James Pickwick

The Champions League is back and promises to deliver another campaign full of thrills and spills. Inter will try to defend their title – without Jose Mourinho – while Barcelona look to cement their place as Europe’s finest team of this generation. Before the business end though, the group phase must be played out and there is sure to be a shock or two along the way. We’ve previewed all the teams involved. Here is the team-by-team guide for Groups A to D:

Group A


Just four months ago Inter ended 45 years of hurt in Europe’s top club competition on the Bernabeu pitch. Yet as players, officials and supporters celebrated, Jose Mourinho’s future cast a shadow over the floodlight covered pitch. The worst kept secret in football was speculated about, debated and the great man himself was questioned, on that famous night.

Since Mourinho left for Real Madrid it has been a case of change and continuity. Replacing Mourinho is former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, who has a surprisingly high stock in Italian football, despite never having managed in the country. The club’s playing staff has remained largely the same, boosted by managing to keep hold of Maicon, while Diego Milito has committed his future to Inter. The holders will be strong, but without Mourinho many believe they lack the magic spark to defend their title. In actual fact, Benitez is the best possible choice in a bid to retain their crown.

Werder Bremen

Werder Bremen gave notice as to their abilities by disposing of Sampdoria in the playoff round. The Bundesliga side faced a tricky task with the second leg in Genoa and at one point were heading out of the competition, but with the aid of a Claudio Pizzaro strike they rallied and booked their spot in the group stages.

This year’s Champions League marks a return to the competition for Werder, who had missed out on last season’s party. They have vast experience of Europe’s top tier tournament and before last season had taken part in every group phase since the 2004/05 season. Thomas Schaaf, Werder coach for 11 years, can call upon the talents of Pizzaro and Hugo Almeida up front, a lethal pair, while Torsten Frings, club captain is a driving force in midfield. Holding onto Per Mertesacker, Werder’s defensive rock, will also do Schaaf’s side much good. A dangerous and experience proposition for any side.

Tottenham Hotspur

A new face in this season’s Champions League, Tottenham Hotspur will have to adapt quickly to what looks a competitive group. Spurs negotiated an unexpectedly tough tie against Young Boys in the playoff round. While the Swiss were dismissed at White Hart Lane, a poor first half at the Wankdorf Stadium saw the English side 3-0 down before eventually climbing back to leave Switzerland with two priceless away goals.

For wily English manager Harry Redknapp, the Champions League is just reward for years of toil. Now, with a squad filled with riches at his disposal, Redknapp will fancy his chances of doing some damage. With the attacking talents of Aaron Lennon, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch to call upon, along with Croatian maestro Luka Modric, who was made for the European game, Spurs could put in a strong first season in the Champions League. However, as Young Boys showed, the defence may be their Achilles heel.

FC Twente

FC Twente have managed to do the impossible over the last few seasons, namely selling the club’s best players and seamlessly replacing them. Last season the Tukkers won the Eredivisie title, but soon lost coach Steve McClaren to Bundesliga side Wolfsburg. The new man in charge is highly rated Belgian Michel Preud’homme, who will be keen to make an impact.

The Dutch champions are sure to suffer while players brought to replace those departed this summer gel. However, a promising sign was victory in the Dutch Super Cup over Ajax. Twente will treat the Champions League as a pleasure, but the Eredivisie will remain their primary concern. A respectable performance can be expected though and more players will be in the shop window for a club that has to live with constant squad turnover.

Group B


Dethroned as Ligue 1 champions for two years running now, Lyon are still perhaps France’s strongest representative in the Champions League. Chiefly that is down to experience, but Jean-Michel Aulas authorised a bout of spending this summer which is sure to make Claude Puel’s side more competitive. The arrival of Jimmy Briand up front, Yoann Gourcuff in midfield and the man-mountain Pape Diakhate at the back, are impressive reinforcements for the spine of the side.

Last season Lyon recorded their best ever Champions League campaign, advancing to the semi-finals, where Bayern Munich eventually proved far too strong. A repeat of that looks unlikely this time around – Lyon’s more natural point of elimination is the Round of 16 or quarter-finals – but the French side should be able to dominate a group which sees them rightly considered the strongest member.


The Portuguese champions may have lost Angel di Maria to Real Madrid over the summer, but keeping hold of Brazilian centre back David Luiz and highly rated wingback Fabio Coentrao more than made up for it. Having missed out on the Champions League in the past few seasons, Benfica will be hoping they can take advantage of a group which appears, on paper, to offer a decent chance of progression.

Coach Jorge Jesus can be classed as something of a rising star, despite being 56 years old. Jesus has masterminded Benfica’s rise to the top of the pile in Portugal once again, after leaving Braga equipped perfectly to challenge the big three. Still packed with South Americans, there is a distinctly flair-filled feel to the side. With Oscar Cardozo and Javier Saviola up front, Benfica have the firepower to trouble any of their group opponents.


The best of the rest in the Bundesliga – behind Bayern Munich – appears to be Schalke’s lot at the moment, but some decent signings this summer might just change that. Indeed, both big-name arrivals Raul and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar would surely not have pitched up in Germany were it not for the attraction of Champions League football. Despite a bad Bundesliga start, Felix Magath should feel confident of plotting his way through the group and if Raul can repeat his Real Madrid displays then a table-topping finish is a possibility.

Schalke have strength in depth and should be able to balance an expected Bundesliga title charge with a solid Champions League campaign. Magath will target the meetings with Hapoel Tel Aviv to take maximum points and perhaps look to secure draws in both France and Portugal; after that home wins should do the trick. That’s the plan at least.

Hapoel Tel Aviv

There is little doubt that Hapoel Tel Aviv begin life in Group B as underdogs, but it would be foolish for any side to underestimate the Israelis. Last season Hapoel lost just one game in the Israeli league and won the title despite finishing second; they triumphed in the end of season playoffs. To reach the group stage Hapoel saw off Austrian side Salzburg in a nervy playoff round, and with Gil Vermouth in the ranks, a classy 25-year-old midfielder who has played in Belgium, will be confident of maintaining that high standard.

Israeli clubs do not suffer fools gladly and as such there is a high turnover of coaches; in those circumstances boss Eli Guttman has done well to last three years in charge. In truth, Guttman has made his own luck though: when the 52-year-old took the reigns Hapoel were mired in relegation trouble, Guttman steadied the ship and led them to a comfortable seventh place finish. Over the next two years the coach known as "the German" – for his knowledge of the language – has transformed Hapoel into title challengers. While Hapoel are clear outsiders here, they could have a shock or two up their sleeve.

Group C

Manchester United

Manchester United will rightly be considered favourites for Group C and the English club have vast Champions League experience. Champions as recently as 2008, Sir Alex Ferguson would no doubt like to add another European Cup to the two he already has, thereby equalling former Liverpool manager Bob Paisley who led the Reds to three European crowns. However, a significant difference between Ferguson’s 2008 vintage and this current crop is the lack of Cristiano Ronaldo, an absence which any side in the world would feel.

The English Premier League side should be able to make short work of any of their group opponents and Wayne Rooney can be expected to be lethal. Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov should also feel at home amongst the more technical Champions League, while Ferguson has a number of young guns in Javier Hernandez and Portuguese wild card Bebe who could make an impact. Overall the Red Devils should ease through to the knockout phase, it is there that defensive lapses late in games will need to be eradicated.


This season in many ways marks a new beginning in the Champions League for Valencia. No longer can Los Che rely on the brilliance of David Villa up front and David Silva on the flank. Without Villa and Silva, Valencia still have an expectation to be the best of the rest in La Liga, but may have to hold off a charge from Atletico Madrid for that honour.

The target for Unai Emery’s men in this group is clear: to finish second behind Manchester United. Despite having lost some big-name players, Valencia can still call upon huge quality in the shape of midfielders Pablo Hernandez and Ever Banega, winger Juan Mata, while Roberto Soldado, newly arrived from Getafe and Artiz Aduirz, also a recent signing from Mallorca, are well capable of breaching any of their group opponents defences. Valencia may need to bed in, but great talent remains within their ranks.


Scottish side Rangers come into the Champions League determined to make the very most out of their group stage appearance. Next time around Scotland’s league winners will have to negotiate the qualifiers to take their place amongst Europe’s elite; a tough task indeed considering their representatives’ recent performances. Rangers have experience of the Champions League and have added to their squad over the summer. Even so, qualifying from this group looks a tough task.

Rangers have suffered from financial problems over the past couple of seasons which has certainly resulted in a drop in both squad depth and squad quality. However, they have retained their place at the top of the Scottish game and were worthy league winners last year. Noises from the camp are bullish, with both manager and players alike believing that they genuinely can deliver a surprise or two. Unfortunately for them, Rangers begin the group as the underdogs.


Bursaspor ended the seemingly golden rule in Turkish football last season: The title cannot be won by anyone other than Besiktas, Galatasaray, Fenerbahce or Trabzonspor. Bursaspor’s victory gave new hope to many of the so called smaller teams in the Turkish game and their first Champions League appearance will be closely watched. There is little reason to suppose that the Green Crocodiles won’t give a good account of themselves, especially at home, and Bursaspor have begun this season performing just as strongly as the last campaign, with four wins on the trot to start the Super Lig.

For coach Ertugrul Saglam the Champions League will not be a new experience though. Saglam took charge of Besiktas in 2007 and led the club to a humbling 8-0 defeat at the hands of Liverpool in November of the same year. The 40-year-old is still a rising star in the Turkish managerial world, and has firmly bounced back from a poor spell with the Black Eagles. Saglam will believe he can guide Bursaspor through the group and go some way to making up for the earlier hurt the Champions League has caused him.

Group D


Barcelona will begin the Champions League keen to win back their title, and few people would bet against them. Hard though it is to improve the Camp Nou gladiators, coach Josep Guardiola appears to have done just that. Shipping out Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who struggled to ever fit into the club’s style of play, Guardiola brought in the prolific David Villa from Valencia. It may though prove to be his signing of Javier Mascherano from Liverpool that is the most significant. The midfield enforcer can play far more than the player he replaces, Yaya Toure, and should improve an already formidable midfield.

As ever Barcelona’s biggest enemy will be themselves and complacency has cost them group stage goals on a regular basis. Trips to Russia and Greece are not easy matters either, though the 2009 champions have all the weapons to come through unscathed. Opponents may try to clone the approach employed by Jose Mourinho with Inter last year, to frustrate and ultimately beat Barcelona. It is unlikely they have the personnel to do so however.


The Athens side can now safely claim to be the best side in Greece, although how much of a compliment that is for a nation whose teams have often struggled in Europe remains to be seen. There is little doubt that Panathinaikos have added wisely this summer and a strong Champions League campaign could be rightly expected.

Panathinaikos will have a distinctly French flavour this season, having brought in Jean-Alain Boumsong to bolster the backline, rookie midfielder Damien Plessis from Liverpool to help the midfield, and Sidney Govou from Lyon to join attacking forces with Djibril Cisse. Govou especially could be an invaluable asset to the Greens, packed as he is with Champions League experience. Spanish magician Luis Garcia could also make an impact in games which look destined to end in a stalemate. All in all Panathinaikos may fancy their chances of progressing.

FC Copenhagen

FC Copenhagen will surely appreciate that they are up against it in this group, with a very slim chance of progressing. Giants at home in the impressive 38,000 capacity Parken stadium, the same cannot be said for the Champions League. Having come through a tough all Scandinavian battle against Rosenborg to earn their spot though, the Danes will be sure to enjoy the experience.

Realistically FC Copenhagen must take points from both Panathinaikos and Rubin Kazan if they are to have any hope of qualifying. Unbeaten in the Superligaen this season, Stale Solbakken’s men should enter the tournament with confidence. the 42-year-old has impressed in his time in charge at Parken and will be keen to make up for last year’s exit in the qualifiers to APOEL Nicosia with a strong performance this time. It is hard to see the Danes as more than group fodder though.

Rubin Kazan

The Russian champions look like they will be dethroned at home by a resurgent Zenit St. Petersburg, but this should not dent their European ambitions. Last season Rubin were also paired with Barcelona and caused the Catalans real embarrassment by winning at the Camp Nou. At home Gurban Berdiyew will be looking to improve on that campaign though, having drawn all three group games, a run which was a large reason for the club finishing three points behind Inter and missing out on the knockout phase.

Rubin have made several improvements from the 2009/10 campaign though and especially hope that Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins can fire the goals to take them through. The departures of forward Alexander Bukharov and experienced midfielder Sergei Semak to Zenit were big blows however, but Ecuadorian attacking midfielder Christian Noboa has stepped up all the more with some fine displays. If the Russians can make the most of their unwelcoming home and the long journey their opponents will have to make, then they have enough in their tank to qualify along with the Spaniards.