Previous Finish: Last in group stages (2011/12)
Strengths: Shakhtar are a pain for any team to play in the Ukraine. They have only lost a total of four games at Donbass Arena since it opened in 2009. They only lost one game in the Ukraine League last season and have won all seven of their games to open this season by an average margin of over three goals.
Weaknesses: Shakhtar had a poor showing in Europe last year in a relatively weak group. They lost to Porto (twice) and Zenit St. Petersburg. The only victory they had was against APOEL after the Cypriot side had already qualified for the next round.
Player to watch: Shakhtar’s star player is attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Armenia. Mkhitaryan had lit the Ukraine Premier League on fire with 11 goals in their first seven games (last year’s top scorer was teammate Yevhen Seleznyov with 14).
Three others to watch: Alex Teixeira, Marko Devic and Yevhan Seleznyov
How they match up against Chelsea: Shakhtar are a very strong defensive team, allowing just over half a goal per game last season. They have a very similar look to Chelsea with an abundance of creative wingers/playmakers, (Mkhitaryan, Teixeira and Willian) but they don’t match up in terms of class on any part of the pitch.
How they match up against the rest of the group: Juventus prides itself on the ability to keep the ball out of the net. The key fixture will likely be the December 5th match at Donbass Arena that will decide 2nd place. Opening up at home against Nordsjaelland is the best way to get off to a good start.
Prediction: 3rd – Shakhtar was the team I wanted to avoid the second most in pot 2 because playing in the Ukraine is a nightmare. Luckily for Chelsea, their fixture in Donetsk is in October rather than December. Juve will likely be able to play for a draw in the final game of their group stage fixture.
Previous finish: Third in group stage (2009/10)
Strengths: Juve were the best defensive team in what many consider to be the best defensive league in the world last season. They did manage to finish just behind AC Milan in the scoring department as well. Juve have one of the best pedigrees in all of Europe and, despite a couple year absence, they have a lot of experience playing on the big stage.
Weaknesses: A lack of a real star player. Buffon and Pirlo were vital to the success of Italy in the Euros but they’re getting up there in age. Juve didn’t have a player finish in the top 10 for scoring last season in Serie A. They did pick up Sebastian Giovinco from Parma, who scored 15 goals and finished 9th in scoring last season.
Player to watch: Paul Pogba is a fascinating player. He was the crown jewel of the Manchester United academy but they watched their prized star walk away after his contract expired, angering Fergie. His talent and potential are immense but he’s going to be behind Vidal for playing time.
Three others to watch: Arturo Vidal, Sebastian Giovinco and Kwandwo Asamoah
How they match up against Chelsea: Chelsea has far too much firepower for Juve in general. They don’t have the same dynamic attack and they will need to rely on their defense and 3-5-2 formation to keep themselves in games.
How they match up against the rest of the group: They’re not as dynamic compared to Shakhtar, either. Italian football isn’t always pretty. It can be frustrating to play a team like Juve (they did manage nine away draws last season). Donbass Arena might not be much of a home advantage for Shakhtar against a team like Juve.
Prediction: 2nd – Their opening fixture is against Chelsea at the Bridge. If they can manage a draw there, they will be in great shape for the rest of the group. As long as they take care of business against Nordsjaelland, they won’t be in much trouble dropping points to Chelsea.
Previous finish: 1st appearance in the Champions League
Strengths: There’s no pressure on them. They were considered to be the weakest team in the entire competition and nothing has changed. They can play the role of spoiler and try to build a European fortress at home. They do have a few Danish internationals.
Weaknesses: Everything, plain and simple. The cumulative total value of their players is barely a fourth of what Fernando Torres cost. They have no experience in this type of environment and they aren’t even in the same class as the benchwarmers on any of the other three teams. They even sold two of their starters from last year.
Player to watch: 20-year-old Jores Okore is a pretty solid centre-back. He’s one of the brightest prospects the team has ever produced. He is currently vice-captain and has been fully capped for the Danish senior squad. He will get plenty of action in the heart of defense.
Three others to watch: Joshua John, Mikkel Beckmann and Kasper Lorentzen
How they match up against Chelsea: They lucked out with their draw. They play Chelsea at the Bridge on the final matchday of the group stage. Chelsea will likely have already qualified and will be fielding a weaker team of youngsters. The first game in Denmark could get out of hand if Nordsjaelland try to play with Chelsea.
How they match up against the rest of the group: They will likely be the whipping boys depending on how they want to play this. If they take a defensive approach then they might be able to play spoilers against Shakhtar or Juve. Jores Okore is a bright player but even he wouldn’t start on either of those squads.
Prediction: 4th – They will take a point from someone and it will likely be at home. The match the fans should be looking forward to most is Shakhtar at home on matchday five. A long travel from Donetsk to Copenhagen mixed in with Danish conditions might be the decider on who advances to the group stage.