The much-anticipated return of the Champions League is almost upon us, and excitement is mounting after Thursday's group-stage draw, revealing to us which teams will do battle this season.
Reigning champions Real Madrid will face off against Liverpool, Basel and Ludogorets Razgrad in Group B, but it's not just the title defence that's drawing attention.
Once again, clubs of all sizes will seek to make their way past the first round of competition, and as ever, even the smallest of outfits have their shot at breaking new ground in Europe.
|Group A||Group B||Group C||Group D|
|Atletico Madrid||Real Madrid||Benfica||Arsenal|
|Juventus||FC Basel||Zenit||Borussia Dortmund|
|Group E||Group F||Group G||Group H|
|Bayern Munich||Barcelona||Chelsea||FC Porto|
|Manchester City||Paris Saint-Germain||Schalke 04||Shakhtar|
|CSKA Moscow||Ajax||Sporting Club||Athletic Bilbao|
We take a look at which underdogs might make it through to the round of 16, as well as giving a full breakdown of the groups and prediction of who will advance.
The official Champions League Twitter account give us a concise look at this season's group stage fixture dates:
The pressure will be on Juventus and Atletico Madrid to live up to their billing as champions of Italy and Spain, respectively, as the duo hope to surmount one another in the battle of Group A's favourites.
Malmo and Olympiakos are also champions of Sweden and Greece, respectively, but those divisions (mainly the Allsvenskan) sit some way off the standards of La Liga and Serie A.
Matteo Bonetti of beIN Sport suggests the Bianconeri will be pleased with their draw:
Allegri upon seeing Olympiakos drawn into their group pic.twitter.com/PcRmG6XIMy— Matteo Bonetti (@TheCalcioGuy) August 28, 2014
Atletico have had a good summer after returning to the Spanish throne, replacing those departing figures with ones of equal promise, while Juve haven't been quite as encouraging in their business.
Diego Simeone's side will hope for more European solidity following last season's final appearance, and their attacking options could see them past Juventus, considering both sides' defences are majorly talented.
Dark Horse: Olympiakos took a 2-0 lead against Manchester United in last season's round of 16, only to blow it in the second leg and bow out 3-2. That being said, Athens can be a difficult place to travel and Michel will look to repel any assault that comes in his side's direction.
Carlo Ancelotti attained La Decima in style last season, and even though it took extra time, the 4-1 thrashing of Atleti in their Champions League final showed just how strong Real Madrid's squad is.
This summer's talk has revolved largely around how the arrival of James Rodriguez, as well as the departures of Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso, the latter transfer confirmed by The Guardian, will affect the continental champions.
Liverpool are buoyant after making their way back into Europe, but it may take time before a lot of their players, many of whom are unacquainted with Champions League football, can adapt.
Brendan Rodgers is well aware of the task at hand, but is looking forward to the test, per This Is Anfield:
BR: Real Madrid and Liverpool are two very special clubs - 15 times winners between them. It’s great for the fans and city to have CL back.— This Is Anfield (@thisisanfield) August 29, 2014
That being said, Swiss and Bulgarian champions Basel and Ludogorets Razgrad are very much beatable as far as Ancelotti and Rodgers will be concerned.
Dark Horse: Basel are a team well versed in European success of late, albeit having gone far mainly in the Europa League. The Swiss giants regularly dominate their domestic ranks and have a grip on most of the national talent that comes through, making them a threat to keep an eye on.
|3rd||Zenit St. Petersburg|
A miniature group of death in many ways, one can envision any of Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen, Zenit St. Petersburg or Benfica winning Group C.
Each side is rightfully a giant in their respective countries, with Zenit and Leverkusen having progressed to the round of 16 in last season's tournament.
The slightest of lapses could mean the difference between progress and an early exit, but Leverkusen could emerge as the strongest party, more consistent in their squad choices and experienced among elite company.
Dark Horse: Just as a favourite is difficult to pick out, so too is a dark horse. That being said, Andre Villas-Boas possesses a vast pool of talent in St. Petersburg, and despite their lack of European success in recent years, travelling to Russia is a venture no team will enjoy.
For the second season in a row, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund will fight for Champions League group dominance, the Germans having just edged last year's struggle.
Galatasaray are a power in their own right and did well to beat Juventus to a round of 16 place in 2013-14, but this season may not be so kind.
Opta's Orbinho points out the Gunners have a feud to settle with Cesare Prandelli's side:
The only time Arsenal have played Galatasaray in Europe was the 2000 UEFA Cup final which they lost on penalties after a 0-0 draw— Orbinho (@Orbinho) August 28, 2014
Anderlecht may be the giant of Belgium to usually watch out for, but they'll be little more than bystanders once again, having claimed just one point in last term's group phase.
Dark Horse: Gala will look to Istanbul as being their backbone for results this year, but it's vital that Turkey's titans claim points in away territory after taking just one last season.
Manchester City just can't catch a break, and another group-of-death setting sees Bayern Munich lined up as the favourites for Group E.
The Germans will be tested by the Citizens, as one can only expect thanks to Manuel Pellegrini's vast squad resources, but Roma will also be looking to steal points where they can.
The summer movement around the Allianz Arena has been largely positive in 2014, and Mehdi Benatia will be hoping to have an impact against Rudi Garcia and his not-so-long-ago teammates.
Dark Horse: CSKA Moscow have drawn the shortest of straws this season, but the Russian champions may find the slightest of advantages in the element of surprise. Leonid Slutsky does have a powerful squad, and there may yet be a shock to come in Group E.
Paris Saint-Germain are on the prowl for revenge this season, lining up against Barcelona, the team who saw them out of the Champions League quarter-finals two seasons ago on away goals.
However, Luis Enrique's men retain their place as the top-billed team in their pool, Group F's other seemingly hopeless hopefuls being Ajax and APOEL Nicosia.
Dark Horse: The Eredivisie is seen by some as little more than a gateway league to Europe's other top divisions, but Dutch champions Ajax are schooled in attractive football philosophies, and will hope to beat superstars with substance.
Jose Mourinho has lucked out in seeing the opposition ready to combat his Chelsea team, with Schalke, Sporting Lisbon and Maribor offering a very favourable draw.
Bleacher Report's Stan Collymore agrees the selection looks favourably upon Mourinho's men:
Chelsea. Straightforward group fir experienced European campaigners. Only thing to stop them would be complacency. Top of the group.— Stan Collymore (@StanCollymore) August 28, 2014
It would be a surprise to see anyone other than the heavy-hitting Blues progress to the round of 16, with Schalke likely to settle for second as long as they can clinch a win in Portugal.
Dark Horse: Sporting have lost a number of players this summer, but the Liga Primeira champions are nevertheless a stylish outfit, who can bank on beating Slovenia's finest at the very least.
Another group lacking in a clear favourite, Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and Athletic Bilbao will all feel upbeat about their odds of a place in the round of 16, with BATE Borisov likely to fall by the wayside.
However, the political unrest in Ukraine could have an unforeseen impact on Shakhtar's success, and Porto will hope last year's appearance in the Europa League quarters will see them improve in Europe this time around.
Dark Horse: Athletic were a defensive force to be reckoned with in 2013-14, conceding 39 goals in league competition and losing just twice at home. Ernesto Valverde's side beat off the challenge of Napoli in the Champions League playoffs and can make a surge on first place in Group H.