This time, all roads lead to Milan.
The Champions League resumes with its usual fanfare and most of the usual names, with Manchester United ending last season’s exile to re-join the European elite, albeit now a fair few strides behind the favourites to win the competition.
They remain last season’s winners Barcelona, rivals Real Madrid and Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, with the strongest English challenge perhaps coming from Manchester City given the current malaise at Chelsea.
But before any of those can have aspirations of lifting the famous old trophy they’ve got to get through Matchday 1, which has thrown up some fascinating fixtures as this guide shows:
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Malmo, Parc des Princes, 7.45 p.m. GMT
Last season’s last-16 victory over Chelsea was as good an achievement as Paris Saint-Germain have ever pulled off in the Champions League, and they enter this campaign with renewed hope that stars such as the newly-arrived Angel di Maria can fire them to even greater heights.
As always, though, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the story here.
For the first time since leaving in 2001 the Swede faces up to his hometown club Malmo, who are back in the Champions League after one win and five defeats from their six group matches last time out.
They look unlikely to improve on that record in Paris.
Prediction: Paris Saint-Germain 3-0 Malmo
Real Madrid vs. Shakhtar Donetsk, Santiago Bernabeu, 7.45 p.m. GMT
Part of the reason that Rafael Benitez was hired as Real Madrid’s manager was his pedigree in the Champions League, having won the competition with Liverpool in 2005 and reached another final two years later.
At Real they always expect to get that far, and Benitez comes into the club’s first-ever meeting with perennial Champions League qualifiers Shakhtar Donetsk off the back of 5-0 and 6-0 La Liga victories either side of the international break, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring five at Espanyol in the latter.
The group draw hasn’t been kind to Shakhtar, who could have done without being paired with Real and PSG after a summer which has seen them lose key players such as Luiz Adriano and Douglas Costa.
This only looks to be going one way.
Prediction: Real Madrid 4-1 Shakhtar Donetsk
Wolfsburg vs. CSKA Moscow, Volkswagen Arena, 7.45 p.m. GMT
Wolfsburg’s only previous Champions League campaign in 2009/10 saw them placed in Group B with CSKA Moscow and Manchester United, and exactly the same thing has happened again.
The Bundesliga outfit beat CSKA 3-1 in their opening group game back then, and hopes will be high for a repeat following a solid start to the Bundesliga campaign which sees them third after four matches.
However, CSKA are already five points clear of the Russian Premier League following seven wins and a draw, and they’ll certainly make life difficult for the hosts in what looks to be one of the tighter Matchday 1 clashes.
They famously won at Manchester City last season, although they might have to settle for a draw this time around.
Prediction: Wolfsburg 2-2 CSKA Moscow
PSV Eindhoven vs. Manchester United, Philips Stadion, 7.45 p.m. GMT
Manchester United’s return to the Champions League after a season away sees them head for manager Louis van Gaal’s homeland, but it’ll be summer signing Memphis Depay who will feel most at home at the Philips Stadion.
The 21-year-old’s 22 goals in the Eredivisie last season are a key reason why PSV Eindhoven are even in the Champions League at all right now, and despite the summer losses of the likes of him and Georginio Wijnaldum, they’ve still started the season in impressive fashion under Van Gaal’s former Dutch international midfielder Phillip Cocu.
He’ll be pleased with the somewhat kind group draw, although he could find that a United fired up by their weekend win over Liverpool will be too tough a nut to crack.
United may be heading to Eindhoven on the back of a positive result, but Van Gaal does not know if his side can challenge for the trophy.
"We have to show on the pitch if we are able to win matches at the highest level," Van Gaal said at a pre-game press conference. "That's the challenge for us now. We have to show if we are able to play at this level. I don't know (the answer). We have to wait and see because the Champions League is a higher level than the Premier League."
Prediction: PSV Eindhoven 1-2 Manchester United
Galatasaray vs. Atletico Madrid, Ali Sami Yen, 7.45 p.m. GMT
The beaten finalists in 2013/14, Atletico Madrid again fell to city rivals Real Madrid in the competition last season, but they return looking a much stronger force.
Jackson Martinez knows how to score Champions League goals having done so with Porto, and he could be drafted into the side as Diego Simeone’s men make the always-difficult trip to Istanbul to face a Galatasaray side who gleaned just one point from their six group stage matches last season, conceding a massive 19 times along the way.
They’ve improved since then (they couldn’t have got worse), but look like starting their campaign with a defeat.
Prediction: Galatasaray 0-1 Atletico Madrid
Benfica vs. Astana, Estadio da Luz, 7.45 p.m. GMT
Kazakhstan’s first entry into the Champions League comes via Astana, who made the competition proper thanks to a play-off win over APOEL.
They start out at one of the competition’s grandest venues, with the Estadio da Luz hosting Benfica’s latest attempt to do what they pretty much always do and scrap for the second qualification place from the group, knowing that failure will mean the Europa League.
They should start with a win, especially with forwards Jonas and Kostas Mitroglou beginning the campaign in fine goalscoring form.
Prediction: Benfica 2-0 Astana
Manchester City vs. Juventus, Etihad Stadium, 7.45 p.m. GMT
Last season’s Champions League final must already seem like a lifetime ago for Juventus, who lost Carlos Tevez, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo over the summer, and have now lost two of their opening three Serie A games of the season.
They head for Manchester to take on Manuel Pellegrini’s purring Manchester City side, whose win at Crystal Palace at the weekend broke a 103-year-old club record as they continue to preserve their 100 per cent start to the season.
Sergio Aguero has been ruled out of this one but Raheem Sterling and David Silva are fit, meaning that the hosts should have enough to see off their beleaguered visitors.
Prediction: Manchester City 3-1 Juventus
Sevilla vs. Borussia Moenchengladbach, Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, 7.45 p.m. GMT
It’s a first return to the Champions League since 2009/10 for Sevilla, but Borussia Moenchengladbach are at the elite European level for the first time in 37 years.
European Cup runners-up to Liverpool in 1977, the Foals are back at the top table under coach Lucien Favre, but they’ve suffered a nightmare start to the Bundesliga season—losing all four of their opening games to sit bottom of the table.
Comparisons with Borussia Dortmund’s early struggles last season are being drawn, but in Sevilla they’ll be facing another side in their division’s bottom three, making this a curious relegation zone Champions League clash which both teams would probably be happy to take a point from.
Prediction: Sevilla 1-1 Borussia Moenchengladbach
Wednesday, September 16, 2015
Bayer Leverkusen vs. BATE, BayArena, 7.45 p.m. GMT
Memories of Leverkusen’s 2002 final are fading away, but more relevant is the fact that they have qualified from the Champions League in each of the last three seasons and on each of their last six attempts.
The latest assault on reaching the last-16 begins with the club having lost star South Korean Heung-Min Son to Tottenham this summer, but in Javier Hernandez they have added a proven goalscorer who has done it at this level before.
In BATE he faces a side who rule the roost in Belarus but were completely outclassed at this level last season—losing twice to both Shakhtar Donetsk and Porto to a combined score of 21-0.
Prediction: Bayer Leverkusen 3-0 BATE
Roma vs. Barcelona, Stadio Olimpico, 7.45 p.m. GMT
The holders start this Champions League campaign as they ended the last one—with a clash against a Serie A outfit that they’ll expect to win.
Roma welcome them to the Stadio Olimpico having recruited impressively in the summer with the likes of Edin Dzeko and Mohamed Salah, but despite an unbeaten start they’ll still be vulnerable to the power of one of the continent’s elite, as home losses to Manchester City and Bayern Munich—the latter 7-1—showed last season.
Barca will have second-time dad Leo Messi back in the starting lineup after he came off the bench to great effect against Atletico Madrid at the weekend, and although they slipped up at PSG early on in last season’s successful campaign, it would be a surprise if they were to come away with anything other than a victory here as coach Luis Enrique returns to his former club.
Prediction: Roma 1-3 Barcelona
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Arsenal, Stadion Maksimir, 7.45 p.m. GMT
Two long runs dominate the build-up to this Group F opener, with Dinamo Zagreb having failed to win a Champions League group stage match in 15 attempts, and Arsenal entering an 18th successive campaign in the competition.
As for the game itself, that could well be dominated by two Chileans.
The former Manchester United forward Angelo Henriquez will start in attack for Dinamo having completed a permanent move to the club in the summer after scoring 30 goals last season, but it is his international teammate Alexis Sanchez who’ll take more of the limelight in Zagreb, where he’ll hope to step up his performance in an Arsenal victory.
Prediction: Dinamo Zagreb 1-2 Arsenal
Olympiakos vs. Bayern Munich, Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis, 7.45 p.m. GMT
In their last 11 Champions League Matchday 1 fixtures, Bayern Munich have won all 11 and conceded just two goals.
And it would be huge surprise if 11 doesn’t become 12 in Athens, where Pep Guardiola will hope he’s beginning a campaign which will see him go at least one better than the semi-final appearances he’s led Bayern to in each of the last two seasons.
A 100 per cent record in the Bundesliga was protected with a late win over Augsburg at the weekend, and although Olympiakos have one of those in Greece too, the hosts are clearly fighting with Dinamo for third place in this group.
Prediction: Olympiakos 0-3 Bayern Munich
Dynamo Kiev vs. Porto, NSK Olimpiyskyi, 7.45 p.m. GMT
Porto are always here, and the key question always seems to be whether they’ll reach the last-16 or the quarter-finals.
As always the Portuguese giants have lost some key players over the summer, but unusually they’ve also brought in a household name, with Iker Casillas set to make his first Champions League appearance for the club after 152 for Real Madrid.
Looking to beat him will be Sergei Rebrov’s Dynamo, who sit on top of the Ukrainian Premier League having only conceded twice all season.
That could change here, but they might get a point.
Prediction: Dynamo Kiev 1-1 Porto
Chelsea vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Stamford Bridge, 7.45 p.m. GMT
As Chelsea continue to lurch from one crisis to another in the Premier League, Maccabi Tel-Aviv arrive with a couple of reminders of just how far they’ve come.
The Israeli club’s manager Slavisa Jokanovic and centre-back Tal Ben-Haim were hardly roaring successes at Stamford Bridge, and on their return they’ll be facing up to a Blues side who’ll be determined to make a statement after losing three of their opening five league games to sit just above the relegation zone.
Jose Mourinho will demand that this is where the madness ends, and if the Blues can get an early goal then they could end up running riot.
Prediction: Chelsea 5-1 Maccabi Tel-Aviv
Valencia vs. Zenit St. Petersburg, Mestalla Stadium, 7.45 p.m. GMT
Whilst Mourinho does battle in west London, two of his former protégés will be facing each other south-eastern Spain.
Andre Villas-Boas takes his Zenit St. Petersburg side to Valencia with the knowledge that the Russians have lost every game they’ve ever played in Spain, a record that Los Che boss Nuno Espirito Santo—a former colleague of Villas-Boas under Mourinho at Porto—will be seeking to prolong.
They’ve made an average start to the La Liga season but remain unbeaten, and with Zenit having won just one of their last four games in Russia it would be a surprise if they were to slip up here.
Prediction: Valencia 2-1 Zenit St. Petersburg
Gent vs. Lyon, Ghelamco Arena, 7.45 p.m. GMT
Victory in Belgium’s rather complicated Championship Playoffs saw Gent claim their first ever league title and earn qualification for the Champions League for the first time in their 115-year history, and now they’re here they are going to enjoy it.
They might find it tough against a Lyon side who have won both of their away games in Ligue 1 this season, but the twin factors of the general excitement generated by a first Champions League home game and Gent’s status as relative unknowns could combine to give the hosts a point.
Prediction: Gent 1-1 Lyon