Over the next two days, five European clubs set off into uncharted footballing territory as debutants in the continent's elite club competition. These modern-day pioneers are Manchester City, Napoli, Otelul Galati, Trabzonspor and Viktoria Plzen. The quintet are newcomers to the group stage of the UEFA Champions League, and share a determination to make a good impression despite their novice status.
When newcomers are favourites
It is unusual for first-timers to be considered favourites to lift the trophy, but there can be no doubt that City rate as genuine contenders, at least on paper. Coach Roberto Mancini’s squad is laden with stars in every position, with the real jewels in the crown to be found in a formidable forward line, all but guaranteed to get among the goals in Group A.
Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli have the potential to stretch even the best defences in the Champions League to breaking point, especially as the service will be supplied by French schemer Samir Nasri, a close-season recruit from Arsenal.
"It is a fantastic part of Manchester City’s history to be here for the first time ever in the premier European competition," declared Football Administration Officer Brian Marwood, underlining the importance to the Citizens of appearing on the leading club stage.
The team from the north west, currently lying second in the Premier League, behind Manchester United on goal difference, are confident of a decent first campaign. Captain Vincent Kompany and his men are certainly determined to extend their run well beyond the group stage.
Marwood added: "We believe we can do really well in this competition with the squad we have. At this level you know you're up against some seriously good opposition, but that’s what it is all about for us, because we want to compete at that level." However, a baptism of fire awaits, as City have landed in a proverbial group of death along with German giants Bayern Munich, Spanish side Villarreal, and Wednesday evening’s visitors to Manchester, Napoli.
The southern Italians qualified directly for the group stage by finishing third in Serie A last season. “This is the toughest group of them all, but it's a very exciting one too," said Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri. "We're playing the best team in Germany and, in my opinion, the best team in England, and on top of that, one of the strongest teams in Spain. Our debut in this competition is a real challenge, but the experience is an opportunity for us to improve and grow."
There is no doubting the strength in depth in the Italians’ squad. A high-quality group is spearheaded by Uruguay hitman Edinson Cavani, scorer of 26 league goals last term and a fixture for what is currently South America's best national team, with the Uruguayans lying fifth on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Further attacking power is provided by Argentinian Ezequiel Lavezzi and Macedonian Goran Pandev, with inventive support from Slovakia playmaker Marek Hamsik. Captain Paolo Cannavaro, brother of former FIFA World Player of the Year Fabio, is a rock-solid defender and born leader of men.
Thrilling adventure for novice trio
Turkish representatives Trabzonspor are no doubt surprised but nevertheless delighted to be at the top table of European club football this season after stepping into the void left by the withdrawal of Fenerbahce. The club from the Black Sea coast will contest Group B against 2010 winners Inter Milan, French champions Lille and CSKA Moscow.
Trabzonspor president Sadri Sener insisted the quest for a place in the last 16 was by no means a futile exercise: “It's the best draw we could have had. We're just as good as the other teams in the group, and we want to represent Turkey as well as we can in the Champions League."
Czech newcomers Viktoria Plzen are on a high after marking their centenary season in spectacular style with a maiden domestic league title. The chance to mix it with the big boys is a real added bonus. Skipper Pavel Horvath, who will lead his men in a Group H also featuring BATE Borisov, said: “It's a fantastic draw. I played against Barcelona in my time with Sporting. Facing them and AC Milan in the Champions League will be one of the biggest adventures of our lives, regardless of what happens."
Of all the new faces, Otelul Galati will most likely have to go to the limit and beyond if they are to remain in Europe after Christmas. Named for the chief industry in the Romanian city, the Steelworkers face a monumental task in Group C against Manchester United, Benfica, and midweek opponents FC Basel.
Coach Dorinel Munteanu said: “We're obviously the underdogs in this group, but I'm confident we'll pick up a few points. Our goal is to qualify for the Europa League, and I'd guess we're in a fight with Basel for third place. It'll be extremely tough."