The draw for the group stages of the 2014/15 UEFA Champions League will take place this week. The draw will follow its familiar pattern.
It involves combining 10 winners from the qualifying rounds and 22 automatic participants into eight groups. These groups are determined by UEFA's coefficient ratings system, as the organisation's official site breaks down:
Ten play-off winners join the 22 automatic entrants in the group stage draw at the Grimaldi Forum, Monaco, where the 32 sides are split into four seeding pots and one from each is drawn into the eight groups. Seeds are based on UEFA's coefficient system and no team can meet another from the same association.
Tuesday's playoff matches saw five teams book places in the group-stage draw:
#UCLplayoffs FT: Zenit 3-0 Standard (agg: 4-0); BATE 3-0 Slovan B (4-1); Celtic 0-1 Maribor (1-2); Porto 2-0 LOSC (3-0); APOEL 4-0 AaB (5-1)— Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) August 26, 2014
One of the major shocks was provided by NK Maribor knocking out Celtic. The Slovenian side will enter the groups, while Celtic will rue missing a financial reward, per BBC Sport reporter Alasdair Lamont:
The defeat is a huge blow to Celtic, who will miss out on the £14m they earned in the competition last season as well as the glamour and excitement that accompanies Champions League nights.
That figure shows exactly what it means to many clubs just to reach the group stage. The final order for the draw will be confirmed once the second legs of five more playoff games are decided.
Those fixtures, including Arsenal hosting Besiktas, can be found here.
Before making a few early predictions for the group stage, here's all of the relevant schedule information:
|Thursday, August 28||4.45 p.m. BST / 11.45 a.m. ET||Sky Sports News HQ and Sky Sports 5||Sky Go|
Monaco Will Be a Dark Horse
Monaco shouldn't really be classed as a surprise package, especially since the French Ligue 1 side are one the richest clubs in the European game. However, not much will be expected of the team from the host venue for the group-stage draw, in the continent's premier club competition.
Yet, those who underestimate Monaco during the group stage will do so at their peril. This is a well-coached team with shrewd boss Leonardo Jardim at the helm.
Will Falcao stay at Monaco this season?
One of the keys to the Portuguese gaffer's team is power in central midfield. Geoffrey Kondogbia and Tiemoue Bakayoko are complementary powerhouses who give Monaco the strength and drive to go and win anywhere.
Of course, the most significant aspect of Jardim's preparation will involve keeping star striker Radamel Falcao. The manager has previously been adamant that the deadly Colombian front man is going nowhere, per Daily Star writer Chisanga Malata.
Jardim even recently received a boost from the player himself. Falcao declared he intends to stay at Monaco during an interview with French TV, per GianlucaDiMarzio.com.
However, one potential storm cloud is hovering in the form of mooted interest from current Champions League holders Real Madrid. Los Blancos have retained an interest in Falcao, per French publication Le 10 Sport (h/t English edition of AS):
This just in.... Le 10 Sport report that Real Madrid are sniffing around Radamel Falcao again. More to follow.— AS English (@English_AS) August 26, 2014
But if Jardim succeeds in keeping Falcao around, Monaco will be dangerous in the group stage and beyond. But they are not the only team to watch.
Manchester City Will Dominate This Stage for Once
It will be fascinating to see who English Premier League champions Manchester City are grouped with. The Citizens couldn't navigate this stage of the competition in two seasons under former boss Roberto Mancini.
City finally escaped a group last season, during Manuel Pellegrini's great first season in charge. However, the team only finished second behind FC Bayern Munich.
Failure to top the group was punished by a last-16 tie against FC Barcelona. City were soon eliminated.
Can Manchester City win this season's Champions League?
But things will be different for Pellegrini's men this time around. The squad is better prepared to cope with the rigours of Champions League football.
Specifically, the additions of FC Porto pair defensive midfielder Fernando and centre-back Eliaquim Mangala will help. The former has added even more rugged physicality in central berths occupied by Yaya Toure and Fernandinho last season.
Crucially, Fernando is more defensive-minded than that pairing. He was particularly effective in City's recent 3-1 win over Liverpool, as numbers from Squawka Football helped to detail:
Man City new-boy Fernando has completed 100% (16/16) of his second-half passes. He's anchored Pellegrini's men well. pic.twitter.com/zAwlHXpOuG— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 25, 2014
Pellegrini now has the option to play all three of Fernando, Toure and Fernandinho in the middle. That's a selection that will leave his team less vulnerable to the kind of counterattacks that proved so deadly against Bayern and Barca.
Mangala has yet to play for his new club. But his pace at the back will boost an occasionally plodding defence that has been caught cold more than once in the Champions League.
City are more equipped for this year's group stage. Pellegrini will steer them to a summit position and earn a more favourable last-16 draw this time around.
The overall pattern for the group stages will become clearer once the final play-off games are decided. Expect most of the favourites to emerge from those ties having earned full tournament participation for another season.