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International Soccer
Bayern's journey home no European vacation

By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Bayern Munich's journey to its own Allianz Arena for the 2011-12 Champions League final starts with the "Group of Death," after the four-time winners were handed the toughest group draw Thursday.

Spain's Villarreal, England's Manchester City and Italy's Napoli were drawn in Group A along with the German giants as arguably the top one or two teams from pots two, three and four landed in the same group with Bayern.

Since the event adjusted its format a couple years ago to allow more champions from smaller countries into group play, this stage has been little more than a tune-up for the knockout stages for Europe's best clubs.

But for the first time ever in the Champions League, teams from Europe's elite countries - England, Germany, Italy and Spain - were drawn into a group at the first stage of the tournament.

"We'll take it as it comes, as I've been saying from the start," said Bayern director of sport Christian Nerlinger. "But this is obviously a really tough draw, and we could have done without it."

For Bayern to make it home in May, when it hosts the final, it has to navigate trips to England, Italy and Spain on its way back to Munich.
Escaping Group A, which earned the label of "Group of Death" because it is the toughest of the eight, will without a doubt prepare the top two squads for the knockout stage.

And the round of 16 could actually provide a rest, as some second-place squads from other groups will not measure up to any of the teams in Group A. But this year, there can be no looking ahead for any of these four teams.

For Bayern to make it home in May, when it hosts the final, it has to navigate trips to England, Italy and Spain on its way back to Munich.

Winner: Manchester City

City has paid roughly $6 billion (kidding, but City's not counting) to add top talent in the last few seasons under new owner Abu Dhabi United and is finally ready to make its mark on Europe's elite club competition.

Runner-up: Bayern Munich

Bayern revamped its defense in the offseason, and once German No. 1 goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, former City man Jerome Boateng and Rafinha settle in, this squad - if Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery stay healthy - will just get better.

GROUP B: Inter (Italy), CSKA (Russia), Lille (France), Trabzonspor (Turkey).

Winner: Inter

Inter remains a question mark under new coach Gian Piero Gasperini, especially with the new Serie A season yet to start, but this group will be no problem as long as the team bus finds the right stadium.

Runner-up: Trabzonspor

Trabzonspor made the Champions League after Fenerbahce was banned, but after a season in which it finished even on points for first-place Turkey's top flight, a surprise run in European play is possible from this group.

GROUP C: Manchester United (England), Benfica (Portugal), Basel (Switzerland), Otelul (Romania).

Winner: Manchester United

United has advanced to three of the last four Champions League finals, winning in 2008 in penalties against Chelsea. Although veterans Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar are gone, United will have no trouble at this stage.

Runner-up: Benfica

Benfica reached the 2010-11 Europa League semifinals, and the former two-time European champions have enough talent to compete in Europe's top club event in 2011-12, especially with a kind draw that includes Basel and Otelul.

GROUP D: Real Madrid (Spain), Lyon (France), Ajax (Netherlands), Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia).

Winner: Real Madrid

Boss Jose Mourinho has Real positioned for its record 10th European Cup title, and his third with three different teams. With enough talent to field a second team that would escape many of these groups, this stage is a walk in the park.

Runner-up: Lyon

Although Lyon has struggled domestically since its seven-year title run ended, the French side has played well in the Champions League, making the semifinals in 2009-10 and the round of 16 last season, when it was eliminated by Real.

GROUP E: Chelsea (England), Valencia (Spain), Bayer Leverkusen (Germany), Genk (Belgium).

Winner: Chelsea

Chelsea starts pursuit of its first Champions League crown as the best team in this group, and new manager Andre Villas-Boas - who led FC Porto to the Europa League title last season - can use this stage as a learning process.

Runner-up: Bayer Leverkusen

Last season, Schalke struggled in Germany but made a run to the semifinals of the Champion League. Although Leverkusen may not be ready to advance that far, the team is built to compete in Europe and should get through this stage.

GROUP F: Arsenal (England), Marseille (France); Olympiacos (Greece); Borussia Dortmund (Germany).

Winner: Borussia Dortmund

Borussia Dortmund could not have asked for a better draw as a pot 4 team, and if the squad keeps its stars - namely Mario Gotze - first place in this group is attainable. When Dortmund won the CL in 1997, the final was in Munich.

Runner-up: Arsenal

Arsenal has struggled early this season in England, but the Gunners did enough to advance at the expense of Italy's Udinese in the playoff round, and got one of the kindest draws it could have hoped for at this stage.

GROUP G: FC Porto (Portugal), Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine); Zenit (Russia), APOEL (Cyprus).

Winner: Shakhtar Donetsk

Shakhtar won its group last season ahead of Arsenal, then advanced to the last eight, where it was eliminated by Barcelona. Although Shakhtar has a ways to go to compete against Europe's elite, it can compete against this group.

Runner-up: FC Porto

Just a few months ago, Porto looked like a team good enough to win the CL. But the reigning Europa League winners have questions, namely the loss of Villas- Boas, and could still sell off players. This group is tougher than it looks.

GROUP H: Barcelona (Spain), AC Milan (Italy), BATE (Belarus), Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic)

Winner: Barcelona

Barca could rest Lionel Messi and Xavi at this stage and still win this group, because the reigning European champions are just that good. A third crown over four years is possible, but that will take the previously mentioned duo.

Runner-up: AC Milan

Massimiliano Allegri delivered a Serie A title in his first season in charge, and led Milan to the quarterfinals of the CL last season. Barca presents a big challenge, but BATE and Viktoria are better suited for the Europa League.

Comments? Criticism? Applause?
Contact Brian Westfall at bwestfall@sportsnetwork.com.

Follow Brian Westfall on Twitter and Facebook.

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