enter the competition as heavy favorites and have addressed what was perhaps one of the only real soft points in last season's side with the addition of Jordi Alba at left-back. Alex Song will provide added cover and quality in midfield as well, where he'll likely spell Sergio Busquets in stages.
His versatility and ability to play in central defense—like Javier Mascherano—will likely make him a popular pick for squad cover.
Lionel Messi is the star up front, as always, and it never hurts having Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, members of the Golden Generation of Spanish football, operating behind him in midfield.
As if there weren't enough talent to be found in what has perhaps been the most dominant side of the past five years, Christian Tello—all 21 years of him—has looked excellent at left wing so far this season. The return of David Villa from injury will help as well.
Player to Watch: Jordi Alba
The left-back's summer could not have gotten off to a better start, when he became one of the stars for Spain on the way to the Euro 2012 crown. His Olympics campaign was cut short in the group stages, but that will have granted him some much-needed rest for the season ahead.
Alba is a terrific attacking full-back, always looking to launch forward on the left flank. With the way Barcelona have cut apart so many opponents in previous seasons with their surgically precise passing, there's every reason to think that with Alba on board, they'll only become more clinical in front of goal.
His defensive positioning, seen most glaringly in the return leg of the SuperCup against Real Madrid, has been called into question in the early season. But Barcelona's best defense is its relentless pressing and possession game—Alba's primary focus will be on the attack.
Unlike many other football clubs, supporters own and operate Barcelona. It is the world's second-richest football club in terms of revenue, with an annual turnover of €398 million.
As of November 2010, membership of the club is no longer open to the public. Only close relatives to current and former FC Barcelona members can join the club as well as previous members with at least a two-year history of membership. This ruling however will not apply to children under the age of 15. (information courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Seen here during last season's competition.
2011-12 Champions League: 4th place in Group H, DNQ for knockout stages
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in Belorusian Premier League, defeated Vardar 3-2 on aggregate in second qualifying round, defeated Debrecen 3-1 on aggregate in third qualifying round, 3-1 winners (agg.) against Hapoel Kiryat Shmona in playoff round
Manager: Viktor Goncharenko (sixth season)
Captain: Dzmitry Likhtarovich
Stadium: City Stadium (cap: 5,402)
Key Additions: Alexander Hleb (attacking midfield)
Key Departures: None
BATE will be looking to improve upon their showing in last season's competition, where they earned just two points while scoring two goals and conceding 14.
They impressed during their playoff round against Hapoel, who were far from lightweights in their own right. Two goals from Vitaly Rodionov secured a vital 2-0 win at home before Alexander Pavlov knotted up the return leg at 1-1 in the 90th minute, denying the Israelis any last hope to force extra time.
Player to Watch: Alexander Hleb
The Belorussian whirling dervish finally seems to have found a home at his formative club after years spent on a dour string of loan moves to VFB Stuttgart, Birmingham City, Wolfsburg and Krylia Sovetov Samara, all while on the books of FC Barcelona—where he'd moved from Arsenal after the 2007-08 season.
Hleb featured predominantly as a right winger in his three seasons at the north London club, although his intent was to get involved centrally as often as possible.
With Borisov, he finally lines up as an attacking mid, and looked superb during the playoff tie with Hapoel. Even at 31, Hleb retains the quick feet, impeccable balance and eye for a pass that once made him one of the brightest talents on the European stage.
He's never been a goalscorer—indeed, he's scored just 27 goals in a career that is nearing 350 career matches at the senior level—but he remains a dangerous commodity when on form.
BATE are the only Belarusian team to have qualified for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League (2008–09, 2011–12 and 2012–13) and for the group stage of the UEFA Europa League (2009–10 and 2010–11) (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
Bayern during their preseason. Shaqiri is second from the right on the bottom row.
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: Lost in the final to Chelsea
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 2nd place in German Bundesliga, automatic
Manager: Jupp Heynckes (second season; third spell at the club—1987-1991, 2009)
Captain: Philipp Lahm
Stadium: Allianz Arena (cap: 71,000)
Key Additions: Xherdan Shaqiri (attacking midfield, right wing), Mario Mandzukic (center forward), Javi Martinez (central midfield/defense), Dante (center back)
Key Departures: Danijel Pranjic (central midfield), Ivica Olic (center forward)
The heartbreak of losing last season's title match at the Allianz Arena will have fermented all summer in the hearts of Bayern players.
With Jupp Heyneckes back as manager, Bayern will be looking to make it three seasons out of the past four that they've reached the final (they lost in 2010 to Inter Milan). The new additions are highly intriguing—Shaqiri was excellent for FC Basel in last season's UCL, and starred against Bayern in the Round of 16, and Mandzukic burst onto the stage at the European Championships this past summer, where he scored three goals for Croatia.
Those two attacking talents join a forward stable that is growing ever deeper. Claudio Pizarro has returned to the club and Mario Gomez is still on the books. The German striker suffered a serious ankle injury in preseason—one that required surgery—and is facing a six-week spell on the sideline.
Manuel Neuer is back between the sticks as keeper, Philip Lahm will again captain the side from left-back, and Bastian Schweinsteiger will hold court in central midfield.
The non-German wingers will again figure to fire for Heyneckes.
Arjen Robben has fallen somewhat out of favor at the Allianz, enduring a torrid stretch at the end of the last domestic season that stretched into a very poor showing at the Euros, but his quality is undeniable.
He is joined by Franck Ribery on the other wing. The Frenchman was one of the few shining lights from his country's European campaign in Poland and Ukraine, and has been in fine form since. The sight of a Ribery brimming with confidence is not one many opponents want to see. When he's at his best, few can exert the sort of will over a game as can the No. 7.
After coming this close to winning the title last season, Bayern will be raring to add that fifth crown to their trophy stable.
Oh, that small addition of one Javi Martinez, a member of Spain's last two Cup-winning sides (World Cup and Euros) should help matters somewhat. The prospect of the supremely talented Basque slotting in alongside Schweinsteiger in midfield should have most European sides very, very worried.
The $50 million man will have a spotlight affixed firmly upon him all season—the spoils of being the subject of such a high-profile (and -priced) move.
Player to Watch: Xherdan Shaqiri
The Swiss starlet has long been one of the prime talents in Europe, and compounded his scintillating form at the 2011 UEFA European U-21 Championships with a fine showing for Basel during Champions League play last season.
Blessed with superb technique and a firecracker of a left foot, Shaqiri gives Bayern yet another powerful element in the attack.
The club was founded in 1900 by 11 football players led by Franz John. Although Bayern won its first national championship in 1932, the club was not selected for the Bundesliga at its inception in 1963. It would enter the league two years later, in 1965.
Clive Rose/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: 1st place in Group C, lost to Chelsea in the quarterfinals
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 2nd place in Portuguese Superliga, automatic
Manager: Jorge Jesus (fourth season)
Stadium: Estadio da Luz (cap: 65,647)
Key Additions: Eduardo Salvio (attacking midfield), Ola John (left winger)
Key Departures: Nelson Oliveira (forward, season-long loan to Deportiva la Coruna)
Few teams played more scintillating football than Benfica during Champions League play a season ago. Blessed with a powerhouse midfield composed of the likes of Nicolas Gaitan, Pablo Aimar, Axel Witsel and Javi Garcia and an attacking corps that boasts the rampant Javier Cardozo, there's every reason to think that the Aguias (Eagles) can get right back to the knockout stages.
They came quite close to knocking out Chelsea last season, undone in the final moments of the return leg at Stamford Bridge by a terrific individual goal by Portuguese midfielder and former Porto man Raul Meireles.
They're back this season with a couple of interesting additions in midfield. Just 21 years of age, Eduardo Salvio had become a key member of Atletico Madrid's outfit over the past two seasons, and even came on as a late substitute in the 3-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League final.
He is familiar with Benfica, having spent the 2010-11 season on loan, during which he scored four goals.
Jesus decided to bring him in on a permanent basis this past offseason for €13 million, making him the biggest signing in club history.
The departure of Oliveira, who at 21 is considered to be of the top Portuguese talents, and made four appearances for the national side at the Euros, may have come as a surprise to some. Yet there is talent to be had in abundance.
Player to Watch: Nicolas Gaitan
Linked incessantly with a move to Manchester United during the early portions of the summer transfer window, the 24-year-old midfielder remains a Benfica player—troublesome news for any opponents facing the side during the upcoming competition.
Blessed with tremendous technique, Gaitan was superb during last season's run to the quarterfinals, and will be counted upon to contribute again this time. He can play as a winger, but is most effective operating in an advanced role behind the forward line—one he filled with aplomb during Benfica's excellent matches against Manchester United in last season's group stages.
Rumors swirled that Gaitan so impressed Sir Alex Ferguson that the United manager was planning to bring him in as a replacement for Paul Scholes.
Benfica has more than 14 million fans and holds the Guinness World Record for the football club in the world with most members. It is the most popular Portuguese club in the world and its supporters are often called Benfiquistas (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
New boy Reus (left) will be tipped to star this season.
2011-12 Champions League: 4th place in Group F, DNQ for knockout stages
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in German Bundesliga, automatic
Manager: Jürgen Klopp (fifth season)
Captain: Sebastian Kehl
Stadium: Westfalenstadion (cap: 80,720)
Key Additions: Marco Reus (winger), Julian Schieber (forward), Leonardo Bittencourt (attacking midfield)
Key Departures: Shinji Kagawa (attacking midfield), Lucas Barrios (forward)
Dortmund are fast becoming one of the most feared sides in European football. While their 2011-12 Champions League campaign was somewhat underwhelming, with Klopp unable to guide his side into the knockout stages, there is simply too much talent to think that, with that season's experience in tow, Dortmund can't make an enthralling run this time around.
Mario Gotze is one of the top young prospects in world football, and will be back to work his magic in attacking midfield. That he is joined by a forward of Robert Lewandowski's stature only compounds Dortmund's attacking threat.
Nicknamed "Lewan-dorfski" upon arriving from Lech Poznan (the latter half is a German word that means something along the lines of "hapless" or "dim-witted") for his tepid start in Dortmund, the 24-year-old Pole has quickly become one of the finer attacking talents on the continent.
He appeared in all six of Borussia's Champions League matches a season ago, scoring one goal.
Then there is the addition of Marco Reus, one of the most impressive youngsters with the German national team at the European Championships, and a starting XI littered with players who start at the international level.
Picking them on an extended run in this year's UCL would be a wise decision.
Player to Watch: Marco Reus
Positively untouchable in Germany's quarterfinal match against Greece at the Euros, Reus is poised to vault into stardom this autumn.
Those familiar with the German Bundesliga will recognize the winger from his time spent with Borussia Monchengladbach, where he scored 37 goals in just three seasons at the senior level—a superb return for a midfielder.
Named German Footballer of the Year this past month, the attacking midfielder was superb in Dortmund's Bundesliga opener against Werder Bremen, finding the back of the net in a convincing win.
While he featured as a winger for Germany at the European Championships, it's likely that Klopp will interchange him seamlessly between the flanks and central midfield this season. His versatility is an added boon that will only serve to make the team's attack more formidable.
His eye for goal will be a key commodity, particularly in the absence of Kagawa, whose ingenuity was so often able to pick apart opposing defenses.
Borussia Dortmund have won eight German football championships, three German Cups, a record-tying four German Supercups, one UEFA Champions League, one UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and one Intercontinental Cup. Their UEFA Cup Winners' Cup win in 1966 made them the first German team to win a European title (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
Jubilant scenes after qualfying for the group stages in Udine on Aug. 28.
Dino Panato/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: DNQ
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 3rd place in Portuguese Superliga, 2-2 (5-4 on penalties) winners over Udinese in the playoffs
Manager: Jose Peseiro (first season)
Stadium: Estadio Municipal (cap: 30,154)
Key Additions: Ruben Micael (attacking midfield, season-long loan from Atletico Madrid)
Key Departures: None of note
Braga's attacking bent was evident from kickoff in their two-leg tie against Udinese, and viewers can rest assured that they will approach the group stages with the same sense of flair.
Ruben Micael, their goal-scorer on the night in Udine, will be well-known to Arsenal fans. Micael was part of the FC Porto side that came so close to shocking the Gunners in the 2009-10 Champions League Round of 16.
In on a season-long loan from Atletico, Micael looks to have settled quite nicely in the Braga midfield. His ingenuity will be called upon to help Peseiro's side as they look to crack the knockout stages.
While they certainly won't be favorites, Braga are no strangers to the Champions League, and have been known to give teams problems in the past during the group stages (see: Arsenal).
Player to Watch: Ruben Lima
He's started the past three of Braga's games—including going the full 90 in the first leg and the full 120 in the return—without finding the back of the net.
But that doesn't mean that the pacy forward hasn't had his chances, including one guilt-edged opportunity early on Tuesday evening. Sent in behind the defense, Lima saw a good low shot saved by keeper Zelijko Brkic.
Braga will need a confident Lima up front. With the dynamism in midfield, chances will abound—as was seen even against a side as resolutely defensive as Udinese.
His form was excellent in the playoffs, and expect the striker to carry it into the group stages.
The Estadio Municipal, built for the 2004 European Championships, was carved from a quarry (Monte Castro) that overlooks the city of Braga.
Stands run only along both sides of the pitch. Behind the goal at one end are the rock walls of the quarry and at the other is an open view over the city sprawling in the distance.
Each stand is covered with a canopy-style roof, and both are connected to each other across the pitch by dozens of steel strings, a design inspired by ancient South American Inca bridges.
Once inside the stadium, moving from one stand to the other is done through a 5,000 sq.m plaza under the pitch (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: DNQ
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place Scottish Premier League, 4-0 winners on aggregate against Helsingborg in playoff round
Manager: Neil Lennon (third season)
Captain: Scott Brown
Stadium: Celtic Park (cap: 60,832)
Key Additions: Fraser Forster (keeper)
Key Departures: Ki Sung-Yong (midfield)
Successive 2-0 victories saw Celtic past Swedish side Helsingborg and into the Champions League group stages for the first time since 2008.
It's a massive boost for the Bhoys, who have seen their only rival to the Scottish Premier League crown, Rangers from across town in Glasgow, inundated by the weight of their financial problems this past summer.
Thus, Celtic carry the torch into the Champions League group stages. They'll need their keeper Forster, producer of some terrific saves during the two-leg playoff tie, to be at his best, and a back four that looked nervy in the away leg to the Swedes to close up shop.
Making it to the knockout stages will be a very difficult task, but if Lennon's side can produce some of the attacking forays seen in this playoff round in the three games at Celtic Park—sure to be at its noise-piercing best—they might just snag some points.
Player to Watch: Kris Commons
Georgios Samaras is the man most media outlets focus upon, but the 28-year-old Commons was superb in the playoff round.
He scored a fantastic acrobatic strike to open the scoring in Sweden a week ago Tuesday, and provided the assist for Victor Wanyama's goal that made it 2-0 in the return leg.
His industry in midfield, added to his scoring ability and passing presence, will be massive boons to the Celtic attack if they are to make a concerted run in this competition.
In 1967 Celtic won an unprecedented quintuple, not only becoming the first British team to win the European Cup, but also winning the Scottish League Championship, the Scottish Cup, the Scottish League Cup and the Glasgow Cup (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: Defeated Bayern Munich in the final (1-1, 4-3 on penalties)
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 6th place in English Premier League, won 2011-12 Champions League title, automatic
Manager: Roberto Di Matteo (second season)
Captain: John Terry
Stadium: Stamford Bridge (cap: 41,837)
Key Additions: Eden Hazard (winger/attacking midfield), Victor Moses (winger), Cesar Azpilicueta (right back), Oscar (attacking midfield), Marko Marin (attacking midfield)
Key Departures: Didier Drogba (forward), Jose Bosingwa (right back), Solomon Kalou (forward), Kevin de Bruyne (attacking midfield, season-long loan to Werder Bremen), Romelu Lukaku (forward, season-long loan to West Bromwich Albion)
Roberto Di Matteo, brought in as manager after Andre Villas-Boas's removal in March, quickly fired a floundering Chelsea side into shape and delivered exacting owner Roman Abramovich the Champions League title he had craved for so long.
The new manager's reward? A two-year deal.
But what a side he has to work with in that window. The addition of Eden Hazard, however costly, is already looking like an early contender for signing of the season. The Belgian has been on another planet in his first three league games for the Blues, providing one goal and six assists—an unconscionable return rate, but one that offers some insight into the 21-year-old's quality.
It is perhaps Hazard's addition more than any other that seems to confirm Chelsea's status as one of a small bunch of favorites to once again get their hands on the trophy. The midfield is looking strong as ever, with the industrious Ramires—one of the stars of the semifinal tie against Barcelona—back alongside the likes of mainstays Frank Lampard and Jon Obi Mikel.
The addition of Oscar could be an interesting Ace for Di Matteo to play. The Swiss-born manager has favored bringing on the young Brazilian as an impact sub so far this season, but it seems likely that he will grow into a larger role.
Petr Cech continues to man the sticks in goal, and the central defensive trio of David Luiz, John Terry and Gary Cahill is looking as imperious as ever.
Right-back was a worry, with Branislav Ivanovic looking like a weak point in defense in the early going (although with the way he's scoring, it might be difficult to bench him), but the arrival of Azpilicueta has been met with optimism. At the very least, the former Marseille man will provide cover at the position.
Player to Watch: Eden Hazard
Who else could it be? Fernando Torres firing into form (he scored a terrific outside-of-the-foot effort against Newcastle United over the weekend) will be a worrisome development for the Blues' opponents, but as Toon manager Alan Pardew reckoned following his side's 2-0 loss, Hazard has added a scintillating element to the Chelsea attack.
When Pardew said Hazard could lead Chelsea to the title, he was talking about the Premier League crown, but that "extra dimension" of Hazard's he mentioned will apply just as seamlessly to the Champions League as well.
Able to attack defenses with pace, Hazard has also shown a tremendous ability to pick out incisive passes and bring teammates into play. He's something of an anomaly in the English game—not an out-and-out winger, instead a genuine attacking threat who can put a defense under from pretty much anywhere on the pitch.
He has already tasted the Champions League with Lille last season, so he will be far from daunted by the spectacle when he walks out onto that pitch for the first group stage game in September.
If Chelsea were looking for the key to unlock a repeat triumph, Hazard might just have constituted it when he put pen to paper this past June.
Chelsea have played in Stamford Bridge since their inception in 1905 (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
2011-12 Champions League: DNQ
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place Liga I (Romania), defeated Slovan Liberec 3-1 on aggregate in third qualifying round, defeated FC Basel 3-1 on aggregate in playoff round
Manager: Ioan Andone (first season, second spell: 2007-08)
Stadium: Stadionul Dr. Constantin Rădulescu (cap: 24,000)
Key Additions: Ciprean Deac (attacking midfield), Mario Felgueiras (keeper), Adam Vass (midfield), Diogo Valente (winger)
Key Departures: Renan (defensive midfield)
Cluj had a taxing road to the Champions League group stages with ties against Slovan Liberec and FC Basel—the latter of whom made it to the Round of 16 a season ago—but the Romanian champions were hugely impressive against the Swiss side.
Pantelis Kapetanos's goal in the return leg put the tie out of reach, and the striker should continue to be one to watch for during the group stages. But the main man will be Moudou Sougou, whose brace in the first leg affixed Cluj firmly in the driver's seat toward the group stages.
This season marks the club's second appearance in the Champions League in the past three. Qualification for the knockout stages is a reach, but they proved their mettle in taking out Basel.
Player to Watch: Moudou Sougou
The Senegalese winger got his Cluj career off to a perfect start, scoring two goals in his first two games.
His number (99) might be a bit bizarre, but Sougou has starred for Cluj ever since joining in 2011. Sougou is a natural goal scorer and enjoys ghosting in past defenders, preferably on the right flank.
His technique is paired with an impressive aerial ability, making him all the more dangerous for Cluj's opponents in the upcoming competition.
The Champions League has long served as a platform for relative unknowns to capture the attention of viewers. Sougou might just become the latest in that long line this season.
In 2007–08, CFR Cluj were champions of Liga I for the first time in their history, taking the title away from teams from the city of Bucharest for the first time in 17 years, qualifying for the UEFA Champions League group stages in the process, six years after having been in the third tier of Romanian league football (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
GNK Dinamo Zagreb
2011-12 Champions League: 4th place in Group D, DNQ for knockout stages
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st in Prva HNL, defeated Ludogorets Razgrad 4-3 on aggregate in second qualifying round, defeated Sheriff Tiraspol 5-0 on aggregate in third qualifying round, defeated 3-1 winners on aggregate over Maribor in playoffs
Manager: Ante Čačić, (second season)
Stadium: Stadion Maksimir (pop: 38,923)
Key Additions: Duje Cop (forward)
Key Departures: Milan Badelj (midfield)
In one of the more interesting plot lines of the Champions League playoff round, Milan Badelj, scorer of one of Dinamo's crucial first-leg goals against Maribor, will now pack his bags for Germany, where he is set to join Hamburg.
His last contribution to Čačić's side? Sealing up qualification in the lucrative UCL group stages. Not a bad parting gift.
Badelj's presence will be missed, but in steps the rampant Duje Cop, who showed during the two-leg tie with the Slovenians that he has little to no conscience about letting fly from a distance.
The group stage will obviously be a huge jump up for Čačić's side, but the second-year manager can feel confident that his technical bunch can make some inroads in the competition, particularly in the raucous confines of their Maksimir Stadium.
Player to Watch: Duje Cop
Cop's shot is quite formidable, and he can draw the ire of teammates and coach alike for his willingness to unleash it when a better option might be on.
But his return rate—he scored in two of the last three Champions League games for Dinamo this summer—makes him an instant pick to be a hit in the group stages.
Despite having only joined this year, Cop already appears to have taken to his new side with a flourish, and was a constant danger man in the playoff round.
Dinamo are the most successful club in Croatian football, having won thirteen Croatian championship titles, ten Croatian Cups and four Croatian Supercups. The club has spent its entire existence in top flight, having been members of the Yugoslav First League from 1946 to 1991, and then the Prva HNL since its foundation in 1992 (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
2011-12 Champions League: Lost 1-4 on aggregate to Rubin Kazan in third qualifying round, DNQ for group stages
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 2nd in Ukrainian Premier League, defeated Feyenoord 3-1 on aggregate in third qualifying round, defeated Borussia Monchengladbach 4-3 on aggregate in playoff round
Manager: Yuri Syomin (third season, second spell: 2007-09)
Captain: Oleksandr Shovkovskiy
Stadium: Olimpiysky National Sports Complex (cap: 70,050)
Key Additions: Taye Taiwo (fullback, season-long loan from AC Milan with permanent option), Raffael (attacking midfielder), Marco Ruben (center forward), Miguel Veloso (defensive midfield), Niko Kranjcar (attacking midfielder), Andriy Bogdanov (central midfielder)
Key Departures: Andrey Shevchenko (center forward, retirement), Andre (center forward), Correa (central midfielder)
Syomin was subjected to some nervy moments on his familiar home touchline Wednesday evening, during which Borussia Monchengladbach fought tooth and nail to come back from a 3-1 aggregate deficit.
The Germans nearly made it too, but their 2-1 victory on the night was not enough to undo Kiev's three goals in the first leg and they bowed out.
Into the group stages yet again, Dynamo will look to their prodigious attacking duo of Andriy Yarmolenko and Brown Ideye to fire them past the group stages.
Scorers of 13 goals apiece last season (all competitions), Ideye and Yarmolenko both netted once during the playoff round, and the 23-year-old Nigerian also scored twice during the side's aggregate victory over Feyenoord in the previous rung of the competition.
New signings Veloso and Kranjcar have featured predominantly during these games, but mainstay Artem Milevskiy is another player to watch for.
Player to Watch: Andriy Yarmolenko
At his best when allowed to run at players on the right wing, Yarmolenko was considered one of the stars to watch for Ukraine at this summer's European Championships.
While his compatriot and former club teammate Andriy Shevchenko stole the spotlight in Ukraine's three group stage games, Yarmolenko did provide the forward with an assist for one of Shevchenko's two goals against Sweden.
It is that sort of attacking versatility that could make Yarmolenko one of the top players in his group. With Shevchenko now retired, the onus has fallen firmly upon him to provide.
In the first leg of the playoff tie against Monchengladbach, Yarmolenko offered a glimpse of his prodigious talent, attacking the German defense on a counterattack before launching into a breathtaking series of stepovers to thoroughly wrong foot the trailing center back before firing a low drive into the corner of the net.
As part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in December 1991, the club has also won 13 USSR Championships, 9 USSR Cups and 3 USSR Super Cups, making Dynamo the most successful club in the history of the Soviet Top League (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
2011-12 Champions League: DNQ
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in Turkish Lig, automatic
Manager: Fatih Terim (second season, third spell: 1996-2000, 2002-04)
Captain: TomáŠ UjfaluŠi
Stadium: Turk Telecom Arena (cap: 52,652)
Key Additions: Nordin Amrabat (winger), Felipe Melo (midfielder, season-long loan with permanent option), Burak Yilmaz (center forward), Hamit Altintop (winger), Dany Nounkeu (center back), Umut Bulut (center forward, season-long loan with permanent option)
Key Departures: Bogdan Stancu (center forward), Colin Kazim-Richards (winger, season-long loan), Servet Cetin (center back)
Galatasaray have thrown their hat into the ring for the signing of Real Madrid star Kaka, and if the Brazilian does head for Istanbul, he will be the latest in a string of recruits who have signed on for Terim's side this offseason.
Loan signings Melo and Bulut made their competitive debuts on Aug. 26 in a 3-3 derby draw with city Besiktas, with both finding the back of the net—Melo for the opposition and Bulut for Galatasaray.
Both will certainly play a role this season in the Champions League, and they will be joined by names well known to the world of football such as Emmanuel Eboue, Ujfalusi and striker Johan Elmander.
The Swedish hit man is coming off a disappointing summer where he struggled to return from injury ahead of participation in the European Championships. Elmander was a bit player in his country's three games, but when on form the former Bolton man can be a menace in front of goal.
Player to Watch: Hamit Altintop
Many forget that before the Turkish winger played a crucial role in helping lead Bayern Munich to the 2010 Champions League final.
His performances caught the eye of Real Madrid, and like so many players in recent seasons, Altintop was drawn to that seductive siren call. Like so many players, he struggled to get games at the Bernebeu, however, and has returned home ahead of the 2012-13 season.
Altintop is a terrific player, able to impact games with his passing and technical prowess. With a number of players unaccustomed to the rigors of Champions League football, his experience and leadership will be vital assets.
Galatasaray is one of the three European clubs to ever achieve a continental quadruple, by winning the UEFA Cup, the UEFA Super Cup, the Turkish Super League Championship and the Turkish Cup in 2000 (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
Claudio Villa/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: DNQ
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in Serie A, automatic
Manager: Antonio Conte (second season), handed 10-match ban. Massimo Carrera has assumed first-team duties during games and is in a "caretaker" role
Captain: Gianluigi Buffon
Stadium: Juventus Stadium (cap: 41,000)
Key Additions: Sebastian Giovinco (co-ownership deal with Parma resolved, midfield), Martin Caceres (fullback), Kwadwo Asamoah (central midfield), Mauricio Isla (central midfield), Lucio (center back), Manolo Gabbiadini (forward), Emanuele Giaccherini (winger)
Key Departures: Milos Krasic (winger), Eljero Elia (winger), Cristian Pasquato (forward), James Troisi (winger), Alessandro del Piero (striker)
Conte's 10-month ban, a result of his implication in a match-fixing scenario from his time with Siena in the 2010-11 season, will force him to watch all games this season from the tribunes.
But as the Bianconeri showed in their impressive 2-0 opening win against Parma, it shouldn't have too much bearing on the season. After all, Conte can still preside over training sessions, where the brunt of the work is done.
The double-swoop of Isla and Asamoah from Udinese, with Pasquato heading north in return, will undoubtedly have brought a smile to Conte's face. The pair's quality is undeniable and will be counted upon to provide added industry and creativity to central midfield.
The king of that realm, obviously, remains Andrea Pirlo, who thrived in his first season in Turin and was a major reason why Juventus were able to shed the legal problems of the past decade and roar to the league title.
Questions still remain at forward, where the enigmatic Mirko Vucinic still presides, but the rumored addition of Dimitar Berbatov from Manchester United could be one of the coups of the season.
Captain and ageless goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon will once again command the side, and it will be interesting to see how the 3-5-2 formation introduced last season ahead of him fares in the heat of Champions League action.
Like Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 formation is tailored specifically for an ubiquitous attacking midfielder to make the system purr, Conte's 3-5-2 has Pirlo as its fulcrum in midfield. The side backs—Stephan Lichsteiner in particular at right-back—love to get forward into the attack, where Pirlo often picks them out with pinpoint passes.
Player to Watch: Claudio Marchisio
Pirlo's class is self-evident, but the exploits of the man affectionately known as Il Principio could have the greatest effect on Juventus making an impression in their first season of Champions League football since 2009-10.
Marchisio is fresh off participation in Euro 2012 with Italy, and will now turn his attention toward participation in Europe's finest competition. The Turin native scored nine goals in league play last season and added four assists—his ability to make things happen cannot go uncounted.
Juventus may not have played in the competition for some time, but they have players who know its rigors like the back of their hand. Rust should not be an issue for Conte's side and expect Marchisio to be at his creative best in an advanced midfield role.
Juventus are managed by the industrial Agnelli family since 1923, which constitutes the oldest sporting partnership in Italy, thus making Juventus the first professional club in the country (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
2011-12 Champions League: 4th place in Group B, DNQ for knockout stages
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 3rd place in Ligue 1, defeated FC Copenhagen 2-1 on aggregate in playoff round
Manager: Rudi Garcia (fifth season)
Captain: Rio Mavuba
Stadium: Grand Stade Lille Metropole (cap: 50,186)
Key Additions: Solomon Kalou (forward), Marvin Martin (central midfield), Djibril Sidibe (defender), Viktor Kionaridis (attacking midfield)
Key Departures: Eden Hazard (winger), Ireneusz Jelen (forward), Joe Cole (midfield, season-long loan, back to Liverpool), Moussa Sow (striker)
The 2010-11 Ligue 1 champions left it late against Copenhagen, with forward Tulio de Melo scoring the decisive goal to send Les Dogues through to the group stages in the 105th minute of added time on Wednesday.
It would have been a shame had Lille failed to move past this stage. They've just opened their gleaming new Stade Metropole, which is now sure to be coursing with fans on Champions League evenings this fall.
Called the "Barcelona of France," Lille play some exquisite football, buoyed by their excellent midfield that combines the likes of mainstays Florent Balmont and Rio Mavuba with the arrival of Marvin Martin. The forwards often drop deep to get involved in the play, which can lead to some mesmerizing stuff.
Many will point to the loss of Hazard as reason enough why Lille won't be able to traverse the first stages of the competition, but Garcia has concocted a side that is brimming with creativity in midfield. Martin is one of the brighter talents in French football—he led Ligue 1 in assists just two seasons ago—and he is joined by the likes of Dimitri Payet, Nolan Roux and Rio Mavuba.
Kalou has already made an imprint in his short time in the north of France. Out of a job with Chelsea, the Ivorian has looked lively on the flanks for Garcia and provided the assist for the first goal against Copenhagen on Wednesday evening.
Player to Watch: Solomon Kalou
He never seemed to find his footing during his final years at Chelsea, but there's never been any denying the immense talent Kalou holds.
Pacy, able to take defenders on the dribble as well as link up in the final third, the Ivorian has taken to his new club with zeal, scoring in the league opener and now providing that crucial assist in the second leg of the playoff.
His experience with the Blues in the competition—he made 49 appearances—will be an added boon as Garcia looks to improve upon last season's campaign and lead Lille into the knockout stages this season.
Lille was founded as a result of a merger between Olympique Lillois and SC Fives. Both clubs were founding members of the French Division 1 and Lillois was the league's inaugural champions (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
2011-12 Champions League: DNQ
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 4th place in La Liga, defeated Panathinaikos 2-0 on aggregate in playoff round
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini (third season)
Captain: Jesús Gámez
Stadium: La Rosaleda (cap: 29,500)
Key Additions: Fabrice Olinga (forward)
Key Departures: Santi Cazorla (midfield), Jose Rondon (center forward), Apono (central midfield), Xavi Torres (midfield), Ruud van Nistelrooy (forward, retirement)
After all the financial problems swirling about the club this summer, Tuesday night's qualification in Athens to the group stages of the Champions League had to serve as a wonderful measure of respite from the storm.
Malaga were far and away the better side over the two legs—although on-loan midfielder Cissokho is one to watch for Panathinaikos this season—and while there is a dearth of depth in the squad, the first team has some very, very good players who just might pull a coup.
Replacing the goals provided by van Nistelrooy may be the biggest problem Pellegrini faces during Champions League play, but Olinga has looked very lively in the early going this season and became the youngest player ever to score in a La Liga match on the opening day.
The midfield, even without the likes of Cazorla, remains the powerhouse of the side. Jeremy Toulalan continues to look 45 while playing like the (almost) 29-year-old he really is (all jokes aside, he was excellent in the playoff round) and Joaquin provides bags of experience, not to mention quality from spot kicks.
The young man everyone will be watching is Isco, but he is surrounded by a number of talented technicians with the inclination to attack. Eliseu has a wonderful left foot and showed the ability to embark upon rampaging runs into the attacking area. Diego Buennanote is of slight build, but can provide that final pass in the danger area.
Julio Baptista remains a long-term injury worry, but if the Brazilian can regain fitness and round into form, Pellegrini could have an Ace card waiting in the wings.
Player to Watch: Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez (Isco)
It all begins and ends with the young Spaniard. Blessed with that tremendous presence and tight control that befits every midfielder of his generation, the Malaga talisman has also shown a nose for goal.
His quality in the attack could very well make the difference for Malaga as they embark upon this European campaign. It was his delightful assist that helped open the scoring in the first leg of the tie, and he continually showed the sort of wondrous dexterity that could unlock defenses to come.
CD Málaga, the predecessor to the edition seen today, had a reserve club, founded on May 25, 1948 when CD Málaga took over a junior club, CD Santo Tomás, with the purpose of establishing a reserve team.
The club was renamed Club Atlético Malagueño, reviving the name of one of the two clubs that had merged to form CD Málaga in 1933.
During the 1959–60 season, CA Malagueño and CD Málaga found themselves together in the third level. As a reserve team, the former should have been relegated. To avoid this, they separated from their parent club and registered as an independent club with the Royal Spanish Football Federation.
In 1992, when CD Málaga dissolved after financial difficulties, CA Malagueño continued playing. The 1992–93 season saw them playing in Tercera División Group 9. After a successful campaign, the club was promoted to Segunda División B.
However, the following season the club was relegated again and, facing financial difficulties, were in danger of folding. On December 19, 1993, in a referendum, the club's members voted in favour of changing names and, on June 29, 1994 CA Malagueño changed their name to Málaga Club de Fútbol S.A.D., becoming an official successor to what was previously called Club Deportivo Málaga (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
Gareth Copley/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: 3rd place in Group A, DNQ for knockout stages
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in English Premier League, automatic
Manager: Roberto Mancini (fourth season)
Captain: Vincent Kompany
Stadium: City of Manchester Stadium (cap: 47,726)
Key Additions: Jack Rodwell (central midfield)
Key Departures: Adam Johnson (winger), Emmanuel Adebayor (center forward), Vladimir Weiss (winger/midfield)
For all their domestic success of the past two seasons (FA Cup triumph in 2011, Premier League title in 2012), that third-place finish in last season's Champions League group stages is sure to have rankled Mancini this past offseason.
Granted, it was an encouraging debut for the club in Europe's finest competition, and to have expected immediate success would have been something of a stretch. Manchester City is blessed with some of the finest talents in world football, many of whom have plied their trades in the UCL before, but doing so with a new team is never cause for immediate returns.
They squandered much-needed points at home to Napoli (1-1 draw in the first group stage match), and came undone on their trips to Naples and Munich, where they lost to Napoli and Bayern. Improved form on the road will be a must this time around.
This summer marked the first in the past five years where City were not major players in the buying market, opting only to bring in midfielder Jack Rodwell from Everton thus far. The sales of Adebayor and Johnson shouldn't hurt too badly, considering Adebayor hasn't been a part of Mancini's plans and Johnson was a bit-part player a season ago.
Looking to this season's group stages, Mancini will expect his midfield engine room to be at its very best. Yaya Toure is in sensational form and Samir Nasri has gotten his second season at City off to a cracking start.
The injury to Sergio Aguero was a worry, but the Argentine should be back in time for the first group stage match. That Mancini also has the likes of Edin Dzeko, Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli to choose from up front is exactly the sort of problem most managers pray for.
The Italian will again serve as a lightning rod of attention, but he has begun doing so for more positive reasons. Balotelli's European campaign with Italy showed both the best (unparalleled finishing technique) and worst (infuriating lackadaisical approach) of his game.
Here's hoping we see more of the former this season.
Player to Watch: Samir Nasri
The Frenchman enjoyed a silverware-laden start to his Eastlands career, but dipped in and out of form as the season wore on.
He's started the current domestic campaign off tremendously, however, instigating City's 3-2 comeback against Southampton in the opening weekend.
At his best, there are few who can contain the mazy midfielder. Nasri's balance and dribbling ability were already well-known from his exploits at Marseille and Arsenal (he scored an absolute classic for the Gunners against Porto in the 2010 Round of 16 return leg), but it is with City that he has perhaps blossomed into the complete footballer he'd always hinted at becoming.
Assists became a major part of his game last season (nine in all competitions), and he will have every opportunity to provide for the aforementioned stable of strikers.
Nasri made headlines for all the wrong reasons while at Euro 2012 with France, and was slapped with a three-match ban by the country's football federation upon returning. He appears to have pushed that ignominy aside, however, and is fully focused on the season at hand.
Manchester City were playing in the third tier of English league football as recently as 1998. The club has used three different crests during its 132-year history. The current edition was adopted in 1997 (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: 3rd place in Group C, DNQ for knockout stages
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 2nd place in English Premier League, automatic
Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson (27th season)
Captain: Nemanja Vidić
Stadium: Old Trafford (cap: 75,765)
Key Additions: Robin van Persie (forward), Shinji Kagawa (attacking midfield), Alexander Büttner (fullback), Nick Powell (attacking midfield)
Key Departures: Ji-Sung Park (midfield), Tomasz Kuszczak (goalkeeper), Fabio da Silva (fullback)
United's failure to advance from a group that included the likes of Benfica, FC Basel and Otelul Galati was one of the biggest surprises from last season, and you can rest assured Sir Alex will have targeted advancement this season as one of his key goals.
The additions of van Persie and Kagawa, both veterans of the Champions League with Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, respectively (they faced each other during the group stages a season ago), will help with that endeavor.
Van Persie's class has already been on display with his sublime goal against Fulham last weekend, and Kagawa has impressed at attacking midfielder in games against Everton as well as the Cottagers.
With David de Gea looking superb in goal so far, defense has been the biggest question for United. Forced to use a makeshift central pairing of Nemanja Vidic and midfielder Michael Carrick in the first two league games, Ferguson's job will be easier once the likes of Chris Smalling, Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones return from injury.
A stout defensive spine has always been a hallmark of the greatest United sides, but this one could flourish with the new creativity up front. The sudden developments of Nani and Wayne Rooney—could both legitimately leave this season?—has cast serious doubt upon United's campaign, but there is talent enough in this side to weather the departure of at least one of them.
Nani looks likeliest at the moment. Whether Rooney joins him could provide added cause for concern.
Player to Watch: Shinji Kagawa
Van Persie will score goals as long as he's fit, but it's the ex-Dortmund man who looks like the most important addition so far to United.
Kagawa's dynamism and passing ability appear to have already appealed to Ferguson's finer feelings, and the midfielder will provide United with an added weapon in the attacking third that they have lacked in recent seasons.
There is an exquisite simplicity to Kagawa's game. He can turn on the skills and frills if need be, but he has a remarkable ability to impact proceedings by playing smart, technically sound football.
A player who fits the mold of his new manager's pragmatic mentality, he looks set for a glittering career at the red end of Manchester.
Founded as Newton Heath LYR Football Club in 1878, the club changed its name to Manchester United in 1902 and moved to Old Trafford in 1910 (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
Montpellier Herault SC
Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: DNQ
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in Ligue 1, automatic
Manager: Rene Girard (fourth season)
Captain: Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa
Stadium: Stade de la Mosson (cap: 32,900)
Key Additions: Emmanuel Herrera (center forward), Daniel Congre (center back), Anthony Mounier (winger), Gaetan Charbonnier (center forward)
Key Departures: Olivier Giroud (forward), Gregory Lacombe (winger), Geoffrey Dernis (winger)
Few would have predicted a league triumph—the first in club history—for Montpellier heading into last season, but Girard's side finally burst through that wall with a show of supreme consistency.
Giroud was a massive reason behind the success, pouring in 21 goals—a tally good enough to tie him at the league lead alongside Paris Saint-Germain's Nene. The 6'3" striker has departed for Arsenal, leaving a goal-scoring chasm at the forward position.
Girard will hope to replace that scoring output with the additions of talented youngsters Herrera and Charbonnier, but it's the elder statesman John Utaka who could have the greatest impact while those two find their feet.
The Nigerian forward has looked lively in the early going this season, providing two assists during league play—he will look to combine with striker Souleymane Camara.
Scorer of nine goals last season, Camara found the back of the net in the league opener but has been held scoreless in Montpellier's most recent two matches—both of which were losses.
The decision of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, one of France's best young center backs, to stay on at the club this season was a huge victory for Girard. The squad depth will be stretched enough as is with the demands of the UCL.
Player to Watch: Younes Belhanda
The Moroccan playmaker has rocketed to the fore of Ligue 1's top tier of players, enjoying a sensational campaign in 2011-12.
His ingenuity in the final third has caught the eye of some of Europe's top clubs, and while there was interest this past summer, the allure of Champions League football this season enticed Belhanda who decided to stay on at the southern French club.
The competition has a habit of bringing out the best in attacking midfielders—remember Wesley Sneijder's phenomenal form in the 2009-10 edition—and it stands to reason that Belhanda could emerge as a major player this time around.
In 1989, the club changed its name from Montpellier Paillade Sport Club Littoral (MPSCL) to Montpellier Hérault Sport Club after it received financial support from the General Council of Hérault. It has used the name ever since (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
2011-12 Champions League: DNQ
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in Danish Superliga, automatic
Manager: Kasper Hjulmand (second season)
Captain: Nicolai Stokholm
Stadium: Farum Park (cap: 10,100)
Key Additions: Anders Christiansen (attacking midfield), Mario Ticinovic (winger), Morten Nordstrand (center forward), Joshua John (winger, season-long loan from FC Twente)
Key Departures: Andres Bjelland (center back), Tobias Mikkelsen (winger)
Heralded as a club that focuses upon youth development, Nordsjælland have seen that policy pay dividends in recent seasons, with the 2012 Superliga title the high-water mark. Five of its players—Mikkel Beckmann, Andreas Bjelland and debutantes Tobias Mikkelsen, Jesper Hansen and Jores Okore—were called up to the senior Denmark team last November for a pair of friendlies.
Mikkelsen and Bjelland have since left, but a dedicated offseason recruitment has seen at least four players brought in, including John, who made four appearances in the Eredivise last season.
"I have a good feeling about this," John told UEFA's official site. "It is a new experience and a new country. I am looking forward to developing in the Danish league and the chance to play in the Champions League is a bonus."
They're likely to be coined the minnows of a group that includes Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk and last season's winners Chelsea.
Player to Watch: Andreas Laudrup
The son of former Danish superstar Michael, Andreas Laudrup has made 72 appearances for the club since cracking the first team in 2009.
The midfielder, who had previously played in the Real Madrid youth system, scored one of the goals in a 3-0 victory over AC Horsens on the final day of the 2011-12 season that saw Nordsjælland win its first-ever league title.
Founded as Farum Boldklub from the merger of the town's two football clubs Farum IK and Stavnsholt BK in 1991, the club changed its name to F.C. Nordsjælland in 2003 (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
Paolo Bruno/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: 3rd in Group F, DNQ for knockout stages
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in Greek Superleague, automatic
Manager: Leonardo Jardim (first season)
Captain: Vasilis Torosidis
Stadium: Kiraiskakis Stadium (cap: 32,115)
Key Additions: Paulo Machado (central midfielder), Leandro (central midfielder), Panagiotis Vlachodimos (winger), Konstantinos Mitroglou (forward, return from loan)
Key Departures: Kevin Mirallas (winger/forward), Olof Mellberg (central defense)
The transfer of Mirallas to Everton has dominated headlines in recent weeks, with the talented forward joined out the club door by Mellberg, who departs Piraeus (it's located about 12 miles from the Athenian city center) after three seasons with the club to join Villarreal.
Mirallas's 20 goals led the Greek Superleague last season, and his menace will be missed. But even with some new faces in the side, Arsenal know Olympiacos quite well having faced the in two of the past three Champions League campaigns.
Olympiacos are coming off a tremendously successful domestic campaign, which saw them win the domestic double.
The return of Mitroglou, who scored 17 goals while on loan last season Atromitos, could be an intriguing option up top, but it is the goalscoring acumen of Rafik Djebbour—who has nabbed 20 goals since signing for the Erythrolefki in January 2011—who could provide the greatest threat.
Arsenal have lost on both previous trips to the Kiraiskakis, in 2009 and 2011, although both those matches fell on the last day of group stage play, with the Gunners already having sealed qualification for the knockout stages. Thus, the first team did not travel for the game.
But the first team was on hand for the Sept. 28 match a season ago, which saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain handed his European debut at the Emirates. Though they emerged 2-1 winners against Olympiacos, it was a nervy showing from the Gunners, who needed Oxlade-Chamberlain's opener (Andre Santos got the second) to cancel David Fuster's goal for the visitors.
Player to Watch: Rafik Djebbour
Scorer of a goal away to Borussia Dortmund during last season's Champions League group stages, Djebbour will be counted upon to help mop up the loss of Mirallas's exploits this season.
A natural goal scorer, the Algerian combines a superb sense of balance with an exquisite finishing touch—one that has helped him acclimate quite well to the climes of Olympiacos, where he simply has not stopped scoring since joining a year and a half ago.
When last season's Champions League campaign was through, Djebbour had appeared in five of Olympiacos' six group stage matches, enjoying a terrific return of two goals. He started both games against Arsenal, scoring in the home match on Dec. 6.
Founded in 1925, the club did not enjoy the sort of zealous following seen today among Athenian locals before the Andrianopoulos brothers, who "significantly raised the reputation of the club and added glory to it."
Members of a prosperous family, the Andrianopoulos brothers made the name of Olympiacos known over Greece. Yannis, Dinos, Giorgos and Vassilis were the first to play. Leonidas made his appearance later on and played for a long time (1927–1935). The club's offensive line, made up of the five brothers, soon became legendary (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
2011-12 Champions League: DNQ
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 2nd place in Russian Premier League, defeated Fenerbahce 3-2 on aggregate in playoff round
Manager: Unai Emery (first season)
Captain: Sergei Parshivlyuk
Stadium: Luzhniki Stadium (cap: 78,360)
Key Additions: Kim Källström (central midfield), Juan Insaurralde (center back), Romulu (central midfield)
Key Departures: None of note
Spartak's approach to the return leg, played on the banks of the Bosporous in Fenerbahce's boisterous Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium, was hugely impressive.
Unwilling to sit on the 2-1 advantage they'd created in the first leg, Emery's side attacked in droves and were rewarded for their intrepid approach when Aiden McGeady's cross was hammered home by Ferreira da Silva.
It was an all-around impressive showing throughout the two legs by Spartak, who have the pieces to make a dent in this season's competition.
Emmanuel Eminike will be called upon to provide the sort of scoring acumen that saw him net in the first leg, and Artem Dzjuba and Welliton, scorers of eight and seven league goals a season ago, will be called upon to bolster the attack.
The addition of Källström will give Emery a fine technician and one of the more underrated left foots in Europe. The Swede has Champions League experience from his time with Lyon and featured prominently for side that made it to the semifinals in 2010.
Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, brought in last January and formerly of Everton, provides added quality on the left flank. Able to play as a fullback or winger, he started in the playoff round and will continue to feature this season.
Player to Watch: Aiden McGeady
The former Celtic winger has always cut a frustrating figure at the international level with Ireland, where many feel that he does not do enough to capitalize upon his prodigious output. For all his impressive dribbling, there is not enough end product.
McGeady still shows lapses in concentration—seen both in the past European Championships and this playoff tie—but when he turns on the skill he can be a joy to watch.
His work to set up da Silva's opener on Wednesday was vintage stuff—cutting toward the end line and sending in a good low cross. This season's Champions League could be an excellent platform to announce his arrival as a key player in Europe.
Normally a turf field, the Luzhniki Stadium's playing surface was transformed into natural grass for the 2008 Champions League final, in which Manchester United defeated Chelsea on penalties.
The previous October, the England national team had played Russia in a European Championship qualifier in the Luzhniki. The surface had remained turf for the encounter. The Three Lions fell famously on their way to missing out on the tournament.
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: DNQ
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 2nd place in Ligue 1, automatic
Manager: Carlo Ancelotti (second season)
Captain: Mamadou Sakho
Stadium: Parc des Princes (cap: 48,712)
Key Additions: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (forward), Ezequiel Lavezzi (attacking midfielder/winger), Thiago Silva (central defense), Marco Verratti (midfield), Lucas Moura (attacking midfield, will arrive in January)
Key Departures: Milan Bisevac (center back), Ceara (fullback)
Since the oil-rich Qatar Sport Investment group assumed principal ownership of the club in spring of last year and made former AC Milan great Leonardo sporting director, Paris Saint-Germain have recruited a small army of transfers to the French capital.
PSG spent more than any other club this summer, building upon a 2011-12 season in which they completely revamped the first-team side. Indeed, you'd be hard-pressed to find one player who was with the side as recently as the 2009-10 season.
There is mouth-watering talent at nearly every position, with Ibrahimovic immediately earning star status upon his arrival from Italy in July.
But Ancelotti has yet to find a team that gels. PSG have drawn each of their first three matches in league play while failing to produce the sort of fireworks many had expected.
As Manchester City showed, it can take time for an influx of top players to coalesce. PSG will certainly be a team to fear at the continental stage down the line, but one wonders just how they will fare in the Champions League this season.
While their recruits (Ibrahimovic, Lavezzi and Silva in particular) have plenty of Champions League experience, that is not a guarantor of success. PSG struggled mightily on the road during last fall's Europa League campaign, memorably enduring a throttling at the hands of Athletic Bilbao in the north of Spain.
Still, Ibrahimovic has a habit of scoring when doubts are at their strongest gale. This is certainly a team to keep an eye on. At a moment's notice, they can spring brilliance.
Player to Watch: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
One of the most enigmatic players in world football, Ibrahimovic legitimizes his outsized attitude with an outrageous skill set. Few players have ever combined the physical presence (6'5") with the sublime footwork and impeccable sense for goal.
He is an anomaly in many ways in that he requires little build-up play to make his mark. When he's in flowing form, Ibrahimovic can pretty much score from anywhere.
PSG will need his star status to lead them through their first season of Champions League football since the 2004-05 season, when they finished last in a group consisting of Chelsea, FC Porto and CSKA Moscow.
It's not the riskiest bet to pick them for passage to the knockout stages, but rest assured that they will only go as far as "Ibra" can take them.
There were discussions in 2010 about playing the French Open tennis final at the Parc des Princes.
Seen here early on last season.
2011-12 Champions League: 3rd place in Group G, DNQ for knockout stages
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in Portuguese Superliga, automatic
Manager: Vito Pereira (second season)
Stadium: Estadio do Dragao (cap: 50,399)
Key Additions: Jackson Martinez (center forward), Fabiano (keeper)
Key Departures: Marc Janko (center forward), Alvaro Pereira (fullback), Fernando Belluschi (attacking midfielder), Freddy Guarin (central midfield)
Hulk's protracted transfer saga has dominated the headlines throughout the summer, but Porto are strong enough that they can realistically contend even if their powerful Brazilian winger packs his bags for what is looking like a final destination in Russia.
Winners of the league title a season ago, Pereira has done a terrific job continuing Porto's fine run of form since taking over from Andre Villas-Boas in 2011.
There is tremendous talent within the squad, with Joao Moutinho the first in a long line. Coming off an excellent European Championships with Portugal, Moutinho once again saw his name linked with a host of top clubs, but he has again decided to remain with Porto.
Fernando is another name to watch in the middle of the park, where Lucho Gonzalez has returned after a short-lived stint in the south of France with Olympique Marseille. He has found the back of the net twice this season during league play.
Striker James Rodriguez is emerging as one of the best young forwards on the books. The Colombian signed a new five-year deal this offseason, and will be looking to increase his goal total at Porto, which currently sits at 10 in two seasons.
His compatriot Jackson Martinez, newly arrived this summer from Jaguares of the Mexican league, could also play a key role. He has already scored in the just-started league season.
Should Hulk stay on, this could be a very, very dangerous side.
Player to Watch: Joao Moutinho
Few players could attest to the sort of game-changing brilliance Moutinho had in Poland and Ukraine.
There is no overdose of flash to the midfielder's game, but he was impeccable in distribution and defense during Portugal's impressive run to the semifinals, where they lost to Spain.
Porto have a fine pedigree of talent in the central area of the field, with the likes of Raul Meireles, Belluschi, Guarin and Lucho (who's since returned) all making high-profile moves away in recent seasons.
Moutinho, who seems like he's been linked with Everton since 2008, has gone against that proverbial grain and has carved out a wonderful career with the Dragons.
FC Porto is the most successful Portuguese football club in terms of total titles, with 72 titles, ahead of Benfica, which has 69 titles and ahead of Sporting Lisbon, which has 45 titles.
It is the second most successful Portuguese football club in domestic competitions, with 65 titles, behind Benfica, which has 67 titles, and ahead of Sporting, which has 44 titles, and the most successful Portuguese football club in international competitions, with 7 titles, ahead of Benfica, which has 2 titles, ahead of Sporting, which has 1 title, and ahead of Braga, which has 1 title (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
Denis Doyle/Getty Images
2011-12 Champions League: Semifinals
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in La Liga, automatic
Manager: Jose Mourinho (third season)
Captain: Iker Casillas
Stadium: Santiago Bernebeu (cap: 85,454)
Key Additions: Luka Modric (attacking midfield)
Key Departures: Fernando Gago (defensive midfielder), Sergio Canales (attacking midfielder), Nuri Sahin (central midfield, season-long loan to Liverpool), Hamit Altintop (winger)
Mourinho, the man who has twice won the Champions League title as a manager (FC Porto in 2004, Inter Milan in 2010), will once again look to lead the Galacticos to glory in a competition they have not won since 2002.
Then it was a wonder strike from Zinedine Zidane that proved decisive, and this season Mourinho will once again turn to his considerable crop of stars to weather that final hurdle.
Madrid came desperately close a season ago, famously losing to Bayern Munich on penalties in the semifinals, and while the current offseason's recruitment has been one of the lightest in recent years, Mourinho can still call upon some of the best in the world.
Victory over Barcelona in the SuperCup will have bolstered Madrid hopes heading into the competition, and the momentum could prove interesting should the two sides face each other in the knockout stages.
Cristiano Ronaldo remains the star man, and at 27 is in no danger of slowing his indomitable nature any time soon.
The addition of Modric could make for some fascinating developments. Whether Mourinho opts to use the diminutive Croatian as cover for Mesut Ozil at attacking midfield or plays him alongside could make for some intriguing games.
Staying in midfield, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira will once again take their places in central holding roles—ones they have fulfilled brilliantly since they began featuring together two seasons ago.
The forward situation—will Mourinho opt for Gonzalo Higuain or Karim Benzema?—will again provide a pleasurable dilemma for the Portuguese manager. One would think Benzema has the slight edge at present.
Player to Watch: Angel di Maria
Ronaldo will always be the No. 1 priority for opposing defenses, but di Maria has looked dangerous so far this season, and even showed an ability to track opposing players (in the second leg of the SuperCup, it was Barcelona right back Jordi Alba) up and down the flanks.
Drifting in from his favored position on the right wing, the left-footed Argentine is capable of providing some scintillating skill in attack. He can pick a pass or go for goal, both of which he's shown during his brief career in Madrid.
With anything less than the title deemed a failure by club president Florentino Perez, the pressure is yet again crashing down on the players' heads. But with the types of the talented di Maria on the books, and yet another season of familiarity amongst the stars, this could make for a hugely entertaining campaign from the Madridistas.
The word Real is Spanish for royal and was bestowed to the club by King Alfonso XIII in 1920 together with the royal crown in the emblem (Wikpedia).
FC Schalke 04
The 2012-13 team.
2011-12 Champions League: DNQ
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 3rd place in German Bundesliga, automatic
Manager: Huub Stevens (second season)
Captain: Benedikt Howedes
Stadium: Veltins Arena (cap: 61,673)
Key Additions: Chinedu Obasi (winger), Tranquillo Barnetta (winger), Roman Neustadter (defensive midfield)
Key Departures: Ciprean Deac (attacking midfield), Raul (striker)
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Lewis Holtby both found the back of the net in Schalke's season debut against Hannover, which ended in a 2-2 tie.
Huntelaar was absolutely brilliant a season ago, scoring 29 league goals and 48 in all competitions. While he faltered somewhat at the European Championships with Holland, he has shown none of the same ineffectiveness at club level since joining Die Konigsblauen.
Holtby scored 16 in league and 25 overall from midfield, while also providing six assists once the campaign had gone. His versatility—he headed in his goal against Hannover—could prove an interesting commodity once Schalke get their Champions League campaign underway.
It's easy to forget that this side made it all the way to the semifinals two seasons ago, where they lost to Manchester United. Out of the competition last term, there are still plenty of players remaining from that impressive side, including the pacy Jefferson Farfan at winger and Atsuto Uchida at fullback.
Schalke earned 64 points in the 2011-12 edition of the Bundesliga, finishing third behind Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Like the other two German teams in the competition, they could provide some interesting games.
Howedes is a rock in the heart of defense—he made his European debut as a teenage in 2007, but it is another teenager—18-year-old wunderkind Julian Draxler, who might make the biggest statement this season.
The latest in a long line of wonderful German technicians in the middle of the park, Draxler has rocketed to the forefront of top young players in the Bundesliga. Able to hit a shot from distance or bring teammates into play with his passing, he is one to watch for this season.
Player to Watch: Lewis Hotlby
Just 21 years old, Holtby has been a bright light in the German youth set up for years. While he didn't make Joachim Low's side for the European Championships this summer, he's already earned two caps at the senior level and is poised to earn more as he continues to grow.
His breakthrough came on a season-long loan deal with Mainz in 2010-11. Holtby made 30 appearances for the Bundesliga side, chipped in four goals and earned rave reviews for his play in central midfield.
Holtby flirted with rumors linking him to Everton this summer, and with his contract set to expire at the end of this season, negotiations could make for some interesting developments.
For now, viewers can enjoy Holtby's superb talent in the Champions League. Possessor of a hugely impressive technical ability, Holtby combines that skill with some bits of spontaneous brilliance. Little flicks here, deft touches there, Holtby is a constant menace in midfield.
Holtby's father, Chris Holtby, is a former English soldier from Liverpool who was stationed at the Rheindahlen RAF base in Mönchengladbach. Holtby had the option of playing for England, but instead chose to commit his international footballing future to Germany (Wikipedia).
2011-12 Champions League: 4th place in Group G, DNQ for knockout stages
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in Ukrainian Premier League, automatic
Manager: Mircea Lucescu (ninth season)
Captain: Darijo Srna
Stadium: Donbass Arena (52,187)
Key Additions: Maicon Oliveira (center forward), Anton Kanibolotsky (keeper), Marko Devic (center forward)
Key Departures: Oleksandri Rybka (keeper), Kostyantyn Kravchenko (midfielder)
Team Preview: Shakhtar have become a major player on the European stage in recent seasons, with their run to the quarterfinals (whereupon they were stopped cold by a Barcelona freight train) in the 2010-11 season evidence of their ambition.
Lucescu has created this impressive spell of success by concocting a side that comprises top Ukrainian internationals with burgeoning Brazilian talent. They have won four of the past five league titles, including the last two, and will again look to make an impression on the continental stage.
The likes of Willian, Fernandinho, Douglas Costa, Alex Teixeira and Luiz Adriano (among others) have flourished in Donetsk. Willian is considered the star of the bunch, and has been linked heavily with a move to Tottenham in recent weeks.
The addition of Devic, who joins from Metalist Kharkiv, could prove one of the most interesting this season. Donetsk will always have an intimidating demeanor in defense as long as the likes of Darijo Srna are around, but they have carved a niche thanks to their attacking flair.
Player to Watch: Willian
The winger seems to have a new suitor lining up every week, but he remains on the books at Donetsk. Should the club ever decide to cash in, they'll receive a healthy sum, but for now they can continue to enjoy their star's exploits on the field.
Like so many of his teammates, Willian burst onto the scene during the 2010-11 competition, and he has continued to amaze with his brilliant skill set, which he uses to put opposing defenses under pressure like few others in the game.
The club became the first Ukrainian club to win the UEFA Cup in 2009, the last year before the competition was revamped as the Europa League.
They have played under the following names: Stakhanovets (1936–1946), Shakhtyor (Shakhtar) (1946–1992) and FC Shakhtar (since 1992) (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
Seen here during the 2011 Champions League campaign.
2011-12 Champions League: 3rd place in Group E, DNQ for knockout stages
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 3rd place in La Liga, automatic
Manager: Mauricio Pellegrino (first season)
Captain: David Albelda
Stadium: Mestalla (cap: 55,000)
Key Additions: Sergio Canales (attacking midfielder), Fernando Gago (defensive midfielder), Aly Cissokho (fullback), Nelson Valdez (forward, season-long loan from Rubin Kazan), Joao Pereira (fullback), Jonathan Vieira (attacking midfielder), Andres Guardado (midfielder)
Key Departures: Jordi Alba (fullback), Mehmet Topal (defensive midfielder), Aritz Aduriz (center forward ), Miguel Angel Moya (keeper), Miguel (fullback), Michel (attacking midfielder), Pablo Hernandez (winger)
Valencia have seen some tremendous players leave the Mestalla in recent seasons, with Jordi Alba joining former star David Villa on the path to Catalunya, with FC Barcelona the final destination.
But this team has reloaded with a vengeance, bringing in a host of players who will undoubtedly feature heavily in this competition.
Canales never found his feet at Real Madrid, but before his move in 2010 was considered one of the finest talents in Spanish football. On loan at the Mestalla a year ago, Canales was able to make his move permanent and will be focused upon reigniting his career.
He's joined on the arrival list by his former Real teammate Gago, who also saw first-team opportunities under Mourinho grow scarce, as well as veterans Cissokho and Pereira, who will add quality at the fullback positions.
A fine left back, Cissokho drew rave reviews for his performances with Olympique Lyon during the 2009-10 Champions League, during which he played a key role in the side's run to the semifinals.
That experience will again be counted upon as Valencia prepare for this season's competition. Canales will be one to watch in midfield, but the star up front will once again be Roberto Soldado.
The Spanish striker scored two hat tricks on the way to 17 league goals last season, which tied him for sixth in the league table. He has grown tremendously since joining in 2010, and has already netted twice over the course of Valencia's first two games this season.
Player to Watch: Sergio Canales
Still only 21 years of age, Canales saw his career shift down a couple gears after trading Racing Santander for Real Madrid in the summer of 2010.
He was loaned to Valencia last season, and started brightly before a torn knee ligament sidelined him for six months.
Fully fit, Canales will man the post of attacking midfielder for Pellegrino's side. It's his position of choice, and when he gets going on a good run of games, he is a definite danger man. With last year's confidence firmly embedded in his psyche, expect a terrific season from the young Spaniard.
His new deal keeps him at the Mestalla until 2017, but Real Madrid retain a buy-back option of €18 million. Canales has yet to feature for Valencia this season (as of Aug. 30).
Valencia were founded in 1919 and have played their home games at the 55,000-seater Mestalla since 1923.
They are due to move into the new 75,000-seater Nou Mestalla in the north-west of the city in 2013 (Information courtesy of Wikipedia).
Zenit St. Petersburg
2011-12 Champions League: 2nd place in Group G, lost 4-3 on aggregate to Benfica in the Round of 16
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in Russian Premier League, automatic
Manager: Luciano Spalletti (fourth season)
Captain: Vyacheslav Malafeev
Stadium: Petrovsky Stadium (cap: 21,570)
Key Additions: None of note
Key Departures: Szabolcs Huszti (winger), Andrei Arshavin (return to Arsenal after loan)
Andrei Arshavin was the story (at least from a foreign perspective) of the past season. The Arsenal winger returned to his former club in February and immediately found the form that had seemed to have disappeared years ago.
A big reason behind Zenit's charge toward the league title, the tiny maestro has since filtered back to Arsenal.
While Arshavin will be missed, Spalletti still has plenty of talent to call upon. The manager was bolstered by pivotal midfielder Danny's decision to extend his contract this past June.
The Portuguese attacking midfielder is one of the great unknowns on the continent, but that does not do his prodigious talent justice.
Up front, Alexander Kerzakhov will again lead the line. The Russian scored seven goals last season. He'll be flanked by Danko Lazovic at left wing. The Croatian led Zenit in scoring with 11 goals, and is coming off a European Championships in which he appeared in all three of his country's games, scoring a goal for good measure.
Player to Watch: Danny
A genius at finding the back of the net, Danny has proven to be one of the most clinical finishers in Russian football since joining Zenit in 2008.
He missed out on the European Championships with Portugal after suffering an ACL injury in February. Danny has targeted Sept. 15 as a return date—Zenit's season opener against Terek Grozny.
That might be a tall order, but featuring in Zenit's Champions League group stage opener, a trip to Malaga on the 18th, might be a bit more feasible.
In 1897, the first football match in Russia was held in Saint Petersburg on Vasilievsky Island, an unofficial game between the local English team "Ostrov" and the local Russian team "Petrograd." The English team won 6–0 (Wikipedia).