European elite on the road to Wembley
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Tuesday heralds the start of the UEFA Champions League group stage and for 32 teams from 18 different countries that represents the next phase of a journey they hope will end on the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium on 28 May 2011. All will be vying to be crowned European champions in the 57th season of the continent’s most prestigious club competition, with a total of 77 clubs from 53 nations having already contested a qualifying process that kicked off on 29 June.

England is the only country to boast four representatives this time around, while Italy, Spain, Germany and France have three, the Netherlands, Portugal and Russia have two and there will be one apiece from Denmark, Scotland, Greece, Israel, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine. Only 12 of the clubs competing were involved at this stage last season, and another six are gearing up to make their Champions League debuts.

The favourites
Reigning champions Inter Milan lost coach Jose Mourinho to Real Madrid in the summer, while promising marksman Mario Balotelli signed for Manchester City, but in former Rafael Benitez they possess a man with one Champions League title already to his name. He and his charges will be determined to become the first team to successfully defend the European title since their city rivals in 1990.

Tired of trailing in the wake of their city neighbours in recent years, AC Milan caught the eye with their summer transfer dealings by bringing Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic back to Italy and adding Brazil's Robinho to an attacking department already featuring his compatriots Alexandre Pato and Ronaldinho. With Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings in midfield, they will be hopeful of clinching an eighth European crown.

In England, the threat could come from the experience and mutual understanding in the Manchester United ranks, the youthful dynamism of Arsenal or the power of a Chelsea side fronted by Didier Drogba. All will be desperate to go far after last season’s semi-final line-up lacked a Premier League outfit for the first time since 2002/03.

Barcelona will again be a major handful thanks to the likes of Lionel Messi and their raft of FIFA World Cup™ champions, while Real Madrid will be hoping Mourinho can become the first coach to lift the trophy with three different clubs.

Finally, Bayern Munich have put the disappointment of losing the 2010 final behind them and will be bent on going one better this time around, with much expected from Thomas Muller after the young forward shone at South Africa 2010.

The outsiders
Hoping to make their mark along with those eight perennial powerhouses are Ajax, who will be looking to prolific Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez to renew their glory days. The side once graced by Johan Cruyff will nonetheless have to navigate their way through a testing Group G also featuring Real Madrid and AC Milan, with the three teams boasting 20 European Champion Clubs’ Cup titles between them.

Elsewhere, Roma and their iconic captain Francesco Totti have made conquering Europe their main objective this season, while French club Lyon hope to at least match their performance last term, when they reached the semi-finals.

The newcomers
Among the debutants, Portuguese outfit Braga are starting to build a fearsome reputation for themselves after toppling both Celtic and Sevilla in the qualifiers.

Tottenham Hotspur competed in the European Champion Clubs’ Cup back in 1961/62, but this will be the London side’s first taste of the Champions League. As for Twente, the Dutch champions had to wait 45 years to secure their first Eredivisie crown and gain entrance to the continent’s elite club competition.

Meanwhile, Slovakian champions Zilina look to be a team on the rise, Bursaspor hope to prove themselves on the European stage after pipping the traditional Istanbul giants to the Turkish title and Hapoel Tel-Aviv sealed an Israeli league and cup double last term.

Players to watch
While the likes of Messi, Drogba, Paul Scholes and Bastian Schweinsteiger will aim to maintain their already sparkling performance levels, there will be far more intrigue surrounding the displays of David Villa, now looking to find his feet in Barcelona’s forward line. In a similar vein, Argentina’s Angel di Maria and Germany’s Mesut Ozil have been snapped up by Real Madrid after impressing in South Africa, while Italian international defender Salvatore Bocchetti made the surprising switch to Rubin Kazan.

Elsewhere, Brazilian striker Adriano joined Roma and now hopes to prove he “is not finished”, much like Dutch playmaker Rafael van der Vaart, who swapped the Real Madrid bench for Tottenham, keen to show what he can do.

The draw placed Auxerre in a group full of big names and they will be looking to Polish forward Ireneusz Jelen to carry their hopes, while Moroccan predator Marouane Chamakh’s mission will be to build on last year’s showing with Bordeaux when he leads the line for Arsenal. Fresh from a high-profile FIFA World Cup, finally, Luis Suarez will be bent on topping the goalscoring charts for Ajax.

Five key matches
The stakes will naturally change as the competition progresses, but five matches already jump out from the fixture calendar:

- Matchday 1: Real Madrid-Ajax
The two teams share 13 titles between them at this level

- Matchday 2: Valencia-Manchester United
The two-time beaten finalists take on the three-time winners

- Matchday 4: AC Milan-Real Madrid
16 titles between them at this level, not to mention reams of history

- Matchday 5: Roma-Bayern Munich
A potentially decisive meeting between Claudio Ranieri’s gladiators and Louis van Gaal’s ambitious troops

- Matchday 6: Marseille-Chelsea
The first-ever Champions League winners against the side determined to secure their maiden crown, with Drogba set to return to his former home

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Will Inter be able to defend their title?