Thursday’s Champions League group stage draw added 96 matches to the club season's calendar, many of them of the mouthwatering variety.
Some of the continent’s great rivalries of the past will be renewed over the next few months, and a handful of Europe’s up-and-coming teams will also be put to the test against champions of days gone by.
Beyond the exercise of arranging the competition’s 32 remaining teams into eight brackets of four, the Monaco draw also managed to stir up excitement that will only increase as the December climax of the group stage approaches.
We have some fascinating contests to look forward to between now and then, and over the next few slides, we’ll examine one from each group that should make for excellent watching.
Real Sociedad will visit Old Trafford on October 23, but it’s the return fixture in Basque country that will be especially compelling.
On November 5, Manchester United will travel to San Sebastian for an appointment with Real Sociedad at the Anoeta.
Sociedad, who finished fourth in La Liga last season, reached the group stage of the Champions League after beating Ligue 1 giants Olympique Lyonnais over two legs. In this match, some of the Spanish top flight’s most underappreciated talents will have a chance to strut their stuff in front of an international audience, against one of world football’s most famous clubs and at their home ground.
By this point in the competition, United will likely be looking to seal their progression to the round of 16. Given that, manager David Moyes will, no doubt, be deploying his first-choice side to take on Inigo Martinez, Antoine Griezmann, Carlos Vela and the rest of an exciting Sociedad squad.
Like Real Sociedad vs. Manchester United, the second encounter of the 2013-14 group stage between Juventus and Real Madrid will take place on Matchday 4.
Having met just 13 days earlier at the Bernabeu, these European powerhouses will renew hostilities at Juventus Stadium on November 5. By that time, both will undoubtedly be looking to ensure progression from a group that also includes Galatasaray and Copenhagen.
Interestingly, Juventus have dominated the recent, head-to-head history between these two sides. They won a pair of group-stage matches against the Spanish giants in 2008 and eliminated them from the competition in the round of 16 in 2005, thanks to an extra-time winner from Marcelo Zalayeta.
In total, Juventus and Real Madrid have 11 European Cup titles between them—the Bianconeri won most recently in 1996, the Meringues in 2002.
When Benfica and Paris Saint-Germain face one another in the 2013-14 Champions League group stage, it will go a long way in determining which team finishes atop Group C.
They’ll clash first on October 2, but at that point, both sides will have only played a single match in the competition. Their second meeting will be far more meaningful.
On December 10 (Matchday 6), they’ll collide in Lisbon to round out a group-stage schedule in which they’ll both expect to do rather well.
In that light, the winner of this match could well take first place in the bracket, thus avoiding another group winner in the draw for the round of 16.
Benfica, the 2012-13 Europa League runners-up, have so far spent just over €20 million enhancing their squad, while moneybags PSG have parted with more than five times that amount in the past few months.
But money may matter little when they go head-to-head.
Manchester City failed to win a single Champions League match last season and, in the 2011-12 campaign, finished third in a bracket that, incidentally, included Bayern Munich.
They managed a 2-0 win over the Bavarian giants that December, getting goals on either side of the break from David Silva and Yaya Toure.
Both players will likely be among the starting 11 named by Manuel Pellegrini to take on the reigning European champions on October 2, and given City’s recent failures in this competition, both will be extra motivated to reproduce their performances of two years ago.
This match also comes early in the competition—on Matchday 2—which means City could really signal their intent with a win at Etihad Stadium. They’ll have been away to Viktoria Plzen just two weeks prior and will hope to return home from the Czech Republic with all three points.
Bayern, meanwhile, will have opened their group-stage schedule at home to CSKA Moscow. For them, an early defeat to City would put all sorts of pressure on manager Pep Guardiola, although in no way would they expect their existence in the competition to be in any sort of danger.
This match is far more important to City than it is to Bayern.
Surely, Jose Mourinho is happy with the Chelsea opponents that were picked out of the pot.
The Blues have continued to strengthen and are among the favourites for both domestic and European glory this season. They shouldn’t have much trouble with Group E opponents Schalke, Basel and Steaua Bucharest, although their match away to Schalke could cause a hiccup.
That being said, the Gelsenkirchen outfit have endured a woeful start to the 2013-14 season, and manager Jens Keller might not even be in charge for the Blues' October 22 visit.
On paper, Schalke should be confident of their ability to progress to the round of 16, but nothing they’ve done so far this season—other than their Champions League playoff win over PAOK—has suggested they’re capable of anything more than underachieving.
Their match at home to Chelsea will be absolutely vital, not only to their place in the table but also to their confidence.
It’s Matchday 4 again.
About a fortnight after Arsenal welcome Borussia Dortmund to Emirates Stadium, the two sides will reconvene at Signal Iduna Park for what should be one of the more eye-catching contests of the group stage.
Both sides like to play free-flowing, attractive football, and while Arsenal would have considered themselves favourites for this matchup in previous years, that is hardly the case this time around.
Dortmund have won three titles the last three seasons (two Bundesliga titles, one domestic cup) and are coming off a campaign in which they finished runners-up in the Champions League to Bayern Munich.
They have also dealt with the exit of playmaker Mario Gotze by bringing in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and with the likes of Marco Reus, Ilkay Gundogan and Sven Bender only getting better, they should be more than a match for the Gunners.
Overall, this may be the most interesting bracket of the bunch, and by this night in early November, each of Dortmund, Arsenal, Marseille and Napoli could have some idea of where their final positions in the table will lie.
Two of the Europa League’s more recently successful sides headline Group G and will face one another on the final matchday of the schedule.
Given that Zenit St. Petersburg will likely be pushing them for a spot in the round of 16, this December 11 encounter could well be a do-or-die scenario for one or both of these sides.
These sides faced one another in the round of 16 in the 2008-09 season, where Porto advanced on away goals.
It goes without saying, but Atletico will want to set the record straight over the next few months, and in the likes of David Villa, Arda Turan and Diego Costa, they just might have the squad to record that elusive win against the Portuguese giants.
We conclude with Group H, another Matchday 4 encounter and one of European club football’s longest-standing, most story-laced rivalries.
On November 6, Barcelona will welcome AC Milan to the Camp Nou for a rematch of an October 22 encounter at the San Siro.
Both sides, which seem to be paired in the same bracket every other year or so, will be expecting to escape a group that also includes Ajax and Celtic. While Barcelona are surely favoured to go through in first place, they’ll not have nailed anything down until the Rossoneri visit the Catalan capital.
Just last February, Milan managed to defeat Barcelona, 2-0, at the San Siro—a match that was followed a few weeks later by Barcelona’s 4-0 victory in the reverse.
The Milan players will have that embarrassment on their mind ahead of kickoff, but the club does have its 4-0 thumping of Barcelona in the 1994 Champions League final to hold on to.