European pretenders eager for heavyweight bouts in Group B
The Champions League draw has been finalised. Here's a preview for Group B:
1. Real Madrid
Real Madrid (Soccer Power Index (SPI) chance to advance: 98.8 percent)
If Liverpool had kept one of the few available superstar attackers that Real haven't signed in recent years, then it would not have been difficult to imagine Carlo Ancelotti's side having a little trouble finishing top of this group. That may sound outlandish for the team defending the Champions League trophy itself, but the problem for the Italian is that his club seem to have again started to mimic the policies of the last time they won the competition, back in 2002.
Rather than continuing to build a team, they are now just collecting stars, and tactically crucial players such as Angel Di Maria are being replaced by names such as James Rodriguez, who must now be awkwardly fitted in. It could eventually spell trouble. Right now, the fact that Liverpool are still adjusting to the sale of Luis Suarez should keep Los Blancos on top, especially when you consider Ancelotti's attack against an Anfield defence that's porous. Top spot awaits, but Berlin may be more difficult.
Liverpool (SPI: 74.5 percent)
A return to the Champions League, but without one of the players most influential in getting them there. The sale of Suarez, however, should only really affect their assault on first place. Otherwise, Brendan Rodgers' dynamic system remains, and Liverpool could pose a fair few teams a multitude of problems.
Champions League group stage
A: Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Olympiakos, Malmo
B: Real Madrid, Basel, Liverpool, Ludogorets
C: Benfica, Zenit, Leverkusen, Monaco
D: Arsenal, Dortmund, Galatasaray, Anderlecht
E: Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow, Man City, Roma
F: Barcelona, PSG, Ajax, APOEL
G: Chelsea, Schalke, Sporting, Maribor
H: Porto, Shakhtar, Athletic Bilbao, BATE
Basel (SPI: 20.1 percent)
One of the most technically proficient sides in Europe in recent years, and always a joy to watch. It is their impact on Europe that has seen them seeded second here, but may not be enough to prevent them finishing third, not after a draw like this. The problem is that they're coming up against one of the most progressive coaches in Rodgers and one of the world's biggest clubs in Real Madrid. It will likely leave them short, but not without shaking up either of the big boys.
Ludogorets (SPI: 6.7 percent)
Already one of the stories of the season after defender Cosmin Moti's heroics in the playoff penalty shootout against Steaua Bucharest. Unfortunately for the Bulgarian side, that story would need to become a fairy tale for them to even get a win out of this group. Not even Moti may be enough to prevent finishing a dismal bottom place.
Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.