Philadelphia, PA – Borussia Dortmund was poised to re-emerge in Europe this season, but the Champions League draw produced a gauntlet named the "Group of Death" for the two-time reigning Bundesliga champions.
Nothing like taking the pressure off before the tournament begins.
Drawn with Spanish champion Real Madrid, English champion Manchester City and Dutch champion Ajax, Dortmund will live a worst-case scenario. But with a lot of the burden off as the pot 4 club, the German side could be more dangerous.
Last season, Dortmund received a relatively easy draw in its first appearance in the tournament since 2003-04 and disappointed. With just a single win, 1-0 over Greek side Olympiacos, it finished at the bottom of its group.
Dortmund is no stranger to Champions League play, and has a title to its name from 1997. That surprise crown came on the heels of two successive Bundesliga titles.
Coach Jurgen Klopp hopes to follow the blueprint from the 1990s, even with his club facing one of the toughest challenges possible in the group stage.
"Exciting is the only way to describe this group," Klopp said.
Nine-time European champion Real is the favorite, followed by City. Ajax, the overlooked club among these giants, has won four European championships.
But Klopp added that he is "full of anticipation."
If Dortmund is going to complete the final step in its revival from the brink of extinction just years ago when financial problems nearly crippled the club, there is no better way than to earn it.
Often, the Champions League offers up a few easy groups. Sure, Dortmund would have taken that luck and run with it. But even then there would be absolutely no guarantees, as last year proved.
City failed to produce under lofty expectations in the group stage last year, as it was knocked out behind Bayern Munich and Napoli. And while Dortmund can look at the draw as bad luck, so can Real, City and Ajax.
Dortmund was the lone club from the final pot, which are based on recent play in European competitions, that every team from the first three pots wanted to avoid.
"I am sure that just as we took a sharp breath when the draw was made," said Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc, "so will the other clubs drawn with us."
Dortmund was the most complete team in Germany last season, edging Bayern for the league and German Cup titles. Dortmund ended last season on a 28-game run without a loss in league play.
Now, its goal is to equal Bayern Munich in Europe. Bayern reached its second Champions League final in three seasons in May, losing to Chelsea on penalty kicks.
Klopp will have to navigate this challenge without Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa, who transferred to Manchester United. But he was not helpless to add his replacement, as Germany international Marco Reus was acquired from rival Monchengladbach.
Fellow German international Mario Gotze, one the most talented young players in the world, is set for a larger role for Dortmund after a season slowed by injuries.
Klopp cannot trot out a player in the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, who stars for Madrid. There are no players in Dortmund with the track record of Carlos Tevez, among the stars for City.
Dortmund cannot match Real or City financially, either. But don't forget the German club has a number of internationals, who Klopp has molded into a team.
Collectively, well, that has been how Dortmund has shone over the past years. Just ask Bayern, which lost five straight at one point against its poorer and supposedly weaker German rival.
Now, it's time for Dortmund to step up against the other giants in Europe and prove it has once again attainted that status. Dortmund opens at home against Ajax on Tuesday, when City visits Madrid in the other Group D match.
"This group," Klopp promised, "will provide a wonderful story."
With expectations lowered because of the brutal group, Dortmund is in a great position to produce the happy ending Klopp envisions - but the odds are still against his club.
Winner: Real Madrid
Top-to-bottom, there is no team in the world more talented than Real. Drawn in the "Group of Death," Madrid will be the undertaker among these sides. Ronaldo and friends are among the favorites to win the entire tournament.
Runner-up: Manchester City
City fell short of a knockout stage berth last season in the "Group of Death," but will not miss out again. With an English Premier League title in tow and a taste of Champions League play from last season, even a title is possible.
GROUP A: FC Porto (Portugal), Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine), PSG (France), Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia).
As a pot 3 team in the draw, PSG could have landed in a group with Real Madrid and Manchester City. Instead of a nightmare scenario, the free-spending French side received a dream draw. Watch out for this club in the knockout stage.
Runner-up: Dynamo Kyiv
Dynamo Kyiv escaped the qualification stages with an aggregate win over German side Monchengladbach and has the quality to advance here. Andriy Shevchenko retired after last season, but that just adds to the sleeper status for Kyiv.
GROUP B: Arsenal (England), Schalke (Germany), Olympiacos (Greece), Montpellier (France).
Arsenal lost more stars this summer as Robin van Persie and Alex Song departed for Manchester United and Barcelona, respectively. But the Gunners escaped the group stage last year after the departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri.
Just two seasons ago, Schalke made the semifinals of the Champions League. The Royal Blues are not quite that good this season, but paced by Bundesliga leading scorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, they will return to knockout play.
GROUP C: AC Milan (Italy), Zenit (Russia), Anderlecht (Belgium), Malaga (Spain).
Zenit swooped for Brazilian striker Hulk and Belgian midfielder Alex Witsel to strengthen an already quality side, and will make an impact this season in the Champions League.
Runner-up: AC Milan
AC Milan just does not scare you right now, but it would be no surprise to see the Italian team win this group. The draw was very kind, but the departures of striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and defender Thiago Silva leave major concerns.
GROUP E: Chelsea (England), Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), Juventus (Italy), Nordsjaelland (Denmark).
Far from impressive on the field during the event last season, Chelsea claimed its first-ever Champions League title. This season, the Blues may be even more dangerous. They have to be more enjoyable to watch.
Juventus returns to the Champions League after a two-year absence and after an unbeaten Serie A campaign, and could once again be prepared to make a European impact. Failure at this point would be disastrous for the Italian side.
GROUP F: Bayern Munich (Germany), Valencia (Spain), Lille (France), BATE (Belarus).
Winner: Bayern Munich
Runner-up last season for the second time in three years, Bayern will again be dangerous and considered among the favorites. With $50 million midfielder Javi Martinez among the reinforcements, this stage is just a speed bump.
Valencia has played well early this season in a draw against Real Madrid and a loss against Barcelona. Despite the amount of talent lost in recent years, Los Che are the third-best team in Spain and good enough to advance.
GROUP G: Barcelona (Spain), Benfica (Portugal), Spartak Moscow (Russia), Celtic (Scotland).
Barca won the Champions League in 2009 and 2011, and there is no reason why it cannot contend for the title again and extend its odd-year streak. This stage, well, it will be a breeze. Things will get tougher later on, however.
Runner-up: Spartak Moscow
Benfica lost all-round Belgium midfielder Witsel and Spartak Moscow could take advantage to reach the round of 16. The Russian side needed to beat Fenerbahce in the playoff round, but will be tough to beat at home and should advance.
GROUP H: Manchester United (England), Braga (Portugal), Galatasaray (Turkey), CFR Cluj (Romania).
Winner: Manchester United
Eliminated at this stage last season from a relatively weak group, United will not meet the same fate again. Kagawa and Dutch striker Robin van Persie add a dynamic presence on offense after joining in the summer.
Galatasaray won its 18th Turkish Super League title last season and features a strong core of international players, such as Hamit Altintop (Turkey), Milan Baros (Czech Republic), Cris (Brazil) and Fernando Muslera (Uruguay).