Barcelona has a new coach, Bayern Munich has a new system and champion Real Madrid is already in crisis: Just in time for the 2014-15 Champions League group stage! Sixteen games will kick off this season's competition with Matchday 1 spread across Tuesday and Wednesday this week, and there are some intriguing storylines to look out for on top of the three aforementioned powers looking to reclaim Europe's top prize. Here is what we're watching:
Germany vs. England... again!
When the name of Bayer Leverkusen came out for the Champions League draw last month, it was easy to forget, momentarily, that Manchester United was not in this season's competition. After all, we had already seen a repeat of last season's match-ups drawn in the group stage: Bayern Munich in with Manchester City, Chelsea paired with Schalke, and Arsenal together with Borussia Dortmund, and it was natural to assume that United would be in there alongside Leverkusen as well. But of course not!
Even so, the twist is that Matchday 1 sees all three Bundesliga sides take on their Premier League counterparts. If this is an early chance to secure positioning in the race for top spot, they would be wise to take it, given that all eight group winners reached the quarterfinals a season ago. For example, Schalke's reward for finishing second behind Chelsea last season was a round of 16 pairing with Real Madrid, which it lost 9-2 on aggregate.
Yes, these teams now know each other far too well, and that does chip away at the excitement level and yes, it would be fairer if league champions were drawn in pot one but let's be honest, who doesn't want to see Bayern vs. Man City, even if it might just be a precursor to a knockout tie next spring? Last season Bayern humbled City 3-1 at the Etihad, and City won 3-2 in Munich; this year Bayern has added Xabi Alonso, Juan Bernat, Robert Lewandowski and a new system for Pep Guardiola to get stuck into. Both clubs crave progression in this competition , and for City coach Manuel Pellegrini, his job may depend on it. So while we have seen it before, it wasn't exactly boring then so let's enjoy it now.
Is the Monaco Project over already?
Last season was Monaco's first since Claudio Ranieri guided it to promotion at the first attempt as coach. The Italian then placed Monaco second in Ligue 1, and for a while, at least until January (when Radamel Falcao was injured) kept up with Paris Saint-Germain in the title race. For Ranieri, it was job done: secure a Champions League spot, and look to go one better this season.
Except it's all changed now at Monaco: Ranieri's gone, Falcao's gone and so too are James Rodriguez and Emmanuel Riviere. Why the shift in priorities? French outlet L'Equipe says that owner Dmitry Rybolovlev had a brush with death in the summer when a tumor was removed, and that led to a change of mindset. It also suggests he is upset with the Principality for not naturalizing him, as he has been there for five years.
The focus is now growing on the team's technical director, Luis Campos, who appointed his fellow Portuguese Leonardo Jardim as coach. His job is no longer to copy the PSG blueprint and spend big, but now to focus on the Dortmund model of identifying and developing young talent. With Leverkusen first up for Monaco on Wednesday, the new Monaco's Champions League era could be tough going this autumn, and who knows when the club might be back again?
Look out for the sweeper-keeper
Manuel Neuer is not rewriting the role of the goalkeeper at Bayern Munich, but it will be fascinating to see what position he takes up when the German champion faces Manchester City in Group E on Tuesday.
German outlet Bild joked that Neuer was playing as "a false No. 5" during the World Cup, while Der Speigel calls him "the prototype of the goalkeeper as footballer." UEFA's Champions magazine cites Gyula Grosics, Hungary's goalkeeper in the early-1950s, as the first successful sweeper-keeper, while Victor Valdes won three titles with Barcelona playing that way.
But Neuer seems to be taking the art to a new level, and while it's a high-risk strategy, the upside to Bayern's attacking game is enormous. It will be an interesting comparison against Joe Hart, England's best goalkeeper but seen as a weak link by some opponents, not least the returning Franck Ribery, who beat him at his near post in last season's stunning win at the Etihad.
Ronaldo's next milestones
You're the best player in the world, and you've just won the Champions League: So how do you motivate yourself to keep going?
Simple, if you're Cristiano Ronaldo: just find new challenges to overcome. His rivalry with Lionel Messi will continue this season, though helping Madrid win La Decima means his closest rival for the next Ballon D'Or is more likely to be Germany's Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm or Thomas Muller, but there are some personal milestones that are now within his reach as well.
Ronaldois only four goals behind Raul, on 71, as the Champions League's record goalscorer (as is Messi, it should be noted), helped by an incredible 17 goals last season – the same number that Inter Milan managed in total during its Champions League-winning campaign in 2009-10. After that, Spanish newspaper Marca points out that Ronaldo needs to succeed Raul as Real Madrid's leading scorer in the competition, which would take another 14 goals.
Madrid may have lost its last two league games, but for Champions League group opponents Basel, Liverpool and Ludogorets, look out.
Fans of a certain age shook their heads nostalgically on Sunday when Daley Blind made his Manchester United debut. Many, this writer included, remember his father, Danny, in his pomp at Ajax, captaining the side to Champions League glory under none other than current United boss Louis van Gaal, in 1995.
Blind Jr. will not play in the competition this year, but there are plenty of other young talents whose fathers played in 1990s for us oldies to reminisce over. The biggest link is at Slovenian champion Maribor, whose sporting director Zlatko Zahovic played in the competition for Porto, Benfica and Olympiakos and reached the 2001 final with Valencia. His son Luka, 18, is now part of the Maribor squad.
Elsewhere, Gianluca Gaudino, 17 and son of Maurizio Gaudino, was a surprise debutant for Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga's opening match, while Jonas Thern's son, Simon, is a 21-year-old midfielder at Malmo.
If you're looking for children of former pros who could go the distance, look out for the Alcantara brothers: Rafinha is at Barcelona and Thiago is at Bayern Munich. Their dad, Mazinho, played for Fiorentina, Valencia and Brazil in the 1990s - but he never won the Champions League.