How will the new PSG fare? | Is this the year for Arsenal? | Italian clubs could be in for a tough time
The adage about never changing a winning formula apparently doesn't apply if that formula included lavish amounts of last-ditch scrambling and unrepeatable luck. Roman Abramovich's craving for the Champions League has apparently not been sated: in a bid to win it with more panache, he has recruited the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar and … no more strikers. The owner's ambition is admirable, and watching how this changing Chelsea side cope with Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk and Nordsjaelland will be fascinating.
PSG have only won two of five matches in the French league so far this season but there are signs in the performances that their expensively assembled team is starting to find fluency, and there are still pieces to be added to the team: against Dynamo Kyiv on Tuesday, for instance, Thiago Silva, the Brazilian centre back bought from Milan for £33.8m, will make his long-awaited debut. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has never won the Champions League but a comfortable-looking group should enable him and his new team-mates to hone their style before facing more daunting opponents in the knock-out stages.
Bob Paisley remains the only manager to become European champion with a club three times. The Special One aspires to emulate him (before, presumably eclipsing him) and he is under real pressure to do so with Real Madrid, who have not won the tournament for a decade. But after breaking Barcelona's dominance in Spain, suddenly things are looking complicated again for Mourinho as his team stutters, strife rumbles and an intensely difficult qualifying group looms. Whatever happens, Mourinho will add to the intrigue.
Jürgen Klopp has been hailed as one of the greatest managerial talents in Europe and Borussia Dortmund's flaky early elimination in last year's Champions League still rankles. A few weeks ago the chances of the two-in-a-row German champions getting out of the most daunting group looked grim, as they started the season badly, with Marco Reus seeming an inadequate replacement for Shinji Kagawa. But Reus has started to find his form and so has the rest of the ream, in particular Mario Götze, who is regaining the spectacular heights he showed before injury cut him down mid-way through last season. Watch out, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax.
The appearance of this team in the group stages has a pleasingly nostalgic feel to it, a throwback to a time when a European campaign was a venture into the unknown. Nordsjaelland are not quite the obscurity that they were when news broke that they had won the Danish title last year – what with half their team having become Denmark internationals – but they are still a major curiosity. Known in their homeland as "the Danish Barcelona" because of their snappy short passing style, Nordsjaelland might just come to be referred to in Europe as "this year's Apoel Nicosia". But probably not.
Not since Crvena Zvezda of Belgrade in 1991 has a team from Eastern Europe conquered the continent but power looks to be shifting slowly back in that direction. Russian sides are the most obvious threat – Zenit St Petersburg having trumpeted their ambition with the signings of Axel Witsel and Hulk – but Spartak Moscow represent a daunting obstacle for Celtic and Benfica and will be no pushover for Barcelona. Ukraine will also mount a substantial challenge, with Shakhtar Donetsk well capable of knocking out Chelsea or Juventus, and Dynamo Kyiv a danger to PSG, Porto and Dinamo Zagreb.
Pre-season pessimism is turning to optimism at the Emirates thanks to new-found defensive solidity and the wonder of Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski. If Olivier Giroud can start to emulate his fellow summer recruits, possibly starting on Tuesday night against his old Montpellier chums, then Arsène Wenger may soon be able to boast not merely of qualifying for the knockout stages every year, but of actually knocking everyone else out. And Robin van Persie may be left to ponder the misery of the Michael Owen Syndrome, watching his old club lift Europe's most glittering trophy the year after he left them to win trophies. Or maybe not.
Tito Vilanova had the biggest boots in football to fill when he took over from Pep Guardiola but the early indications are that his feet are ample enough. Victory in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup and four wins from four in the league suggest that claims the great Barcelona team are on the decline were premature. As the season unfolds the picture will become clearer, and we will watch on with Rolf Harris-esque excitement.
Braga's win over Udinese in the preliminary round means Italy have only two representatives in the group stages and both of those have problems. Milan have made a poor start to their domestic season and seem ill-equipped for a tilt at the Champions League, particularly as group rivals Málaga have looked less ramshackle than expected so far this season. Meanwhile, Juventus look strong but will be hampered by the lengthy touchline ban of Antonio Conte, the manager who has inspired the club's renaissance since taking charge last year. Mind you, as a man dubbed "the new Mourinho" by some, Conte will hardly let such a trifling punishment get in his way.
You get the feeling that Sir Alex Ferguson will not even contemplate retirement until he at least matches Bob Paisley's European Cup haul, and his determination to do so in this, his 18th Champions League campaign, will be all the more vigorous in the wake of last season's limp elimination from both this tournament and the Europa League. Wayne Rooney may be absent but a gentle group draw means they should at least improve on last season's attempt.