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Guardiola's Barcelona return headlines Champions League group stage draw

MONACO -- Tournament draws are designed to deliver balance, and, when they do their job, they're distinctly unexciting. So, unless you get lucky -- or you hire a WWE scriptwriter, which, for now, UEFA is not planning to do -- there's a decent chance you'll get a fairly humdrum draw.

That was the case for the 2016-17 Champions League group stage ... with one glaring exception: Group C is all about Pep Guardiola.

His Manchester City side face Barcelona, the club where he spent 22 of his 45 years on this earth as a youth team player, professional and coach. While in charge 2008-12, he led a tactical revolution and instigated one of the most dominant and memorable cycles in recent history. Having been asked to do the same at City, he now comes face-to-face with his past.

He's not the only one, either. How about Claudio Bravo? He moved to Barcelona in the summer of 2014 and spent two seasons as the first-choice keeper in La Liga but, because of Luis Enrique's rotational goalkeeping policy, played a grand total of zero minutes in the Champions League, with Marc-Andre ter Stegen preferred.

Now, later in the same day on which he joined Manchester City, Bravo finds out he'll be up against his old club. And, perhaps, will enjoy the chance to show Enrique that, yes, he can also be a fine keeper in the Champions League.

There are other City men with a Barca past. In fact, the club haven't been shy about modeling themselves on the Catalan club. Chief executive Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain held similar roles at the Camp Nou.

Pep Guardiola won the Champions League with Barcelona in 2009 and 2011.

Among the playing squad, new signing Nolito spent three seasons at Barca early in his career. And then there's Yaya Toure, the defensive linchpin of Guardiola's first Champions League-winning Barcelona side in 2009 ... though whether he'll still be a City player by the time the teams face each other, on Oct. 19 and Nov. 1, remains to be seen.

And going in the other direction is Denis Suarez. He spent two seasons in Manchester City's youth team before moving to Barca and, after spells at Sevilla and Villarreal, has already started two games this season for Enrique's side.

There's also the aspirational subplot. In two of the past three seasons, City have been knocked out by Barcelona in the round of 16. If you can't beat them, join them. Or have the guy who helped create the modern Barca phenomenon join you.

There's a past haunting Guardiola in another of City's Group C opponents: Borussia Monchengladbach. He faced them four times in the past two seasons as manager of Bayern Munich, twice each with Lucien Favre and current boss Andre Schubert in charge.

Guardiola's record? Zero wins, two draws and two defeats. Indeed, Gladbach are the only side he failed to beat in his last two years in Bavaria.

The fourth team in the group are Celtic. And, no, there's no dark past. Unless you count the scare the Scottish side gave Barcelona in 2007-08, when they twice took the lead at the Camp Nou in a round-of-16 second leg. Guardiola was coaching the Barca B team at the time, but it's a safe bet he was keeping an eye on things.

Manchester City and Guardiola facing Celtic is also another one of those "Battle of Britain" clashes -- England vs. Scotland -- that the British media relish with gusto.

That's a lot on your plate, if you're Guardiola. The consolation is that whatever concerns, if any, he might have regarding his opposition, they're bound to be equally concerned about facing him and City.

Either way, this is a group teeming with juicy storylines.

Bayern and Atletico meet again

In Group D, it won't be quite a proper rematch of last season's semifinal when Bayern Munich take on Atletico Madrid because the Bavarians have a different manager in Carlo Ancelotti and, presumably, will take a different approach in these two-legged affairs.

But you can expect the spotlight to be firmly on these two sides, who look well ahead of PSV Eindhoven and Rostov on paper. That said; nobody will be looking forward to the long flight to southwest Russia.

Meanwhile, in Group H, Juventus are another team that get a chance at some revenge. Their matchday six loss to Sevilla last season meant they weren't seeded in the last 16 and ended up facing Bayern. Olympique Lyonnais, assuming they keep Alexandre Lacazette and keep him happy, are a tough out. Dinamo Zagreb round out the group.

In Group F, titleholders Real Madrid will face Thomas Tuchel's Borussia Dortmund, who are hardly what you would call a "fun" opponent. Come to think of it, Sporting Lisbon are a tricky opponent as well and Legia Warsaw are more difficult than people think. This might not be one of those years when Madrid wrap up qualification by matchday four.

In Group A, Basel are the wild card for heavyweights Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal. They have advanced from the group stage twice in their past four attempts and twice knocked out English clubs -- Manchester United in 2011-12 and Liverpool two seasons ago -- along the way. Ludogorets seem to be just along for the ride.

In Group G, the gods of football were gentle to Leicester City for their first Champions League experience. Porto are old heads in this competition but, in their current state and despite knocking out Roma in the playoffs, are hardly as menacing as a few years back. Meanwhile, Brugge and Copenhagen look to be manageable opponents.

In Group E, given they were seeded in the third pot, Tottenham Hotspur can be moderately happy with their draw, which saw them get CSKA Moscow and Bayer Leverkusen, the lowest-rated teams in Pots 1 and 2, respectively. Of course, that is somewhat balanced out by getting Monaco, the second-highest-rated team in Pot 4.

Group B, with Benfica, Napoli, Dynamo Kiev and Besiktas, is probably the most wide open. The Portuguese champions are the top seeds but, really, any two of the four can qualify.

Ronaldo takes home another award

Some folks will get bent out of shape over Cristiano Ronaldo winning UEFA's Best Player in Europe award ahead of Gareth Bale and Antoine Griezmann and with the fact that Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi were outside the top three.

It's not worth losing sleep over. A jury of 55 journalists, one from each UEFA member nation -- including newcomers Gibraltar and Kosovo -- gets to vote. The top three vote-getters then go on a short list and, at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco, the journalists vote again, this time selecting from that trio.

It's a small pool, and it's down to personal preference. Some might have considered Griezmann's herculean feat in carrying the Atletico attack virtually on his own to the Champions League final and then helping France to the Euro 2016 final.

Others considered Bale's exploits in winning another Champions League and guiding Wales to the semifinals of the European Championship.

Still others, no doubt, simply looked at the fact that Ronaldo scored a zillion goals (again), won the Champions League (again) and helped Portugal win their first-ever major championship.

That's all it is. No sense in worrying about it too much.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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