If there was anything to be learnt from last season’s Champions League is that even without spending the equivalent of the GDP of an African nation on a player, clubs can still go a very long way in the competition.
As Dortmund’s cavalcade proved last year, a mixture of work-rate, skills and bravado can cause more than a few upsets in Europe’s elite competition and while everybody expects to see Bayern, Barcelona or Real Madrid to be celebrating come May, these teams could ruffle a few feathers.
A group containing Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and Marseille might not be the draw the Italians were hoping for, but the Partenopei enter the Champions League in belligerent mood, with sky-high confidence borne out of an impressive start to their Serie A campaign.
Napoli have won their first three games, scoring nine goals in the process and conceding only two and in Marek Hamsik and Gonzalo Higuain they possess two of Europe’s in-form players.
The former Real Madrid man opened his account on Saturday, while the Slovakian has already netted four times in the first three Serie A games, showing that there’s life after Edinson Cavani.
Furthermore, as Chelsea fans will begrudgingly admit, Rafael Benitez is a man who knows how to win matches Europe, regardless of the talent at his disposal.
Having reached the round of 16 last season and the quarterfinals in 2011, the 2009 UEFA Cup winners can no longer being considered a surprise at this level.
Shakthtar lost Fernandinho and Henrik Mkhitaryan in the summer but replaced them with Fred, Wellington Nem and Bernard who bolstered the already sizable Brazilian contingent in the Eastern Ukrainian city.
Of the three new arrivals, Bernard represents arguably the highest profile signing, given that the former Atletico Mineiro is likely to be one of the first names on Felipe Scolari’s list when the former Chelsea manager names his squad for the World Cup.
Mircea Lucescu’s men find themselves in a very tricky group containing Manchester United, Real Sociedad and Bayer Leverkusen but don’t bet against them reaching the round of 16 for the second year running.
With Neymar and Gareth Bale joining the two Spanish superpowers, last season’s Spanish Cup winners have flown largely under the radar this summer, despite the arrival of David Villa from Barcelona.
The Rojiblanco (the Red and White) have lost Radamel Falcao to Monaco, but will fancy their chances in a group containing Porto, Austria Vienna and Zenit St Petersburg, particularly considering the blistering start to their domestic campaign which has seen them winning their first four league games.
Atletico have scored 14 goals in four games in La Liga and will hope David Villa can translate his domestic form to the continental stage. The former Barca’s man willingness to run both channels has been a pivotal part in Atletico’s explosive start and he’ll be integral to his team’s hopes of reaching the round of 16.
The Aguias (the Eagles) have got an excellent opportunity to reach the round of 16 this time around, while the prospect of a home final will undoubtedly prove to be a huge incentive.
PSG might be a step too far for the Portuguese, but neither Anderlecht nor Olympiacos look to be insurmountable hurdles for Jorge Jesus’ men, who have lost Pablo Aimar but have spent a combined £13m on exciting Serbian duo Filip Đuričić and Lazar Marković.
Đuričić, a 21-year-old attacking midfielder, arrived from Heerenveen, while Marković, a 19-year-old left winger, swapped Partizan Belgrade for last season’s Portuguese league runners-up.
Both will be tasked with providing ammunition for towering Paraguayan centre-forward Oscar Cardozo, who has scored 13 goals in 23 games between Europa League and Champions League in the last two seasons.