The draw for the group stages of the 2013-14 Champions League took place in Monaco on Thursday, as Europe's elite club sides discovered which rivals will stand between them and the knockout phase of the competition.
Teams that reached this stage via the recent playoffs—including Arsenal, AC Milan and, after much drama, Celtic—joined those whose participation has long been guaranteed, with all hoping against hope for attainable passage to the last 16 and a better shot at glory.
In rehearsals, one group saw Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli and Manchester City drawn together. Would a repeat of such a formidable group become a reality?
Click on, as we take a look at the winners and losers from Thursday's draw.
In the end, isn't every team in the Champions League group stages a winner? The glamour, the excitement, the money...all are reasons to be delighted simply to be involved in the competition.
But, alas, this article is not entitled "Winners and Winners," so there have to be some teams considered to have "lost" in Thursday's draw. And one of them, unfortunately, has to be Arsenal.
Of course, it could have been worse for the Gunners—they could have ended up with Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli in their midst. In the end, they only drew two of those sides, with Marseille substituted for a trip to Madrid.
Marseille should prove to be more than manageable for Arsene Wenger's side—just as Fenerbahce proved to be in the playoffs—but in a way, that only makes the task somewhat harder. If Dortmund and Napoli also enjoy success against the French side, then the matches between the three elite sides only become all the more important.
Wenger will realise his team will need to get positive results from San Paolo and the Westfalenstadion—two of the most intimidating away trips in European football. Arsenal have previously done well in Germany, drawing 1-1 two years ago, but that Dortmund side was not nearly as talented as this one that now shows such vibrancy.
Similarly, Napoli appear stronger than they have been for many years. Gonzalo Higuain, Marek Hamsik, Jose Maria Callejon—this is a prodigiously tough test for Arsenal.
But they have risen to the challenge before when doubted.
Manchester City's group is not quite as straightforward as some might proclaim it to be, but for a club that has dropped out of the competition at the group stages in two successive seasons, it is one that they would certainly have taken beforehand.
Manuel Pellegrini's heart may have been in his mouth when City were placed in a group alongside Bayern Munich. The fear of a Group of Death must have been high...instead, they received CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen.
Plzen, while determined, should prove only a moderate challenge for City, while Moscow's test lies as much in the difficulty of such a long away trip as it does the patchy quality within their squad.
Bayern Munich will obviously prove a tough proposition, especially considering star midfielder Franck Ribery is fresh off winning the 2012-13 UEFA Best Player in Europe award, having beaten out Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the trophy. City should be looking to challenge them for the top spot in the group, rather than worrying about their prospects of being relegated to third—and falling down the Europa League trap door once more.
One concern for Pellegrini may just be those away trips; two trips to Eastern Europe may have an effect on subsequent Premier League games that he perhaps would rather have done without. But these are some of the peripheral elements that come with managing an English club.
Let us not get carried away: Manchester United's group is still one they should progress from.
Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad all possess their respective threats, but United remain the class of the quartet.
Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that it was only two years ago that United finished third in a group that included Benfica, Basel and Otelul Galati. On paper, this group appears tougher, and this time they have a manager getting his first taste of the Champions League.
Shakhtar present both an energy-sapping away trip and a talented, creative team (one that dumped Chelsea out of the competition last season), while Leverkusen and Sociedad both possess fine attacking players and a defensive ethos that will challenge United.
No match will be a forgone conclusion, something that cannot be said of every other group.
United's draw could have been worse—much, much worse. But it is far from straightforward and, Arsenal aside, is surely the least comfortable any of the English sides have been confronted with.
One of the few clubs who can celebrate the draw vociferously—Paris Saint-Germain, who started the day precariously poised as one of the more dangerous second seeds, but ended up avoiding the sort of Group of Death they were well-placed to be given.
Drawing Benfica in Group C was, with all due deference to the Portuguese side, the best possible Pot 1 opponent they could have drawn, making them the envy of every other Pot 2 side.
Complementing that draw with Olympiakos and Anderlecht is almost better than Laurent Blanc could ever have hoped for—two reasonable away trips against sides they will expect to beat.
In rehearsals, PSG found themselves paired with Real Madrid, Manchester City and Napoli. The real thing could barely have transpired more differently.
Last year's quarterfinalists will be exceedingly confident about reaching the knockout stages again this year, and they have every reason to be.
How Celtic should view this draw—Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax—may depend on your viewpoint. Manager Neil Lennon's immediate reaction was priceless, but his subsequent assessment gave a more balanced view.
Lennon told Sky Sports:
It's the best and the worst draw we could have got. In terms of glamour it doesn't get any better. In terms of football it's probably the most difficult draw we could have got.
There's so much to savour about the draw, but from my point of view it's going to be hugely difficult.
The Scottish champions overperformed last season, coming through a manageable, if testing, group to book a surprise knockout-phase appearance, where they were utterly outperformed by Juventus. Matching that feat was always unlikely, so perhaps getting a draw of this magnitude is better for the fans.
And, of course, there are always some positive takeaways. Celtic's victory over Barcelona last season famously made Rod Stewart cry (see above), while AC Milan and Ajax, in their current iterations, are certainly no match for vintages of years past.
Then again, neither is this Celtic side. Whatever the results, it should be a fun ride.
Chelsea cannot sniff at this draw; as a Pot 1 seed, their focus was surely on avoiding Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund. Having done that, Jose Mourinho will breathe a little easier.
The challenge he is presented with—Schalke, Basel and Steaua Bucharest—features two teams a less threatening Blues side beat on the way to Europa League glory last season (Basel and Steaua) and a German side that, while blessed with some talented players, should prove no threat to the Premier League side.
Having fallen out of the competition at this stage last season, Mourinho will surely be relieved to be handed a group where he will feel confident 12 points are more are eminently attainable.
Stunning Champions League Draw .. Chelsea the luckiest ... Very bad for many others— UsualCitizen (@UsualCitizen) August 29, 2013
The Serie A champions have strengthened with the Champions League in mind and should progress comfortably, while also getting the chance to measure themselves against Real Madrid.
Having looked less than amazing in their playoff encounter with PSV Eindhoven, a seemingly average Milan side will nevertheless feel they can beat Celtic and Ajax to second in Group H.
Even with Manchester City—whom they've seen off before at this stage just two years ago on their fixture list—the defending champions will feel exceedingly confident about being part of the last 16. Pep Guardiola might appreciate the slightly more straightforward path.
As a Pot 2 side, they will be happy to have been drawn with FC Porto out of all the Pot 1 sides. They will fancy their chances of progression, but also be wary of Zenit Saint Petersburg's threat.
No draw should have scared Barcelona—they could not be drawn with Bayern Munich, after all—but getting three arguably substandard sides (and avoiding any British sides) will surely please the Catalans. Familiar foes AC Milan might inspire some concern, however.
Surely, they would have preferred to avoid the formidable Juventus, but on the other hand, they avoided the very real prospect of facing the likes of PSG, Napoli and Borussia Dortmund instead. Translation: It could have been worse.
The Austrian side certainly would have enjoyed an eye-catching draw against a blockbuster side; then again, does a draw with Zenit, Atletico Madrid and Porto give them a better chance of springing a real surprise?
The French side must have hoped their Pot 2 status would have granted them a better draw than being widely considered the worst side in the obligatory Group of Death.
With a squad clearly geared toward making more of an impact at home and in Europe, Rafa Benitez would surely have preferred to avoid Arsenal and, particularly, Borussia Dortmund. The locals will expect progression, but the route is not easy for the Spaniard.