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Cristiano Ronaldo led Manchester United to victory in last season's UEFA Champions League? Can he do it again this year? ((Associated Press))

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) 
  • 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)

It's that time again.

After a layoff of more than two months, the UEFA Champions League resumes on Tuesday as 16 of the best soccer teams from across Europe continue their quest to be crowned continental kings.

The second round features eight intriguing matchups, none more so than Manchester United versus Inter Milan, the reigning champions of England and Italy. Two other Premiership-Serie A matches highlight the second round, with professional pride and bragging rights between the two respective leagues up for grabs.

Which teams will move on and keep alive their hopes of qualifying for the final in May at Rome's Stadio Olimpico?

CBC Sports commentators Nigel Reed and Jason de Vos, and CBCSports.ca soccer expert John F. Molinaro offer their analysis and predictions below.

Manchester United (England) vs. Inter Milan (Italy)

Nigel Reed: A series to savour for committed fans and neutrals alike. A matchup featuring the defending champions and Italy's pre-eminent team has all the ingredients to be a classic struggle over two legs. United know what it takes to go all the way and Sir Alex Ferguson's hand is only strengthened with Wayne Rooney making a timely return from injury. For Inter, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a perennial threat and Jose Mourinho will remember from his glory days at Chelsea that United are not invincible. Tough to call this one, but United's all round experience and home advantage for the decider gives the English champions the edge. Prediction: Manchester United

Jason de Vos: If there is one team everyone wants to avoid right now, it is Manchester United. After a relatively slow start to the season, they are leading the way in the Premier League and look well on their way to another title. They will be without the suspended Nemanja Vidic for the first leg, which is a blow to them as I feel he has been their best player this season. Inter are one team who could be capable of besting the English giants, and in Ibrahimovic, they have one of the in-form strikers in Europe. Can Mourinho get one over on Ferguson? I just can't see it. Prediction: Manchester United

John F. Molinaro: This is the best match-up of the second round, and I'm expecting an intriguing tactical battle between Ferguson and Mourinho, two of the best managers in the world. The majority of attention will no doubt be focused on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, but I think the two key players are Ryan Giggs and Esteban Cambiasso. Giggs is playing some of the best soccer of his career right now, and I'll be looking for the Welshman to drive United forward with his sublime ball control and slalom-like runs. Cambiasso is the glue that holds the Inter midfield together, serving as the perfect link between the defence and the attack. Both are strong sides and top of their respective leagues, but I just don't see how Inter will penetrate United's miserly defence. Prediction: Manchester United

AS Roma (Italy) vs. Arsenal (England)

Reed: Two heavyweights of the European game who, by their own high standards, have under performed this season. It's possible, if not probable, their only route back to the Champions League next season is to win this year's competition. After an uncertain start, Roma comfortably topped Group A and will have the advantage of knowing what's required for the decisive second leg. Arsenal can't use new signing Andrei Arshavin, who's cup-tied, and Arsene Wenger is sorely missing injured Spanish playmaker Cesc Fabregas, while Roma's evergreen striker Francesco Totti continues to test the best defences despite his advancing years. If any further incentive were needed, Roma's Olympic Stadium hosts this year's final, so for me it's Arrivederci Arsenal. Prediction: AS Roma

De Vos: The Gunners are such a wonderful team to watch, as they pass the ball with reckless abandon. Question marks surround the injury status of Emmanuel Adebayor and Eduardo, but it is their talisman that is of most concern. Arsenal is not the same force without the influence of Fabregas, and if he doesn't recover from his knee injury in time, Roma may have the edge. The Italians will need to show some consistency if they are to overcome Arsenal's young guns. Totti and Daniele De Rossi will be heavily relied upon to pull the strings. Prediction: Arsenal

Molinaro: Roma and Arsenal play a similar style and both are entertaining teams to watch.  For my money, Mirko Vucinic is one of the unheralded forwards in the game — the Montenegrin is such a dangerous scoring threat every time he touches the ball and he gives Roma's attack a real cutting edge. Arsenal has some real problems up front. Adebayor is out, and Eduardo has only recently returned from a lengthy injury layoff. Who does that leave? The unconvincing Nicklas Bendtner. The bigger issue, though, is the absence of Fabregas. The Spaniard sublimely orchestrates the Arsenal attack from his midfield position, and without him, I think the Gunners will have a difficult time against the Italians. Prediction: AS Roma

FC Barcelona (Spain) vs. Olympique Lyon (France)

Reed: If French soccer is ever to be mentioned in the same breath as the Premier League, Serie A or La Liga, it's time for France's dominant club team to make a statement on the European stage. Lyon's misfortune is to have been paired with Barcelona, probably the best team in Europe on current form. Only Barca scored more goals in the group stages than Lyon, for whom Karim Benzema will have to shine. The Catalans are surging towards another Spanish title and with Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi scoring for fun, I can't see it being any fun at all for Lyon. Anything other than a routine Barcelona victory would be the upset of the season. Prediction: FC Barcelona

De Vos: Barcelona will win this comfortably. What else can I say? They have been in impressive form in La Liga, and they already have one hand on the league trophy. Andres Iniesta misses the first leg with a thigh strain, but when you have Messi, Eto'o and Thierry Henry at your disposal, it shouldn't be too much of a concern. Lyon will need to be at their very best and hope that Barcelona come in overconfident if the French league leaders are to have any chance of pulling off an upset. Prediction: FC Barcelona

Molinaro: This one is a no brainer. Barcelona, with all due respect to Manchester United, is the best team in the world right now. The Catalans breezed through the first round of this tournament and haven't lost a Spanish league game since the opening week of the season last summer. Barca doesn't humiliate opponents as much as they sidestep them all together. On current form, Messi is the best player in the world, and the often over-looked Xavi Hernandez isn't that far behind him. As someone who follows Ligue Un closely, I have a great deal of respect for Lyon, because they combine hard work with inventive play. That said, Barcelona is in class all by themselves and Lyon simply can't match up with them. Prediction: FC Barcelona

FC Porto (Portugal) vs. Atletico Madrid (Spain)

Reed: A team in transition against a team going full steam ahead. On paper there can only be one winner, but in the Champions League there is no such thing as a sure thing. Atletico have changed their coach since qualifying behind Liverpool in Group D, while their opponents are flying high at the top of the Portuguese standings where they boast an unbeaten record stretching back to early November. The Spaniards will be hoping Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero can re-produce their domestic form in European competition, but Porto should prevail if they can hold them at bay in the first leg. Prediction: FC Porto

De Vos: Porto looked strong in the group stages, topping a difficult quartet that included Arsenal, Dynamo Kiev and Fenerbahce. Atletico, on the other hand, finished runners-up in their group behind Liverpool. I think this could be decided by away form. Atletico picked up five points on their travels from their three group games, while Porto managed seven. Toss a coin on this one, as it could go either way. Prediction: FC Porto

Molinaro: On the surface Atletico would appear to have the upper hand thanks to the presence of attacking stars such as Forlan, Aguero and Maxi Rodriguez. But I'm still not entirely convinced by the Spaniards, mostly because they don't seem able to grind out results and win ugly. Porto, on the other hand, is a well-balanced and well-organized team that can go toe-to-toe with anybody. They've been very impressive in the Portuguese league this season, and I think a lot of people are under-estimating them in this competition. That, combined with having the home-field advantage for the all important second leg, gives the Portuguese the edge.  Prediction: FC Porto

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Raul Gonzalez and Real Madrid will try to edge past Liverpool in the second round. ((Alvaro Barrientos/Associated Press))

Liverpool (England) vs. Real Madrid (Spain)

Reed: Another mouth-watering clash to get the pulses racing and another contender will fall at the first hurdle of the knockout phase of the competition. Real, already too far behind Barcelona in La Liga, know European success is their last best chance of silverware this season, while Liverpool are embroiled in a domestic dogfight which could bring their first English title in nearly 20 years. It could also cost them success in the Champions League.  Both teams boast superb European pedigree and superb individuals. Raul recently became Real's all-time leading scorer, while Steven Gerrard is winning his fitness battle after tearing a hamstring earlier this month. Impossible to predict — it'll be very close — my head says Madrid but my gut says the Reds — just! Prediction: Liverpool

De Vos: Another mouth-watering tie, as Real Madrid will be desperate to advance past Liverpool and reach the quarter-finals. Despite their best efforts, Real have had to admit that they are not in the same class as Barcelona in La Liga. Even though Real are on a hot run right now, they are still well back of Barcelona in the standings and have all but given up hope of catching their rivals in the race for Spanish supremacy. Liverpool, on the other hand, is having their best league campaign in recent memory. Their two key performers, Fernando Torres and Gerrard, will need to play to their full potential to overcome a Madrid side who have responded to new boss Juande Ramos. After his sacking earlier in the season by Tottenham, Ramos has a point to prove to the British media that he is not another big name manager who failed to live up to the hype. Prediction: Real Madrid

Molinaro: This rematch of the 1981 European Cup final should prove to be pretty interesting because both teams have a point to prove. Manchester United has wrestled Premier League lead away from Liverpool, forcing the Reds to chase them down. Gerrard has been sidelined for the past few weeks and even if he does recover in time, you have to think he won't have as much influence as he normally does. Torres has been on such a tear for Liverpool this season, and big games like this one provide the former Atletico Madrid star to showcase his considerable skills. He'll have to be at his best if Liverpool has any hope of winning. As for los blancos, they've looked pretty good in La Liga as of late, even though they have no chance of catching first-place Barcelona. Real hasn't advanced beyond the second round since 2004, and that has to be a major source of embarrassment for the nine-time European champions. I know I'm going to regret going against Liverpool because they always seem to come through when everybody expects them to fail in Europe. But I think Real Madrid wants it more. Prediction: Real Madrid

Juventus (Italy) vs. Chelsea (England)

Reed: After Inter entertain United, it's England against Italy take two — but perhaps with a very different conclusion. It seems so long ago that Chelsea came within a penalty kick of becoming European Champions. In reality it's only nine months since that fateful night in Moscow yet so much has changed — and not necessarily for the better. Guus Hiddink has the unenviable task of cleaning up the mess, which should be music to the ears of Juve players and fans alike. Juventus, the Old Lady of Turin, is motoring along nicely back home and Claudio Ranieri will be relishing the chance to face the team that fired him back in 2004. Chelsea were runners-up last term, but Ranieri will have the last laugh this time. Prediction: Juventus

De Vos: Ah, the Old Lady is back. The most successful team in the history of Italian soccer was relegated from Serie A in 2006, but it has fought its way back to regain its place among the European elite. This tie is intriguing on so many levels: The return of Ranieri to Chelsea, the team he affectionately managed for four years; the appointment of Hiddink as Chelsea manager to replace the sacked Luis Felipe Scolari; the continued brilliance of Alessandro Del Piero, who has been written off more times than a stock car. This match up has it all. I'm going to tip Juventus here. Unlike some people, I'm a fan of Italian soccer because I love the way they defend as a team. They will need Del Piero to defy the odds once again, but knocking off the wealth of talent that Chelsea have at their disposal is a tall order. Prediction: Juventus

Molinaro: Both teams enter the second round in a state of disarray — Chelsea, because of the firing of Scolari and an obvious lack of confidence on the field; Juventus, because of a rash of injuries and some recent poor results in Serie A. It'll be interesting to see how the Londoners respond to Hiddink, and whether the Dutchman can help to elevate the Blues' game just weeks after replacing Scolari. One problem Hiddink will have to address is Chelsea's defending on set pieces because they've conceded a lot of goals and looked absolutely clueless at times. Also, which Nicolas Anelka will show up for Chelsea: the one that sulks and pouts, and floats along unnoticed for long stretches of time, or the one that can tear opposing defences to shreds with his timely runs and deadly finishing? Del Piero, like Ryan Giggs with United, is playing some of the best soccer of his career, and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is back between the posts for Juve after a lengthy absence due to injury. The problem for the Italians is that they're still dealing with injuries, don't have the same depth as Chelsea and have looked defensively suspect as of late. As a diehard fan of the bianconeri, my heart says Juventus, but my head says Chelsea. Prediction: Chelsea

Bayern Munich (Germany) vs. Sporting Lisbon (Portugal)

Reed: With all due respect, this game is hardly the highlight of the round of 16, and as a result both teams will feel well equipped to progress to the quarter-Finals. Sporting was outclassed by Barcelona in the group stages, but won their other four fixtures, while the German giants remained unbeaten in topping Group F. Bayern may be without injured striker Luca Toni, but with Miroslav Klose, Franck Ribery and Lucas Podolski all at his disposal, Jurgen Klinsmann's team will surely have too much ammunition for a Sporting side for whom Brazilian veteran Liedson is the most likely source of goals. Prediction: Bayern Munich

De Vos: Bayern Munich have a fight on their hands if they hope to win the Bundesliga this season, as they currently trails league leaders Hertha Berlin. Sporting Lisbon is also trying to fight its way up the Portuguese Liga standings, but they won't have history on their side when they face the Germans. Sporting has never beaten a German side in European competition, and to be honest, I don't think that is going to change. Bayern have too much going for them to slip up against Sporting, with the likes of Toni, Klose and Ribery in attack. Upsets happen all the time in soccer, but I'm going to have to go with Bayern in this one. Prediction: Bayern Munich

Molinaro: Simply put, Bayern Munich has too many dangerous weapons for Sporting to contend with. Even if Toni doesn't play, the Bavarians can still call upon Klose, Ribery and Podolski. After slumming it in the UEFA Cup last season, Bayern is anxious to prove it belongs with the big boys and re-establish itself among Europe's elite teams. Other than Liedson, Sporting doesn't have an attacking player of genuine class, and I think Bayern's stout defence won't be too bothered. Prediction: Bayern Munich

Panathinaikos (Greece) vs. Villarreal (Spain)

Reed: Two teams who won't win the Champions League, but have the ability to make it pretty uncomfortable for the team that does eventually lift the trophy in May. The Spaniards stubbornly held Manchester United to goal-less draws home and away in the group stages, while the Greeks had the audacity to beat Inter at the San Siro en route to finishing top of Group B. Villarreal will look to American-born striker Giuseppe Rossi to penetrate the Panathinaikos defence, but with the second leg in Athens, where no visiting team has won since October, I believe the Greek odyssey can continue into the quarter-finals. Prediction: Panathinaikos

De Vos: If you don't consider the two powerhouses of Spanish soccer, Barcelona and Real Madrid, you would have to say that Villarreal are having a decent season. Battling it out with Sevilla for third place in Spain, Villarreal have aging former Arsenal star Robert Pires at their disposal, as well as Rossi. Panathinaikos are not the favourites in this tie, and they are currently playing second fiddle to Olympiakos in the Greek Super League. Playing at home in the second leg could be an advantage, provided they can keep it close in Spain. Prediction: Villarreal

Molinaro: Chilean Manuel Pellegrini is, for me, one of the most under-rated managers in the game. The Villarreal bench boss is an astute tactician who has earned the undying respect of his players, who in turn run themselves ragged on the field for their coach. Rossi is one of the bright young stars in the game, and in Pires, the Spaniards have an experience veteran who leads by example with his silky smooth skills and mature play. Panathinaikos are tough to beat at home, but so is Villarreal, who have more quality players. Prediction: Villarreal