Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Thomas Mueller (L-R) of FC Bayern Munich celebrate Munich's second goal against Hanover 96 during their German first division Bundesliga match. -Photo by Reuters
Last season Bayern Munich were the epitome of a ruthlessly efficient German machine as they were crowned European champions at Wembley.
Barely four months on from their triumph, treble winners Bayern begin the defence of their UEFA Champions League crown by welcoming Russian champions CSKA Moscow to their Allianz Arena on Tuesday.
The man who masterminded their sensational run to glory last season, though, is no longer at the helm.
Jupp Heynckes completed an unprecedented treble for a German club last season when he guided the Bavarians to the Champions League, Bundesliga and the DFB Pokal or the German Cup.
In his place now is a certain Pep Guardiola.
Guardiola inherited a side that blew away their opposition and he’s strengthened an already well-oiled Bayern machine with German wonderkid Mario Goetze from Borussia Dortmund and Thiago Alcantra from former club Barcelona.
It were Bayern who, arguably, ended Barcelona’s era of dominance with a 7-0 aggregate thrashing of the Catalans in the semi-finals.
With Guardiola now in-charge, Bayern will hope that the man who spearheaded Barca’s era of supremacy in European football now extends their legacy.
The venue for this year’s final is Lisbon and for Bayern to make it to the Portuguese capital for what would be their third successive Champions League showpiece, they will have to negotiate a tricky Group ‘D’ which also includes 2012 English Premier League winners Manchester City and Czech title-holders Viktoria Plzen.
And their Swiss midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri said that his team can’t afford to rest on their laurels if they want to add to their five Champions League titles.
“Not a single big team out there fears another team, so they will not fear Bayern either," Shaqiri told Bild recently.
“There's no room for fear in the minds of Europe's best players. Every great player bans fear from his mind.
“Nobody goes onto the pitch thinking 'Oh no, we're playing against Bayern'. It's simply not like that. If anything, they will be even more motivated to beat the treble winners.”
City, also under new stewardship, are expected to be their biggest challengers in the group stage. Under Chilean manager Manuel Pellegrini, who guided debutants Malaga to the quarter-finals last season, the Manchester club are looking to improve on their recent record in Europe’s premier club competition.
City have failed to progress beyond the group stages in the last two editions.
Pellegrini, though has added more quality to a squad already blessed with some of the finest talents in the world as he looks to break their group-stage jinx.
Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas have arrived from Sevilla while Stevan Jovetic joined from Fiorentina.
The attack-minded trio will add to an already impressive array of offensive players that includes Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Samir Nasri and Edin Dzeko.
Also joining them at the Etihad Stadium is Brazilian powerhouse Fernandinho, who joined from Ukrainian giants Shahkhtar Donetsk, and Argentine defender Martin Demichelis – who played for Pellegrini at Malaga last season.
Aguero, however, believes it’s too early to predict how far City will go in the Champions League. “The Champions League is very tough,” the Argentine livewire told Gazzetta Dello Sport.
“In recent years it has gone wrong for us but hopefully we can do better this time.
“The goal is to advance from the group and then with a bit of luck we can reach the semi-finals or the final … there are always surprises.”
It won’t be surprise though if Jose Mourinho takes Chelsea to the final in his home country.
Mourinho returned to the London club after he left in 2007 following a bust-up with Russian owner Roman Abramovich.
Since then, the charismatic Portuguese has added another Champions League crown with Inter Milan [in 2010] to add to the one he won with FC Porto in 2003.
Looking to become the first coach to win the Champions League with three different clubs, Mourinho showed his side can give Bayern a run for their money when they lost a pulsating UEFA Super Cup match to the European champions on penalties last month.
In what was a repeat of the 2012 Champions League final where the Blues prevailed over the Bavarians in a penalty shootout, Bayern held their nerve to win the shootout 5-4 after the two sides were locked 2-2 at the end of extra-time.
Last season Chelsea suffered the indignity of becoming the first defending champions to bow out at the group stage.
But they earned some redemption by winning the Europa League – Europe’s second-tier club competition – and face Schalke 04, FC Basel and Steaua Bucharest in Group ‘E’.
Mourinho has brought a raft of new signings with him including German attacker Andre Schurrle from Bayer Leverkusen, Brazilian playmaker Willian and Cameroon striker Samuel Eto’o – both joining from Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala whose billionaire owner pulled the plug on his massive outlay for the Dagestan side.
Former Barca striker Eto’o was one of the lynchpins of Mourinho’s Inter side which won the 2010 Champions League final – incidentally against Bayern.
Former Brazilian left-back Roberto Carlos, a Champions League winner with Real Madrid in 2002, however warned Chelsea that Eto’o can be a disruptive presence in their dressing room.
“He’s a good person but he always thinks of himself, not the group," Carlos, who was the Cameroonian’s team-mate at Anzhi told Globoesporte.
“It’s quite confusing and odd when a footballer, instead of playing, is interested in bringing in players who are his friends. He did everything at Anzhi, except play football.”
Mourinho will hope Eto’o would not disrupt Chelsea’s dressing room.
Last season, he was at the receiving end of a similar dressing room at Real where he made several enemies by benching club legend Iker Casillas.
It ultimately backfired as Real lost in the semi-finals to Dortmund after being second-best to Barca in La Liga which led to a parting of ways between Mourinho and the Merenegues.
Mourinho had been expected to bring the ‘La Decima’ or the tenth Champions League title to Real.
Now it will be Carlo Ancelotti’s job to help them win their first title since 2002.
The Italian, who led AC Milan to continental glory in 2003 and 2007, arrived in the Spanish capital in the summer from Paris St Germain and with the addition of Gareth Bale to an already fearsome attack makes them real contenders for Bayern’s title.
At least that’s what Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish, who won three European Cups – the predecessor to the Champions League – with the Merseysiders believes.
“I think Real Madrid might just pip the Germans to the trophy,” Dalglish wrote in his column for the Daily Mirror.
“The problem for Madrid’s opponents is that in Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, they have two players who can rip teams apart by themselves.”
Real enhanced their line-up by signing midfielder Isco, who starred in Malaga’s Champions League run last season, along with Asier Illaramendi from Athletic Bilbao whilst also re-signing defender Daniel Carvajal from Bayer Leverkusen.
But it was the signing of Bale that generated the most interest.
Welsh attacker Bale joined Real from Tottenham Hotspur for what is believed to be a world record 100 million euro transfer fee.
He is expected to form an attacking trident with Ronaldo and Karim Benzema – one which is expected to be the most fearsome in the world.
Bale had a dream debut for Real on Saturday, scoring in their 2-2 draw against Villarreal in La Liga. Ronaldo scored the other.
Now, it’s time for Europe.
They start their campaign on Tuesday against Turkish champions Galatasaray in Group ‘B’ which also features Italian heavyweights Juventus and Danish title-holders FC Copenhagen.
Serie A champions Juventus are being largely viewed as serious contenders for Bayern’s title.
Antonio Conte’s side were ousted 4-0 on aggregate by Bayern in the quarter-finals last season but have now bolstered their ranks by signing Argentine striker Carlos Tevez from Manchester City and Fernando Llorente from Athletic Bilbao.
The strike duo is anticipated to help Juve find the required cutting edge and tenacity to win Europe’s biggest prize.
Last season, the two-time Champions League winners returned to the competition after a gap of three years and after their exit at the hands of Bayern, coach Antonio Conte said his side’s lack of experience hurt them.
This time around, he’s hopeful of a better showing.
“I’m optimistic even if I know it will be tough,” Conte said at the UEFA Coaches Forum in Nyon last week.
“We have an extra year of experience and that is not to be belittled, as last season we had a lot of players who had never played in the competition and they didn’t know what to expect.
“After Inter won in 2010, I said that it would take some time for another Italian team to lift the Champions League. Now I’m more hopeful because I am seeing change.”
Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger concurred.
“Whoever puts Juventus among the possible surprises for the next Champions League is wrong, because Juve are not a surprise, but a strong team, who have come back to the top after a few years," Wenger told Tuttosport.
“They are a team of rank, they are already well established in terms of performances, squad, club organisation and staff.”
Wenger benefitted by Bale’s arrival at Real as he then broke Arsenal’s transfer record to sign German midfield dynamo Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid as the Spanish giants looked to recoup some of the cash they had spent.
The last time Real had to sell players to make way for a record signing was in 2009 when Ronaldo and Kaka arrived.
Then, Dutch midfielders Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder left for Bayern and Inter Milan respectively.
And ironically, that year’s final at Real’s Estadio Santiago Bernabeu was contested by Bayern and Inter.
Sneijder’s Inter won then. Robben scored the winner in last season’s final against Dortmund.
Along with Ozil, Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain also left the Spanish capital for Napoli. Kaka, meanwhile, returned to AC Milan.
Last season Arsenal proved to be Bayern’s biggest obstacle in their all-conquering run.
The Gunners lost 3-1 at their Emirates Stadium before beating the Bavarians 2-0 at the Allianz Arena in the return leg of their round-of-16 tie to go out on away goals.
Having been drawn in Group ‘F’ alongside Dortmund, Olympique Marseille and Napoli in what is being dubbed as this season’s ‘group of death’, Arsenal need Ozil to do a Sneijder.
“I want to play attacking and good football,” Ozil said ahead of Arsenal’s English Premier League match against Sunderland on Saturday in which he made his debut in a 3-1 victory.
“Attractive football is good but we need to be successful, too. I can’t promise we will win trophies but I can promise we will give our all.”
Losing Goetze was tough for Dortmund – especially to their most fierce rivals.
Dortmund, though, have invested the funds raised from Goetze’s departure to sign Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Shakhtar Donetsk and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang from St Etienne.
Having held on to last season’s scoring sensation Robert Lewandowski, Dortmund have one of the most exciting attacking quartet in Europe, with the addition of Marco Reus.
Coach Juergen Klopp, however, believes the team will improve further this season.
“We haven't reached our peak in terms of performance yet, but if we look at our results last season then we almost achieved it,” Klopp told UEFA.com.
“We still don't have a clue how well the team can play, we still have to show that.”
Marseille were Ligue 1 runners-up last season and signed rumoured Arsenal target Florian Thauvin from Lille in the summer.
The 20-year-old is regarded as one of the brightest prospects in the French game and arrived after an acrimonious transfer after refusing to train for Lille.
He wants to put that behind with his performances on the pitch.
“I want to talk about football and show that I can perform well for my club,” Thauvin told L’Equipe last week.
Marseille’s fierce domestic rivals and Ligue 1 champions PSG, meanwhile, saw a change at the helm with Laurent Blanc taking over from Ancelotti.
The big-spending Parisians have been paired with Benfica, Anderlecht and Olympiakos in Group ‘C’.
With their Qatari owners plumbing billions into the club, PSG signed Napoli’s Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani for 65 million pounds.
Napoli reinvested the funds raised by Cavani’s sale wisely.
Higuain has arrived to fill his void along with fellow Real Madrid players Raul Albiol and Jose Callejon as new manager Rafa Benitez looks to build a side capable of mixing it with Europe’s best – a side like his 2005 Champions League-winning Liverpool side.
Benitez has tasted European success only recently – having guided Chelsea to the Europa League title last season.
That triumph helped the Spaniard restore his reputation following an ill-fated spell at Inter after Mourinho’s departure for Real in 2010.
He was given the Chelsea reins as a caretaker after the Londoners sacked their Champions League-winning manager Roberto Di Matteo following their exit at the group stage last season.
Now Benitez hopes to recreate Liverpool in Naples. He’s already raided his former club for goalkeeper Pepe Reina.
“For me it is a new situation facing the Champions League with a team like Napoli," Benitez told the Guardian.
“Naples is a city like Liverpool, and has as passionate fans. There are several guys who have already played in the Champions League and they will help others with the experience. This team has quality – it can be a special season.”
Napoli’s fellow Serie A rivals Milan, meanwhile, are hoping Kaka’s return can galvanise their quest for a first Champions League title since 2007 when the Brazilian maestro orchestrated their midfield.
Kaka returned to the seven-time European champions after an injury-hit spell at Real where he never attained the peaks he reached at Milan.
They have been drawn in Group ‘H’ alongside Barca, Scottish giants Celtic and Dutch powerhouse Ajax.
The four teams – all former European champions – have won 16 European Cups/Champions League amongst them.
The team to beat, though, will be Lionel Messi’s Barca, who will be looking to rebuff talk that their reign of supremacy is over.
Like many teams this season, Barca are also under new stewardship after Argentine Gerardo Martino replaced Tito Vilanova, who was struck down by a relapse of his throat cancer.
Barca’s biggest signing was of Brazilian sensation Neymar who arrived from Santos to form what would be an unstoppable attack pairing at the Nou Camp as they look to bury the memories of last year’s mauling at the hands of Bayern and remove some load of Messi’s shoulders.
Barca’s tiki-taka game was ruthlessly exposed by Bayern and Martino is improvising on that to help the Catalans remove their flaws and become unbeatable as they were two years ago.
Barca defender Gerard Pique is already impressed by what he’s seen of Martino.
“We have played the past few years with coaches produced from within the club, with Pep and then Tito, which exaggerated our playing style, perhaps to the point that we were a little enslaved to it,” Pique told the Gazzetta dello Sport last week.
“Martino has arrived from outside, whilst also with the same idea of playing football, to keep the ball, but he also has other options to play.
“He has some ideas that are very, very positive, in the sense that we have some variants. In football you have to improve each year. We have found alternative solutions, but, without affecting our identity.”
One thing that would, however, go against Martino is his lack of European experience as a coach. He’ll be making his debut in the Champions League against Ajax on Wednesday.
Another manager making his debut in the competition is David Moyes.
For the first time in some 17 years, Old Trafford – and the Champions League – will not have the fiery gum-chewing Alex Ferguson on the touchline.
The great Scot retired as Manchester United manager at the end of last season having led the Red Devils to the English Premier League title.
His replacement is his compatriot Moyes who arrived from Everton.
United are in Group ‘A’ alongside Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen and Real Soceidad. And Moyes faces a vital week which could define his career as United manager with the Red Devils opening their European campaign against Bayer Leverkusen in midweek before squaring off against Manchester City in the English Premier League at the weekend.
After spending the transfer window chasing shadows — of Alcantra and Cesc Fabregas — Moyes finally landed a central midfielder when Belgian Marouane Fellaini joined him from Everton on deadline day.
And Fellaini is hoping to emulate club legend Roy Keane — the spine of United’s 1999 Champions League winning team.
“Keane was an aggressive player who could win every ball. Maybe I can do this as well," Fellaini said on his unveiling. “I can win the ball. I can clear the ball. I can play clean.”
The last time United made it to the Champions League final was in 2011 when they were ripped apart 3-1 by a rampant Barcelona side.
One of the scorers on that night in Wembley was David Villa, who scored Barca’s third with a brilliant curling shot.
Villa left Barca in the summer to join fellow La Liga rivals Atletico Madrid.
And Spain’s all-time top-scorer would be looking to recreate those special European moments with Atletico in Group ‘G’ alongside Zenit St Petersburg, 2003 winners FC Porto and debutants Austria Vienna.
With so many storylines, this season’s Champions League promises to be as intriguing as ever.
Let the drama unfold on the road to Lisbon!