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Deco is expected to play a pivotal role in Chelsea's Champions League campaign. ((Glyn Kirk/Getty Images))

All roads lead to Rome.

Champions League History

The European Cup, the forerunner to the Champions League, was the brainchild of French sports journalist Gabriel Hanot.

English league champions Wolverhampton Wanderers defeated Hungarian side Honved in a 1953 exhibition match, leading Wolves' manager to rather arrogantly dub his team the "champions of the world" in the next day's newspapers.

Hanot, editor of influential French sports newspaper L'Equipe, used this as the impetus to pitch his idea for a continental-wide tournament featuring the best European clubs. UEFA, European soccer's governing body, approved Hanot's idea in April 1955 and the European Cup began in 1955-56 featuring league champions across Europe

In 1993, the European Cup was re-christened the Champions League, and in 1997-98 the tournament was expanded to include more teams, not just league champions.

Tournament Format

The 32-team field is divided into eight round-robin groups. Teams play three games at home and on the road with three points for a win and one for a tie. The top two teams in each group at the end of the group stage advance to the next round.

After the first round, the tournament takes on a single-elimination format. The remaining 16 teams are paired off and play a home-and-away playoff. If the teams each win a game, the overall score over the course of the two games acts as the tiebreaker, followed by goals scored on the road. If the teams are still tied, a penalty shootout solves the issue.

This two-game playoff format carries over into the quarter-finals and semifinals before the last two teams standing meet in the final on May 27 in Rome.

Previous European Cup/Champions League winners

  • 2008 - Manchester United
  • 2007 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 2006 - FC Barcelona (Spain)
  • 2005 - Liverpool (England)
  • 2004 - FC Porto (Portugal)
  • 2003 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 2002 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 2001 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
  • 2000  - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1999 - Manchester United (England)
  • 1998 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1997 - Borussia Dortmund (Germany)
  • 1996 - Juventus (Italy)
  • 1995  - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 1994 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1993 - Olympique Marseille (France)
  • European Cup becomes Champions League in 1993
  • 1992 - FC Barcelona (Spain)
  • 1991 - Red Star Belgrade (Yugoslavia)
  • 1990 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1989 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1988 - PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)
  • 1987 - FC Porto (Portugal)
  • 1986 - Steaua Bucharest (Romania)
  • 1985 - Juventus (Italy)
  • 1984 - Liverpool (England)
  • 1983 - Hamburger SV (Germany)
  • 1982 - Aston Villa (England)
  • 1981 - Liverpool (England)
  • 1980 - Nottingham Forrest (England)
  • 1979 - Nottingham Forrest (England)
  • 1978 - Liverpool (England)
  • 1977 - Liverpool (England)
  • 1976 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
  • 1975 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
  • 1974 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
  • 1973 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 1972 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 1971 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 1970 - Feyenoord (Netherlands)
  • 1969 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1968 - Manchester United (England)
  • 1967 - Celtic (Scotland)
  • 1966 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1965 - Inter Milan (Italy)
  • 1964 - Inter Milan (Italy)
  • 1963 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1962 - Benfica (Portugal)
  • 1961 - Benfica (Portugal)
  • 1960 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1959 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1958 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1957 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1956 - Real Madrid (Spain)

Thirty-two of the best soccer teams from across Europe begin their quest to be crowned continental kings when the group stage of 2008-09 Champions League kicks off this week.

Defending champions Manchester United, reigning Italian champions Inter Milan, nine-time Champions League winners Real Madrid and the host of usual suspects will all be trying to survive the opening round and progress through the knockout stage in order to earn a spot in the final next May at Rome's Stadio Olimpico.

This year's tournament is also buoyed by the return of two great teams with a rich history in European competition — Juventus of Italy and Germany's Bayern Munich — and newcomers such as Romanian outfit CFR Cluj, Cyprus's Anorthosis Famagusta and FC BATE Borisov of Belarus.

Last year, Manchester United won its third crown, defeating Chelsea in a penalty shootout in Moscow in the first all-England final in tournament history.

Who will it be this year?

CBCSports.ca offers this comprehensive breakdown of the teams and players to watch in Groups A, B, C and D. To read about Groups E, F, G and H, click here.

GROUP A

Chelsea FC (England)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Finalist
  • Best result: Finalist (2008)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Cech - (D) Bosingwa, Terry, Carvalho, A Cole - (M) Lampard, Ballack, Deco, J Cole - (F)  Drogba, Anelka
  • Player to watch: Deco - The Brazilian-born playmaker was the Blues' big off-season acquisition and he has a point to prove after a lacklustre final campaign with Barcelona.
  • The lowdown: Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has spent over 500 million English pounds since buying the team in 2003 and thus far the Champions League title has eluded him. After coming within a penalty kick of lifting the trophy last season, Abramovich fired former manager Avram Grant and replaced him with Luiz Felipe Scolari. The Brazilian has never coached a European club, but he does have a track record of success, winning the World Cup with Brazil in 2002 and leading both Gremio and Palmeiras to the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League. Some new players were also brought in, including Deco (from Barcelona) and defender Jose Bosingwa (from Porto) and even though the loss of Michael Essien (knee injury) for five months is a big blow, the Blues have incredible depth and will hardly miss the Ghanaian. Anything less than an appearance in the final would be considered a failure.

AS Roma (Italy)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Quarter-finals
  • Best result: Finalist (1984)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-5-1 (GK) Doni - (D) Panucci, Mexes, Juan, Riise - (M) Taddei, De Rossi, Pizarro, Totti, Perotta - (F) Baptisa
  • Player to watch: Francesco Totti - The Roman-born captain is the heart and soul of the Giallorossi, a creative player of sublime skill and great quality.
  • The lowdown: Coach Luciano Spaletti is one of the brightest managers in Italian soccer with a reputation for getting the most out of his players. Spaletti will have a tough time leading Roma past the quarter-final stage for a third straight year after the club failed to find a replacement for influential Brazilian winger Mancini, now with Inter Milan. The club did make a few astute off-season signings in former Liverpool defender John Arne Riise, young French striker Jeremy Menez and Brazilian forward Julio Baptista, who will take a lot of the goal-scoring burden off the shoulders of Totti and Mirko Vucinic. Daniele De Rossi has emerged as one of the best central midfielders in the game and he'll have to be at his best, especially if Totti is slowed down my more injury problems this season. Roma looks a sure bet to make it to the second round, but don't expect them to play before the home crowd in the final.

FC Girondins de Bordeaux (France)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Did not qualify
  • Best result: Semifinals (1985)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Rame - (D) Chalme, Planus, Diawara, Placente - (M) Gourcuff, Obertan, Diarra, Wendel - (F) Cavenaghi, Bellion
  • Player to watch: Fernando Cavenaghi - The Argentine exploded for 15 goals in Ligue 1 last season and will be looking to make a big impact in his Champions League debut.
  • The lowdown: Led by former French libero Laurent Blanc, Les Girondins were the revelation of Ligue 1 last season, pushing Olympique Lyon right up until the final week of the campaign. Blanc made up for his lack of managerial experience by inspiring his players to play without fear and they responded. Cavenaghi tallied 15 goals in the second half of the season, while Brazilian midfielder Wendel chipped in with 12. Bordeaux made some good moves in the summer, signing talented midfielder creator Yoann Gourcuff on a season's loan from AC Milan and forward Yoann Gouffran from Caen. Defence is a bit of an issue, though, as the club's only significant addition was Argentine left-back Diego Placente, whose best days are far behind. If Cavenaghi can routinely find the back of the net, Bordeaux could sneak into the round of 16. Otherwise, they'll be hard-pressed to beat out Roma for second spot in the group.

CFR Cluj (Romania)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Did not qualify
  • Best result: This is their first time in the Champions League
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Stanciolu - (D) Tony, Cadu, Alcantara, Pereira - (M) Trica, Dani, Peralta, Culio - (F) Kone, Didi
  • Player to watch: Eugen Trica - A talented playmaker who orchestrates Cluj's attack from his spot on the right side of midfield.
  • The lowdown: A rising power in Eastern European soccer, Cluj will be making its Champions League debut after beating out Bucharest powerhouses Steau, Dinamo and Rapid to win the Romanian league championship. This is a team littered with stars from all over the world  (including Canadian goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld), but Trica, one of the few Romanians on the team, is the chief playmaker. Up front, Yssouf Kone of Burkina Faso and Brazilian Didi lead the line, relying on the service of Trica. The additions of Uruguayan  Alvaro Pereira and Argentine Cristian Prette give the team a touch of youth, speed and class, but Cluj's lack of experience in European competitions will come back to haunt them, especially against teams the calibre of Chelsea and Roma who have been regular competitors in Europe for the past 10 years. Anything other than a fourth-place finish in the group would constitute a miracle.

GROUP B

Inter Milan (Italy)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Round of 16
  • Best result: Champions (1964, 1965)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-3-3 (GK) Cesar - (D) Maicon, Materazzi, Chivu, Maxwell - (M) Zanetti, Cambiasso, Muntari - (F) Figo, Ibrahimovic, Mancini
  • Player to watch: Zlatan Ibrahimovic - The Swedish striker often draws comparisons to Dutch goal-scoring legend Marco van Basten.
  • The lowdown: After crashing out in the second round last season, the Nerazzurri responded by firing coach Roberto Mancini and hiring the  'Special One' himself, Jose Mourinho. The three-time Italian league champions hired the former Chelsea manager for one reason and one reason only: to win the Champions League. Having guided Porto to the crown in 2004, Mourinho just could be the man to lead Inter to its first title since winning it all in 1965. The Portuguese manager has added to what was an already deep team by signing Brazilian winger Mancini away from Roma, midfield battler Sulley Muntari (Portsmouth) and Portuguese star Ricardo Quaresma (Porto). Add these stars to a team that already boasts Maxwell and Maicon in defence, Esteban Cambiasso and Dejan Stankovic in midfield, and Ibrahimovic and Julio Cruz in attack, and it's easy to see why the Italian outfit has to be considered one of the tournament favourites.

Werder Bremen (Germany)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Group stage
  • Best result: Quarter-finals (1989)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Wiese - (D) Fritz, Mertesacker, Naldo, Pasanen - (M) Jensen, Frings, Diego, Hunt - (F) Rosenberg, Almeida
  • Player to watch: Diego - The Brazilian has established himself as one of the best players in the Bundesliga since joining Bremen from FC Porto in 2006.
  • The lowdown: Bremen has won a lot of plaudits and respect from neutral fans for their gung-ho, all-out attacking style of play, but it does often leave them susceptible to be caught on the counter-attack. With that in mind, the club signed promising Austrian centre-back Sebastian Prodl to help bolster a defence that is prone to error, even with the experienced Petr Mertesacker. As usual, German dynamo Torsten Frings will provide the muscle and grit in midfield, creating the space for Diego to wield his special brand of playmaking magic. Up front, Portuguese Hugo Almeida and Swede Markus Rosenberg lead the attack, but they'll have to prove that after achieving success in Germany, the can do the same in Europe. One key addition is Peruvian forward Claudio Pizzaro, on loan from Chelsea. While not considered a major threat, the German club should advance to the round of 16.

Panathinaikos (Greece)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Did not qualify
  • Best result: Finalist (1971)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-2-3-1 (GK) Gallinovic - (D) Nilsson, Sareigl, Goumas, Spyropoulos - (M) Silva, Tziolis - (M) Karagounis, Ninis, Rukavina - (F) Salpigidis
  • Player to watch: Giorgios Karagounis - A team leader thanks to his rugged style of play in midfield, deft touch on the ball and powerful shot.
  • The lowdown: Dutch coach Henk ten Cate was hired in the off-season, charged with the task of leading this hard-working, well-organized team into the knockout stage of the Champions League. Karagounis, a veteran of the Greek national side, is the heartbeat of Panathinaikos, leading by example with his industrious play in midfield. Pana were wise to sign ball-winning Brazilian Gilberto Silva (from Arsenal). He'll be expected to pair up with Alexandros Tziolis in midfield and act as the first line of defence. Speaking of which, Pana's back line is suspect, so Silva and Tziolis will have their work cut out for themselves. Dimitris Salpigidis leads a surprisingly potent group of forwards, and in teenaged midfielder Sotiris Ninis, Pana has one of the most promising Greek prospects in the game. A second-round berth may be beyond them, but it won't be because of a lack of effort.

Anorthosis Famagusta FC (Cyprus)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Did not qualify
  • Best result: This is their first time in the Champions League
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Beqaj - (D) Ocokoljic, Katsavakis, Dellas, Leiwakabessy - (M) Bardon, Skopelitis, Nicolaou, Savio - (F) Tsitaishvili, Sosin
  • Player to watch: Traianos Dellas - The former AS Roma defender and Euro 2004 hero has found a new lease on life with Anorthosis.
  • The lowdown: After knocking on the door the past few seasons, the Cypriot champions finally broke through by qualifying for this year's Champions League. As this is their first foray onto European soccer's biggest stage, Anorthosis will rely on the experience of Dellas and Brazilian midfielder Savio, who won the 2000 Champions League with Real Madrid. Don't expect them to just roll over and die — Anorthosis beat Rapid Vienna of Austria and Greek giants Olympiakos in the qualifiers to get this far. They play with great speed, and use quick ball movement to force their opponents into a chasing game. Still, there's no denying that this is going to be a baptism of fire for the Cypriots. It's hard to see them advancing, but expect them to play with plenty of passion and pride.
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Barcelona's Lionel Messi, right, will be the centre of attention at the Camp Nou now that Ronaldinho is gone. ((Getty Images))

GROUP C

FC Barcelona (Spain)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Semifinals
  • Best result: Champions (1992, 2006)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-3-3 (GK) Valdes - (D) Alves, Puyol, Marquez, Abidal - (M) Keita, Toure, Xavi - (F) Messi, Eto'o, Henry
  • Player to watch: Lionel Messi - With Ronaldinho gone, the Argentine ace is the club's leader on the field.
  • The lowdown: Another trophy-less season led to massive changes at the Catalan club over the summer. Coach Frank Rijkaard was fired and was replaced by Barcelona legend Pep Guardiola. Out went Ronaldinho (to AC Milan) and Deco (Chelsea); in came Alexander Hleb (Arsenal), Dani Alves (Sevilla), and Seydou Keita (Sevilla). New players are only part of the Guardiola revolution, as Barcelona have made tactical switches and will play with two holding midfielders in front of the defence, and move Thierry Henry off the wing and into a more central location up front. Given the chance to play in his natural position should inspire the Frenchman, who had a rather disappointing debut season for Barcelona last year. Guardiola will also be looking to Cameroonian Samuel Eto'o to find his old form in order to bolster what should be an awesome Barcelona attack. With such a big makeover, expectations will be running high at the Camp Nou, but the Catalans have enough depth and overall quality to make a run at the title. Anything less than a semifinal appearance would be a surprise.

FC Basel (Switzerland)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Did not qualify
  • Best result: Second group stage (2002)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-1-3-2 (GK) Costanzo - (D) Zanni, Abraham, Marque, Safari - (M) Huggel - (M) Ergic, Gjasula, Perovic - (F) Streller, Derdiyok
  • Player to watch: Marco Streller - The Swiss striker is deadly in front of the net.
  • The lowdown: Basel always dreams big. The Swiss champions' motto is "reach for the stars" and after playing in the UEFA Cup, Basel is looking to make a big splash in the Champions League. Basel has several things going for it, most notably depth, as the team boasts two or three options at each position. Even with the recent loss of Swedish defender Daniel Majstorovic, the Swiss are still in good shape at the back after signing Argentine youngster David Abraham. The club also bolstered its attack by signing Chilean forward Eduardo Rubio. These additions to a club that already has Streller, a potent attacker when he's healthy, and Argentine Franco Costanzo, the best goalkeeper in the league, means Basel have a good chance of advancing to the round of 16.

Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Group stage
  • Best result: Opening group stage (four different times)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-5-1 (GK) Khudzhamov - (D) Srna, Chygrynskyi, Kucher, Rat - (M) Willian, Hubschman, Fernandinho, Jadson, Ilsino - (F) Seleznyov
  • Player to watch: Fernandinho - The Brazilian, the reigning player of the year in the Ukrainian league, is a versatile midfielder who does it all.
  • The lowdown: Shakhtar was the class of the Ukrainian league last season, and they'll be looking to capitalize on that momentum with a sustained run in this year's Champions League. The team's Romanian coach, Mircea Lucescu, went on a spending spree in the off-season, signing goalkeeper Rustam Khudzhamov, one of the top Ukrainian prospects. He joins a team brimming with exciting young talent, including Brazilian Willian who is a real livewire down both wings. Croatian right-back Darijo Srna anchors the defence, lending his considerable skills to Shakhtar's attack with his impeccable passing skills and seemless dribbling ability. If they play to their potential, this could be the year Shakhtar finally breaks through to the second round of the Champions League.

Sporting Clube de Portugal (Portugal)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Group stage
  • Best result: Second group stage (1998)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Patricio - (D) Abel, Caneira, Polga, Grimi - (M) Izmailov, Rochemback, Veloso, Moutinho - (F) Liedson, Postiga
  • Player to watch: Liedson - One of the top strikers in club history, the lethal Brazilian gives Sporting a touch of speed up front.
  • The lowdown: Despite being one of the top teams in Portugal, Sporting have historically under-achieved in Europe — they've never progressed beyond the group stages of the Champions League and their finest moment came more than four decades ago, in 1964, when they won the Cup Winners' Cup. Don't expect the Portuguese to make it to the second round this time. Coach Paoulo Bento has some solid players on his roster, namely Liedson and midfielders Fabio Rochemback and Joao Moutinho, but the team lacks depth. Former Tottenham forward Helder Postiga has never really lived up to his reputation, much like Sporting.

GROUP D

Liverpool FC (England)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Semifinals
  • Best result: Champions (1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 2005)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Reina - (D) Degen, Carragher, Agger, Arbeloa - (M) Gerrard, Mascherano, Lucas, Babel - (F) Keane, Torres
  • Player to watch: Fernando Torres – The Spanish star is one of the most dangerous forwards in the game.
  • The lowdown: Liverpool's English league title drought stands at 18 years, but the Reds have shown they can compete amongst the elite in Europe the past few seasons. Coach Rafa Benitez shuffled the deck in the summer by bidding adieu to forward Peter Crouch (Portsmouth), defender John Arne Riise (AS Roma), and winger Harry Kewell (Galatasaray), and signing striker Robbie Keane, Swiss defender Philipp Degen and Italian fullback Andrea Dossena. It'll be interesting to see how Keane gels with Torres and whether or not the pair can develop a sustainable relationship. Captain Steven Gerrard continues to drive the attack in midfield, but he will be ably abetted by a cast of quality teammates, especially Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso. That said, Dutch attackers Ryan Babel and Dirk Kuijt need to step up and prove they can consistently perform at the top level. This is a tough group and Liverpool will be hard-pressed to make it out alive, but the Reds always find a way to win in Europe and should be good enough for a quarter-final appearance.

PSV Eindhoven (The Netherlands)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Group stage
  • Best result: Champions (1988)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-5-1 (GK) Isaksson - (D) Marcellis, Rodriguez, Brechet, Salcido - (M) Culina, Bakkal, Simons, Afellay, Dzsudzsak - (F) Lazovic
  • Player to watch: Carlos Salcido – The Mexican fullback holds things down in defence.
  • The lowdown: The four-time defending Dutch champions made a managerial change in the summer, handing the reigns over to Huub Stevens, a former player and youth coach at the club. Stevens isn't expected to reinvent the wheel; instead, he'll make sure PSV continues to be well-organized and play solid – but not spectacular – soccer. The departure of goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes to Tottenham was made easier to take after the club signed experienced Swedish shot-stopper Andreas Isaksson from Manchester City. The club does have problems up front, as it doesn't have a dangerous goal-scorer in can hinge the attack on. PSV will battle and work hard, but getting out of the group stage and into the next round may be asking too much of them.

Atletico Madrid (Spain)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Did not qualify
  • Best result: Finalist (1974)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Coupet - (D) Seitaridis, Ujfalusi, Heitinga, Lopez - (M) Rodriguez, Assuncao, Simao, Garcia - (F) Forlan, Aguero
  • Player to watch: Sergio Aguero – The Argentine youngster is Atletico's best player and a dangerous, goal-scoring threat every time he touches the ball.
  • The lowdown: Los Colchoneros return to the Champions League for the first time since 1996, ready to make an impression. The team make big defensive changes in the summer by signing French goalkeeper Gregory Coupet (Lyon), defenders Tomas Ujfalusi (Fiorentina) and John Heitinga (Ajax), and defensive midfielder Paulo Assuncao (Porto). An attack that already boasted the lethal 1-2 scoring punch of Aguero and Diego Forlan was boosted by the addition of Florent Sinama-Pongolle, who bagged 10 goals for Recreativo last season. The midfield is brimming with quality (Simao, Maniche, Maxi Rodriguez and the on-loan Ever Banega), so expect the Spaniards to move on to the next round, and maybe even qualify for the quarter-finals.

Olympique Marseille (France)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Group stage
  • Best result: Champions (1993)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-5-1 (GK) Mandana - (D) Bonnart, Hilton, Erbate, Taiwo - (M) Ben Afra, Cana, Cheyrou, Kone, Ziani - (F) Niang
  • Player to watch: Hatem Ben Arfa – Marseille poached the attacking midfielder from rivals Lyon; now he has to deliver the goods on Europe's biggest stage.
  • The lowdown: Under Belgian coach Eric Gerets, l'OM have found stability – sorely lacking at the club for the past few years – and appear ready to balance the duties of domestic and European competition. The club did lose influential playmaker Samir Nasri (to Arsenal) and striker Djibril Cisse (on loan to Sunderland), but on paper the team is balanced and solid. Ben Afra arrives at Marseille where he should fit in well under Gerets' attacking style. Afra, Karim Ziani and Bakary Kone will be expected to all get forward from their midfield positions and lend support to lone striker Mamadou Niang, one of the most prolific strikers in Ligue 1. Marseille's attacking style does leave them vulnerable at the back, so extra pressure will rest on the shoulders of midfielders Bruno Cheyrou and Lorik Cana to act as the first line of defence. If they can get results on the road, Marseille might beat out Atletico for second place in the group.