Rafa Benitez and Newcastle hope to emerge from Championship chaos
This time last year, Rafael Benitez was preparing his Real Madrid side, featuring Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, for a season of challenging for the Champions League and La Liga.
Just 12 months on and trips to Burton and Rotherham that consume Benitez's thoughts, as he readies Newcastle for the hard, relentless slog that is the Championship.
It's not just the presence of Benitez that has made Newcastle the clearest favourites for promotion in years, but more the way the club has gone about its business over the summer. Benitez has been given more control than most previous managers at St James' Park and has used that control to recruit players with Premier League quality and also experience of the second tier. In have come the likes of Matt Ritchie, Dwight Gayle, Grant Hanley and Mo Diame -- moves funded by the sales of Andros Townsend, Georginio Wijnaldum and Papiss Cisse.
Perhaps more important than merely tangible, on-pitch preparations, is the sense of enthusiasm that Benitez has brought back to Newcastle. This was a club that had been drifting for some time with a profoundly unpopular owner who employed a series of managers who were largely either sub-standard or cyphers for Mike Ashley, and apathy was in the bones of the place.
After Benitez agreed to stay, suddenly people are excited about football in Newcastle again, despite being in a lower division. This is a point emphasised by the number of season ticket sales this summer: a month after going on sale, 33,000 had been bought, enough to fill 18 of the 23 other grounds in the division, and indeed 10 in the Premier League.
While they are prohibitive favourites (they're 8/15 with most bookmakers to go up), the one concern with Benitez is that he has no experience in the Championship, a relentless division with its own unique challenges.
Dean Smith is perhaps the exact opposite of Benitez, having managed his whole career in the Football League, firstly with Walsall and now at Brentford.
"Newcastle have been in the division before, but the manager hasn't," Smith told ESPN FC. "He could be surprised -- we have lots of games in a short space of time and you have to be prepared for them. But it's not too much of a concern because he's an excellent coach and he's proven that. He'll have them right, that's for sure."
Roberto Di Matteo is another big name in the second tier this season. Aston Villa were even more of a mess than Newcastle last term, rock bottom of the table from November onwards and a complete joke of a team for most, if not all of the season.
They required even more of a rebuild, which is one of the reasons why this could be more of a season for consolidation than challenging Benitez and Newcastle for promotion.
"It was a house that needed to be knocked down and start afresh," Di Matteo said about his first impressions of the club.
The rebuilding work has continued with the signing of Italian keeper Pierluigi Gollini (who turned down a chance to be Gianluigi Buffon's backup at Juventus to join Villa), the signing of young midfielder Aaron Tshibola from Reading and a move for Fulham forward Ross McCormack, but it might be expecting too much to think they will be right up there straight away.
Indeed, of the clubs that came down from the Premier League last season, Norwich are probably in better shape than Villa. Assuming they keep hold of their better players like Timm Klose, Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady (so far only Nathan Redmond has departed, to Southampton), they already have a fine squad for this level and Alex Neil's side would be favourites for promotion in most other years. They have been rather circumspect in the transfer market so far, but former Liverpool youngster Sergio Canos and Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael McGovern have been shrewd additions, and if they sign a centre-forward of note then they could be Newcastle's biggest challengers.
Derby will also have ambitions to be around the top of the table. After spending north of £25m last summer, they have been quieter this year, but they have recruited a terrific management team, in Nigel Pearson and Chris Powell. Derby arguably had the best squad in the division last year, but under Paul Clement and then Darren Wassall they underachieved, drifting out of contention for automatic promotion and ultimately losing in the playoff semifinal. With a proven boss at the helm, they should perform better this term.
Beyond the favourites, the Championship should be its usual mixture of intrigue and chaos, with questions to be answered all over the place. Will Leeds coach Garry Monk be the first man in living memory to tame Massimo Cellino, who has gone through six managers in his three years at the club? What will come of Wolves' takeover, and the appointment of Walter Zenga as head coach?
Will Philippe Montanier, formerly of Real Sociedad and Rennes, be able to make sense of Nottingham Forest? Will Brighton and Sheffield Wednesday build on the surprise successes of last season, which saw them finish third and lose in the playoff final respectively? What will Jaap Stam achieve in his first season in management, at Reading? Can Birmingham keep hold of Gary Rowett if his burgeoning reputation as one of the best young managers in the country continues to grow?
This is a division in which little is predictable, and where anything can happen. Promotion might seem a mere formality for the biggest and the richest, but the Championship is a place that makes fools of people very easily.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.