UEFA Champions League draw: Group A analysis
Manchester United have been handed a deep, but very navigable, draw in the UEFA Champions League group stage. There's no obvious weak link, with the teams in Group A from Pots 2 through 4 relatively equal and all very capable of making a run in the Champions League, but United is certainly the biggest name. Can David Moyes guide his team to the knockout stage comfortably in his first year at the helm of United?
Favorites: Manchester United
Predicting Manchester United's campaign is nearly impossible given Moyes' lack of Champions League experience and the Red Devils' transfer dealings likely not yet wrapped up, but their talent and history in the competition makes it difficult to call them anything but favorites. Regardless of how one feels about Moyes and United's squad depth, they have the best team in this group on paper.
Going Through: Bayer Leverkusen
Andre Schürrle left Bayer for Chelsea in the summer, but they did a great piece of business in replacing him with Son Heung-Min. They've also picked up young talent Emre Can from Bayern Munich while retaining their best players other than Schürrle. They currently sit third in Bundesliga with a perfect record through three games.
Europa League Bound: Shakhtar Donetsk
Shakhtar have established themselves as fixtures in the knockout stage of the Champions League, but their recent sales have them looking a bit weak. Fernandinho, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Ravzan Rat and Willian have all left the club during the last two transfer windows. They've made some signings and will expect their young players to step up, but their first choice side isn't as strong as Bayer's.
Dead Last: Real Sociedad
You have to feel bad for La Real. They beat a very strong Lyon team to get here after finishing fourth in La Liga, ahead of teams like Malaga and Valencia, but got a very difficult Champions League draw. They would have had an excellent shot at progressing had they landed in a different group, but they're clearly fourth favorites in this one.
Best Player: Robin van Persie
A fee of £24 million seemed like it might be a bit high for an injury-prone 29-year-old in the final year of his contract, but Robin van Persie has proven his worth in just one season at United. They probably don't care that they're unlikely to recoup the Dutchman's transfer fee in the future, given his dominance on the pitch since he's pulled on a United shirt. Expect United's attacks to revolve around him, even if Wayne Rooney stays at United and David Moyes starts using Shinji Kagawa properly.
Emerging Star: Bernard
Bernard, who recently joined the Ukranian giants from Atletico Mineiro in Brazil, will be tasked with filling the hole left at Shakhtar by Willian. He's already become a fixture in the Brazil side at just 20 years of age and will be counted on to both create and score goals from the right wing for Shakhtar.
Must-Watch Game: Bayer vs. Shakhtar
It's certainly possible that Manchester United could struggle to progress -- Alex Ferguson managed as much with a better squad and from a weaker group a couple years ago -- but they're likely to finish top of the group. Bayer and Shakhtar are tough to separate on paper, and both of their matches will be must-watch affairs. Whichever team advances will have a great chance to spring an upset in the Round of 16.