The race for a place in next May's UEFA Champions League final at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu begins on Tuesday evening, when the group phase gets under way. With the exception of Roma and Valencia, all the continent's major clubs are in contention for a title that was won in thrilling fashion by Barcelona last season.

Heading the field of 32, which includes eight sides making their debuts in the tournament, are powerful quartets from England, Spain and Italy. whets your appetite by previewing the eight sections and picking out the teams and players to watch.

Group A: Juve raring to go
Having put together a strong squad containing seven Italy internationals, Juventus have designs on glory this season. Bayern Munich are expected to occupy the other qualifying slot, despite their faltering start in the Bundesliga, while French champions Bordeaux will be hoping to pounce should either of the big two slip up. For new boys Maccabi Haifa it should be a steep learning curve.

Group B: Easy for United?
Winners in 2008 and runners-up in 2009, Manchester United should have little difficulty in topping a group in which CSKA Moscow, Besiktas and German champions Wolfsburg, the strongest of the debutants, are all entertaining reasonable hopes of finishing second.

Group C: Champions aplenty
FC Zurich face a thankless task as they take on three former winners of the competition. Real Madrid have nine continental crowns to their name, AC Milan seven and Marseille one. Kaka's two reunions with his old team-mates should provide the high points of the pool, while the French giants have the incentive of repeating their 1993 final defeat of I Rossoneri.

Group D: Two places, three contenders
Chelsea embark on yet another bid to win a competition that has so far eluded them with a somewhat depleted Porto and an ambitious Atletico Madrid posing the biggest threat to their qualification hopes. Cypriot aspirants Apoel Nicosia will be out to follow in the footsteps of compatriots Anorthosis Famagusta, who impressed last season.

Group E: Liverpool the team to beat
Slow starters in the Premier League this season, Liverpool can expect an easier ride in this section. Group-phase regulars Lyon and Italy's Fiorentina are expected to contest second place, while Debrecen will be carrying the flag for Hungarian football for the first time since Ferencvaros's appearance 14 years ago.

Group F: Friends reunited
Taking top billing in this section are the two meetings between Spanish and European champions Barcelona and their Italian counterparts Inter Milan, who are making the competition their priority this season. Adding some extra spice will be the returns of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto'o to their former stamping grounds. Andriy Shevchenko has plenty to prove on his return to Dinamo Kiev, while Russian champions Rubin Kazan could also have a say in who tops the group.

Group G: All to play for
There is not much to choose between Sevilla, Rangers and Stuttgart, all of whom can be expected to push hard for the top two places. Romania's Unirea Urziceni will hope to collect a few points on their first appearance at this stage.

Group H: Gunners have the firepower
Arsenal had the good fortune to be pooled with first-timers AZ of the Netherlands and Belgium's Standard Liege, while perennial Greek representatives Olympiacos should press hard for a place in the last 16.

The favourites
Holders Barcelona have held on to the majority of their star players and are widely tipped to mount another strong challenge, as are Manchester United, despite the departures of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo. Real Madrid should be in the mix as well, as long as Manuel Pellegrini can get all their star acts working in harmony, and Jose Mourinho's lnter Milan have made no secret of their desire to end the season as Europe's top dogs.

Also in the running
Much like Fabio Capello with England, Carlo Ancelotti is in the process of giving Chelsea the steel and confidence they need to land a trophy that has just evaded their grasp in recent seasons. With a minimum of fuss, Juventus have put together one of the most impressive and balanced squads in Europe, and though coach Ciro Ferrara perhaps lacks experience, there is nothing to say he cannot do what the similarly untested Pep Guardiola did last season. Another side to watch out for are Liverpool, who always seem to rise to the occasion in Europe.

Dark horses
AC Milan are banking on Pato to come of age and Ronaldinho to rediscover his best form as they bid to bring back the glory days. And as coach Leonardo has been reminding everyone, they were also written off in 2007, the year they collected the trophy for the seventh time. Arsenal's talented youngsters will surely get their reward one day, while Bayern Munich have the ability to shake off their rusty league form and mount a compelling challenge in a competition they once excelled in.

The stars
Expect the continent's major talents to shine brightly once more: Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Barcelona, Wayne Rooney at Manchester United, new Real Madrid signings Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho at Milan, Didier Drogba at Chelsea, Liverpool's Steven Gerrard and Samuel Eto'o at Inter Milan.

Players to watch
Much is expected of Barcelona's Andres Iniesta, and Diego has the chance to rekindle memories of Michel Platini at Juventus. Michael Owen can make a splash on his return to the big time under Sir Alex Ferguson, while Argentinian striker Diego Milito has the resources to fill the gap left by Ibrahimovic at Inter.

The stats
This year's group-phase line-up comprises ten former continental champions, three of them in Group C.

Two of those sides, Real Madrid and AC Milan, have 16 wins between them and face off at the Santiago Bernabeu on 21 October.

Manchester United and Porto are both making their 15th appearance in the group phase.

Arsenal have qualified for this stage of the competition 12 times in a row, the last four of them via the third qualifying round.

Have your say
Which big guns will fail to reach the last 16? Which players will illuminate the group stage? Click on 'Add your comment' to share your views with fans across the world.