As the major continental leagues resume following the winter break - Serie A and La Liga returned to action over the weekend, with Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga set to follow suit in the next fortnight - Pitchside Europe looks at ten issues that will help determine the balance of power across Europe in the 12 months ahead.
1. Can Borussia Dortmund hold it together?
As Pitchside Europe observed last May, the average length of time that has elapsed between Borussia Dortmund's seven league title successes is nine years. The summer sale of key midfielder Nuri Şahin to Real Madrid weakened the champions and they were left in the Bundesliga starting blocks by Bayern Munich, but an 11-game unbeaten run - including a fine 1-0 win at Bayern's Allianz Arena in November - re-ignited their title defence. With Borussia Mönchengladbach's highly rated attacking midfielder Marco Reus having ignored Bayern's overtures and elected to continue his career at Dortmund, 2012 could see Jürgen Klopp's side emerge as genuine long-term rivals to the Bavarian heavyweights.
2. Will Carlo Ancelotti succeed in re-branding Paris Saint-Germain?
With UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules set to bite in the coming years, Paris Saint-Germain are having to spend the wealth of owners Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) at an unprecedented rate. The sacking of Antoine Kombouaré last month was as cruel as it was inevitable, but in Carlo Ancelotti they now have a coach capable of attracting genuine world-class performers to Parc des Princes.
3. Can Real Madrid maintain their momentum?
José Mourinho has always asked to be judged on the second year of his tenure at the clubs he has coached, and 2012 will reveal whether his free-scoring Real Madrid are ready to wrest power from Pep Guardiola's all-conquering Barcelona after four years in their rivals' shadow. Fail to prise at least one of the La Liga and Champions League crowns from Barça's grasp, and Mourinho may wonder if he will ever get the better of them again.
4. Has Barcelona's air of invincibility disappeared?
Barça's classy 3-1 win at the Bernabéu last month — followed by the 4-0 demolition of Santos in the Club World Cup — proved that they remain the world's finest club side, but their inability to dispatch La Liga's lesser lights has enabled Madrid to establish a five-point lead in the Spanish championship. Nine points have been lost to Real Sociedad, Sevilla, Getafe and Espanyol, and Guardiola's side can ill-afford further unscheduled slip-ups if they are to remain in title contention.
5. Can Ajax get their house in order?
After a mid-autumn sticky patch in which they registered just one win in eight games, Ajax got their Eredivisie title defence back in gear with a run of four straight victories that enabled them to close to within five points of leaders AZ. Things may have improved on the pitch - where Christian Eriksen continues to blossom into one of Europe's finest playmakers - but boardroom wrangling (culminating in Johan Cruyff going to court to block the appointment of Louis van Gaal as the club's director) threatens to drag Ajax's name into the gutter.
6. What impact will the Financial Fair Play rules have?
The 2011-12 accounting period will be the first one taken into consideration by UEFA's Club Financial Control Panel, which means that for clubs not bankrolled by wealthy benefactors, transfer window thriftiness is likely to become more conspicuous this year.
7. Will Juventus' resurgence endure?
The only unbeaten side in Europe's major leagues, Juventus begin 2012 in a three-way battle for the Serie A summit with Udinese and defending champions Milan. They are a leaner, meaner team under Antonio Conté, but their Scudetto aspirations will be sternly tested by a second half to the campaign that features a potentially season-defining game with Milan at San Siro on the last weekend in February. The club's fans will not need reminding that post-Christmas collapses have curtailed their domestic ambitions in both of the last two seasons.
8. How high can Internazionale aim?
Internazionale were third from bottom and without a win in three matches when Claudio Ranieri arrived to replace Gian Piero Gasperini in September, but a steady recovery culminating in a run of seven wins in eight games has hoisted them up to fifth place. A title challenge seems improbable, but Champions League qualification would represent a remarkable achievement for an experienced coach whose lack of silverware continues to be held against him.
9. Has Vitor Pereira got what it takes to prolong Porto's extraordinary run?
Porto did not lose a single league game in 2011 but at the halfway point of the 2011-12 campaign, they find themselves facing a renewed challenge from Benfica. Having lost talismanic striker Falcao and inspirational coach André Villas-Boas, Porto spent over €40 million on new recruits last summer, but doubts persist over coach Vitor Pereira's ability to get the best out of his side.
10. Can Rangers find a second wind?
Having opened up a 15-point lead in early November, Rangers could have been forgiven for thinking their Scottish Premier League title defence was going to be a cake-walk, but three defeats in the space of a month enabled Celtic to roar past them on the back of a sensational 10-game winning streak. The Gers' dreams of a fourth consecutive SPL crown may depend on whether Ally McCoist is able to rally his battle-scarred troops for another title push.