Inter begin mission to defend crown

Ahead of today's big 2010/11 UEFA Champions League kick-off, top clubs across Europe are primed for their annual quest to lift the continent’s most coveted trophy. With competition as high as ever, holders Inter Milan will need to be at their very best if they are to achieve their stated objective of becoming the first side to defend the title since 1990.

Thirty-two teams from 18 nations make up this year’s group stage, with six sides making their debut in the competition. England’s clubs, unable to overcome the quarter-final hurdle last time around, are back with a vengeance; with four participants, the Premier League is better represented than any other national championship.

The first round of fixtures should also see the tournament’s 5,000-goal barrier broken, with the current total sitting at 4,992.

The big game
Bayern Munich-Roma, Group E, Allianz Arena, Munich, 20.45 CET

Beaten in the final by Inter Milan last May, Bayern Munich have been handed another Italian opponent for their opening match of this year’s campaign. It was not a draw that would necessarily have pleased the statisticians among Bayern’s support, the Bavarian club having only got the better of Serie A representatives nine times in 29 previous European matches. Still to hit top gear in this early stage of the season, both sides find themselves in the bottom half of their respective league tables. Roma’s preparation has been far from ideal. The side from the capital went down 5-1 to Cagliari on Saturday, the first time they had conceded as many goals in a top-flight fixture for 64 years. In Munich, much is expected this year of Franck Ribery, who is looking to bounce back from his disappointing FIFA World Cup™, and of Thomas Muller, who flourished in South Africa, winning the Golden Boot and Best Young Player Award.

The other matches
Inter have seen both Jose Mourinho and Marco Balotelli move on over the summer, but will be keen to show that those left behind have more than enough experience to negotiate a manageable-looking Group A. Dutch champions Twente have no such know-how to fall back on, with just two players in their ranks able to boast any Champions League experience at all. They will, however, take heart from the fact that the only title-holder to have lost its first European match the following season was an Italian side, AC Milan, who were beaten by a Dutch side, Ajax, back in 1994. In the pool’s other match, Tottenham will travel to Bremen – solid-looking in their 0-0 draw away to Bayern at the weekend – minus Jermain Defoe, who is out for three months with an ankle injury.

Semi-finalists last season, Lyon would like nothing more than to repeat that feat, and will look to get their campaign off to a winning start in their Group B encounter with a Schalke 04 side languishing at the bottom of the Bundesliga, on no points from three matches. Hapoel Tel Aviv may be making their debut in the event, but they will fancy their chances in Lisbon versus Benfica, who have only garnered three points from the four games they have played so far in the Portuguese Liga.

For his 701st match in charge of Manchester United, Scotsman Alex Ferguson welcomes Rangers, the club he supported as a boy, to Old Trafford. The Group C match does not constitute the first time the two British heavyweights have locked horns at this level; the Red Devils triumphed home and away last time around. A glimmer of hope for the Glasgow side comes in the form of the Red Devils’ defence, which looked less than secure in allowing Everton to come back from two goals down in injury time to snatch a point on Saturday. Elsewhere in the group, two-time runners-up Valencia face a tough task against the high-flying Turks of Bursaspor, especially now that their FIFA World Cup-winning triumvirate of David Villa, David Silva and Carlos Marchena have moved on to pastures new.

Despite their shock 2-0 home defeat at the hands of Hercules Alicante last weekend, it would be an even bigger surprise if Barcelona failed to dominate Group D. The Catalans will be looking to get off to a flying start against Panathinaikos, while the winners of the Copenhagen-Rubin Kazan match will take an early lead in the probable race for second place.

In Group E, Bayern-Roma aside, Cluj and Basel meet in Romania aiming for a morale-boosting opening victory.

Group F kicks off with two encounters between east and west, with Marseille entertaining Spartak Moscow and Chelsea travelling to Slovakia to take on Zilina.

For his maiden European match at the Santiago Bernabeu, Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho knows that there is no margin for error against Ajax in Group G, even if he has not yet settled on an ideal starting XI. In a match that evokes memories of the clubs’ meetings in 1967 – a tie in which a certain Johan Cruyff found the net – and 1973, Los Merengues will need to guard against the Dutch side’s dangerous front line. Auxerre, no strangers to European runs themselves, will have nothing to lose as they make the trip to face an AC Milan outfit under pressure after their weekend 2-0 defeat by newly-promoted Cesena.

Group H sees Arsenal play Braga, impressive conquerors of Celtic and Sevilla in the qualifying rounds. Ambitious as ever, the Gunners have made some astute signings and figure among the favourites to win the tournament yet again. The same cannot be said of Shakhtar Donetsk or Partizan Belgrade, but with both looking to play the role of gatecrashers in the group, each will view three points as the desired outcome from their meeting in the Ukraine.

Player to watch
Transferred last season from Inter Milan to Barcelona in a record-breaking deal, Sweden international Zlatan Ibrahimovic has, after a relatively muted campaign in Catalonia, made a grand return to Lombardy, with AC Milan his new destination. With Ibrahimovic set to form a fearsome front line alongside Brazilian trio Alexandre Pato, Ronaldinho and Robinho, fans’ expectations are high.

The stat
20 -
The total number of times that three of the clubs placed in Group G – Real Madrid, AC Milan and Ajax – have been crowned European champions, boasting nine, seven and four victories respectively. Auxerre, the group’s fourth team, have their work cut out.

What they said
“It’s not important how you start the season; it’s how you finish that counts,” Barcelona defender Dani Alves, following his club’s surprise home defeat by Hercules Alicante.

Have your say
Which UEFA Champions League group strikes you as the most difficult this year?