Big guns out to bounce back

Europe’s thoroughbreds have plenty to prove going into Matchday 2 of the UEFA Champions League's group stage, following a largely disappointing weekend on the domestic front. While only one of England’s quartet of representatives avoided defeat, Real Madrid drew a blank at Levante and reigning European champions Inter Milan suffered their first loss of the Serie A season. Last season’s runners-up Bayern Munich fared no better, going down 2-1 at home to surprise Bundesliga pacesetters Mainz, and Lyon dropped to 18th place in Ligue 1 after local rivals Saint-Etienne stunned them at the Stade Gerland.

One side to buck the trend were Barcelona, who have lost none of their cutting edge despite the injury-enforced absence of Lionel Messi. The Catalans have a revenge mission in Russia against Rubin Kazan, while Valencia, the only side still above them in La Liga, entertain misfiring Manchester United in the pick of the matches. looks ahead to those meetings and more in a vital two days of Champions League action.

Match of the day
Valencia-Manchester United, Group C, Estadio Mestalla, Valencia, 20.45

After losing their FIFA World Cup-winning trio of David Villa, David Silva and Carlos Marchena in the close season, the Spaniards could not have dreamed of making such an impressive start to the new campaign. Having recruited wisely with the proceeds of those sales, Unai Emery’s overachievers have dropped just two points in the league so far and began their Group C bid with a thumping 4-0 win at Bursaspor.

In contrast, Manchester United are still some way short of peak form, as they showed in a scratchy 2-2 draw at Bolton on Sunday. Held to a goalless stalemate by Rangers in their section opener, the faltering English giants will be hoping their talented individuals can summon up enough inspiration to compensate for their collective failings. If they are to end a sequence of three consecutive away draws however, they will have to do so without the injured duo of Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia.

The other matches
Although his side kick-started their season with an injury-time win at home to Inter on Saturday, Roma coach Claudio Ranieri will be taking nothing for granted when I Giallorossi entertain Cluj. The Romanians, who collected three points in their Group E opener against Basel, secured a shock victory on their last visit to the Stadio Olimpico two years ago, an upset Francesco Totti and Co will be out to atone for. In the other game in the section a Bayern Munich side shorn of Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Diego Contento travel to Basel hoping to put their poor domestic form behind them.

Perennial candidates Chelsea have never lost to French opposition in the competition, although the visit of Group F rivals Marseille could hardly have come at a worse time. Aside from suffering their first reverse of the season at Manchester City at the weekend, the Blues have Frank Lampard, Salomon Kalou and Yossi Benayoun out injured and Didier Drogba suspended. A draw at Stamford Bridge would no doubt suit Spartak Moscow, who are at home to Zilina and will fancy their chances after opening up with a 1-0 win at Marseille.

Real Madrid have lost four of their last five encounters against French sides and face another Gallic test when they travel to Auxerre in Group G, arguably the tightest pool of the lot. Meanwhile, Ajax play host to AC Milan in a mouth-watering meeting in Amsterdam that marks the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to one of his old stamping grounds. With Massimo Ambrosini and Alexandre Pato both injured, the Italians will be looking to the in-form Swede for inspiration.

Their momentum checked by a 3-2 home loss to West Bromwich Albion, Arsenal have their sights set on qualifying from Group H as quickly as possible. The Gunners opened up with a six-goal salvo against Braga but can expect a stiffer test at Partizan Belgrade, who are unbeaten at home in European competitions since November 2009. After their baptism of fire at the Emirates, the Portuguese entertain Shakhtar Donetsk in a match they cannot afford to lose.

The four contenders in Group A are tied on a point apiece, which means Tottenham and Inter have little room for error at home to Twente and Werder Bremen respectively. The Dutch side tuned up for their trip to White Hart Lane with a 2-2 draw with Ajax, while Werder edged out Hamburg in a five-goal thriller.

One place off the bottom in the Bundesliga and beaten at Lyon on matchday one, Schalke 04 will be anxious to make amends when they receive a visit from Benfica in Group B. Currently occupying the relegation zone in Ligue 1, the Frenchmen will go in search of a confidence-boosting three points when they visit Hapoel Tel Aviv.

While Valencia and Manchester United lock horns at the Mestalla, Group C opponents Rangers will hope to make hay at home to Turkish new boys Bursaspor. Finally, in Group D Barcelona make the long journey to Rubin Kazan with the objective of avenging a wholly unexpected home defeat to the Russians in last season’s competition. The Catalans, still without Lionel Messi, kicked off with a 5-1 defeat of Panathinaikos, who have an opportunity to get some points on the board at home to Copenhagen.

Player to watch
Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo has not been hitting the back of the net with his usual frequency so far this season, having scored just once from 41 goal attempts. His team-mates have not been faring much better: Los Blancos have converted only six of the 105 efforts they have had on goal.

The stat
130 -
The number of Champions League matches Arsene Wenger will have taken charge of when Arsenal face off against Belgrade, a tally second only to Sir Alex Ferguson, who has 164 CL games to his name. Though he has yet to win it, the Frenchman has a fine record in the competition, presiding over 58 wins, 35 draws and 36 defeats so far.

What they said
“We are very tentative going forward and we’re not getting into the opposition penalty box very much at all. I feel a bit sorry for Raul,” Schalke 04 coach Felix Magath on his side’s inability to supply their Spanish star.

Have your say
Can unfancied Auxerre spring a surprise against Real Madrid, who have won more matches in the competition than any other team?