2014-15 Champions League Draw, Predictions: Chelsea, Real Madrid Early Favorites

Real Madrid Borussia Dortmund Champions LeagueThe 2014-15 Champions League draw was held Thursday in Monaco, and the defending Premier League champions again were placed in a tough group.

Manchester City, which defeated English rival Liverpool in league play Sunday, was drawn into Group E along with German powerhouse and 2013 European champion Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow and 2013-14 Serie A (Italy first division) runner-up AS Roma. Munich and City were in the same group last season, and both finished with 15 points, but the Germans claimed the top spot via the goal difference tiebreaker.

Group F features two elite clubs in Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. Both teams were eliminated in the quarterfinals of last season’s competition.

The other foursome to keep an eye on is Group B, which includes Real Madrid, the defending European champion, and Liverpool, which has won the Champions League an English-record five times. The Reds are making their first Champions League appearance since 2009-10.

Here are the full results of the group stage draw, along with predictions:

Group A: Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Olympiacos, Malmo
Atletico Madrid won La Liga (Spanish first division) last season and lost to archrival Real Madrid in extra time of the 2014 Champions League final. The outgoing transfers of striker Diego Costa and goalkeeping phenom Thibaut Courtois are substantial losses, but Atletico Madrid shouldn’t have much trouble advancing from this group.

Juventus is the only threat among the other three teams. The reigning Serie A champions feature impressive goalkeeping with Gianluigi Buffon and a structured defensive scheme anchored by French midfielder Paul Pogba.

Olympiacos and Malmo will need miracles to reach the Round of 16.

Group B: Real Madrid, Basel, Liverpool, Ludogorets
Real Madrid and Liverpool will advance with little trouble. The only question is who will top the group and avoid a difficult Round of 16 fixture.

These clubs will play on Matchday 3 and Matchday 4, with the first match Oct. 22 at Anfield. A slight edge must be given to Madrid, which boasts too much attacking talent — including Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez — for a suspect Liverpool defense to keep at bay for 90 minutes. If that wasn’t enough, Madrid also added World Cup star Toni Kroos to a loaded midfield group earlier in the transfer window.

These teams last met in 2009, when Liverpool dominated Madrid 4-0 at Anfield.

Basel and Ludogorets are among the least talented squads in the entire tournament.

Group C: Benfica, Zenit St. Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen, Monaco
This will be a competitive group. Leverkusen and Monaco are the favorites, but Portuguese club Benfica has plenty of European experiences as regulars in this competition. If Monaco do not sell world-class striker Radamel Falcao before the summer transfer window closes at the end of August, it will be the favorites to win the group. Leverkusen is likely to finish second.

Group D: Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray, Anderlecht
Borussia Dortmund lost in the 2013 Champions League final, and much of that squad remains intact for this year’s tournament. Marco Reus is among the world’s best strikers and will give every team in the group fits. The German club also is well coached and features great midfield depth highlighted by the steady presence of İlkay Gündoğan.

Arsenal is making its 17th consecutive group stage appearance and will be motivated to finish first in the group and avoid a brutal Round of 16 matchup for the fifth consecutive season. The English side has plenty of European experience, a fantastic back four and creativity in the midfield. The lack of a world-class striker is a problem, especially if Olivier Giroud’s injury is worse than originally feared. With that said, Arsenal should finish runner-up to Dortmund in what promises to be an exciting group.

Galatasaray won’t be an easy opponent, though. Just ask Real Madrid.

Group E: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, CSKA Moscow, Roma
Munich is the second-most talented team in the world and has incredible depth at every position, including the top goalkeeper in Manuel Neuer. Many of its players played prominent roles in Germany’s 2014 FIFA World Cup triumph in July, including Mario Gotze, who scored the tournament-winning goal against Argentina. Manchester City will challenge Munich for the top spot, but it would be surprising if the Germans didn’t finish first in this group.

City has begun the Premier League season in fine form and will be favored to reach the Round of 16 over a talented Roma side. The Italians don’t have the attacking firepower to challenge City and Munich for the top two spots.

Group F: Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Ajax, APOEL
Barcelona lost to La Liga rival Atletico Madrid in last year’s quarterfinals. The Catalan club added top Premier League goal scorer Luis Suarez in the transfer window and should have an improved defense.

The Spanish side’s only threat is PSG, which boasts a talented attack led by superstar striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Watching Barca striker Lionel Messia and Ibrahimovich — arguably the two best players at their position — go head to head twice in the group stage will be a real treat for soccer fans.

Group G: Chelsea, Schalke, Sporting Lisbon, Maribor
Chelsea should win the group rather easily, but Schalke presents a challenge because of its attacking prowess. Schalke midfielder Julian Draxler is one of the world’s best young players, and he can take over a game with his goal scoring and playmaking skill.

With that said, Chelsea’s defense is one of the most impenetrable forces in world soccer, and manager Jose Mourinho — arguably the sport’s best tactician — will find ways to frustrate his opponents. The Blues should claim the top spot in this group without losing a match.

Group H: Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Athletic Bilbao, BATE Borisov
Shakhtar Donestk boasts impressive European experience and has been a thorn in the side of a few top clubs in past tournaments (including an upset of Inter Milan in 2010-11). The Ukranian club plays an uptempo style with pace, creativity and scoring ability in the midfield.

Athletic Bilbao, who defeated a talented Napoli side in the qualifying round, likely will battle FC Porto for the second spot in this group. Porto should advance because of its European experience, attacking quality and strength in the back four. The Portuguese club doesn’t give up cheap goals and defends set pieces very well.

Yardbarker

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