El Centrocampista

MARCH TO MUNICH – The UEFA Champions League is back!

By Richard Thorburn

After three qualifying rounds, ten fiercly fought play offs, and months of eager anticipation, the pinnacle of European football the UEFA Champions League, returns tonight.

The competition is the ultimate dream for any club. Managers have been sacked for not reaching it, chairmen have had to rearrange budgets dependant on qualification while loyal fans frantically cancel any existing plans they had on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

Back in June the relatively unheard-of Tre Fiori and Valleta kicked off the qualifying process, and since then clubs have scrambled for the right into entry for last months group stage draw made in Monaco.

Already there have been suprises – Rangers crashing out at the hands of Malmo FF immediately springs to mind.

There have been titanic tussles between clubs which have produced some fascinating ties with intriguing consquences.

What Arsene Wenger’s future at Arsenal would have been if they hadn’t scraped past Udinese is someting that we will never know.

This year promises to be the biggest and best Champions League to date.

The reigning champions have added even more quality to their squad.

the 32 teams in the group stage a staggering eleven of are former winners of the trophy.

Add into the mix five teams who for whom this is there debut appearance – Manchester City, Napoli, Trabzonspor, Viktoria Plzen, and Otelul Galati – and you have all the ingredients for a footballing spectacle over the coming weeks and months.

For any of those teams wanting to lift the trophy at the Allianz Arena in May, they will have to overcome a challenge from four Spanish teams all of whom have great pedigree in the competition.

Leading that challenge is the imperious Barcelona, for whom no introduction is needed.

Winners in 2006, 2009, and again last season, they are the benchmark, and it is little surprise to see them clear favourites with bookmakers across the land.

The summer months has seen them strenghten once more, with Fabregas and Sanchez joining the ranks, and despite letting a 2-0 lead slip at the weekend, even the most passionate Real Madrid fan would admit that it would come as a shock if they weren’t checking into a five star Munich hotel this May. Drawn in group H they will face AC Milan, BATE, and Viktoria Plzen.

Pushing them all the way in both domestic and European competitions will be nine time winners Real Madrid who aim to make it to double figures.

6-0 and 4-0 wins already this season have shown that they are at the very top of there game and whilst summer signings haven’t been as high profile as Barcelona’s they look to be very astute.

After cruising into the semi finals last year they came undone against the old enemy in two fiercly fought and controversial battles.

Barcelona finally winning 3-1 on aggregate. Manager Jose Mourinho is sure to have his squad fully wound up for the challenge that lies ahead. They face Lyon, Ajax and Dinamo Zagreb.

Arguably the biggest task that faces any Spanish team in the group stage this year falls to Villarreal.

Drawn in what has been described as the ‘group of death’ by many they will have to overcome Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Napoli if they are to progress.

After a year out, they overcame Odenese to make it to the group stage.

While the small fishing town will once again be host to Champions League football, Juan Carlos Garrido and his team face an uphill challenge to make sure that it hosts into the new year.

An uphill challenge it may be, but certainly not an impossible one. Villareal is a tricky place to play, as many a team have discovered, and they could prove difficult opposition to the rest.

Valencia enter the competition having just sold Juan Mata to Chelsea, who ironically they will face in the group stage.

Very much a selling club of late, due to financial problems, it is hard to see how they will launch a meaningful challenge on the trophy without the services of the three amigos in Villa, Silva, and Mata. Replacements have been bought and it while it will be interesting to see how they get on, it would come as a surprise to all if Valencia reach there 3rd final in this competition.

In a group of Chelsea, Bayer Leverkussen and Genk they could well qualify, but the 66/1 price about them celebrating on the 19th of May is about right.

So strap yourself in, book the sofa, get the beers and hold onto the remote for dear life, the Champions league is back. Expect drama, controversy, shocks and a whole host of goals along the way. Enjoy the ride.

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