Cologne - With the exception of FC Bayern München, the Bundesliga's quartet of contenders have all drawn at least one serious European heavyweight in the group stage of this season's UEFA Champions League.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen will be measuring themselves against holders FC Barcelona, Lionel Messi et al, first-timers Borussia Mönchengladbach have landed up in a veritable 'group of death', and VfL Wolfsburg take on Bastian Schweinsteiger's new employers, Manchester United FC.
Mönchengladbach, taking part in the competition proper for the first time since it replaced the old European Cup, have, on paper, the toughest task of the lot. The Foals are up against last season's beaten finalists Juventus FC in Group D, as well as English Premier League runners-up Manchester City and Spanish outfit Sevilla FC – winners of the UEFA Europa League the past two years running. "Welcome to the Champions League," Gladbach sporting director Max Eberl wryly noted after the die was cast at Monaco's Grimaldi Forum, "That's the group of groups, with all Europe's top leagues represented."
Leverkusen look to have their hands full as well in Group E, most obviously against Barcelona. The last time the sides met in this tournament, in the 2001/12 Round of 16, the Werkself finished on the wrong end of a 10-2 aggregate thumping. Now they have the opportunity to try for a bit of payback. Another trip to the Eternal City is also on the agenda for Roger Schmidt's troops who, having seen off SS Lazio in the play-off round, will be aiming to repeat the trick against AS Roma. FC BATE Borisov complete the line-up and the serial Belarusian champions, themselves no strangers to this tournament, are not to be taken lightly either. "There are some nice trips for the fans – for us it's going to be extremely difficult,” said Bayer managing director Michael Schade, "We've a 50-50 chance of second place."
United test for Wolves
Wolfsburg, for whom this is the second tilt at Europe's top club competition, look to have a slightly easier path into the first knockout round. Manchester United, complete with marquee summer signing Schweinsteiger, are the acknowledged Group B heavyweights – even if they did only get there by way of the play-off round – but with Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven and CSKA Moskva also in the mix, sporting director Klaus Allofs views it as "an open group," and is "confident" about the Wolves chances of progressing.
Confidence comes naturally to FC Bayern and the draw for Group F will have done little do dampen it. Their main ostensible rivals, whom they are incidentally going up against for the third time in four years, are Arsenal FC, complete with World Cup-winners Per Mertesacker and Mesut Özil. Olympiacos FC, Greek champions for the past five years, and GNK Dinamo Zagreb, with an incredible ten straight Croatian titles to their name, are the other sides standing between Bayern and the last 16. "We'll need to be in good form and approach this group professionally and with due respect," director of sport Matthias Sammer warned.
The action kicks off on 15 September and, with four teams involved at the group stage for the third year running, the Bundesliga once again looks best placed to play a prominent role in this season's Champions League.