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Monday, 10 December, 2018

Soft draw gives Man United a great chance

Red Devils well balanced

United boss Jose Mourinho gives his team instructions
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You have to go back to 1962 for the last time Benfica tasted success on the European stage and they have lost eight successive finals since but the Portuguese side remain a dominant force domestically.

Last season saw the Eagles fly to their fourth consecutive title as well as progress to the Champions League last 16 despite the sale of Renato Sanches (Bayern Munich), Goncalo Guedes (PSG) and Nico Gaitan (Atletico Madrid) to more elite clubs.

It's been another summer of change for Rui Vitoria's squad as around £100m worth of talent left with Ederson and Victor Lindelof joining Manchester City and Manchester United, Nelson Semedo going to Barcelona and top scorer Konstantinos Mitroglou now with Marseille.

The replacements have been modest, although Benfica seem to sell their best players every transfer window and remain competitive.

It will be fascinating to see whether Inter's big-money flop Gabriel Barbosa - or Gabigol as he was called in Brazil - can reignite his career but Benfica look a weaker side than last season.

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Group B

Group C

Group D

Manchester United
Jose Mourinho has called Manchester United's Champions League group a "difficult draw" but when he did so presumably it was with his tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Having gatecrashed the Champions League party thanks to winning the Europa League, United, who finished only sixth in last season's Premier League, have got lucky in a soft section that gives them an ideal opportunity to improve a poor record in the tournament.

United have twice suffered group-stage elimination as well as one quarter-final and last-16 appearance in four attempts since reaching the final in 2011, although Mourinho is one of only five managers to triumph with different clubs in Europe's premier club competition.

Mourinho has a greater balance to his squad this season thanks to the arrival of midfield anchor Nemanja Matic, which frees up Paul Pogba, and there is added variety in attack with Romelu Lukaku on board to ease the burden on injured veteran Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The quarter-finals appear a realistic target for the improving Red Devils.

There is a saying on resistance to change - people are happy with it as long as it's exactly the same as it was before.

Things are not the same at Basel, who romped to their eighth straight Swiss title last season, and this campaign may be one of transition as the club heads in a new direction.

Popular chairman Bernhard Heusler has departed and so too have influential retired captain Matias Delgado, manager Urs Fischer, Swiss Golden Boot winner Seydou Doumbia and 13-goal Marc Janko.

New president Bernhard Burgener is targeting a new ethos - giving Basel back to Basel - which has meant a raft of former players being given roles on the board, while novice boss Raphael Wicky has been moved up from the Under-21s to replace Fischer with the remit of promoting youngsters. 

Doumbia's replacement, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, has started well but the former Norwich misfit is not a Champions League striker and, while Mohamed Elyounoussi and Dimitri Oberlin are players of potential, Basel are likely to find this level difficult.

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Group E

Group F

Group G

Group H

CSKA Moscow
This will be CSKA's fifth straight crack at the Champions League but they have not qualified from a group since 2011 and even from this soft section it is difficult to see that changing.

The Russians finished seven points behind Spartak Moscow last season but that was still a decent effort given their recent lack of investment.

Owner Evgeni Giner has brought much success to the club in the past but he was hit by a huge bill from a Moscow court regarding unpaid loans and the the Kharkiv-born businessman's many Ukrainian investments are not as lucrative as they once were.

No players were added in the summer so the squad is similar to the one which finished bottom in last season's Champions League group. The 35-year-old Berezutsky twins remain, as does 38-year-old fellow centre-back Sergei Ignashevich, and two of those will start alongside Viktor Vasin in Victor Goncharenko's 3-5-2 formation.

Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Golovin are decent in midfield but that is unlikely to be enough for qualification.

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United have got lucky in a soft section that gives them an ideal opportunity to improve a poor record in the tournament
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