So just how special are you this time, José?
José Mourinho has spent the first few months since his return to Chelsea stressing how he is overseeing a young team in transition, as if offering the world a reminder that any silverware claimed this term should constitute a bonus rather than a necessity. Yet, as a manager who has claimed all the domestic trophies on offer, the chance to claim a European Cup for the London club will be enticing. It would be his third, after those won with Porto and Internazionale, and he would surely delight in achieving at Stamford Bridge what he could not quite manage with Real Madrid. Chelsea appear to have a formality of a group, and will remember what can be achieved in this competition against the odds after their own triumph in 2012. They will draw encouragement, too, from their display in the Super Cup against Bayern Munich. Yet whether they would be able to impose their fluent, attack-minded style on another of Europe's heavyweights – rather than seeking solely to soak up opposition pressure and hit on the counter, as they did in Prague against Bayern – remains to be seen. Expect Mourinho to play down their chances at first. "The Champions League cannot be an obsession for me," he said in pre-season. "I've won it twice, and would be happy to win it again, but Chelsea have won it too. So it's not an obsession. Let's work and, with the quality we have, we'll be there fighting for that objective." Come the spring, that outlook may alter. DF
Manchester City: surely they can't make such of a mess of it again?
Manuel Pellegrini signalled the intent of Manchester City to push through the Champions League group stage for the first time in three years with the side he selected for Saturday's goalless draw at Stoke City. The Chilean rested Sergio Agüero, Joleon Lescott, Fernandinho and Jesús Navas as he looks to plot a path past Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow, and the Czech champions Viktoria Plzen, whom City encounter on Tuesday evening at the Doosan Arena. Pellegrini claims no particular mention was made of the competition in which City have bombed in their first two attempts before he was named as Roberto Mancini's successor as manager. Yet his pedigree in leading an unheralded Villarreal to the 2006 semi-finals (where Arsenal defeated them) and Málaga to last year's quarter-finals, before Borussia Dortmund eliminated them so dramatically, was a prime factor when the club's grandees considered his candidacy. So far City have stuttered, losing at Cardiff City and dropping those two points at Stoke. Against the Gambrinus Liga champions, a draw would be acceptable, but a defeat would recall the unwanted memories of those past two Champions League failures. JJ
No Özil but how will Bale and Isco fare at the Bernabéu?
At the start of the 2009-10 season, Real Madrid sold Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder. The decision was taken over the head of the coach, Manuel Pellegrini, but the headline on the cover of one newspaper did the president's bidding for him and declared: "Well sold." At the end of the season, the European Cup final was held at the Santiago Bernabéu. Real Madrid were not there; Sneijder and Robben were. Like Samuel Eto'o, another man Madrid let go, they have won trebles but Madrid have not. At the time, Arsène Wenger joked that it was worth hanging round outside the Bernabéu to pick up who they had thrown out. Prophetic words. Arsenal are entitled to be hugely excited about Mesut Özil. Madrid's fans did not want him to be sold and nor did Madrid's players, and the decision is questionable to say the least, but there is a certain logic to it. His departure pays half of Gareth Bale's arrival fee and this year there is someone else in his position whose promise is gigantic. Creative, clever and growing in importance, Isco could prove to be one of the players in Europe in his second season in the Champions League, having helped Málaga to within 30 seconds of last year's semi-final. SL
Arsenal always get out of the group – maybe not this year
Arsène Wenger's record with Arsenal, not only in reaching the Champions League but also in negotiating a passage out of the group stages, remains remarkable even if it is hard to contemplate his current squad having the depth of quality to break the manager's own personal duck in terms of European trophies this season. Indeed, so daunting does Group F appear that even progress from the section would constitute an achievement. Borussia Dortmund, last season's runners-up, and Napoli represent considerable threats, and it says much that Marseille – no mugs themselves – appear to be the whipping boys elect. Wednesday night at the Stade Vélodrome will go a long way towards determining whether that is an accurate assessment, particularly with Wenger's options limited by early season injuries. Yet this is an intriguing group, the type to draw the focus with every collision so enthralling. Should Arsenal emerge into the second phase, the resultant boost in confidence could conceivably propel their domestic challenge. DF
Rafael Benítez is back in the tournament he loves the most
Even in their late-1980s Diego Maradona inspired heyday, when they won two Serie A titles in four years, Napoli made little impression in Europe's elite competition. They are hoping that will change this season, having appointed a manager in the summer whose love affair with European is well-documented. Rafael Benítez led Valencia to Uefa Cup success in 2004, and then improbably took Liverpool to their Champions League victory a year later. Two seasons on Liverpool lost to Milan in Athens but the way the Spaniard masterminded Chelsea's Europa League triumph back in May provided plenty of evidence to suggest his magic touch in European competition has not waned. Having finished second in Serie A last season, when manager Walter Mazzarri's defection to Internazionale was followed by the sale of Edinson Cavani to PSG for £55m it seemed the Stadio San Paolo was set for a season of transition. But Benítez has reinvested the Cavani cash wisely, most eye-catchingly on tempting Gonzalo Higuaín from Real Madrid for £34m from under the noses of Arsenal, but also on two more players from the Bernabéu, Raúl Albiol and José Callejón. Add in the talents of Croatian playmaker Marek Hamsik and the on-loan Pepe Reina, and Benítez has a squad to compete in what will be a fiercely contested Group F. They have won all three games in Serie A to top the early-season table. Arsenal, and Dortmund, who travel to Naples on Wednesday, have been warned. PC
New Spanish kids on the block
Few teams have been as fun to watch as Real Sociedad over the past year and, although they lost their midfield playmaker Asier Illarramendi to Real Madrid for €39m (£33m) and spent the final days of the transfer window fearing the continent's biggest clubs coming to take their best talents, he was the only significant player to depart. Up front they have a dynamism and daring about them that few sides can match. They went to Lyon and scored two ridiculously good goals to cruise through the qualifier. Imanol Agirretxe now has competition from Haris Seferovic in the centre-forward position – he it was who belted in the second at the Stade Gerland – Carlos Vela and Antoine Griezmann are swift and skilful on either side of the attack and then in the middle there is the captain, Xabi Prieto, the man whose coach claimed he should have been a Spain regular even when he was playing in the second division. Smooth and seemingly slow, mentally he is faster than anyone. Class. SL
Moyes's big test: how will United play in Europe?
For obvious reasons, Manchester United's Champions League campaign is one heaving with intrigue. Sir Alex Ferguson is no longer around and in his place comes a man with no experience whatsoever at this level. In the circumstances, a club that has reached three of the past five finals are not expected by many to go so far this year, yet there remains pressure on Moyes to make an impact. United's group is not the easiest, containing as it does Bayer Leverkusen, who finished a point behind the much-heralded Borussia Dortmund in last season's Bundesliga, the Ukrainian champions, Shakhtar Donetsk, who reached last 16 of last season's Champions League, and a very talented Real Sociedad side. United's players have what it takes to finish above all three teams but the big question is how their manager sets them up to play, both home and away. Moyes often displayed caution an naivety when leading in Everton in Europe – he now must be bolder and wiser. SN
PSG: Contenders or big-money pretenders?
It would feel perverse to describe a club who have spent as lavishly as Paris Saint-Germain as dark horses, even in this competition, so PSG should now be considered contenders for the Champions League this term. Laurent Blanc has seen the Parisians' Qatari owners recruit a mouth-watering array of forward options: the reputations of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani precede them, though incorporating that pair with a supply line constructed from a combination from Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lucas, Marco Verratti, Jérémy Ménez and Javier Pastore will represent a tantalising selection challenge. The former France manager has wonderful players from which to choose, and a more experienced defence upon whom to rely, and will aspire to better last season's hugely encouraging campaign which stretched into the quarter-finals, when Carlo Ancelotti's team only exited on away goals to Barcelona. This year, with Monaco emerging as a rival moneyed force in the domestic game, expectations are raised at the Parc des Princes. PSG, with a relatively comfortable looking group ahead, can hope to prosper. DF
Can Kaká revive Milan's glory days?
The news that Kaká has damaged his thigh and is likely to be out of action for at least a month is a blow for those excited by his return to Milan and keen to see how he would perform for them in Europe. The Brazilian inspired the Italians to the 2005 final in Istanbul – where for the first 45 minutes he was simply too brilliant for Liverpool to handle – and then to ultimate victory in Athens two years later, when Liverpool were again the opponents but this time defeated. The playmaker could well be back for Barcelona's visit to San Siro on 22 October and until then Milan-watchers can take delight from watching Robinho, Mario Balotelli and Alessandro Matri, who returned from Juventus last month, perform for the Rossoneri. SN
Guardiola at Bayern: a tough act to follow
Pep Guardiola knows a thing or two about managing expectations – and defeating Chelsea and Mourinho to win the Super Cup was not a bad start – but just how does he go about matching Bayern's Wembley triumph from last season? The fact that Jupp Heynckes' side also completed a domestic double has only increased the pressure on Guardiola, but Bayern have started the Bundesliga season well, winning four out of five, and the holders will be expected to see off CSKA Moscow at the Allianz Arena on Tuesday. While the acquisition of Mario Götze from Dortmund was their headlining summer arrival, the capture of Guardiola's former Barcelona prodigy Thiago Alcântara was perhaps equally significant, even if knee ligament damage suffered on his debut has ruled the Spaniard out until November. With trusted members of the squad who reached successive finals such as Luiz Gustavo, Mario Gomez and Ukraine's captain, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, allowed to leave, Guardiola will hope his resources are not too stretched in a group where the two games with Manchester City, and another former rival in Manuel Pellegrini, are the most eye-catching. In some senses not much has changed for Guardiola since his Camp Nou days: anything short of lifting the trophy in Lisbon next May will be regarded as failure. PC