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Pretenders with eyes on United's crown

The UEFA Champions League group stage kicks off tonight and tomorrow with 31 sides attempting to prevent Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United FC from a lifting a fourth European Champion Clubs' Cup.

José Mourinho guided Porto to success in 2004
José Mourinho guided Porto to success in 2004 ©Getty Images

The UEFA Champions League group stage kicks off on Tuesday and Wednesday with 31 sides aiming to prevent Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United FC from a lifting their fourth European Champion Clubs' Cup.

High ambitions
United were taken to the wire before winning a thrilling final against Chelsea FC on penalties last May, and having added Dimitar Berbatov to an already imposing armoury they again look the team to beat. Villarreal CF, Denmark's Aalborg BK and Celtic FC provide the initial opposition in Group E, and even in the absence of seven-time champions AC Milan – who failed to qualify – there will be no shortage of pretenders to their thrown. Since losing in Moscow, Chelsea have replaced Avram Grant with Luiz Felipe Scolari, and the former Portugal and Brazil coach has been charged with going one better than last term. Scolari's first taste of Europe's élite comes at home to FC Girondins de Bordeaux on Tuesday, with AS Roma, whose Stadio Olimpico hosts the final on 27 May, and CFR 1907 Cluj also meeting in Group A.

The Romanian champions are one of four competition debutants along with Anorthosis Famagusta FC, the first entrants from Cyprus, FC BATE Borisov – flying the flag for Belarus for the first time – and UEFA Cup holders FC Zenit St. Petersburg. Anorthosis's first challenge comes at Werder Bremen in Group B, a section also featuring FC Internazionale Milano and Panathinaikos FC, while BATE face a baptism of fire away to nine-time winners Real Madrid CF on Wednesday in Group H. BATE will also encounter Zenit and Juventus, the latter, like FC Bayern München, a former champion returning to the fray after a leave of absence.

Bayern back
The group-stage draw has not been kind to last season's UEFA Cup semi-finalists, Bayern, who start at FC Steaua Bucureşti on Wednesday before meeting Olympique Lyonnais and ACF Fiorentina in Group F. Club Atlético de Madrid are also back in the competition after an eleven-year exile and they launch their Group D challenge on Tuesday away to PSV Eindhoven, before tackling two more former winners, Olympique de Marseille and Liverpool FC.

Guardiola challenge
There are 17 nations represented, with England, Italy and Spain all providing four sides. Josep Guardiola lifted the European Champion Clubs' Cup as a player with FC Barcelona in 1992, and will attempt to emulate that feat as coach of the Catalan team who kick off against Sporting Clube de Portugal in Group C on Tuesday, when FC Shakhtar Donetsk face FC Basel 1893. Christian Gross marks ten years in charge of the Swiss champions by leading them back into the mix. In Group G on Wednesday, FC Dynamo Kyiv play Arsenal FC while FC Porto entertain Fenerbahçe SK.