The draw for the group stages of the Champions League was known today.
This means that the fate of the 32 teams that aspire to win the most important competition in club football started being decided today.
Let's take a look at the eight groups and analyse the chances each team has of advancing to the knockout phase, which is what all 32 teams are seeking.
This is a really strong group. The current holders, Inter Milan, face Werder Bremen (a team that has been pretty good in Europe in recent years) and Tottenham, one of the best teams in England.
Inter's squad hasn't suffered many changes, and they are, on paper, clearly the strongest team in the group and should have little problems advancing to the knockout stage.
Twente, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have what it takes and, on paper, shouldn't be able to avoid the last place of the group. However, they won the Dutch league last season and have pretty interesting players in their squad (Douglas, Luuk De Jong, and especially Bryan Ruiz), so underestimating them would be a fatal mistake for any of the other three teams.
Theoretically, Inter should win the group, while Werder Bremen and Tottenham should fight for the second place. However, I believe Twente (although they were pretty unlucky in the draw) can cause at least one of two upsets. Even if they don't qualify, they might be a factor in the final decision.
2. Werder Bremen
Lyon and Schalke are clearly favorites in this group. Lyon made it to the semifinals last season and has now added Yoann Gourcuff to their squad.
As for Schalke, they contended for the German title with Bayern until the last day and have invested a lot to strenghten their squad. These two teams seem to be a cut above Benfica and Hapoel.
Benfica return to the Champions League after a three-year hiatus. Their current form is disastrous: They've lost the Super Cup to Porto and have lost their first two matches in the Portuguese League against weaker teams. The loss of Angel di Maria and Ramires clearly hurt the team.
They shouldn't do better than third place. However, if Lyon and Schalke are not careful, Benfica might surprise.
As for Hapoel Tel Aviv, they had a pretty good campaign in the qualifying and playoff phase, but they seem to be the weakest team in the group. They might cause one or two upsets, especially at home, but it'd be a big surprise if they avoided last place.
2. Schalke 04
4. Hapoel Tel Aviv
Arguably the weakest group of all. Only a totally unforeseen course of events will stop Manchester United from winning this group with ease.
Valencia have lost their two stars, David Silva and David Villa, and are no longer a force to be reckoned with at this level (at least, they don't seem like one).
Rangers were destroyed last season by Sevilla and Unirea, and their team doesn't seem to be any better.
This might be considered a bold prediction, but I fancy Bursaspor's chances of qualifying to the knockout stages. They won the Turkish league last season and were pretty lucky in the draw.
There seems to be at least one surprise package in the Champions League every season. Bursaspor might very well be this year's.
1. Manchester United
Barcelona were also pretty lucky in the draw. Pep Guardiola's team should have no problem securing first place at ease.
This will also be a chance for Barcelona to get back at Rubin Kazan after the Russian team upset Barcelona in the Nou Camp 2-1 and 0-0 in Russia.
While Barcelona is clearly the strongest team, Copenhagen is clearly the weakest. They have very reduced chances of advancing.
Panathinaikos and Rubin Kazan should contend for second place, with a little edge for the Russians, given their excellent performance last season. Still, it'd also be perfectly natural if Panathinaikos got second place.
2. Rubin Kazan
Honestly, I just can't see how Bayern and Roma can fail to advance to the knockout stages.
Bayern got to the final last season, and now, in Louis van Gaal's second season, they're even stronger and are one of the main candidates to lift the trophy.
Roma gave Inter a hard time last season in the Serie A, and they've strengthened their squad by signing Adriano.
History shows that Basel is usually a weak team in the Champions League, and Cluj don't seem to have the experience or the quality to advance.
I'd say that only a miracle can prevent Bayern and Roma from advancing with relative ease.
Chelsea was another lucky team in today's draw. They're clearly the strongest team and should have no problem winning the group. Didier Drogba will have the chance to return to Marseille.
As far as the remaining qualifying spot is concerned, Marseille and Spartak Moscow are likely to have a close fight. Marseille seem to have a small edge, but one can't underestimate Russian teams, especially after what Rubin Kazan and CSKA did last season.
Žilina surprised in the playoff stage by sending Sparta Prague packing. They might prove to be a difficult opponent, but I don't really fancy their chances of actually advancing.
3. Spartak Moscow
A very interesting group. Milan, Real Madrid, and Ajax have a combined 20 Champions League titles. Plus, Real Madrid and Milan face each other in the group stage, just like last season.
This group might seem pretty exciting on paper, but Real Madrid and Milan have a clear edge. Ajax are no longer the mighty force they once were, and Auxerre, despite being a good team, don't seem to have what it takes to upset Milan and Real Madrid.
I'd be really surprised if Milan or Real Madrid failed to qualify.
1. Real Madrid
2. AC Milan
Arsenal can't consider themselves unlucky. Theoretically, they should qualify without many problems.
As for the other qualifying spot, all the remaining three teams have realistic chances of getting it. However, I pick Braga. After the way Braga picked Sevilla apart in the playoff stages, they must be considered favorites to advance in a group like this. Even Arsenal must be careful with Braga.
However, Braga is still an inexperienced team on the big stage, and if they fail to keep up their good performance, Shakhtar and Partizan might very well grab the qualifying spot.
3. Shakhtar Donetsk