Four months have already passed since Wembley hosted German football’s crowning as Europe’s finest, as Bayern Munich clinched a remarkable treble by bringing Dortmund’s fairytale run to a disappointing end.
The Champions League returns as Europe’s top 32 clubs hope to take their first step on the road towards Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz (the Stadium of Light, to those of you who don’t embrace continentality) at this season’s edition of European club football’s most coveted trophy could the more open in years.
Last season’s campaign was one to forget for the English clubs as Chelsea and Manchester City fell at the group stage, while Arsenal and United were knocked out in the round of 16 as a Premier League failed to reach the quarter finals for the first time since the 1995-96 season.
Chelsea and Manchester City have got kinder draws than Arsenal and Manchester United, with German duo Schalke and Bayern likely to pose the bigger threat to the West Londoners and the Mancunians respectively.
Mourinho’s return will boost Chelsea’s confidence in Europe, while Pellegrini will be asked to repeat last season’s heroics with Malaga and finally get City out of the group stage but while Chelsea might live to rue their choice to rely on Samuel Eto’o, Pellegrini will need his back four to remain injury free.
The other half of Manchester enters uncharted territory as David Moyes begins his first European campaign in charge of the club, having only managed two Champions League games in his career.
Marouane Fellaini could prove to be an inspired buy but the feeling is that United haven’t done enough to strengthen their midfield, while Moyes’ inexperience coupled with a rather tricky group including Shakthar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad could make it for a bumpy ride for United in Europe this season.
Arsenal themselves haven’t been handed the easiest of groups either, with last season’s runners-up Dortmund and big-spending Napoli poising a serious challenge to Wenger’s aspiration to reach the round of 16.
Arsenal will likely need to secure three wins out of three at the Emirates if they don’t want their European campaign to end quicker than you can say “Mesut Ozil”.
Meanwhile Celtic, Britain’s only shining light last season, will again be up against it in a group including Barcelona, Ajax and AC Milan. While a repeat of last season heroics against the Catalan appears unlikely, AC Milan are a paltry imitation of the team that ruled Europe in the early 2000s and Ajax, for all their potential, can be beaten.
Furthermore, Barca and Milan will be both wary of the Celtic Park factor, having fallen to defeat in Glasgow last season and 2007 respectively.
How do you replace a treble-winning manager? With the manager who managed to win five trophies in a calendar year, obviously. Pep Guardiola’s reign at Bayern Munich has got off to a good start in Germany, but the former Barcelona man knows he’ll be judged based on his European performances.
Bayern are clearly favourites to top their group and only a serial gambler would bet against a side containing Gotze, Robben and Ribery reaching the semifinal but it’s gonna take something special for Guardiola to be showered in beer as Bayern celebrate a second successive European success.
Pep’s former club, Barcelona, have added a rather good Brazilian with an improbable haircut to their phenomenal Argentine up-front, but their back four remains as suspicious as Harry Redknapp’s bookkeeping skills.
A group containing AC Milan, Celtic and Ajax shouldn’t pose many threats to Barca and expect the Catalans to challenge to a) show Pep what he’s missing, b) prove that they can still tiki-taka the rest of the continent into submission and c) prevent a certain Spanish club from securing their 10th European crown.
Gareth Bale’s Real Madrid career began in auspicious fashion and the Welshman will relish his chance to go toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite, while Isco and the criminally underrated Asier Illarramendi will offer new Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti plenty of options.
Having failed to lift the Champions League with Mourinho, Madrid have put all their European cup-shaped eggs in the Italian basket, who’s already won the trophy twice as a manager and who will be reunited with former club Juventus in the group stage.
The dark horses
Having dominated Serie A in the last two seasons, Juventus are hoping to transfer their domestic success on the continental stage. The arrival of Carlos Tevez in the summer should add the X factor that the Old Lady had been missing in Europe in recent seasons – providing that the Argentine doesn’t refuse to enter the pitch – and a group containing Real Madrid, Galatasaray and Copenaghen should see them through comfortably.
Napoli, Juventus main rival in Serie A, find themselves in a tougher group alongside the likes of Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Marseille but enter their European campaign buoyed by an impressive spending spree.
Edinson Cavani has gone but Gonzalo Higuain is an excellent replacement and Jose’ Callejon looks an exciting prospect, while Rafa Benitez’s record in the Champions League is better than Chelsea fans would like to give him credit for.
After all, this is a man who won the European Cup with a team containing Igor Biscan and Djimi Traore.
Last season’s runners-up Borussia Dortmund will have to do without the surprise factor this time around, but Jurgen Klopp’s men will play in the only way the know – by attacking the opponent with a high-tempo pressing throughout the 90 minutes.
Mario Gotze is gone but Robert Lewandowski is still at the Westfalen Stadion and the arrivals of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have added exciting quality to an already excellent squad.
Dortmund will be looking to go one better than last year, a feeling shared by big-spending PSG. The Parisians surprised many by reaching the quarter finals last year and have spent big again the 2013-14 season will be the one that sees the French champions breaking into Europe’s top four.
Laurent Blanc is a tactically astute manager and should enough experience to see his team through a group containing Benfica, Olympiacos and Anderlecht but the impression is that PSG might still be a season or two away from joining Europe’s top table for good.
Having said that, Edinson Cavani, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Lucas Moura should provide plenty of entertainment in this season’s tournament.
Will Bayern make it two in a row or will Barca return to the top of European football? Can an English club lift Europe’s biggest prize in Lisbon in May? Leave your comments below or get in touch via our Twitter or Facebook account, don’t be afraid to have your say.