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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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Vilanova calms expectations

Tito Vilanova says he does not expect his players to take Spartak Moscow lightly in his first Champions League game as Barcelona head coach on Wednesday evening.

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Vilanova accepted that Barcelona would be favourites to win the game, but recalled a similar situation in October 2009, when he was assistant to Pep Guardiola, that saw Rubin Kazan upset the odds to win 2-1.

"It is very important to begin the group stages well," Vilanova said. "If you do not win, you are already on the back foot. We have been comfortable in recent years, but in Europe all games are difficult. We have had experience of being favourites in games and then suffering, as against Rubin."

The Blaugrana boss also pointed to the experience of English teams last year to show how the group stages did not always go to plan for pre-competition favourites.

"It is not so easy," Vilanova said. "Manchester United and Manchester City were knocked out in the group phase last season. Speaking at this stage about favourites is not real. If we reach the semi-finals we can talk about that then. Not now."

While not commenting directly on Real Madrid's poor start to the domestic season, Vilanova said he was happy to be beginning the European campaign after four straight La Liga wins.

"Coming from bad results, you have more tension and you get more into the game, maybe," he said. "You never know which is best. I prefer to come from good results. You have more confidence and you believe you are doing things well. But in football everything can change very quickly."

Spartak, under the charge of former Valencia boss Unai Emery, currently sit mid-table in the Russian league with 13 points from eight games and overcame Turkish side Fenerbahce last month to reach the group stages. Vilanova said he expected any Emery-coached side to give Barca problems.

"Spartak have a very good team, with a reference point up front in (Emmanuel) Emenike," he said. "They are very dangerous on the counter-attack. Emery is a coach who has always been brave and made things difficult for us."

The Gerona-born coach said that a decision on the availability of Jordi Alba and Alexis Sanchez, who both missed Saturday's 4-1 win at Getafe through injury, would be made after training on Wednesday morning, while David Villa, Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas all had a chance of starting.

"David is taking advantage of the minutes he gets and Thiago and Cesc played very well the other day," Vilanova said. "The three have a chance to play. Thiago has made himself a more complete player than the one we knew in youth football. He continues to work harder."

Besides Spartak, Barcelona will also face Benfica and Celtic in the group stages. Vilanova said that his players - some of whom have reached the Champions League semi-finals in each of the last five seasons - were in no danger of overconfidence or looking too far into the distance.

"The players are not getting carried away," he said. "The most important thing is to just go from game to game. Wembley is very attractive for us and holds good memories, but it is very, very early to be thinking about the final."

He also does not believes that the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi, who have won three Champions League trophies in seven years, would have lost their hunger.

"The Champions League is a competition which especially motivates the players," he said. "The music at the start, taking on the best, going through knockout rounds - it creates excitement."

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