A new Champions League season is underway, with the first group matches about to start, and the giants of European soccer are showered, shaved, and ready to embark on another tilt at the title. The tournament is the most prestigious in Europe, and this season the competition promises to be as exciting and dramatic as ever.

The reigning champions, Barcelona, won last year with some breath-taking football, and were deserved winners. In the Final, they played a strong Manchester United off the park, and could easily have won by more than the 2-0 score-line. With the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Thierry Henry knocking the goals in, they will be highly fancied to win again, especially with the brilliant Lionel Messi pulling the strings.

Europe’s big spenders of the summer, Real Madrid, will be looking to challenge Barca at home as well as in Europe. Having splashed out more than 250 million Euros in recent months, they’ll be looking for a season so successful that they’ll need to build an annex for the trophy cupboard. Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most expensive player, heads an impressive list of new arrivals that also includes Kaká, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso. Real have been disappointing in recent Champions League history; they’ll be looking to change that.

Bayern Munich have been getting stronger and stronger in recent years, and they look to be one of the favorites this time round. Managing to hang onto the mercurial Frenchman Franck Ribéry in the summer, despite some frenzied transfer speculation, is a good indicator of Bayern’s ambitions. The sharks, armed with cheque-books, circled in the water but went home hungry. The club is also home to the Dutch pairing of Arjen Robben and Mark van Bommel, as well as Italian goal machine Luca Toni.

Italian clubs have a great Champions League history, and this season there are four of them in the mix. Juventus, from Turin, will be looking once again to the experience of Alessandro del Piero and the goals of David Trezeguet. AC Milan will be hoping Brazil’s Alexandre Pato can continue his improvement, and that the club can get over the loss of playmaker Kaká.

Their neighbors, Italian champions Internazionale, are hoping summer signing Samuel Eto’o will find the net with his usual regularity and that defender and midfielder extraordinaire Javier Zanetti will have another great season. Fiorentina are the fourth Italian side in the competition, having finished fourth in last season’s Serie A.

In recent years, English clubs have been increasingly successful in Europe, and this year is likely to be no exception. Three of last season’s four semi-finalists were English. Manchester United made the final last year and won the whole shooting match the year before that. Despite losing Cristiano Ronaldo, they’ll be as strong as ever. Wayne Rooney has matured into one of the most fearsome strikers in the world in recent years, and hopes are high that his improvement will continue.

Chelsea have recently been banned from signing any new players, due to alleged misdemeanours in the transfer market, and this may prove a huge stumbling-block, especially if they suffer any serious injuries in the next few months. Their squad is still extremely strong, with stalwarts like John Terry, Flank Lampard and Didier Drogba as hungry as ever.

Liverpool won the Champions League Final in 2005 after a pulsating match against AC Milan. 3-0 down at half-time, they clawed their way back to 3-3 and won in a nerve-jangling penalty shoot-out. Under Rafa Benitez, they’ve been an accomplished performer on the European stage, and will fancy their chances of doing well again. Steven Gerrard is an inspiration to the side, and Fernando Torres is a world-class goal-getter.

Arsenal qualified by finishing fourth in the Premier League, but don’t let this fool you. They made the semis last year, and their style of football is often more effective in Europe than it is in their domestic league. Arsene Wenger is one of the world’s shrewdest coaches, and always relishes the chance to pit his wits against his rivals. The form and fitness of midfield maestro Cesc Fabregas will, however, need to be perfect if the London club are to succeed.

Elsewhere, Olympique Lyonnais have been strong in recent years, and Sevilla will be difficult opponents. Porto are an accomplished side, too. Other qualifiers come from Scotland, Turkey, Holland, Switzerland, Israel, Cyprus, Hungary, Russia, Romania, Greece and Belgium.

The Champions League, as always, is wide open this year, and there are a dozen or so teams who have very realistic hopes of winning it. It’s hard not to see past the usual suspects again, however. The bookmakers, who don’t often get it wrong, have Barcelona as favorites, and it would be a brave man who bets against them.


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