Manchester City are about to step into a brave new world and when it comes to the significance of the moment, it is probably worth reminding ourselves that the last time they were in the same position was in the weeks before Nasa sent its first manned Apollo mission into orbit and Led Zeppelin played their debut gig.

City never did quite fulfil Malcolm Allison's claim that it was a case of "Next stop Mars". The team that swept into the 1968-69 European Cup did so with Allison talking of a competition filled with cowards. City were paired against Fenerbahce in the first round, drew the home leg and lost 2-1 in Istanbul. They have been to Macclesfield, Mansfield Town and Midtjylland since then – but never Mars.

Yet it is not entirely correct to think of this being a team of complete newbies ahead of Napoli's visit for the opening game of Group A. Roberto Mancini has 14 players in his squad who have played in the competition before. Yaya Touré and Carlos Tevez are former winners, with Barcelona and Manchester United respectively, while Owen Hargreaves, who shared the winners' podium with Tevez in 2008, can be brought into the 25-man list in the knockout stages.

They do, however, have the toughest assignment of all the English clubs, drawn in the most difficult group of the opening phase. Bayern Munich, the four-times winners, have scored 16 goals and conceded only one in five Bundesliga games. Villarreal were the next best thing to Barcelona, Real Madrid and Valencia in the Primera Liga last season. Napoli, also Champions League debutants, have the disadvantage of having played only one fixture this season, compared to City's five, but will be challenging opponents. Ezequiel Lavezzi has kept Sergio Agüero out of the Argentina team in recent months. Edinson Cavani scored 26 goals in Serie A last season and Marek Hamsik is a midfielder of guile and influence. "It is probably the only group where all four teams can win the group or finish fourth," Mancini said. "It could have been a lot easier."

The flip side is that the high calibre of opponents adds to the excitement after previous forays into the convoluted Europa League, a competition the now-departed chief executive, Garry Cook, used to deride in private as the "Eurovision league".

For such a key moment in the City story, it has been slightly disappointing that an extensive advertising campaign and reduced ticket prices have not meant a sell-out, but there is still the sense of a breakthrough night and it is no coincidence that Mancini's father, Aldo, has chosen this to be the first match he has taken in at the Etihad Stadium.

Mancini Sr has spent the past 14 months recovering from a serious heart attack. "He is getting better," his son reported, and there was an insight into the characteristics that have come to define City's manager. "He has always been my biggest critic, both as a manager and when I was a player. He criticised me every time I played, but if your father says these things it means they are true – and, for me, it has always been important to improve."

Father and son stood alongside one another before a training session most notable for the involvement of Gareth Barry and James Milner, both of whom had been expected to miss the match because of injury. Barry is in the slightly more advanced condition and could return to partner Yaya Touré in the central midfield positions of a 4-2-3-1 system.

The alternative is that Pablo Zabaleta, a defender by trade, moves forward or Mancini goes with only one holding player and experiments with an attacking five of David Silva, Samir Nasri, Edin Dzeko, Tevez and Agüero. The Champions League, however, is not a place to be too bold, particularly in the getting-to-know-you stages, and it is likely Tevez will make way. Mario Balotelli is suspended until the fourth group game because of his red card in a Europa League tie against Dynamo Kyiv last season.

Mancini, who steered Internazionale through the group stages four times but never beyond the quarter-finals, was notably cautious when asked how far City can go. "At this moment, reaching the knockout stages is our only target."

It did not sound much like Allison, even if the Italian is undoubtedly more ambitious than he lets on. "What is important is that we start well," he added. "It's Napoli's first time in the Champions League, but you wouldn't expect a team that has Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik just to play on the break. I expect them to play football, and good football." The next stop after that is Munich, not Mars.