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New manager Gerardo Martino prepares to lead Barcelona into this season's Champions League. Brendon Netto looks at what the La Liga champions will face in the group stages.

 Brendon Netto
 ANALYSIS | EUROPE
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AC Milan


Performance in last year's tournament: Finished 2nd in their group and were eliminated in the next round.

How they qualified this year: Finished 3rd in the Serie A and beat PSV in the Champions League play-offs.
 
The Manager

Massimiliano Allegri was appointed as AC Milan manager in 2010 and immediately delivered the league title that season. He was also named Serie A Coach of the year in the 2010-11 campaign. However, following a mass exodus of some of the club's best and most experienced players, Allegri's job has been difficult. Nevertheless, the Italian has done well to steady the ship and has put together a strong side once more. His tactical nous came to the fore in the Champions League last season when they beat Barcelona 2-0 at the San Siro, having barely afforded them a sight at goal.

Formation and Tactics

4-3-3

AC Milan employ a 4-3-3 system. Nigel de Jong anchors their midfield while Riccardo Montolivo is expected to be joined by Kaka ahead of the Dutchman. The pace and trickery of Robinho and Stephan El Shaarawy support Mario Balotelli in attack since a blunder in the paperwork cost M'Baye Niang his place in the Champions League squad. Both wingers often cut inside with the full-backs overlapping them. Against sides who aren't very strong, Milan normally dominate possession and dictate the tempo but when facing a team like Barcelona for example, they remain compact and attack well on the counter. With the duo of Montolivo and Kaka in central midfield, they have plenty of creativity while Balotelli has so far proved to be the ideal lone striker up front.

Expectations:

Advancing from the group stages has to be their minimum objective but looking ahead, they'd fancy themselves against the best of teams on their day and will want to go as far as possible in the tournament.

  Man to Watch - Mario Balotelli

Kaka has been the one making all the headlines for Milan of late as he returns to the club where he was once the best player in the world. However, Balotelli is no stranger to the media and he could still be the main man on the pitch for the Milanese club. The striker scored 12 goals and made 4 assists in 13 Serie A appearances for Milan since his move from Manchester City in January. His arrival was pivitol to the team's excellent run in the second half of the season which saw them finish third and qualify for the Champions League with the Italy international proving to be the match winner repeatedly. The 23 year-old has all the qualities of a top striker and so far at least, he's thrived at the San Siro. 


Ajax


Performance in last year's tournament: Finished 3rd in their group and entered the Europa League.

How they qualified this year: Won the Eredivisie to earn automatic qualification.

The Manager

Frank de Boer enjoyed an eleven year spell with Ajax as a player after graduating from their youth academy. He proceeded to play for Barcelona for four years as well. Since taking over the managerial post at Ajax in 2010, he's won three consecutive Eredivisie titles. He shares the values and tradition of the club and promotes their fluid style of play. He is particularly good at nurturing young talent having worked with the youth team before becoming assistant manager and eventually taking over at the helm.

Formation and Tactics

4-3-3

Ajax set up in an attacking 4-3-3 formation. Kolbein Sigthorsson plays as the loan striker and is flanked on either side by Bjan Krkic and Viktor Fischer who offers plenty of penetration from the wide areas especially when cutting inside. Christian Poulsen sits in midfield and shields the back four while Siem de Jong and Lasse Schone operate ahead of him. The pace and trickery of their wingers play a big part while their fluid style of play sees them break quickly and attack teams with swift passing and link-up play. With Christian Eriksen moving to Tottenham, a lot of the playmaking duties will fall on De Jong in central midfield.

Expectations:

Ajax are certainly capable of giving Milan and Barcelona a run for their money in this group. They were drawn in the group of death last season with Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Manchester City and despite having to face Barcelona this time around, they'll definitely fancy their chances against Milan and Celtic.

  Man to Watch - Viktor Fischer

Christian Eriksen may have left Ajax for a move to the Premier League but the club have another resident wonderkid in their ranks. Viktor Fischer scored 12 goals and made 6 assists in 35 appearances in his first season as part of the senior team last term. He has a good turn of pace, plenty of trickery and has a an eye for goal too. At just 19, the Danish winger certainly has a bright future ahead of him and is already one of Ajax's biggest threats in attack.


Celtic

Performance in last year's tournament: Finished second in their group and were eliminated in the next round.

How they qualified this year: Won the Scottish League and entered the second qualifying round of the Champions League

The Manager

Neil Lennon enjoyed seven years as a Celtic player and even captained the side. He returned as manager of the club in 2010 and has since won two consecutive league titles and two Scottish Cups. He is seen as someone who is well versed in the values of the club. He guided the team through the group stages of the Champions League last season when they finished second to Barcelona but were beaten 5-0 over two legs against Juventus in the following round.

Formation and Tactics

4-4-2

Celtic play a 4-4-2 system. Their two central midfielders work tirelessly to challenge for every ball, track back and support the attack. Kris Commons and James Forrest offer plenty of width and are the primary supply-line for the strikers in the middle.

Having lost Gary Hooper to Norwich City this summer, Anthony Stokes and Georgios Samaras will feature in attack. Their full-backs overlap the wingers in order to add to the service from wide areas. 

Expectations:


On paper, they may seem like the weakest team in this group but they've been known to pull off a few upsets. Last season itself, they beat Barcelona at Celtic Park 2-1 in the group stages of the Champions League. They would love to finish third in order to secure a place in the Europa League but they'll always play they want to win it all and will always believe they can beat the best on their day.

  Man to Watch - Anthony Stokes

With star striker Hooper gone along with Victor Wanyama who was their midfield enforcer, Anthony Stokes may be the one to step up to the plate. The Irishman was plagued by injury last season had scored over 40 goals over the two preceding campaigns. At 25, he may be entering his best years and could go on to be more consistent in front of goal. He's also a willing runner and will constantly keep defenders on their toes.

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