Upon the conclusion of the UEFA Champions League draw, with all eyes fixed upon the more conspicuously exacting groups, it’s Manchester United’s Group A which may just be the most difficult selection of teams to predict.
Matched with Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad, Manchester United’s Group A is far from a selection of easy teams, with all four sides more than capable of mounting a serious qualification challenge.
Here, we take a closer look at all four teams from Group A.
Drawn from Pot 1, the Red Devils are the group’s perennial favourites, having won the cup no less than three times in it’s storied history, making it the European Cup’s fifth most successful team since it was founded 58 years ago.
The reigning English champions suffered a rocky pre-season, including losses to the Singha All-Stars and Sevilla.
Nevertheless, Manchester United opened it’s title defence in solid fashion, with a 4-1 demolition of Swansea, and a draw against Jose Mourinho’s revamped Chelsea.
Despite midfield troubles, young Uruguayan defender, Guillermo Varela, is still (to date) United's only new signing of the summer. The likes of Robin van Persie, Nemanja Vidic and Michael Carrick currently feature on the club books.
However, the club commissioned it’s first managerial appointment in 26 years, with David Moyes succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson. A change of this magnitude is bound to have an impact on the club, but will this affect their Champions League aspirations?
The second team drawn into Group A, Shakhtar Donetsk is a Ukrainian footballing powerhouse, renowned for cultivating some of Brazil's finest young talent.
The Miners enjoyed a fruitful European campaign in 2012/13, qualifying in a group alongside Juventus at Chelsea's (and Roberto Di Matteo's) expense, before succumbing to the eventual finalists, Borussia Dortmund, via a last-gasp second-leg Felipe Santana winner.
Shakhtar have enjoyed a typically strong start to their league campaign, with it's 3-1 loss to Dnipro last week being one of only two league losses the club has suffered since the beginning of the 2013/14 season.
A 3-1 win over Dynamo Kyiv and 4-0 dismantling of Ukrainian minnows, Tavriia, are early highlights to Shakhtar's title defence.
Croatian captain, Darijo Srna, diminutive Brazilan playmaker, Bernard, and experienced striker, Fred, are notable names to currently feature on Shakhtar's employment books.
Will this Eastern European powerhouse look to emulate their 2010/11 quarter-final run?
The Pot 3 team in this group, Bayer Leverkusen currently reside in third place in league play, only one point behind league leaders, Bayern Munich, whilst having game in hand.
This German side is arguable Group A's in-form team, with the team carrying it's strong pre-season (including 3-0 and 4-0 wins over Udinese and Vitesse respectively) into it's Bundesliga campaign, with a 4-2 win over Gladbach and 3-1 win over Freiburg.
In Leverkusen's last four Champions League campaigns, they qualified for the Round of 16 thrice, having proceeded to Champions League final in Glasgow (2002), before falling to Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid, 2-1.
Bayer Leverkusen has undoubted European pedigree.
New signing, Heung-Min Son, has made an immediate impact, with his name already on the scoresheet. Prolific striker, Stefan Kießling, and speedy winger, Sidney Sam, are currently 12th and 14th best players in Europe's big five leagues in 2013/14 (via WhoScored.com).
That no other player in the top 19 has played as many games as these two speaks volumes of Leverkusen's consistent brilliance thus far.
Can this sleeping giant carry it's form into Europe and mount a serious challenge for first place?
Perhaps the team with the least to lose, having already achieved the attention and respect of the footballing world with a surprising fourth place La Liga finish in 2012/13.
The Basque club has had to achieve Champions League football the hard way, having eliminated French giants, Olympique Lyonnais, in the group stage play-offs with an aggregate 4-0 win over two legs.
Their league form has been as good as any, residing only two points behind league leaders, Barcelona.
The Txuri-urdin feature a strong team sheet, with the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Inigo Martinez, Esteban Granero currently on the club books. New signing, Haris Seferovic has made a strong start at his new club, with one goal in two appearances.
Star player, Carlos Vela, has carried his form of 2012/13 into the new season, with two goals in two appearances. That equates to a WhoScored rating of 7.99, ranked 20th in Europe's five big leagues from all those with at least two appearances this season.
In 2003/04, the club qualified for the Round of 16. Barring that season, it's most recent appearance in Europe saw it reach the semi-finals in 1982/83. The team has a history of doing well whenever it has qualified.
Can the Basque outfit continue it's fairytale 2012/13 into the new European season, and mix it up with the likes of Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk? Their chance is as good as any.
And so, despite Manchester United being the overwhelming betting favourites, Group A is arguably (alongside Arsenal's) the most open of all eight groups.
The playing styles of these four teams will please the neutrals too, with some exciting, attacking football potentially for show. There is no definitive favourite, nor is there a surefire group minnow.
Exciting times lie ahead.
(all statistics from WhoScored.com)
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