Juventus' Brazilian playmaker Diego, centre right, will be one of the stars to watch during this year's UEFA Champions League. ((Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press))

After a long summer break, 32 of the best soccer teams from across Europe begin their quest to be crowned continental kings when the group stage of the 2009-10 UEFA Champions League kicks off this week.

Defending champions FC Barcelona, nine-time tournament winners Real Madrid, English powerhouse Manchester United, Italian giants Inter Milan and a 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 Madrid's Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.

Last year, Barcelona won its third crown in team history, overpowering Manchester United in the final in Rome.

Who will it be this year?

CBC Sports commentators Nigel Reed and Jason de Vos, and CBCSports.ca soccer expert John F. Molinaro offer their analysis and predictions of Groups A, B, C and D. To read about Groups E, F, G and H, click here.

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 Winners

  • 2009 - FC Barcelona (Spain)
  • 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 Forest (England)
  • 1979 - Nottingham Forest (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)

GROUP A: Bayern Munich (Germany), Bordeaux (France), Juventus (Italy), Maccabi Haifa (Israel)

Nigel Reed: Juventus, the Old Lady, is back again and ready to restore Italian pride at Europe's top table. None of the Italian representatives made it to the quarter-finals last season, and Juve, having topped their group, fell to Chelsea in the first knock out round.

Bayern Munich will also expect to progress from Group A and the summer arrival of Dutch winger Arjen Robben will strengthen their campaign as both scorer and provider for the likes of Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose. 

Once again, Bordeaux find themselves in a tough section and will struggle to win enough games to get out of the group, while Israeli champions Maccabi Haifa can expect no mercy from the Germans or the Italians.

Prediction: 1) Juventus, 2) Bayern Munich, 3) Bordeaux, 4) Maccabi Haifa

Jason de Vos:  Bayern Munich managed to hang on to Franck Ribery this summer despite garnering attention from some of Europe's biggest clubs. That has to be regarded as a big bonus for the Germans, and the Frenchman will be vital in their attempts to advance past the group stage.  

Juventus look to be the strongest team in Group A, and the additions of Brazilians Diego and Felipe Melo have increased their options in midfield. Diego will play in a more advanced role, while Melo will give protection and cover in front of the back four. Gigi Buffon is still one of the best keepers in the world.

Bordeaux claimed the French title last year, and they have managed to hang on to their best players this season. Locking up Yoann Gourcuff after he starred for them on loan from AC Milan last season is a massive coup. He might not make it to the World Cup next year, as France are struggling to qualify, but I expect a big club to come in for Gourcuff in the not-too-distant future. Surely AC Milan regrets their decision to let him leave?

Maccabi Haifa will play the role of spoiler, and dropping points to the Israelis could determine the finishing order of the other three teams. If they are to stand any chance of advancing out of this group, their home form will be key.

Prediction: 1) Juventus, 2) Bordeaux, 3) Bayern Munich, 4) Maccabi Haifa

John F. Molinaro: This is Juventus's group to win. The Bianconeri made significant off-season moves, including landing Brazilian playmaker Diego, in order to make a strong run in the Champions League. The Italians have a wealth of experience (Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero) and young stars (Sebastian Giovinco and Claudio Marchisio), and call also cal upon players the calibre of standout centre-back Giorgio Chiellini and midfielder Mohamed Sissoko.

In Franck Ribery, Bayern boasts one of the most dangerous attacking players in the world. The Frenchman makes things happen with his direct approach, and he has already shown he can effectively link up with Klose. Like Gomez, Arjen Robben was a summer signing who has already made an impact for the Bavarians.

Gourcuff is, in my estimation, one of the most under-rated players in European soccer. The Frenchman oozes class and boasts a sublime scoring touch. Argentine forward Fernando Cavenaghi and Brazil's Wendel give the French champions other quality attacking options.

With all due respect to Haifa, they're going to have their hats handed to them. Keep an eye out for Israeli midfielder Lior Rafaelov, though.

Prediction: 1) Juventus, 2) Bayern Munich, 3) Bordeaux, 4) Maccabi Haifa

GROUP B: Besiktas (Turkey), CSKA Moscow (Russia), Manchester United (England), Wolfsburg (Germany)

Reed: No skill or knowledge required in predicting Manchester United will win Group B without the need for a second or third gear. The English champions should breeze into the knock out stages and will, once again, be among the favourites to lift the trophy next spring.

The real interest in this section is which team will accompany United in the second round. The Turkish champions will always be hard to beat on home soil, the new German champions are an unknown quantity in the Champions League, while the Russians have recruited ex-Real Madrid boss Juande Ramos to guide them through the group stages.

Based on their experience at this level, I'm taking Besiktas to finish second. Less than two years ago they scored a notable home win over Liverpool, but they tend not to travel well. In the return at Anfield, the Turks were hammered 8-0.

Prediction: 1) Manchester United, 2) Besiktas, 3) Wolfsburg, 4) CSKA Moscow

De Vos: It's not the easiest draw in the competition, but I expect Manchester United to come out on top of this group. Wayne Rooney is in excellent form, and he and Dimitar Berbatov are a fearsome duo going forward. It might take some time for them to adjust to the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, but Sir Alex Ferguson is the best manager in the business for a reason.

Ramos has taken the helm at CSKA Moscow, replacing the Brazilian Zico as boss of the Russian league runners-up from last season. CSKA lost influential left-footer Yuri Zhirkov to Chelsea this summer, and they will be in for a fight if they are to finish second to United.

Besiktas will be a difficult opponent at home, and it is there where I feel they must take full advantage of their traditionally rowdy home support. It couldn't get much more difficult for them, as their opening fixture is against United. That might not be such a bad thing, though, as you wouldn't want to play the English champs needing three points to secure passage to the second round.

Wolfsburg were the most consistent team in a fascinating German championship last season, claiming their first-ever title success. Despite losing their manager, Felix Magath, to Schalke, Wolfsburg held on to their dynamic front men, Grafite and Edin Dzeko. They both notched over 20 goals apiece in the Bundesliga last season, and more of the same will be needed this year in the Champions League.

Prediction: 1) Manchester United, 2) Wolfsburg, 3) Besiktas, 4) CSKA Moscow 

Molinaro: Even with the loss of Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, United are head and shoulders above the rest of the teams in this group, and I suspect the English champions won't even have to get out of first gear.

In Brazilian Grafite and Bosnian Dzeko, the German champions had one of the most lethal 1-2 scoring punches in all of Europe last season - together they combined for 54 goals. Look for the dangerous duo to propel the Germans into the next round.

CSKA Moscow is a talented side, but don't possess a lot of attacking depth, even with the recent addition of Chilean winger Mark Gonzalez.

As for Besiktas, the Turkish giants probably wish they could play all of their games at the intimidating ÿnönü Stadium in Istanbul because their road record in this competition leaves a lot to be desired.

Prediction: 1) Manchester United, 2) Wolfsburg, 3) CSKA Moscow, 4) Besiktas


Real Madrid hope summer signings Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, right, can lead them to a 10th Champions League title. ((Steffen Schmidt/Associated Press))

GROUP C: AC Milan (Italy), Olympique Marseille (France), Real Madrid (Spain), FC Zurich (Switzerland)

Reed: If spending power is directly related to success on the field, which is not always the case, Real Madrid must be considered among the front runners to be crowned champions of Europe for a record 10th time.

The acquisition of a host of star names at inflated prices won't worry Real' s hierarchy as long as the team delivers the goods in terms of silverware.

The Spaniards should cruise through the group stages alongside AC Milan, the only team really capable of giving them a run for their money, and their back-to-back encounters on Matchdays 3 and 4 will be among the highlights of the pre-Christmas action.

Fernando Morientes, who won three Champions League titles with Real, is now part of the Marseille line-up and would love nothing more than to score a goal or two against his old team in the twilight of his career. It would be mere consolation however. The French and the Swiss will be out of their depth.     

Prediction: 1) Real Madrid, 2) AC Milan, 3) Marseille, 4) Zurich

De Vos: It was bound to happen, wasn't it? AC Milan sold Kaka to Real Madrid, and now they are forced to face their former talisman. What are the odds on Kaka scoring the goals to beat his previous employers?

Things aren't going especially well for Milan manager Leonardo. A crushing defeat to city rivals Inter in the second week of the Serie A season won't have done his team's confidence much good, and now they are faced with the prospect of facing the two most expensive players in the history of the game, Kaka and Ronaldo.

As for Real Madrid, the signings of Raul Albiol and Alvaro Arbeloa might prove to be more important than the aforementioned Galacticos. Why? They can actually defend, and that is something that Madrid will need to do well if their superstars are to be given the freedom to attack.

With Didier Deschamps in charge, you would expect Marseille to be well organized. The former French national captain will know that for his team to stand a chance against the likes of Milan and Madrid, they will need to be hard to beat and have more than their fair share of good fortune. There are no big-name players in Marseille's lineup, unless you count the aging Morientes. Hardly a Kaka or Ronaldo though, is it?

FC Zurich are the minnows of this group, and even the most optimistic Swiss fans would be hard-pressed to tip them for success. Still, upsets happen all the time, so expect a few points to be picked up by the Golden Lions.

Prediction: 1) Real Madrid, 2) AC Milan, 3) Marseille, 4) FC Zurich

Molinaro: You don't spend over $500 million US in transfer fees on the likes of Kaka, Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso like Real Madrid did in the summer and then bow out in the first round of the Champions League. The Spaniards will run away with this group.

On the surface, AC Milan seem to be clear favourites to finish in second, but I don' t think it's a sure thing. The Rossoneri are a team in transition after the retirement of Paolo Maldini and the sale of Kaka, not to mention the appointment of new coach Leonardo who is tactically out of his depth.

I have a lot of time for Deschamps. A classy midfielder during his playing days, the Frenchman has brought stability and discipline to Marseille, who do need to prove they can pick up points on the road if they have any chance of moving on to the next round.

Zurich's meagre defence, anchored by Hannu Tihinen of Finland, is in for a tough time.

Prediction: 1) Real Madrid, 2) Marseille, 3) AC Milan, 4) FC Zurich

GROUP D: Apoel Nicosia (Cyprus), Atletico Madrid (Spain), Chelsea (England), FC Porto (Portugal)

Reed: Is this the year when Chelsea finally reaches the European summit or are there now too many teams ahead of them in the pecking order? Regardless of the many millions poured in by owner Roman Abramovich, the Blues' Champions League adventures have consistently fallen just short in recent years.

Despite the controversial transfer ban imposed by FIFA, I expect Chelsea to top Group D and will likely advance along with FC Porto. Portugal's top team have proved almost unbeatable on home soil and accounted for Atletico Madrid's exit in the knock out stages last season.

The Spaniards, however, with Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero in their ranks, should not be discarded, unlike the Cypriot Champions APOEL who've done well merely to qualify for the first time in their history

Prediction: 1) Chelsea, 2) FC Porto, 3) Atletico Madrid, 4) Apoel Nicosia

De Vos: Chelsea were rocked by FIFA's decision to put a ban on player transfers at the club until January 2011. That ban might get reduced on appeal, but regardless of that decision, I still think Chelsea have enough talent to win this group. If Didier Drogba decides to play soccer rather than see how far he can push the boundaries of petulance, he is capable of being one of the most feared strikers in the world.

Despite competing in the second-tier championship of Portugal, FC Porto still have an impressive Champions League pedigree. Winners in 2004 under current Inter coach Jose Mourinho, Porto won't be overawed coming up against the best in Europe. Not a club of big-name players, but they play well as a team and have an excellent home record.

Atletico Madrid avoided the urge to cash in on some of their star players, despite the riches on offer from the likes of Manchester United. Aguero and Forlan should score the goals that ensure Madrid's "other team" are in with a shout of advancing to the knockout phase - if they can find the consistency that eluded them in the last campaign.

There is usually at least one weaker team in the expanded group stage format of the Champions League, and in group D that team is Cypriot champion Apoel Nicosia. Not much to say about them other than they'll be taking home the wooden spoon for finishing in fourth place.

Prediction: 1) Chelsea, 2) Atletico Madrid, 3) FC Porto, 4) Apoel Nicosia

Molinaro: Carlo Ancelotti has Chelsea hitting on all cylinders in the English Premier League, and I can't see a team that is littered with world-class stars such as Drogba, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien not win this group.

You have to wonder if Manchester United regrets letting Forlan go in 2004? Since then, the Uruguayan has established himself as one of the most prolific strikers in European soccer, and he, together with Aguero, makes Atletico one of the dark horses to watch in this tournament.

Dominating the Portuguese first division is one thing - dominating in the Champions League, where the calibre of opposition is exponentially higher, is another thing all together. Porto may pull off a surprise and beat out Atletico for the second spot, but I doubt it.

As for the Cypriots, well, the phrase "lambs being led to slaughter " comes to mind.

Prediction: 1) Chelsea, 2) Atletico Madrid, 3) FC Porto, 4) Apoel Nicosia