Chelsea fell into one of the most difficult groups in last year's Champions League and couldn't manage to get themselves out of it. They were knocked out of the competition by Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus, the latter of which beat Chelsea 3-0 in Turin, which was a major factor in Roberto Di Matteo losing his job. This time around, the Blues have drawn a much more manageable group.
It's fair to wonder whether or not Chelsea have the squad and cohesiveness to compete for major trophies, but their depth and the experience of their manager are enough for make them very clear favorites to win Group E. Schalke have been very poor in the Bundesliga to start the year, Basel are not as good as they were when they knocked Manchester United out of Champions League and Steaua are about to sell their best player to Tottenham. Jose Mourinho could probably rest his best players for league games and still scrape by.
Going Through: Schalke 04
Despite their horrible start to the year domestically, Basel and Steaua just don't have enough talent for anyone to justify picking them over Schalke. Die Königsblauen handled Arsenal comfortably in the group stage last season while performing poorly in the league and it certainly wasn't the first time that happened. Schalke has made a habit of performing well in Europe while underperforming domestically in recent years.
Europa League Bound: FC Basel
Basel have won the Swiss league four years in a row and eight times since the turn of the millennium, so they're becoming fixtures in this competition. Unfortunately for them,
and Granit Xhaka are long gone while Alexander Frei
has retired. They've brought back attacking midfielder Matias Delgado and strengthened in defense with multiple new signings to replace the departed Aleksandar Dragovic, but don't expect them to beat Schalke to second.
Dead Last: Steaua Bucharest
Steaua had to go through three qualifying rounds to get to this point, but they got rather fortunate draws and didn't have to upset anyone on their way to the group stage. Their best player, central defender Vlad Chiriches, is about to leave for Tottenham Hotspur. They're probably good enough to avoid embarrassing themselves, but a 0-point showing isn't completely out of the question.
Best Player: Eden Hazard
Whether or not Juan Mata is going to be in Chelsea's plans, Eden Hazard's progression over the last year has been rapid. He's quickly grown into Chelsea's most dangerous attacking weapon and looks completely unmarkable at times. His off-the-ball movement, touch, passing, finishing and ability to beat defenders off the dribble are all world class. Heading into the World Cup, this could be the season that Hazard makes a step up and becomes recognized as one of the world's best attacking midfielders.
Emerging Star: Julian Draxler
Draxler isn't exactly an emerging star in Germany, where he's already revered, but he's a bright young talent that hasn't quite become a household name to the rest of the world. With Lewis Holtby gone, Draxler is the clear focal point of Schalke's attack and has shined in early matches, even if his teammates haven't. He looks to be up to taking on the responsibility of sole playmaker for Schalke, who might struggle to keep him away from the likes of Bayern, Barcelona and Madrid next summer.
Must-Watch Game: Schalke vs. Chelsea
The gap in quality between Chelsea and Schalke seems fairly large, but the gap between Schalke and Basel is probably bigger. Don't expect Schalke to beat Chelsea, but if they can put in a couple of good showings, it could bode well for a potential Round of 16 win for them.
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