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Europe's finest set for vintage year

Three European giants will lock horns in Group G, but the tussle between AC Milan, Real Madrid CF and AFC Ajax is just one of many intriguing stories set to unravel over the coming months.

Europe's finest set for vintage year
Europe's finest set for vintage year ©UEFA.com

It may only have been maturing since the Monte Carlo draw on 26 August, but this season's UEFA Champions League already bears the aroma of a vintage year.

Uncork the eagerness of the former greats who now want to lift the trophy as coaches, savour the long finish from seasoned managerial winners and keep a connoisseur's eye on the supposed lesser lights ready to compete with football's longstanding stalwarts.

AFC Ajax are hardly newcomers as four-time winners, but their coach Martin Jol is a UEFA Champions League debutant. He nevertheless believes his side could shock Real Madrid CF, AC Milan and AJ Auxerre in Group G.

Yet the man in pole position is the Portuguese tactician who first claimed the trophy with FC Porto: José Mourinho. Already the defending champion after FC Internazionale Milano's exploits last season, the new Madrid coach is bent on leading the competition's most successful club to their tenth title.

"This is the competition of competitions," he told UEFA.com. "Not only the most important but the grandest competition in football. Only a few coaches have won it with two different clubs, so my great ambition is to become the first to do so with three different clubs."

Before triumphing at Wembley, of course, his side must emerge intact from Group G, where they first take on an Ajax side looking to recapture the glory days under Jol. "At Ajax, the first thing they do is invite you to the museum to see all of the cups; there aren't many clubs with more trophies," the Dutchman told UEFA.com.

"We won our last UEFA Champions League in 1995 and it's probably impossible to win it again. But because of our history, it's very important to us. The home games are already sold out, which shows what it means to our fans. Hopefully we can bring the old times back."

The immensity of Massimiliano Allegri's task at Milan might evoke sympathy for the 43-year-old UEFA Champions League debutant. He will be looking to integrate summer signings Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimović while ensuring the Rossoneri progress from a powerful section in which three of the four clubs boast 20 European Champion Clubs' Cups between them.

"These are fascinating matches," the former Cagliari Calcio coach told UEFA.com. "Such ties immediately give you the right focus for the UEFA Champions League. It's my third year in Serie A and to coach Milan in this prestigious competition is fantastic."

Plots and sub-plots riddle the groups as old friends, rivals and occasional managerial partners do battle. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson will be hoping to get one over his former assistant Walter Smith when Manchester United FC meet Rangers FC in Group C.

Group F also has a master and pupil theme, with Olympique de Marseille's Didier Deschamps facing his former Juventus boss Carlo Ancelotti, now in charge at Chelsea FC. Each won this trophy twice as a player – Deschamps captaining OM to the inaugural UEFA Champions League crown – but only Ancelotti has won it as coach so far.

The Frenchman told UEFA.com: "Without doubt or hesitation, this is the most beautiful of all competitions. I have played in it, coached in it, and there's an atmosphere, an environment and a media presence. You face the best players in the world. This is the highest level."

Ancelotti is of a similar view, particularly with the final to be played at Wembley. "For Chelsea, winning the UEFA Champions League is as important as winning the Premier League," he told UEFA.com. "Last season, we won domestically and it would be nice to be crowned European champions in London."

Despite having been narrowly upstaged by Inter last season, AS Roma's Claudio Ranieri values winning this competition above domestic dominance. "The desire of every Roman is to win the UEFA Champions League because they lost their only final on penalties against Liverpool many years ago."

His charges and their supporters must nonetheless remain wary of last year's beaten finalists, FC Bayern München, who will be taking no one lightly as they aim to go one better. "We need to address this group with plenty of concentration," said Bayern's Dutch mastermind Louis van Gaal of a section also featuring CFR 1907 Cluj and FC Basel 1893.

A daunting proposition for the latter two clubs, perhaps, but Basel coach Thorsten Fink is not intimidated. "We want to take advantage of being underdogs and achieve at least third place or even second spot," he declared, echoing thoughts no doubt shared by the six sides making their tournament debuts: Tottenham Hotspur FC, FC Twente, Bursaspor, Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC, SC Braga and MŠK Žilina.

The thrill of this competition is that everyone's dreams stand equal at the start, yet some will begin to soar and others fade as soon as the action commences. So uncork the competition, and let the good times flow.

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