The UEFA Champions League finally makes its long-awaited return to action in February when the strongest remaining club sides in Europe do battle to see who will contest the final at Wembley on May 25.
One thing that we do know for sure is that there will be a different name on the trophy this year, after the holders Chelsea became the first team in Champions League history to be eliminated before the knockout rounds have even commenced.
However, that still leaves 16 other clubs in with a great chance of being crowned European champions in the English capital, and here we at the Bleacher Report give you one reason why each of those teams could be holding the cup with big ears in four months’ time.
On the surface, the Turkish Super Lig giants have next to no chance of making it all the way to Wembley this May, having only just qualified for the knockout stages of Europe’s premier club competition on the final match day. Even then Fatih Terim’s side only managed to squeak through on goal difference ahead of Romanian minnows Cluj.
However, that was then and this is now, and by the time Gala line up to face Bundesliga outfit Schalke over two legs in February, they are expected to have former Ajax, Real Madrid and Inter Milan midfield player Wesley Sneijder to call upon.
And, if the Netherlands international really is serious about resurrecting his career, then where better to once again demonstrate his magical talents and show the watching world that there is still life left in the old dog yet than on the grandest stage of all, with the Turks sure to benefit in the process.
The Rhine Valley club demonstrated in topping Group B ahead of Champions League regulars Arsenal, who they beat 2-0 at the Emirate stadium, that they are more than capable of mixing it with the "big" boys in this competition.
In fact, their performance in north London last October was so assured and complete, with Netherlands international striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar turning in a stellar display up front while the back four at times looked impenetrable against what was a fast-moving Gunners attack, that if repeated on their travels in the upcoming knockout phase, the Bundesliga outfit will be a team to be feared.
No matter who the Scottish Premier League champions play, and they could not have a much harder challenge next up in the shape of Serie A title holders and two-time European Cup winners Juventus, no one, and I mean no one, will fancy a trip to the East End of Glasgow.
Even unbeatable Barcelona found that out to their cost in the group phase last November when Neil Lennon’s side recorded a famous 2-1 win over their illustrious Catalan opponents.
And, before people start mentioning Celtic’s woeful record on the road in Europe, take note of the fact that had their two group-stage contests with Barca been played as a knockout tie, then the contest would still have gone to extra time. This was no understrength Barcelona we are talking about either, but one containing Messi et al.
Put simply, if Celtic can beat the greatest team on Planet Football, then they can most certainly go all the way to Wembley.
Since Antonio Conte returned to Turin to take charge of the "Old Lady of Italian Football" in May 2011, the club have barely looked back, winning Lo Scudetto in his very first season at the helm.
What’s more, they went undefeated for the entire campaign.
In fact, since the erstwhile defensive midfield player took over the reins at Juve, the club have barely tasted defeat in any competition, a run they kept up in the earlier group stages when their three wins and three draws saw them top the so-called ‘Group of Death’ ahead of European champions Chelsea, who were eliminated in the process.
And, it is that never-say-die attitude and refusal to even countenance defeat, all in the mould of their inspirational head coach (who will be back prowling the touchline for the knockout phase after the reduction to his ban for match-fixing), that will make the Bianconeri one of the hardest sides to beat when the competition returns to action in February.
Arsene Wenger’s side may have missed out on top spot in Group B to Schalke, and are struggling even to qualify for the next edition of the tournament by finishing in the top four of this year’s Premier League, but they are seasoned campaigners when it comes to Europe’s premier club competition, with one final to their name (2006), as well as multiple other appearances in the latter stages since the Frenchman arrived in north London in 1996.
And it is that consistent body of work, similar to unfancied Chelsea last year, and experience when it comes to navigating the tricky knockout stages that means you’d be foolish to write the Gunners’ hopes off just yet, and why there is every reason to believe the club can finally end their European Cup hoodoo in their home city come this May.
Despite having only ever reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League, the Ukrainian champions have proved in this year’s competition that they are a force to be reckoned with, emerging from a tough-looking Group E ahead of the holders Chelsea.
Make no mistake about it, no one will want to play Mircea Lucescu’s side over two legs in the upcoming knockout rounds.
What makes Shakhtar so dangerous, and potential champions come May, is a potent combination of both devastating and imperious home form, coupled with a unique ability to play in the same counter-attacking style on the road. They almost invariably find the target on their travels, and with it the possession of that always-valuable away goal in Europe.
Any side that tops a group containing the champions of Spain, England and the Netherlands will automatically gain respect as well as fear across the Continent.
That is what Jurgen Klopp’s team did in qualifying from Group D.
However, while some "experts" still like to label the Bundesliga champions as potential dark horses for the competition, that would be damning Dortmund with faint praise, while also failing to recognise the fact that on their day, Klopp’s well-drilled, supremely fit and technically accomplished outfit can be more than a match for anyone.
Just ask Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid if you do not believe me.
The second-most successful team in European Cup history, with seven titles to their name, may currently look a shadow of some of those more illustrious teams from the past, while also even struggling to qualify for next season’s competition due to their current indifferent league form. But come February and the sound of Handel's Champions League theme song starting up, and something will stir in the Rossoneri’s DNA.
And it is that unpredictability, coupled with their Champions League pedigree (do not forget that Wembley stadium holds a special place in Milan fans' hearts after they won their first-ever European Cup there in 1963), that makes Massimiliano Allegri and Co. dangerous opponents when the tournament gets back underway next month.
There are a plethora of reasons why the Catalans could once again win the Champions League this season, but the most persuasive of all has to be the continuing scintillating form this campaign of the recently crowned Fifa Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi.
If possible the little Argentinian, who never gets injured despite demanding to play in every game for Barca, whether it be a Copa del Rey tie against lowly opposition or a title decider at the Santiago Bernabeu, has raised his levels of performance beyond those of last season,
And what’s more, you really get the feeling that he and his team-mates are still smarting from last year’s semi-final exit at the hands of eventual winners Chelsea, and none more so than ‘The Atomic Flea’ himself, who crucially missed from the penalty spot in the second leg of that tie.
So beware the rest of Europe, Messi and Co have unfinished business…now that is ominous!
If Madrid head coach Jose Mourinho is writing the script for this season’s Champions League climax, then he will no doubt be planning the dream finale whereby he leads Los Blancos to their coveted "La Decima," a 10th European Cup 11 years after they last ruled Europe.
And where better to achieve that feat than in the city where he will next be taking up residence as a manager.
You can almost see the scenario now, as the self-styled "Special One" announces on the morning of this year’s final in London that this will be his final match in charge of Madrid before he makes a dramatic return to Stamford Bridge. And we all know that the Portuguese does not do losing Champions League finals, especially ones that would put him in the record books as the only man to have ever won this trophy with three different clubs.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said recently that he believes his team are capable of repeating their Treble feats of 1999. While many would argue about the respective qualities of the two Old Trafford sides, no one would surely be that surprised should United return to Wembley this May for a second Champions League final in the space of just three years.
The reason is the Red Devils’ attacking firepower this season.
In Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez, United have the strength up front and the most important of all commodities in football, the ability to put the ball in the back of the net, to bring them a fourth European Cup and make up for that Wembley heartache against Barcelona in 2011.
As the saying goes, there is no place like home. How that rings true for Valencia and their Mestalla fortress.
In fact, there can be few more intimidating atmospheres to travel to in Europe, with Los Che remaining unbeaten there as they qualified from Group F. Over the many years that the Spanish outfit have taken part in the Champions League, few opponents have emerged there victorious.
And, if Ernesto Valverde’s men can continue that unbreachable form at home in the upcoming knockout rounds, then beware Valencia, who will be very hard to beat indeed.
In cuddly Carlo Ancelotti, PSG have a man at the helm who lives and breathes the European Cup, being one of the few men to have ever won the trophy as both a player (with Milan in 1989 and 1990) and a manager (again with the Rossoneri in 2003 and 2007).
And so, if there is anyone capable of guiding this strange and eclectic mixture of mercurial, and at times outrageous, talents together into a collective that can rule the Continent, then it is "Carletto."
Sure, when the draw for the knockout phase was taking place in Switzerland last December, you can bet your bottom dollar that all the "big" teams were wanting to be paired alongside the Portuguese champions, but no doubt those same "big" boys were also thinking along similar back in 1987 and 2004 when the Portuguese giants went all the way.
Now, any side that had won Europe’s premier club competition more times than the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, PSG, Marseille, Borussia Dortmund, Valencia and a whole host of other European giants, can most certainly make it a hat-trick of titles this season.
The so-called "experts" and pundits alike love to remind everyone that the Champions League is a competition that can only be won with experience (see new boys Manchester City’s recent struggles as a prime example they will say), that you need to continually take part in it to truly understand its peculiar nuances and rhythms.
However, debutants Malaga have blown those theories completely out of the water by qualifying for the round of 16 as undefeated Group C winners, ahead of experienced campaigners AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg and Anderlecht.
And if Manuel Pellegrini’s side can show that same carefree attitude and belief in their abilities come Spring time, then there is no reason not to believe that a club playing in its debut Champions League campaign can win the whole thing.
Surely it must be a case of third time lucky for the German giants this time around?
Beaten finalists in both 2010 and last year, when they had their hands virtually on the cup with big ears before late heartbreak befell them on their own ground in Bavaria, Jupp Heynckes’s side must be the most determined and battle-hardened one left of the remaining 16 teams in the competition.
And, having cruised through their group, while also being well on their way to regaining their Bundesliga crown, do not be surprised at all to see Bayern win their fifth European Cup at Wembley this May.