Chelsea looking for another Champions League miracle

After last year's remarkable heroics by the holders the continent's giants are now lying in wait, writes Steve Tongue

Several months on, as a new Champions' League campaign begins, the story of the last one still seems as incredible as ever.

Chelsea sack their manager, not least because they are on the verge of going out of Europe; Roberto di Matteo, promoted from coach, inspires them to overcome a 3-1 deficit to Napoli in extra-time; then enjoys a comfortable win over Benfica after leaving out three senior players, just as André Villas-Boas had done; next his team knock out Barcelona after being 2-0 down in the Nou Camp with John Terry sent off; then, minus four suspended players, the underdogs somehow win the final on penalties in an "away" game with Bayern Munich, who have 35 attempts on goal and 20 corners.

Frank Lampard, one of those players suicidally discarded by Villa-Boas, cannot help but smile as he looks back on it all. One of the most satisfying aspects, he suggests, is not starting the competition by being asked if Chelsea can finally achieve Roman Abramovich's dream and win the thing at last. "It's lovely, it's absolute magic, not to have to answer that question," he said. "It was a frustrating question in the end, we always batted it back in the same way and said that we were confident and we'd try and that we had the squad to do it. And finally we did it, when the odds were most against us, more than any other year."

Didier Drogba's winning penalty with his last kick for the club even carried with it the huge bonus of re-entry this season for a team who finished only sixth in the Premier League and were able to replace bitter rivals Tottenham, who this week face Lazio in the Europa League instead. Like Manchester City, Chelsea have been drawn in a group of four champions, although in their case the prospect is a little less daunting. Nordsjaelland from Denmark should not cause undue problems and although an away game with Shakhtar Donetsk is rarely straightforward, the Ukrainians are possibly not the force of old.

Juventus, with Gianluigi Buffon in goal and Andrea Pirlo to run the midfield, are a different proposition and it is as well that Chelsea have home advantage for their first game on Wednesday.

"It's a very tough game," Lampard said. "A huge club in world football, they've invested money in their team, they have won Serie A last season and it's going to be a tough game for us to start with. The first game is always very important."

Among the other contenders, he naturally mentions Barcelona and Real Madrid, who are the pair very much in the bookmakers' minds as clear favourites. On the basis of the draw as much as anything else, the odds-layers have Manchester United as the most-favoured British team.

The side they may for once have been generous in assessing are Carlo Ancelotti's Paris Saint-Germain, who contrived to lose the French League to little Montpellier (Arsenal's first opponents) last season but have subsequently splashed even more cash in signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva from Milan. The Italian club's prospects have receded as a result in a group containing Zenit St Petersburg, while PSG will be expected to progress against Porto and the Dynamos of Kiev and Zagreb.

Arsenal's experience should see them through in a section tougher than United's but one that is easier than City's. The English champions face Real Madrid and Ajax as well as Borussia Dortmund, who were much the strongest side from the fourth pot of seeds.

Celtic, having come through a qualifying round, may have to be content with the excitement of a double-header against Barcelona and a nostalgic return to Lisbon, scene of their own incredible European triumph, 45 years before Chelsea's.

Chelsea v Juventus (Wednesday)


As defending champions, Chelsea squeezed Tottenham out of the fourth Champions' League place when they would otherwise have been condemned to Thursday nights in the Europa League. Juventus won Serie A without losing a game to achieve a record 28th title.

Who to watch for

Juve have signed Lucio, the powerful Inter defender, Paul Pogba from Manchester United and, more unexpectedly, Arsenal's Nicklas Bendtner.

What they're saying

Chelsea's Frank Lampard: "If we want to be a club that creates a real mark in Europe, we've done it once and we want to do more."

Opponents' form

Juventus went straight to the top of Serie A with two wins ahead of today's game away to Genoa (2pm).

Manchester United v Galatasaray (Wednesday)


Finishing third last season after losing the last group match in Basle was a shock to prevent any United complacency this time. Turkish visitors have twice won at Old Trafford, where Galatasaray drew 3-3 back in 1993.

Who to watch for

Burak Yilmaz scored 33 goals for Trabzonspor last season. Midfielder Hamit Altintop is back in Turkey from Real Madrid.

What they're saying

Sir Alex Ferguson: "After the experience of last year we don't want to make any stupid errors this time."

Opponents' form

Lead the table after three games despite conceding six goals.

Celtic v Benfica (Wednesday)


The Scottish champions are back after an absence of four seasons, taking heart from having reached the knockout stage on the two occasions they have drawn Benfica. Deprived of Old Firm games, these matches (Barcelona and Spartak Moscow make up the group) should be the highlight of their season.

Who to watch for

Oscar Cardozo was joint top scorer in Portugal and midfielder Nicolas Gaitan was strongly linked with Manchester United and Liverpool.

What they're saying

Celtic manager Neil Lennon: "This is what we've worked so hard for, it's very, very exciting for us all."

Opponents' form

Benfica will hope to maintain the momentum of winning their first two games 5-0 and 3-0.

Montpellier v Arsenal (Tuesday)


Montpellier's rise from 14th place the previous season to pip wealthy Paris Saint-Germain to a first French title was an extraordinary achievement. They were still forced to sell top scorer Olivier Giroud to Arsenal.

Who to watch for

Few household names, even in French households. Emanuel Herrera from Chile is Giroud's replacement.

What they're saying

Arsenal's Giroud: "It will be difficult for me because there is a lot of emotion and I have so many good memories of last season."

Opponents' form

Were given an extra day's rest by playing on Friday night, but the 3-1 defeat by Reims means they have only one win in five and are in the bottom half of the table.

Real Madrid v Manchester City (Tuesday)


It is the other Manchester club who have the history with Madrid, but City continue to make their own. In a group of four champions (Borussia Dortmund and Ajax are the others) they cannot afford as slow a start as in last season's competition.

Who to watch for

A chap called Ronaldo might be worth keeping an eye on. Luka Modric is not bad either.

What they're saying

City's James Milner: "To get a group of champions is a bit unlucky, but you play in the Champions League to play against these sort of teams. We were unlucky last year. Maybe we didn't play our best football but we got 10 points and that would probably have got us through in any other group."

Opponents' form

A shock defeat away to city rivals Getafe left them in the middle of the early-season table before last night's trip to Sevilla

Odds to win Champions' League (from William Hill)

5-2 Barcelona; 4-1 Real Madrid; 8-1 Manchester United; 9-1 Manchester City; 12-1 Bayern Munich, Chelsea; 16‑1 Arsenal, Juventus, PSG.

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