Magnificent seven begin slow march to Bernabeu

Manchester United are among the European giants taking their first major step towards the chance of Champions League glory at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in 2010 when the much-awaited group stages kick-off this week.

With no less than seven former winners in action on Tuesday’s mouthwatering eight-match menu, the English champions, who were outclassed 2-0 by Barcelona in the 2009 final, are odds-on to register their first win in Group B against Besiktas in Istanbul.

Premier League rivals Chelsea are on superb domestic form but despite home advantage will be wary of 2004 champions FC Porto in a match that Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho, formerly in charge of both teams, may be watching closely.

Former France captain Didier Deschamps is hoping his tactical nous pays off when his Marseille side host seven-time champions AC Milan while Juventus, winners back in 1996, host French champions Bordeaux.

Real Madrid, the record nine-times winners, are set to unleash record signing Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema on the far more modest FC Zurich in Switzerland in a bid to take control of Group C.

Elsewhere, Maccabi Haifa host Bayern Munich in northern Israel, faltering German champions Wolfsburg are at home against CSKA Moscow and Atletico Madrid host Cypriot side Apoel.

With Wolfsburg, Moscow and Besiktas to contend with United are expected to finish among the top two before Christmas and qualify for February’s first knockout round.

And despite United’s infamous European Cup exit to Galatasaray in 1994, and a defeat at Fenerbahce in 2004, Sir Alex Ferguson is already looking forward to avenging last season’s defeat to Barcelona.

“I would love the chance to redress the situation with Barcelona. Absolutely. I would love another final with them,” Ferguson said.

“You don’t like losing finals of European games.
It was the first one I have lost so it was really disappointing for everyone.”

As United do battle in Besiktas’s Inonu stadium, Chelsea coach Carlo Ancelotti will watch his much-vaunted midfield diamond at Stamford Bridge.

Ancelotti indicated that injured playmaker Deco could be back for the visit of Porto but the Italian, who led AC Milan to their last two Champions League triumphs in 2003 and 2007, said facing Porto after a win, and with confidence flying, is paramount.

“A victory is always welcome and this is a very important period for us as we now have the Champions League ahead,” said Ancelotti after Chelsea took the lead of the Premier League on Saturday.

“To be top of the league is very important. We have good confidence in our play and a very good atmosphere in the dressing room.”

Bayern Munich have made amends for their mediocre start to the Bundesliga season with a a 5-1 hammering of Borussia Dortmund on Saturday.

But the Germans will be wary of a Maccabi Haifa team that famously beat Manchester United 3-0 at home on their group phase debut in 2002-2003.

Featuring Milan, Real Madrid and Marseille, as well as minows Zurich, Group C is arguably the toughest in this year’s competition and while Milan and Real are odds-on to qualify Marseille, too, fancy their chances.

Deschamps was part of the side that overcame Milan 1-0 to win what was then the Champions Cup in 1993, and the former Juventus and Chelsea midfielder has told their players they must raise their game for Tuesday.

“Simply being in the Champions League means we have to demand more. I want all my players to lift their game for this competition,” said Deschamps.

Milan suffered more Serie A misery on Saturday after being held 0-0 at promoted Livorno but Juventus, who lost to Chelsea in the first knockout round last season, host Bordeaux with confidence flying after winning all three of their domestic fixtures.—AFP

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