The most talented collection of players and coaches ever assembled begin their battle for continental pre-eminence tonight and tomorrow in the greatest club show on earth.
In the first instalment of this season's UEFA Champions League the old foxes looking to outsmart one another include such luminaries as Arsène Wenger, Héctor Cúper, Guy Roux, Guus Hiddink, Fabio Capello, Vicente del Bosque, Gérard Houllier. Tomorrow add to that Marcello Lippi, Sir Bobby Robson, Sir Alex Ferguson, Ottmar Hitzfeld and Louis van Gaal. Between them more titles than amazon.com.
The talented players who will take the field over the next two days are too many to list. Suffice to say, few, if any, of the world's top players are missing. This season’s Champions League should offer true fantasy football along the road to Manchester and the final at Old Trafford on 28 May next year. uefa.com will bring you the action from all 17 matchdays starting at 20.45CET tonight.
In Group A, Roux's young and talented AJ Auxerre side host Hiddink's PSV Eindhoven, while at Highbury, Wenger's Arsenal FC welcome Matthias Sammer and BV Borussia Dortmund. And Wenger for his part is not ready to concede the title to Europe's high rollers like Manchester United FC, Real Madrid CF, FC Bayern München and Internazionale FC.
Wenger said: "A team is not only about buying players. It is about growing together, building slowly the confidence and the connections in the team."
Group B challengers Valencia, who face Houllier's expensively assembled Liverpool FC side tonight, can concur. Valencia, who have reached the Champions League final on the only two occasions they have been involved in the competition in 2000 and 2001, are the reigning champions of Spain, and all that in the face of the lavish spending of Madrid and FC Barcelona. Competition debutants FC Basel meet up with seasoned campaigners FC Spartak Moskva in the group's other contest.
Champions of Europe three times in the last five years and the most successful club side of all time, Madrid travel to the Roman fortress of former coach Capello for their opening Group C encounter. Del Bosque, who will be without recent acquisition Ronaldo, can still call on an all-star lineup including the likes of Roberto Carlos, Raúl González, Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo.
'Intensity, anger and will'
Capello, without Francesco Totti and Gabriel Batistuta, has his own view on how to beat his former employers. He said: "I will be looking for more intensity, grit and determination from the players, something which should allow us to give a performance of the highest level against Madrid." Belgian champions KRC Genk host AEK Athens in Group C’s other opener.
In Group D, Inter start their adventure tonight with an away tie against Norway's Rosenborg BK. Cúper may have lost Ronaldo but he can still call on Christian Vieiri and Alvaro Recoba, as well as new signings of the calibre of Hernán Crespo and Fabio Cannavaro. Also in the group, four-times winners AFC Ajax open at home to an Olympique Lyonnais side under new management with Paul Le Guen having taken over from new France coach Jacques Santini in the summer.
Tomorrow’s openers are no less intriguing, with Juventus FC travelling to Feyenoord and FC Dynamo Kyiv hosting Newcastle United FC in Group E. Manchester United welcome Maccabi Haifa to Old Trafford and last year's runners-up, Bayer 04 Leverkusen, go to Olympiakos Piraeus FC in Group F. In Group G, Bayern take on RC Deportivo La Coruña while Milan AC host RC Lens. And finally, in Group H, FC Lokomotiv Moskva meet Galatasaray SK and Barcelona take on Club Brugge KV. It does not get any bigger.
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