The Champions League is one of, if not the most idolized of club competitions in the world, and while the qualifying phases are as much a part of the cup as anything else, it’s when our groups are decided that the tournament really begins.
104 days after Chelsea beat Bayern Munich to claim the 2011-12 Champions League title, we start the process of the European tournament all over again after witnessing the group stage draw in Monaco.
As always, the stages are now set and it’s already possible to see just which fixtures will prove particularly tantalising, who is likely to advance and whose chances aren’t so strong.
Although the first group games won’t kick off until mid-September, we can now begin to formulate our opinions and the annual ritual of predicting what course the competition will take.
With the eight pools now decided, let’s take a group-by-group look at what action we can expect to see unfold before our eyes in the coming nine months.
Carlo Ancelotti: Pleased with the draw
In the words of our Champions League presenter in Monaco, Group A is nothing if not a “dynamic group.”
From Portugal to Croatia, France to Ukraine, participants will get used to the idea of jet-lag in what is, in essence, a very balanced crop of teams.
After acquiring a number of superstar signings over the summer, Paris Saint Germain would have to be looked upon as favourites to top Group A.
If AC Milan summer departures, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, can groove into their new French surroundings, they can be of massive help to PSG with their wealth of European experience.
However, Porto will also have something to say after holding onto a number of their biggest players over the summer months, and after a couple of seasons doing so well in Europe, the Portuguese club will strive to prove their worth on the biggest of stages.
Dinamo Zagreb picked up a grand total of zero points in their 2011-12 Champions League campaign, so even a draw will be a boost for the Croats.
Wenger: In for some tough trips
After losing Robin van Persie just over two weeks ago, Arsene Wenger needed to draw as easy a group as possible in his search to score goals.
The Premier League side are yet to net in their 2012-13 league campaign, and they’ll need to find a new hitman soon if they are to beat the likes of Schalke and Montpellier.
Olivier Giroud will undoubtedly feature against the Ligue 1 champions, whom he moved to Arsenal from for a fee of £16 million over the summer.
Meanwhile, Olympiacos will be seen as Group B’s underdogs, especially after selling last season’s top scorer, Kevin Mirallas, to Everton last week.
The 2011-12 Bundesliga season showed us that the Veltins Arena can be a very difficult ground to play in at times, and Schalke are not to be underestimated after a strong transfer window that has so far seen them hold onto prolific talent, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Massimiliano Allegri: AC Milan boss
Zenit St. Petersburg
In Málaga’s first experience of Champions League football, the Spaniards will go up against seasoned opposition in the form of AC Milan, Zenit and Anderlecht.
Pundits are tipping Milan to have a weak season after losing both their top scorer and best defender from 2011-2012, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, respectively.
Málaga have had a difficult transfer window burdened by their financial problems, and Zenit St. Petersburg may feel as if their home matches in Russia will be a particular chance to grab points.
With Milan and Malaga both experiencing their share of problems in recent times, expect to see all four sides challenge for progress from what may be a very entertaining group to keep your eye on.
While it may not seem like it on paper, Anderlecht couldn't have hoped for a much better draw and are facing several sides at the lowest of lows.
Mancini after learning of City's draw
Group D is potentially the most exciting of all eight pools, playing host to no less than four league champions.
In a battle of the big bucks, Real Madrid facing off against Manchester City is evidently the most enticing encounter amongst the lot.
A fixture that will see the Premier League champions facing off against last season’s La Liga victors will hopefully show us a true test as to whether either of these sides can perform on the big stage.
Add to that more than a small say from the Bundesliga champions, Borussia Dortmund, and you have a very possible trifecta of challengers for the group’s top spot on your hands.
Ajax are certainly the underdogs of the four and will face Real Madrid in this competition for the third year running.
Roberto Mancini is making his second foray into the Champions League as manager of Manchester City, and a two-legged fixture against Real Madrid is the ultimate test of his club’s mettle.
If there was any pick for this year’s “Group of Death”, it has to be Group D.
Eden Hazard: Will he make an impact in Europe?
The current holders of Europe’s most prestigious club trophy may have avoided some big guns of the continent, but Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk will be no pushovers for Chelsea in this competition.
The Old Lady won the Scudetto title in an unbeaten 2011-12 campaign and have already added some silverware to their cabinet this season by beating Napoli earlier this month in the Supercoppa Italiana.
Not to mention the Italians will be without manager Antonio Conte, who is serving a 10-month ban for alleged match-fixing (via The Independent).
Shakhtar were taken to the wire by Dynamo Kiev last season, but eventually emerged as their nation’s best side; a trip to their cold climates is something most sides will have liked to avoid.
In Nordsjælland’s first attempt at competing in the Champions League, don’t expect to see them earning too many points this time around.
That said, underdogs are there for a reason.
Mario Gomez: Set to revive last season's form?
A contender for this season’s Champions League “Group of Death,” Group F is one filled with clubs ready to take full advantage of their forays into the European challenge.
Bayern Munich, Valencia and Lille have all fallen to superior competition in recent seasons, but can feel confident in advancing from this stage of the competition.
After making last year’s final, Bayern Munich would certainly see themselves as favourites to make it through to the knockout phase, while BATE Borisov are just happy to have qualified for their second consecutive group stage.
Valencia have failed to make it past the group stage of the tournament for six years, but after last season's Europa League run, will be confident of breaking that duct this season.
Lionel Messi: Will he win another Champions League?
So, Benfica will be tasked with overcoming a football giant for two seasons in a row after being drawn in the same group as Barcelona.
Last season, the Portuguese giants showed that they were up for the challenge of beating Manchester United, but will Jorge Jesus be able to pull off the impossible once more?
It will be interesting to see how these sides deal with a trip to the freezing colds of Moscow, although Celtic may be alright after becoming used to the Scottish weather.
Neil Lennon’s side will be overjoyed to see the Rangers relegated to the Scottish Football League, so don’t be surprised to see the Bhoys devote more of their squad efforts to the Champions League.
Aiden McGeady will make his return to Celtic Park after leaving for the Russian capital several years ago.
Will the winger have a hand in eliminating his former side from the competition?
Ferguson: Happy with the draw
Does anyone else feel a sense of déjà vu coming on here?
Last season saw Manchester United luck out with what many would have described as near enough a dream group, but we all know how that turned out.
In all seriousness, the stuttering campaign of 2011-12 will have taught Sir Alex Ferguson a lesson or two, and the Scotsman won’t take Galatasaray, Braga or Cluj for granted.
This will be Gala’s first run at the Champions League title in six years while Braga will be playing amongst the European elite for just the second time.
At the risk of slipping up as me and many others did last year, Manchester United should breeze through this group.