One crown, 32 contenders
© AFP

Seventeen nations are represented by the 32 clubs who will contest the group phase of this season’s UEFA Champions League, which begins on Tuesday and runs until 5 December.

England and Spain have the most representatives with four, followed by Germany, Portugal and France with three each. For the first time in 14 years Italy has only two sides in the competition, the same as Ukraine.

FIFA.com sets the scene for this week’s opening round of group games.

Match of the day
Chelsea - Juventus, Group E, Stamford Bridge, London
The first big game of the competition pits defending champions and Premier League leaders Chelsea against former winners and Serie A front-runners Juventus. The two clubs have met twice in the competition before, in 2008/09, when Chelsea recorded a win and a draw. Now without Didier Drogba, the Blues are banking on their talented Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard, while I Bianconeri have bid farewell to Alessandro Del Piero and are looking to front men Mirko Vucinic and Nicklas Bendtner to give them a cutting edge. Interestingly, Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo were team-mates when the former made his Italy debut in a 1-1 draw with Russia on 15 November 1997.

The other matches
Tuesday 18 September 2012
Group A
Dinamo Zagreb - FC Porto
Paris Saint-Germain - Dynamo Kyiv
Two-time European champions FC Porto are group favourites along with Paris Saint-Germain, who have spared no expense in their lavish rebuilding programme, bringing in the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the third-highest scorer in the history of the competition with 28 goals. The two sides were drawn together at this same stage in 2004/05, when PSG finished bottom in their last appearance in the tournament.

Group B
Montpellier - Arsenal
Olympiacos - Schalke
The tenth French club to qualify for the Champions League, Montpellier face a baptism of fire against Arsenal, the current employers of Olivier Giroud, the French club’s leading scorer last season with 25 goals. The Gunners, the only member of England’s so-called Big Four never to have won the tournament, are making their 15th consecutive Champions League appearance. Despite some notable departures, among them Robin van Persie, the Londoners seem to have rediscovered their killer touch, at least if Saturday’s 6-1 demolition of Southampton is anything to go by.

Group C
Malaga - Zenit St. Petersburg
AC Milan - Anderlecht
AC Milan have undergone a complete revamp, with a number of established names leaving for pastures new. The Italians, who will play their 150th match in the competition against Anderlecht, having won 69, drawn 44 and lost 36, have made a faltering start to the Serie A season, losing twice at home. That should give hope to the rest of their group rivals, especially an ambitious Zenit St. Petersburg, who have been bolstered by the arrivals of Hulk and Axel Witsel.

Group D
Borussia Dortmund - Ajax
Real Madrid - Manchester City
Undoubtedly the toughest section in the competition, featuring the reigning champions of four of the continent's top leagues. Eliminated at this stage last season, Borussia Dortmund will be aiming for an improvement, while Real Madrid are still in search of their tenth European Cup/Champions League triumph, a quest they will renew against a Manchester City side with big ideas. Ajax start out as underdogs, but can take heart from the fact coach Frank de Boer formed part of the Ajax side that beat Dortmund in the quarter-finals back in 1995/96.

Wednesday 19 September 2012
Group E
Shakhtar Donetsk - Nordsjaelland
Chelsea - Juventus
Though most eyes will be on Chelsea’s mouth-watering meeting with Juventus, the opening round of games in Group E is also notable for Danish side Nordsjaelland’s debut in the competition.

Group F
Lille - BATE Borisov
Bayern Munich - Valencia
Beaten on their home ground in last season’s final, the Bavarians are back for another tilt at the title. The Germans kick off against Valencia, the best side in La Liga after Real Madrid and Barcelona, having won two and drawn two of the four previous Champions League meetings between the sides.

Group G
Barcelona - Spartak Moscow
Celtic - Benfica
Russian clubs have traditionally made life difficult for Barça, who have won only five of their 12 meetings with the nation’s clubs, losing two of them and drawing the rest, while Lionel Messi has never scored against Russian opposition, a record he will hope to put straight on Tito Vilanova’s eagerly-awaited European debut against Spartak. In the other game in the section, old European foes Celtic and Benfica face off, having shared three wins apiece in their six previous clashes at the highest level.

Group H
Manchester United - Galatasaray
Braga - CFR Cluj
The Manchester giants have never lost to Galatasaray, while Braga and Cluj face each other for the very first time.

Player to watch
Galatasaray’s 27-year-old striker Burak Yilmaz has spent his entire career in Turkey. The scorer of 33 goals in 30 games for Trabzonspor last season, he has now been reunited with his favourite coach Fatih Terim and has designs on making a name for himself in Europe.

The stat
18 - The record number of appearances Manchester United have made in the competition, one more than Barcelona, Porto and Real Madrid. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men are also taking part in the competition for the 17th season in a row, another record.

What they said
“The time has come for us to look and tell ourselves that we can do more, that we want to do better and change our attitude,” Real Madrid centre-half Sergio Ramos

Have your say

Can Chelsea become the first club to retain the Champions League title?