A deceptive Champions League draw for Real
The faintest flicker of a smile betrayed Emilio Butragueño at the Champions League draw in Monaco after Real Madrid narrowly avoided Juventus by drawing FC Basel out of Pot 2, one ball before the Italian giants were pulled out of the plastic bowl. The worst of the best had fallen elsewhere. Next to be drawn in Group B alongside the defending champions were Liverpool, followed by Champions League debutants Ludogorets Razgrad, who beat Steaua Bucharest on penalties in dramatic fashion -- defender Cosmin Moti was in goal for the shootout after the sending off of Vladislav Stoyanov, and saved two spot-kicks -- to reach the group stage.
On paper, it is an open invitation to the round of 16 stage for Real, who are the bookmakers' favourites to retain the title despite no team having done so since the current format was introduced in 1992. The last team to win back-to-back European Cups was Arrigo Sacchi's Milan in 1989 and 1990, a team that featured current Real manager Carlo Ancelotti.
Here's a look at the opponents the Italian who masterminded the Decima will have to get the better of to reach the knock-out stages this season.
Coach: Paolo Sousa
Last Season: Group Stage
Qualified: Swiss champions
Last meeting: N/A
Basel narrowly missed out on a first Champions League knockout phase appearance last season, finishing third in Group E behind Chelsea and Schalke 04. However, six of their eight points were gained by beating Chelsea home and away, so this is not a side cowed by the name of the team on the other side of the halfway line. Jose Mourinho responded to that defeat exactly as he did in losing to Atletico Madrid last season: by buying Basel's best player, Mohamed Salah, who scored in both matches.
Basel has an excellent youth system, which has churned out players such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Alexander Frei, Fabian Frei and Ivan Rakitic. Star striker and captain Marco Streller, who bagged the winner at Stamford Bridge, remains at the St. Jakob Park stadium while there's plenty of European experience in the boots of Fabian Frei, Philipp Degen and former Real defender Walter Samuel.
However, with a market value of less than 50 million euros and just 7.9 million spent on new arrivals -- goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik from Sparta Prague was the biggest splash at three million this summer -- there will be serious questions asked of Ancelotti if anything less than six points is gleaned from the Swiss champions. Was Mourinho guilty of underestimating his opponent? Unlikely, but in any case Ancelotti will have learned from his predecessor's experience.
Manager: Brendan Rodgers
Last season: N/A
Qualified: Premier League runners-up
Last meeting: Round of 16, 2008-09, Liverpool won 5-0 on aggregate
The draw giveth, and the draw taketh away: Real might have dodged a couple of sizeable bullets from Pot 2 but perhaps the most dangerous team in Pot 3, Liverpool, balanced things out a tad. The five-time European champions haven't featured in the Champions League since 2009-10 and this summer lost their best player, Luis Suarez -- arguably one of the finest in the world -- only to replace him with Mario Balotelli.
Liverpool finished runners-up to Manchester City on the final day of the 2013-14 Premier League season, having blown their best chance of a first title in 19 years on the turf at Selhurst Park and Stamford Bridge. A first Champions League campaign in five years is scant reward when third or even fourth would have sufficed, but expect Brendan Rodgers to treat this as Liverpool's main competition this season. City ruthlessly exposed Liverpool's shortcomings in the league last weekend and sans Suárez, they lack a touch of the world-class. Qualification for the Champions League next season would represent a good campaign, despite the outlay of some 110 million pounds on players this summer.
Liverpool are England's answer to Atletico this season -- a fairly new line-up stripped of its previous cutting edge and therefore an unknown quantity. But as Atletico proved in the Spanish Supercopa, the personnel may change but the ethos doesn't: Diego Simeone's side will press and harry in Europe; Liverpool's best form of defence is attack and with Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho in their front line, any opponent will be on the back foot.
Now for Balotelli. While he may be expected go AWOL at the Hawthorns or Upton Park, European nights against the likes of Real are what he thrives on; the Italian is also world-class, when he can be bothered. This is arguably the match-up of the entire group stage. Who could forget the last time these two met in Europe?
PFC Ludogorets Razgrad
Manager: Georgi Dermendzhiev
Last season: N/A
Qualified: Bulgarian A Group champions
Last meeting: N/A
The worst of scenarios from Pot 4 from Real's point of view would have been AS Roma or Monaco, but Ancelotti's side will instead have to travel to the 8,000-seater Ludogorets Arena to play the Bulgarian champions, who have never before featured in Europe's elite competition. It's an away game that could at least be considered to be just as difficult; Ludogorets beat Dinamo Zagreb and PSV Eindhoven there in last season's Europa League by a 5-0 aggregate and most of Real's players will not have witnessed the intimacy of such a stadium since their youth team days.
Ludogorets parted company with the coach that got them to the Champions League, Stoycho Stoev, less than a month ago and the squad is hardly full of household names -- a smattering of second- or third-tier Brazilians, the wonderfully named Wanderson among them -- former Celta winger Dani Abalo and Brayan Angulo, of Granada and Depor fame respectively, are about the only faces Real may find vaguely familiar.
Still, in last season's Europa League Dermendzhiev oversaw an unbeaten group stage, amassing 16 points and a goal difference of plus-nine. Perhaps the best gauge of Ludogorets' European pedigree is the last-16 defeat inflicted by Valencia -- 4-0 on aggregate -- or the fact that Basel thumped them 6-2 over two legs in the Champions League playoffs, relegating the Bulgarian outfit to the consolation competition in the first place.
Rob Train is a freelance writer who lives in Madrid, covers Real Madrid for ESPN and contributes to a number of other publications. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.