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Barcelona-Milan tops bill in opening week

The UEFA Champions League group stage begins with FC Barcelona hosting AC Milan in a classic tie while Manchester City FC v SSC Napoli represents the hopes of the new guard.

Milan's Marcel Desailly takes on Barcelona's Romário in the 1994 UEFA Champions League final
Milan's Marcel Desailly takes on Barcelona's Romário in the 1994 UEFA Champions League final ©Getty Images

Exactly 110 days since the UEFA Champions League trophy left Wembley festooned in blue and red ribbons, a new campaign kicks off on 13/14 September with the first round of group stage games – and holders FC Barcelona taking top billing with their home showdown against AC Milan.

Among Tuesday's other standout fixtures, Vítor Pereira's UEFA Europa League winners FC Porto host last term's quarter-finalists FC Shakhtar Donetsk, while 24 hours later an intriguing-looking Group A gets under way with big-spending Manchester City FC making their UEFA Champions League bow against SSC Napoli and Villarreal CF welcoming FC Bayern München. It is in Munich that the road to the final ends on 19 May 2012 but first things first: matchday one.

Heavyweight clash
Milan left an indelible mark on the UEFA Champions League with their 4-0 final crushing of Barcelona in 1994 yet, almost two decades on, the Catalans set the benchmark. Josep Guardiola's holders launch their trophy defence at home to Massimiliano Allegri's team, aiming for a tenth victory in 11 home games in the competition. It is a fixture which may serve as a barometer for the prospects of the Rossoneri, who have not been beyond the last 16 since landing their seventh European crown in 2007.

Back in the spotlight
Both wear sky blue shirts and both have known falls from grace in recent times with spells in their domestic third divisions. Those dark days will be forgotten when Manchester City and Napoli meet in Group A in what signals the Italian side's return to Europe's elite after 21 years and ends an even longer exile for City, absent from the European Cup since 1968. Who will Diego Maradona be supporting? The Napoli outfit he led into the European Cup or son-in-law Sergio Agüero's City?

Steeled for action
Oţelul is the Romanian word for 'steel' and Oţelul Galaţi FC will need it in their debut campaign among the continent's finest. No Romanian club have recorded a top-two finish in a UEFA Champions League group and it would send a seismic shock around Europe if Dorinel Munteanu's squad – featuring one player with experience of the competition – were to survive a section including Manchester United FC, SL Benfica and their first opponents FC Basel 1893.

One to watch
There are several reunions taking place on matchday one: Tomáš Rosický goes back to Borussia Dortmund with Arsenal FC; Milan's Gianluca Zambrotta, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Mark van Bommel face their old club Barcelona; Michael Ballack returns to Chelsea FC with Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Arguably the spotlight will shine most intensely on André Villas-Boas who becomes the seventh Chelsea manager to set out on the annual quest for owner Roman Abramovich's holy grail: a UEFA Champions League trophy. The Portuguese claimed the UEFA Europa League last term with Porto but now bids to succeed where six predecessors – Claudio Ranieri, José Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti – failed in what is Chelsea's tenth tilt at the title.

Perfect ten?
The limelight is never far away from Mourinho and he begins his own quest to deliver Real Madrid CF's tenth European Cup a decade after they last won it. A semi-finalist in his first season with the Merengues, he knows too that a Madrid triumph would set him apart in the history books as the only man to have led three different clubs to the trophy, following his successes with Porto and FC Internazionale Milano.

The stat
Manchester United have not conceded an away goal in the UEFA Champions League for 540 minutes. Indeed, 541 if you count the final minute of added time in their 2-1 loss to Bayern in the April 2010 quarter-final in Bavaria.

Did you know?
Czech newcomers FC Viktoria Plzeň hail from the home of Pilsner beer and have also helped produce a pair of fine footballers in their time, as the club where Pavel Nedvěd and Petr Čech started out as boys.

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