The opening shots of the 2010/11 Champions League campaign are fired this week, with tricky assignments lying in wait for Inter Milan and the main pretenders to the Italians’ coveted crown.
Group stage action gets under way on Tuesday with Inter away to Dutch champions FC Twente in what promises to be a rigorous examination of their capability to become the first back-to-back winners since AC Milan in 1989/90.
Inter, with Rafael Benitez succeeding Jose Mourinho in the San Siro hot seat, received an early season body blow last month when coming unstuck 2-0 to Atletico Madrid in the European SuperCup in Monaco.
After that former Liverpool boss Benitez will be looking for a firm statement of intent from his new team in a Group A that also comprises competition new boys Tottenham Hotspur.
The English Premier League side take their first dip into the world’s most lucrative club competition with a testing trip away to Bundesliga outfit Werder Bremen.
Spurs travel to Germany without injured striker Jermain Defoe, the hat-trick getter in England’s 4-0 Euro 2012 qualifier win over Bulgaria, as well as captain Ledley King, Michael Dawson, and possibly playmaker Luca Modric.
Bremen go into the tie with a spring in their step after holding German champions Bayern Munich to a goalless draw at the weekend.
In Group B, Sir Alex Ferguson crosses swords with a team from his youth as Rangers visit Old Trafford to take on Manchester United.
Ferguson grew up near Ibrox in Govan and was a former player with the Scottish champions.
Three-time winners United and Rangers were drawn together at the same stage of the competition in 2003/2004, with Ferguson’s side winning 3-0 at home and 1-0 at Ibrox.
Rooney welcomed back
United will welcome back Wayne Rooney, who sat out Saturday’s 3-3 draw at his old club Everton, with Ferguson preferring to protect his striker from all the barracking he was set to receive by home fans over the lurid allegations swirling around him about his private life.
Tuesday’s menu also sees 2009 winners Barcelona, humbled by minnows Hercules 2-0 in the Spanish league on Saturday, hosting Greek outfit Panathinaikos and Copenhagen up against Russian league winners Rubin Kazan in Group D.
In Group B, last season’s semifinalists, Lyon, face Schalke while Hapoel Tel-Aviv are at Benfica.
On Wednesday, Jose Mourinho takes the first step along a road he hopes will lead to him becoming the first coach to win three Champions League titles with different clubs.
Successful with Porto in 2004 and Inter last season, he now has care of Real Madrid, who confront Ajax at the Santiago Bernabeu with forward Cristiano Ronaldo back in their ranks after recovering from a right ankle injury.
Mourinho orchestrated Real’s first win since he took charge at the weekend, a 1-0 affair over Osasuna, and will be looking to mete out the same treatment to Ajax, coached by a man he knows well from his days at Chelsea, former Spurs boss Martin Jol.
This fixture features two teams with enough European trophies between them — 13 — to sink the most sturdy of sideboards.
Group G looks the toughest of all as it also comprises another former multiple winner in the guise of AC Milan, who host French outfit Auxerre.
Bayern Munich, last season’s beaten finalists, have an opening date with Roma at home — Romanian club CFR Cluj versus Swiss side Basel is the other match in Group E.
Premier League holders Chelsea, who have made an impressive start to their title defence, are in Slovakia to play Zilina.
Massive underdogs to qualify from a Group F that also includes Marseille and Spartak Moscow, Zilina’s ground has a capacity of just 12 000 but they earned their place among Europe’s bigwigs with a play-off win over Sparta Prague.
Group H features the fourth Premier League side, with Arsenal welcoming Sporting Braga to the Emirates — the mini-league completed by Shakhtar Donetsk and Partizan Belgrade. — Sapa-AFP