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Aug 28, 2014

The Champions League's must-see games

ESPN FC's Shaka Hislop gives his take on the UEFA Champions League's group of death and teams that may surprise us during the group stage.

Amid the awkward small talk of UEFA's interim chief exec Gianni Infantino, and the fumbling of balls by Real Madrid legends past and present, the groups for the 2014-15 Champions League were drawn, throwing up encounters new and old between historic powers, the nouveau riches and the hip. Here are a selection of the matches to look out for.

Group A: Atletico Madrid vs. Juventus (Oct. 1, Dec. 6)

The Old Lady goes to the "Mattresses" (Los Colchoneros). Memories of Christian Vieri and his move from Juventus to Atleti come flooding back: the 24 goals in 24 games he scored in his one and only season in red and white before returning home with Lazio, where the peripatetic "Bobo" stayed just a year before transferring to Inter in a part-exchange for current Atleti coach Diego Simeone.

Still, the initial reaction to this was one of lament: if only Antonio Conte hadn't resigned from Juventus this summer! He shares so much in common with Simeone. Like Diego, he is wrapped up in the fabric of his club. Fans felt like one of them was on the bench. He displayed that grinta -- the determination and bloodymindedness to see his team succeed -- and had them playing a high-intensity pressing game, although it must be said one with different nuances.

Can Allegri lead Juventus beyond fiery, intense Atletico Madrid to top Group A?

That would have been some meeting of minds, not least because of Simeone's past with Juve's rivals Inter and his role as a leader in the Lazio side that beat Conte's beloved Bianconeri to the Scudetto on the final day of the season in 2000. Instead, it's up to Max Allegri to out-think "El Cholo." His Milan team drew Atleti in the Round of 16 last season and yet he never got to face them -- Allegri was sacked. Now's his chance.

Group B: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid (Oct. 22, Nov. 4)

There are so many story lines to emerge from Group B. Basel have a shared history with Barcelona, the rivals of Real Madrid. Joan Gamper, the founder of the Catalan giants, was also their club captain and it's no coincidence their colours are the same. But the stand-out fixture has to be a replay of the 1981 final in Paris -- Bob Paisley's third European Cup, a feat matched in May by Real's coach Carlo Ancelotti.

Liverpool famously thrashed Real in their last Euro encounter back in 2009. What will happen in 2014?

Away from the competition for too long, Liverpool have missed nights like this. Their last Champions League campaign also featured memorable encounters with Real. Until Rodgers' own team last season, it was the closest Liverpool have got to winning the Premier League title. Rafa Benitez's 2008-09 XI were formidable and reserved one of their best performances for los Blancos, winning 1-0 in the Spanish capital before pummelling them 4-0 at Anfield. Brendan and Mario Balotelli must be relishing the prospect to step out under the lights at the Bernabeu.

Group E: AS Roma vs. Bayern Munich (Oct. 21, Nov. 5)

Pep Guardiola knows what it's like to run out at the Stadio Olimpico and hear the roar of the Curva Sud. It gives you goosebumps. But he never seemed at ease during a brief spell at Roma. His concept of football was completely different from that of his coach Fabio Capello. "He came from a game with a different mentality," recalled Daniele De Rossi who was promoted to the first team to take his place.

However, Pep has a lot more in common with the allenatore he will now find down the sideline from him: Rudi Garcia, a Frenchman with roots in Andalucia who takes his inspiration from the Spanish game.

This match will also have some needle. Bayern bought Mehdi Benatia from Roma this summer after the Giallorossi refused to quadruple his wages. Make no mistake; he can expect a fiery reception upon his return to the Eternal City. How Roma's defence copes without a centre-back who puts the "Rock" in "Moroccan" against the likes of Robert Lewandowski will make for an intriguing watch.

Group D: Arsenal vs. Galatasaray (Oct. 1, Dec. 9)

The Gunners are reunited with Emmanuel Eboue! Joking aside, the reason this catches the eye more than the repeat of last season's group stage encounters with Borussia Dortmund is chance to see Arsene Wenger take on Galatasaray's new coach, Cesare Prandelli. Both men have similar outlooks on the game. They have a strong ethical code and like to see football played a certain way.

New Gala boss Cesare Prandelli will offer a stern test for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal in Group D.

The clubs also meet for the first time in a competitive environment since the 2000 UEFA Cup final in Copenhagen, which Arsenal lost on penalties to the greatest Galatasaray team in history -- goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel and Umit Davala are still on the coaching staff. They will look to transmit the spirit of those years when the Lions also surprised everyone by beating European champions Real in the Super Cup.

The atmosphere in Istanbul will be intimidating although Arsenal are used to it after a play-off against Fenerbahce last year and Besiktas this year. There's also relief in that Didier Drogba is no longer pulling on a Galatasaray shirt anymore. Arsenal's nemesis scored twice against them as Galatasaray spoiled the party and lifted the Emirates' Cup a year ago. Hell just got a little bit more bearable.

Group H: Porto vs. Athletic Club (Oct. 21, Nov. 5)

Julen Lopetegui, the new Porto manager, was in charge of the Spain Under-21 team that outplayed Italy in the European Championship final last summer. He brought on Athletic's Iker Muniain in the second half for Cristian Tello, one of six Spanish players he has signed since his appointment at the Dragao.

Both clubs were impressive in their play-offs to reach the group stages against Lille and Napoli respectively. They're teams no one would like to face and fascinate for their contrasting models. Porto, though they have shopped mainly in Spain this preseason, have one of the broadest and best scouting networks in the world. They find players in undervalued markets and have spotted recent golden generations in Colombia and Mexico before many of their competitors.

Athletic, on the other hand, limit themselves to Basque players only, which contributes to a great spirit and identity. Be sure to look out for Ruben Neves, Porto's 17-year-old wunderkind and Aymeric Laporte, the first French player to represent Athletic since Bixente Lizarazu.

Group C: Bayer Leverkusen vs. Zenit (Oct. 22, Nov. 4)

There was a time when Andre Villas-Boas was seen as at the vanguard of a new generation of coaches. The influence of his quadruple-winning Porto team is particularly felt in Group C. Hulk is back under his guidance again at Zenit. His playmaking protege Joao Moutinho is likely to be the last one standing of his old Dragoes standing at Monaco as by the time the competition starts, Radamel Falcao may have followed James Rodriguez to Real Madrid.

AVB's reputation has taken a knock since that night three years ago when he lifted the Europa League in Dublin. In the meantime, a new coach is on the rise, namely Roger Schmidt at Leverkusen.

Schmidt's Red Bull Salzburg team were a revelation in Austria last season, scoring 110 goals in 36 games as they romped to the title, a full 18 points ahead of Rapid Wien, and right now, his "Full Throttle Fussball" is the most exciting to watch in Europe. Karim Bellarabi found the net after only seven seconds in a 2-0 opening day win away at Borussia Dortmund, the fastest goal in Bundesliga history. By contrast Heung-Min Son got Leverkusen off to a relatively slowly start in the second leg of their play-off against FC Copenhagen, opening the scoring quite tardily after a minute in a 4-0 flooring.

Put the dates in your diary. Observing how AVB attempts to put the brakes on Schmidt's speedsters should be fun.

Group F: Barcelona vs. Ajax (Oct. 21, Nov. 5)

A special relationship binds these two clubs. Rinus Michels brought the concepts of Total Football and Johan Cruyff to Catalunya in the 1970s. Cruyff and Louis van Gaal would later consolidate them as coaches, instilling the philosophy within the players with Pep Guardiola their principal disciple.

Had Luis Enrique not got the job to replace Tata Martino this summer, a good case could have been made for Ajax's Frank de Boer, a former teammate of his and member of van Gaal's 98-99 La Liga winning team, which counted on six other Dutchmen -- brother Ronald, goalkeeper Ruud Hesp, defenders Michael Reiziger and Winston Bogarde, midfield architect Philip Cocu and striker Patrick Kluivert.

Barca and Ajax have a deep-rooted relationship, one that should translate to entertainment when they meet in Group F.

When Barcelona recruit they look for a player with an Ajax profile. In recent memory, it's enough to think of Zlatan Ibrahimovic who faces Barca again at the tip of PSG's attack. This summer the Spanish side have added Thomas Vermaelen and of course Luis Suarez, both alumni of the Ajax school. You could forgive some of de Boer's current players for imagining a future for themselves in Blaugrana as they step out at the Camp Nou. It's become a tradition.

James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a European football writer who contributes to ESPN, BBC Sport, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.

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