The UEFA Champions League is back.
For the next nine months, Europe’s best sides will slug it out in the hope of reaching the final, staged for the first time at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Holders Real Madrid will be trying to secure their third title in four seasons, while Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Atletico and Manchester City all hold realistic aspirations of dethroning them come June.
But first things first: gameweek one. Here are five stories to keep an eye on this week:
1. Easy going for the big boys?
On the face of it, the fixture computer has been pretty kind to most of the outright favourites. Real, Barca and Bayern Munich all start with winnable home matches – against Sporting, Celtic and Rostov respectively – and will be hopeful of starting their campaigns on the front foot.
Man City, too, should have too much for a Borussia Monchengladbach side that was undone by Freiburg in the Bundesliga at the weekend.
But things will be more tricky for a few of the other contenders.
Paris Saint-Germain, who have made a shaky start to Ligue 1, will find the going very tough against Arsenal at the Parc des Princes.
Atletico Madrid face in-form PSV Eindhoven, who held them to two 0-0 draws in a tense quarter-final last term.
For that pair, plus Juventus, who host Sevilla (about whom more later), it might not be plain sailing.
2. Debuting duo ready to make an impression
Two teams are appearing in the group stage for the first time and will be keen to make the most of their time in the spotlight.
Leicester City are by now a known quantity in the UK and have started the season in disappointing fashion, yet there is a huge sense of excitement ahead of their first match.
The chance to see Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, Wes Morgan and the rest test their wits against Europe’s best is certainly an alluring one, even if an away meeting with Club Brugge is hardly the most glamorous fixture to kick off their campaign.
Premier League opponents may have grown wise to their counter-attack ways, but Claudio Ranieri will hope that there remains a surprise element to their play against continental opposition.
They’ve also brought in some valuable experience in the shape of Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani, who have 42 European games between them and should be able ease Vardy’s attacking workload.
An opening win should be achievable given Brugge’s miserable start to the season in Belgium.
The ascent of the other newcomers, FC Rostov, has been just as remarkable.
Two seasons ago, the side from southern Russia avoided relegation by the skins of their teeth, finishing 14th but winning a play-off against a second-flight side to stay up.
Former Rubin Kazan coach Kurban Berdyev was the man to turn things around, bringing in a number of players from his old side and guiding Rostov to a second-placed finish last term.
Berdyev quit in August amid complaints about unpaid salaries, yet continued to attend games and, for now, looks likely to remain at the club in support of new boss Ivan Daniliants.
That situation looks precarious but did not stop the Selmashi securing their place in Group D with a 5-2 aggregate demolition of Ajax in the play-off round.
The Rubin connection remains strong: Spanish defender César Navas and Ecuador schemer Christian Noboa are dependable stalwarts, while Sardar Azmoun – the ‘Iranian Messi – provides spark in attack. A shock result against Bayern is unlikely, but they might have their moments.
3. Sampaoli’s Sevilla ready to test Juventus
One of football’s most intriguing coaches will take charge of his first Champions League match in Turin on Wednesday.
Jorge Sampaoli is just a few weeks into his first spell in Europe, having taken over at Sevilla on the back of impressive work with Universidad de Chile and the Chile national team, and will be relishing the chance to test his mettle against Juventus in gameweek one.
The Sevilla job is one of constant rebuilding: this summer, as usual, they lost a host of key men.
Ever Banega, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Kevin Gameiro, Coke and Yevhen Konoplyanka were among those to follow Unai Emery out of the club, leaving significant holes in the starting line-up.
A veritable legion of players – Franco Vazquez, Luciano Vietto, Wissam Ben Yedder, Samir Nasri, Paulo Henrique Ganso, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Pablo Sarabia, Salvatore Sirigu, Gabriel Mercado and Matias Kranevitter – have come in to shore things up, but it’s not the ideal scenario for a coach as demanding as Sampaoli, known for his commitment to hard running and daring attacking football.
Yet since the meek defeat by Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup, things have improved rapidly: Sevilla triumphed in a ten-goal thriller with Espanyol, held Villarreal away from home and saw off in-form Las Palmas at the weekend courtesy of an injury-time winner. They will be hopeful of making life tough for the Old Lady.
4. Lyon and Dinamo to offer controversial reminder
It’s fair to say that the last meeting between Lyon and Dinamo Zagreb, back in December 2011, was not without controversy.
Les Gones needed a win and a major goal-difference swing to overhaul Ajax in their group and looked to be on their way out of the competition when Mateo Kovacic put the Croatian side ahead at Stadion Maksimir.
Bafetimbi Gomes tied things up just before the interval, but no one was prepared for what came next: Zagreb completely capitulated, conceding seven goals in a staggering display of defensive ineptitude. The result put Lyon through to the knockout stages, against all odds.
Ajax cried foul, with internet detectives citing footage of Zagreb’s Domagoj Vida winking at Gomis – who helped himself to four goals on the night – as proof of funny business having taken place.
UEFA, though, declined to investigate, saying that their Betting Fraud Detection System had not flagged any unusual activity around the match. Here’s hoping Wednesday’s game provides the same level of drama.
5. Monaco aiming to spoil Tottenham’s Wembley bow
Spurs make the short trip across London for the first of three group games at Wembley, hoping their second Champions League campaign is as lively as their first: Tottenham rattled in 25 goals over nine games in 2010-11, stunning Internazionale and AC Milan before succumbing to Real Madrid.
But they won’t have things all their own way on opening night.
They kick off against a Monaco side that saw off Fenerbahce and Villarreal to reach the competition proper, and will have been buoyed further by an excellent start to Ligue 1.
Keep an eye out for Fabinho, a right-back-turned-midfielder who has scored five times already this term and was attracting interest from Manchester United before signing a recent contract extension.