Europe’s finest learn their fate
© AFP

There was plenty of drama in Monaco on Thursday evening as the draw for the group stage of the 2008/09 UEFA Champions League took place. Several of the pools look wide open, none more so than Group D, which comprises three former winners of Europe's biggest club prize and a losing finalist.

The 32 teams, made up of the 16 sides who qualified directly for the group stage by virtue of their UEFA coefficient, and the remaining 16 sides who advanced from the third qualifying round, were split into four seeding pots.

While England, Spain and Italy all provided four representatives, no fewer than 17 different nations were represented in the draw, with four teams making their first appearance in the competition proper: Zenit Saint Petersburg, last season's UEFA Cup winners; Romanian champions Cluj; BATE Borisov, the first side from Belarus to reach the group stages; and Anorthosis Famagusta of Cyprus.

Defending champions Manchester United were handed what looks to be a relatively straightforward draw in Group E, although the battle for second place between Villarreal of Spain and Scottish giants Celtic should be fierce. Danish representatives Aalborg will, in all probability, have to content themselves with a supporting role.

Returning Juve link up with Real
Last season's losing finalists Chelsea, who are still waiting to etch their name on the Champions League trophy, were pitched into Group A alongside Francesco Totti's Roma. An added incentive for the Giallorossi this season is the fact the final will be played at their home ground, the Stadio Olimpico. Completing the section are Bordeaux, who have nothing to lose but will probably have to fight it out with Cluj for third place and a slot in the UEFA Cup.

Having won the trophy a record nine times, Real Madrid begin their quest for number ten in one of the most enticing sections of all. Joining them in Group H are Juventus, back in the competition following a two-year absence, Zenit Saint Petersburg of Russia and Belarussian debutants BATE Borisov, who can expect a baptism of fire.

After scraping through their third-round qualifier, Liverpool will have to rediscover their European form quickly if they are to negotiate a testing Group D, where they will take on former champions PSV Eindhoven and Marseille, the only French team ever to win at Anfield in the tournament, and an Atletico Madrid side anxious to recreate their glory days of the 1970s.

Barcelona will be confident in their chances in Group C, with company from Sporting, Basel and Shakhtar Donetsk, all of whom will be eyeing second place.

Group G favourites Arsenal will face off against Porto, Turkish challengers Fenerbahce and an in-form Dinamo Kiev team, while in Group F, top seeds Lyon have found themselves in a very evenly-balanced section. Taking on the seven-time French champions are Bayern Munich, whom they have already met twice in the last six years at this stage, Adrian Mutu's Fiorentina and former winners Steaua Bucharest.

Cypriot minnows Anorthosis Famagusta, who earned their place in the last 32 by knocking out Olympiacos, will square off against another Greek side in Panathinaikos in Group B, where Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan and Werder Bremen are expected to figure strongly.

The first round of games will be played on 16 and 17 September, and the final will take place in Rome in May 2009.

Ronaldo and Blues take the honours
The evening also saw UEFA hand out its club football awards, with Chelsea virtually sweeping the board. John Terry scooped the Best Defender accolade ahead of Jamie Carragher (Liverpool) and Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United), while his Blues team-mate Peter Cech was voted Best Goalkeeper at the expense of Manuel Neuer (Schalke) and Pepe Reina (Liverpool). Frank Lampard made it a Chelsea hat-trick when he edged out Paul Scholes (Manchester United) and Michael Essien (Chelsea) to take the Best Midfielder prize.

Not surprisingly, however, Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo was named Best Forward, in front of Leo Messi (Barcelona) and Wayne Rooney, and also picked up the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year award.

UEFA Champions League draw
Group A:
Chelsea, Roma, Bordeaux, Cluj
Group B: Inter Milan, Werder Bremen, Panathinaikos, Anorthosis Famagusta
Group C: Barcelona, Sporting, Basel, Shakthar Donetsk
Group D: Liverpool, PSV Eindhoven, Marseille, Atletico Madrid
Group E: Manchester United, Villarreal, Glasgow Celtic, Aalborg
Group F: Lyon, Bayern Munich, Steaua Bucharest, Fiorentina
Group G: Arsenal, Porto, Fenerbahce, Dynamo Kiev
Group H: Real Madrid, Juventus, Zenit St Petersburg, BATE Borisov