A step into the unknown for David Moyes and Manchester United; his first-ever group stage in this competition. United’s recent record is undistinguished, too. Sir Alex Ferguson's team exited in the last 16 in 2012-13, and didn't make it beyond their group the previous year. Shakhtar Donetsk have shed quite a few of the stars who lit up last season’s group stage and did for Chelsea, but canny coach Mircea Lucescu remains at the club. His mix of Ukrainian and South American talent, and the difficulty of travelling to the Donbass, present a challenge to Moyes, as does a trip to face Bayer Leverkusen, a club under revival, but with not as good a team as that which knocked out Ferguson’s team in 2001-02. United fans will enjoy a trip to the fine city of San Sebastian to play Real Sociedad, but the group looks eminently conquerable if three home wins are secured.
Prediction: Manchester United, Shakhtar, Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad
Carlo Ancelotti’s pedigree as a two-time Champions League winner is the prime reason for his being Real Madrid coach. The aim is to get beyond the semifinals for the chance to win la decima -- the tenth European Cup -- in the club’s history. His old club, Juventus, the scene of his only significant reverses in his coaching career, knocked out the original galacticos in 2002-03 on the way to their last final. They have strengthened from last season too, with Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente pepping up their frontline. Didier Drogba will relish his trips to Turin and Madrid with Galatasaray, but FC Copenhagen are likely to be whipping boys.
Prediction: Juventus, Real Madrid, Galatasaray, FC Copenhagen
Last season’s Europa League-losing finalists Benfica went close to a treble last season and have held on to most of their team, despite much interest in their players from around the continent. They exited at this stage last time out, so PSG may see them as potentially vulnerable. The champions of France performed above expectations in the last campaign, going so close to a semifinal berth before succumbing to Barcelona. Having finally settled on Laurent Blanc as coach, and having spent another fortune on stars, they can surely not countenance an exit at this stage. Olympiakos are experienced campaigners but hardly serial qualifiers, while Anderlecht showed they possess pedigree in the 2011-12 Europa League. This looks to be one of the most open groups in the competition.
Prediction: PSG, Benfica, Anderlecht, Olympiakos
Manchester City have their best chance yet of making the last 16, even if Bayern Munich are holders and clear favourites. Defending the trophy has so far proved impossible for any team of the Champions League era, but the Germans, even if they are bedding in a new coach in Pep Guardiola, should breeze this group. But with CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen both relatively inexperienced campaigners in this competition, Manuel Pellegrini simply has to take City where Roberto Mancini could not. After all, it was what he was brought to the club to do. However, Russian champions CSKA present a difficult trip and Plzen coach Pavel Vrba has a growing reputation, so it may not be completely plain sailing.
Prediction: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Viktoria Plzen, CSKA Moscow
Jose Mourinho failed to win the competition when he was last at Chelsea. He can hardly do any worse than they did last season, where the holders perished at this stage. A repeat of that performance is unthinkable, especially with a rather favourable draw. FC Basel were beaten last season by his predecessor Rafa Benitez’s team in the Europa League semis. Schalke made last season’s knockouts, winning especially well at Arsenal, but they should present little problem. The same goes for Steaua Bucharest. A special draw for Jose. He can start to plan for the knockouts and work on his new team in the process of qualifying.
Prediction: Chelsea, FC Basel, Schalke, Steaua Bucharest
Arsene Wenger hopes to maintain his yearly achievement of making the knockout stages, but without many reinforcements to his squad, he faces his toughest group since the late 90s. Arsenal have qualified from the group stage every season since 2000-01. Wenger must feel confident of finishing ahead of Marseille, who are desperate to prove they are not their country’s third force, and a good start to the season indicates OM’s danger. However, the pulling of Borussia Dortmund must be a concern, as Jurgen Klopp has strengthened his final-reaching squad and has only really lost Mario Gotze of note. Arsenal got the better of Dortmund two seasons ago, but have not strengthened in the same fashion. Napoli have spent big in the summer and brought in Rafa Benitez, a coach with a proven record in European competition. A transfer target who got away in Gonzalo Higuain will face Arsenal, too.
Prediction: Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, Arsenal, Marseille
Porto are hugely experienced in this competition, but are under new coach Paulo Fonseca, potentially the next Portuguese coach to be targeted by the elite after his fine achievements with Pacos Ferreira last season. Atletico are shorn of Falcao but coach Diego Simeone has kept them as a very tough team to beat. A visit to the Vicente Calderon is one of the most daunting trips available. Zenit are not the force they were five years ago, even with heavyweight duo Hulk and Axel Witsel and the return of Andrei Arshavin. Austria Vienna will be a fine trip for visiting fans, but their team should try to enjoy their days out too. They look to be the group’s minnows.
Prediction: Atletico, FC Porto, Zenit, Austria Vienna
The group of former champions holds the toughest challenge of all for Celtic. Barcelona’s reliance on Lionel Messi was damaging last season, so the pressure is on Neymar. He won the Copa Libertadores with Santos, but this is a new frontier. Familiar opposition for his team-mates, though, in AC Milan. The Milan of old would expect to breeze into the next round, but Silvio Berlusconi is spending his wonga on the problems caused by too much bunga bunga these days, so much now lies upon the shoulders of Mario Balotelli. Ajax made life very difficult for Manchester City last season, so even though Celtic have beaten all three of their fabled opposition in the past, it will be hugely difficult to do it all again, especially as they have lost some leading players who starred for them last season.
Prediction: Barcelona, Ajax, AC Milan, Celtic