The group phase of the 2013-14 Champions League kicks-off this week with the cream of European football taking to the field ahead of a long and winding road to next year’s final at the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon.
All the usual suspects are back for another tilt at the coveted trophy including Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona as well as the Premier League’s regular qualifiers.
Expensive transfers, new managers and demanding Directors will make for a fascinating few months but here are seven reasons this week’s opening group fixtures should whet the appetite.
1. Bale’s Champions League debut
Gareth Bale looks set to make his Champions League bow for Real Madrid away to Galatasaray having scored on his debut in the 2-2 draw with Villareal at El Madrigal this past weekend. One of the positives of Bale’s arrival is the intuitive understanding between attacking trio Ronaldo, Bale and Isco which has the potential to rival Barcelona’s Messi and Neymar strike force, even at this early stage of the season.
A new and less volatile Coach in Carlo Ancelotti, Ronaldo signing a contract extension plus the feel-good factor emanating from the Santiago Bernabeau suggests Real Madrid will go far in this year’s tournament.
2. Ozil’s potential to turn Arsenal into contenders
The German international made an immediate impact at the Stadium of Light in his new Arsenal colours on Saturday offering hope to Gunners fans of an improved European showing in 2014.
A tricky away visit to Marseille on Wednesday night will test Arsene Wenger’s injury-hit side but the presence of Ozil buzzing around the centre of the park has already reaped dividends and the way Walcott, Ramsey and Wilshere raised their game this past weekend means victory on French soil is certainly attainable.
3. Pep must hit the ground running
Little doubt the biggest managerial turnaround of the past 12 months centred on Bayern Munich’s decision to dispense with treble winner Jupp Heynckes and bring in former Barcelona great Pep Guardiola. This week’s home tie against CSKA Moscow shouldn’t pose too many problems for Guardiola and a Munich side currently 2 points behind Borussia Dortmund at the summit of the Bundesliga.
But failure to reach the Champions League final or at least coming close to retaining the trophy will heap pressure on the 42-year old so topping a group that contains CSKA, Plezn and Manchester City is essential to smoothing the German’s path to the knockout phase.
4. Pellegrini needs to deliver
Manchester City’s Manuel Pellegrini needs a Champions League victory more than any other Premier League manager this week following a disappointing start to their domestic campaign. The pressure is on to deliver an away win at Plezn especially with daunting away trips to CSKA Moscow and Bayern Munich looming large on the horizon.
A shock defeat to Cardiff, a dreadful first half display at home to Hull and stalemate away to Stoke City are not the performances or results City fans expected when the former Real Madrid Coach took over. The Citizens’ failure to take a single point from their away travels in last season’s group phase makes this weeks’ trip to the Czech Republic is already a must-not-lose game.
5. Comparing Moyes to Ferguson
Across the city from Manuel Pelligrini’s early season woes stands David Moyes about to embark on a first European odyssey with Manchester United since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. A tricky Group A draw sees Moyes going head to head with Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad for a place in the last sixteen.
Old Trafford will be rocking on Tuesday evening for the visit of Sami Hyppia’s in-form Bundesliga side although a weekend victory over Crystal Palace – including a superb Wayne Rooney free-kick – sees United begin their European campaign in decent form.
Comparisons will be no doubt drawn between Moyes’ first Champions League effort and former manager Ferguson’s best European adventures so a home win is vital in what looks like being the tightest of groups.
6. Klopp and Dortmund looking to go one better
A difficult summer in which star striker Robert Lewandowski was eventually persuaded to stay for another season and Mario Gotze left for arch rivals Bayern sees Borussia Dortmund anxious to begin their Champions League fixture-list with a positive result away to Rafa Benitez’s Napoli.
Jurgen Klopp has invested wisely during the transfer window by adding Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to Die Schwarzgelben’s already talented squad. The result? Dortmund have begun their domestic season with five straight victories to top the Bundesliga as well as a morale-boosting pre-season Super Cup victory over arch rivals Munich.
A squad containing the combined talents of Sven Bender, Neven Subotic, Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan and Marco Reus has the ability to go all the way once again in Europe this season with Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan’s attacking prowess giving Klopp every reason to be hopeful of a return to the Champions League final.
7. The Special One ready for another European assault
Jose Mourinho’s return to the Chelsea hot-seat has excited the London club’s fans and a favourable Champions League draw (FC Basel, Schalke 04 and Steaua Bucharest) suggests a long run in a competition the ‘Special One’ has obsessed over since winning the trophy with Inter Milan and Porto.
A complete overhaul of the Chelsea first team squad has jilted the Blue’s early season Premier League form culminating in a surprise 1-0 defeat at Goodison Park this past weekend. Bringing in Samuel Eto’o and failing to get the best out of a miss-firing Fernando Torres has seen Chelsea take just seven points from a possible 12. The decision to allow Romelu Lukaku go out on loan to West Brom was also a surprise but all that will be forgotten if Chelsea overcome Basel at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night.
Expectation levels are high from fans and the club’s oligarch owner so Mourinho cannot afford any slip-ups, starting with Basel, in his quest to return Chelsea to the top table of European football.