AC absent as big guns line up

Despite their seven treks to the summit of European football, AC Milan will not be mixing it with the big boys this season. The UEFA Champions League kicks off again this Tuesday, with 31 clubs from 17 countries aiming to unseat current holders Manchester United, who will lead an English challenge that once again promises to be considerable.

The Premier League boasts four teams in the group stage and none of them need any introduction. United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal form a familiar quartet, whereas Villarreal and Atletico Madrid in Spain, along with Serie A side Fiorentina, have managed to break strangleholds in their respective countries. Those three leagues are alone in sending four ambassadors.

Elsewhere, four newcomers will be getting their first taste of life at Europe's top table: namely Romanian champions CFR Cluj and UEFA Cup holders Zenit St. Petersburg, plus the first ever representatives from Cyprus and Belarus, Anorthosis Famagusta and BATE Borisov.

The final will be held in Rome on 27 May 2009.

Pick of the day
Manchester United-Villarreal, Wednesday, 20.45 at Old Trafford

This is proving to be a kaleidoscopic week for United, with their first Champions League outing falling in between two domestic games high on colour and intensity. Following Saturday's 2-1 loss away against the Reds of Liverpool, Sir Alex Ferguson's men will be keen to return to winning ways against the Yellow Submarine on Wednesday night, before they travel to Chelsea to face the Blues on Sunday. The fixture calendar has certainly not been kind to United, and their Spanish visitors will attempt to make the most in midweek.

The other games
In Group A, favourites Chelsea and Roma have been given fairly comfortable starts at home to Bordeaux and Cluj respectively.

Inter Milan recruited Jose Mourinho with Champions League glory in mind and they will get an early sense of how their European bid is shaping up away against Panathinaikos in Greece. Group B rivals Werder Bremen entertain Anorthosis, meanwhile, hoping not to join the list of victims the Cypriot side racked up in qualifying.

Summer appointment Josep Guardiola is already beginning to feel the pressure at Barcelona and he will have to make do without a number of key forward-thinking players when his side kick off their Group C campaign at home to Sporting Lisbon. In the same section, FC Basel will get to grips with Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar Donetsk.

On paper, Group D is the tightest of all as it contains three previous winners and a strong Atletico Madrid team. Back among the elite following an 11-year absence, Atletico can expect a stern test at PSV Eindhoven, while Marseille will be anxious to erase memories of their 4-0 defeat by Liverpool last December when they renew acquaintances with the side they also beat 1-0 at Anfield in the same campaign.

Points lost at home are likely to prove decisive in Group E, where Manchester United are heavy favourites to finish in first place. Hosting Danish side Aalborg on Wednesday, Celtic will make a concerted effort to secure the maximum haul.

In Group F, meanwhile, Steaua Bucharest will be aiming to shake off their tag as the weakest link in the pool when they entertain a Bayern Munich team hungry for European recognition after being restricted to the UEFA Cup last season. At the same time, perennial French champions Lyon will need to be wary of Alberto Gilardino and Fiorentina as the Italian club returns to the Champions League after nine years away.

Arsenal are expected to dominate Group G and will look to Emmanuel Adebayor to continue where he left off at the weekend when they make the long trip to face Dinamo Kiev. The Togolese striker fired a hat trick at Blackburn and will also relish being unleashed against Porto and Fenerbahce, who lock horns in Portugal.

Lastly, in Group H, Juventus celebrate their return to this level after two years in the wilderness by hosting dangerous Russian outfit Zenit, who recently added the UEFA Super Cup to their UEFA Cup trophy from last season. For their part, record nine-time winners Real Madrid will surely make life difficult for debutants BATE Borisov at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Player to watch
Recruited for 37 million euros as the clock ticked down on the summer transfer window, Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov is not intimidated by the competition for places at Old Trafford. Having struck 45 goals in 97 matches for Tottenham Hotspur and 43 in 65 for his national side, he intends to become a United regular despite the glaring talents of fellow match-winners Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez.

The stat
First-choice striker for Bayern Munich for the second consecutive season, Italy's Luca Toni will be making his Champions League debut this term. His record so far for the Bundesliga giants makes for impressive reading, with 42 goals having been registered in 50 matches. Of those, 27 have come in the German championship, five in the German Cup and ten in the UEFA Cup.

What they said
"The main objective is to reach the final because in a final there are two winners. I think the runners-up are also winners. That said, we hope to be able to win the next final and become champions." Chelsea coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, appointed after the Londoners finished runners-up last season

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