The qualifiers are now finished, and the pots for tomorrow's draw are now set. Due to their UEFA coefficient and defending champion status, Chelsea will be placed in pot one for tomorrow's draw. One team from each of the other three pots will be added to Chelsea's group, and we'll start by looking at the teams in pot two. Those of you watching closely will notice I've only previewed seven clubs for pot two, and there is a reason behind that. Manchester City joins these seven clubs in pot two, but as a team in the same league as Chelsea, we can't be paired with them in either the group stage or first knockout round. Enough on City though, after the jump we'll have a look at the seven clubs from this pot that we could actually face.
Valencia - Valencia are a Champions League regular, and we happened to draw them into our group last year. They eventually finished third in the group behind Chelsea and Bayer Leverkusen, and they'd go on to finish third in La Liga as well. They started this season with an impressive draw with Real Madrid, but then they disappointingly dropped points against Deportivo La Coruna. They have Barcelona on the weekend, so that should be a great indicator of where they are at for 2012. Then again, if Barca continue to play like they are this evening it might not be much of a test at all.
With Jordi Alba gone, the key name that we'll see returning from last season is Roberto Soldado. The center forward was one of the key reasons that Valencia again finished third last season, and he'll be key to anything they hope to do in 2012/13. Jeremy Mathieu is also a quality player in the Valencia squad, and we all got wowed by keeper Diego Alves last season.
Valencia are probably an improved side from the one we saw last season, and there have certainly been a few changes worth noting so far in this window. Jordi Alba has left the club to join Barcelona, and he'll be replaced by Aly Cissokho who was acquired from Olympic Lyon. They've also added Joao Pereira, Andres Guardado, Fernando Gago, and Nelson Valdez (on loan). Sergio Canales should continue to improve for them, and he's made the (possibly temporary) permanent switch from Real Madrid to Valencia this window as well. They'll miss Jordi Alba, but they've made some nice additions and should be far deeper than they were a year ago.
Benfica - Like Valencia, we got a two game look at Benfica lat season. After topping the group containing Manchester United last season, they'd reach the quarterfinals before being knocked out by eventual champions Chelsea. They finished second in Liga Sagres last season, and they've started the season with a win and a draw. The draw came against a quality Braga side in the opener, and Benfica won't have another real test for a bit.
There are a few really dangerous players on this Benfica squad. Oscar Cardozo, Nicolas Gaitan, and Axel Witsel are probably the three that are most notable at the moment. They do have a nice young squad though, so it's very possible there will be another youngster joining the ranks of the elite before we potentially face them.
Benfica have had a relatively quiet summer thus far. There has been plenty of interest in some of their players, but as of yet they haven't lost any of their big ones. They've made two notable additions though, adding Eduardo Salvio and Ola John to the first team. There's still some time left in the transfer window, but at the moment it looks like Benfica should be a mildly improved team from the one we faced last year.
Shakhtar Donetsk - Several years ago, Shakhtar were pretty much unknown to all but the most diehard of footie fans. They burst onto the scene with a deep Champions League run though, and riding that run they are now firmly established as a pot two team for the foreseeable future. Shakhtar won the Ukrainian Premier League again last season, and they've been a perfect seven for seven to start this season as well.
Most of you probably know the key names in this squad, but their best players are certainly Willian and Darijo Srna. Eduardo, Douglas Costa, Luiz Adriano, and Razvan Rat are also names to keep in mind when discussing the Ukrainian side.
At the moment, the squad is more or less the same one that we've seen for the past several years. Marko Devic and Maicon Oliviera have arrived to provide depth at the striker position, but the big name involving this club is certainly Willian. Willian wants to leave, and Tottenham have been linked. Should Willian leave, this will be a much weaker squad than it has been for the past several seasons. Should he stay, Shakhtar will again be a very scary opponent that can focus on the CL due to a relatively weak domestic league.
Zenit St. Petersburg - Zenit is traditionally one of the better clubs in Russia, and they proved it last season by winning the Russian Premier League. They also participated in the Champions League last year, finishing second in their group ahead of FC Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk. They'd draw Benfica in the first knockout round, losing 4-3 on aggregate despite carrying a 3-2 lead into the second leg. Zenit have started the new season well, topping the table again after the first six matches of the season.
Zeint are composed primarily of Russian players, but they do have Bruno Alves and Nicolas Lombaerts as notable foreign born players. Goalkeeper Vyachevslav Malafeev and forward Alexander Kerzhakov are also quality players on this Zenit squad.
To this point in the transfer window, Zenit are basically an unchanged squad. They have, however, made a very aggressive bid for Porto's Hulk who doesn't seem to want a move to Russia. They've certainly got money to spend, so this could be a very different looking squad come Friday evening.
Schalke 04 - Schalke are in pot two largely due to a very surprising semifinal run two seasons ago. They'd miss out on last season's Champions League, but they'd finish an impressive third in the Bundesliga to regain entrance to this season's competition. Shalke drew their opening fixture of this season's campaign, but it's hard to take anything away from a single contest.
The key players to this squad are pretty easy to identify. Klass-Jan Huntelaar is a name most of you probably know, while Jermaine Jones and Kyriakos Papadapoulos are somewhat lesser known yet stellar players. Christian Fuchs also plays a key role, and Julian Draxler is one of the more exciting young players in Germany.
Schalke haven't had any major players leave the squad this window, but they have added the exciting Tranquillo Barnetta to their wings and Roman Neustadter to the midfield. Klass-Jan Huntelaar has been linked to quite a few potential moves though, so it's very possible this squad could look vastly different come Friday. At present, this is probably an improved squad to the one that finished third in the Bundesliga last season.
Sporting Braga - Braga were faced with an awfully tough task to get into the group stage, but they passed with flying colors as they defeated Udinese on penalties. Braga got to this point by finishing third in Liga Sagres, and while they are a bit off of the level of the big two in Portugal, they are likely to be in the hunt for that third Champions League place again this season as well. They are currently tied on points atop the table in Liga Sagres, but it's early and plenty can happen over the course of the season.
Many of you probably tuned in as Braga knocked Udinese out in the qualifiers yet again, so you're likely already familiar with a few of the names. Lima is their marquee player, leading the line in the center of the attack. Custodio, Ruben Amorim, Hugo Viana, and Marcio Mossoro are probably the rest of the key returning names you should know involving the Portuguese outfit.
Braga haven't done a whole lot in this transfer window, but they did add Ruben Micael from Atletico Madrid. Eder may be one to keep an eye on as well, but as of yet he hasn't really done anything outside of South America. Braga haven't really lost anyone of note from last season's squad, so they should look slightly improved from the club we saw last season.
Dynamo Kiev - Kiev have had some recent European success, and they're always in the title hunt in the Ukraine. They had another solid season last year, again finishing just behind Shakhtar. They'll be in the hunt this year as well, as they still have a quality team.
Kiev return some strong players, and their best returning player is probably striker Andriy Yarmelenko. They have a pair of quality players in the midfield as well, with Ognjen Vukujevic and Oleg Gusev being names to remember.
Kiev have had a busy summer. Andriy Shevchenko has retired, and they've lost both Andre and Oleksander Alieu over the course of the summer. They've really added though, bringing in Raffael, Taye Taiwo, Niko Kranjcar, and Marko Ruben. All told, they should be a much deeper squad than they had last year, and it showed as they tore a strong Gladbach side apart in Germany.
Steve's take on pot two - Pot two has one team that nobody wants to draw into their group, and luckily for Chelsea, that team happens to be English. There's a pretty massive drop in class between Manchester City and the other seven teams in this pot, but frankly there just isn't a whole lot separating those seven teams that Chelsea can draw from each other. Any of the seven are capable of beating a Chelsea side having a lackluster day, but none of them are of the quality that Chelsea shouldn't beat with regularity when playing relatively well. There's a lot of good here, but not much great.
I suppose if I really had to choose, I'd pulling for us to draw Braga out of this group as they're likely the weakest of the bunch, but I'd be hard pressed to really state a preference between the other six. I suppose avoiding a December trip to either Russia or the Ukraine would be sort of nice as well, although there is no guarantee we'd get such poor timing for the away game with those clubs anyway. No matter who we draw here, we'll be looking at a quality opponent. Just breathe a sigh of relief that we won't get stuck with City in our group.