Champions League has plenty to offer beyond the big names
The perpetual hard hitters of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Chelsea might all be present and accounted for in this season's Champions League, but with UEFA president Michel Platini's aim to extend a chance to a wider range of countries to participate, there are a few other names to consider. If your team hasn't made the competition this time, one of these five sides might be worthy of a follow.
Ludogorets are already in plenty of neutrals' hearts after their extraordinary playoff penalty-shootout win over Steaua Bucharest. Cosmin Moti, a former Dinamo Bucharest defender standing in for red-carded goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov, saved two Steaua kicks and scored one himself.
There's more than romance to their rise, however. Founded only in 2001, the Razgrad, Bulgaria-based club have been propelled to the domestic title and into the Champions League on the back of support from multimillionaire owner Kiril Domuschiev, who purchased the club four years ago.
The modesty of their 8,000-capacity Ludogorets Arena (which would have been reduced to 6,000 if fully seated) means that Basel, Real Madrid and Liverpool will instead visit the Nacionalen Stadion in Sofia, a five-hour drive to the southwest of their home. It could be a dry run for the future, with Domuschiev reportedly in talks with Slavia Sofia owner Ventsislav Stefanov to build a new, joint 40,000-seat arena in the Bulgarian capital.
The leading lights from Cyprus (having won 23 domestic championships) are no strangers to the Champions League. They are embarking on their third group-stage campaign, having made Cypriot football history in 2011-12, when they emerged from a tough-looking group containing Porto, Atletico Madrid and Zenit St Petersburg and beating 2010 semifinalists Lyon on penalties in the knockout stages. They eventually exited after a quarterfinal against Real Madrid.
After Ivan Jovanovic led them in that glorious season, his departure saw a loss of stability, with former Hearts coach Paulo Sergio having a brief spell in charge. They are now coached by former Blackburn, Sheffield United and Huddersfield midfielder Giorgos Donis. A good, diverse squad now has even more Champions League experience with the arrival of John Arne Riise from Fulham and former Olympiakos striker Rafik Djebbour, who was at Nottingham Forest last season.
Slovenian champions for the past four seasons in a row, Maribor now have the chance to spread their wings after reaching the Champions League group stage for the first time in 15 years. They are clear underdogs in a group containing Chelsea, Sporting Lisbon and Schalke despite their playoff win over Celtic.
They do, however, have a trusted goal-getter in the shape of their long-serving captain, Brazilian forward Marcos Tavares. Now in his eighth season at the club, he can count 18 goals in European competition among the 121 he has rattled in since arriving. It was he, inevitably, who struck the second-leg winner in Glasgow.
OK, so Shakhtar aren't exactly unknown, having been a perennial in the competition for almost a decade and having won the 2009 UEFA Cup in between for good measure. Mircea Lucescu has presided over a period of domestic dominance and playing some dazzling football in Europe, leaning heavily on a big Brazilian contingent -- yesterday, including Fernandinho, and Willian and today Alex Teixeira and Douglas Costa.
They are, however, operating in unfavourable conditions, with the continuing conflict in Ukraine seeing them move all football operations out of Donetsk. They will play their Champions League home games in Lviv -- 750 miles west of home.
Since they began their exile, the Donbass Arena has suffered bomb damage, and the club's offices in Donetsk have been taken over by armed intruders. In context, retaining the Ukrainian Premier League and advancing from the Champions League group stage would represent perhaps the biggest achievement of Lucescu's illustrious career.
The name Malmo will always be associated with local boy Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Himmelsblatt (Sky Blues) fans have new reasons to be proud. It would be stretching the point to say that former West Bromwich Albion striker Markus Rosenberg, who scored twice in the second-leg win over Red Bull Salzburg, is now the city's favourite son, but this current Malmo team have every right to be considered heroes.
Make no mistake about it: Overturning the Austrian champions -- a club with an annual budget four times the size of theirs -- in the playoff round was a quite titanic achievement. Malmo are thus the first Swedish team to compete in the group stage for 14 years. They have history in the competition going way back, having lost in the final to Nottingham Forest in 1979 but haven't participated since 1990-91, when it was still a straight knockout. In a group with finalists Atletico Madrid, Juventus and Olympiakos, they will cherish every second now.
Andy Brassell is a freelance European football writer and broadcaster for the BBC, The Independent, ESPN, The Blizzard, Four Four Two, Talksport and others.