Champions League Preview: The Contenders
With the Champions League proper kicking off later this evening, Football.co.uk's Joe Strange takes a look this season's competition and profiles the clubs hoping to make it all the way to Wembley next May.
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Installed as early favourites to lift the trophy by the bookmakers, Barcelona look certain to improve upon their semi-final exit of last season. Their failure to lure Cesc Fabregas to the Nou Camp is a blow, but after adding Javier Mascherano and David Villa to their ranks they are undoubtedley a more potent force than in previous years. Manager Pep Guardiola will be confident of regaining a title they last won under him in 2009.
The double winners were disappointing in last year's competition, making a premature exit to Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan at the last 16 stage. While boss Carlo Ancelotti has plenty of Champions League experience having lifted the trophy twice while in charge of AC Milan, the Champions League remains the one trophy to have eluded the Blues under Roman Abramovich's tenure. Expect the Stamford Bridge club to make European glory a priority.
Current holders Inter might have lost Mourinho to big-spending Real Madrid over the summer, but in Rafa Benitez they have a man who is no stranger to European success. The Italians managed to retain stars Wesley Sneijder, Maicon and Diego Milito, while the loss of Mario Balotelli to Manchester City should not affect their chances. They will be very difficult to beat in the cauldron of the San Siro.
THE DARK HORSES
A terrible recent record in the Champions League was one of the factors behind yet another managerial change at the Bernabeu this summer, but in the 'Special One' Jose Mourinho they now have a man with vast experience and success on his CV. The Spanish giants invested heavily in the likes of Angel Di Maria and Mesut Ozil in the last transfer window and will now be expected to make a serious challenge, starting against Ajax tomorrow evening.
After another summer without major transfer spending, and a stuttering start to the new Premier League season, Manchester United don't appear in the best shape to make an assualt of Europe's most prestigious club competition. But as Sir Alex Ferguson has shown time and time again, you'd be a fool to write off United's chances of making a serious impact. A lack of depth in some positions could come back to hurt them.
Last season's beaten finalists surprised many a pundit when they made it all the way to Madrid last May, eventually coming unstuck against an almost inpenetrable Inter side. They've managed to keep all of their best players and have a very impressive starting XI when everyone is fit and firing on all cylinders. Could well cause another upset if Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery hit top form.
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