Barca target back-to-back titles
LONDON, Sept 11 (Reuters) - Barcelona aim to become the first club for 17 years to be crowned European champions in successive seasons when the Champions League campaign reaches its climax in Athens next May.
The last team to win back-to-back European titles were AC Milan in 1989 and 1990, but Barcelona look equipped to succeed where so many others have failed over the years since then.
Big-spending Chelsea, 1999 champions Manchester United, 2005 winners Liverpool and last season's beaten finalists Arsenal lead England's assault on the crown.
Real Madrid, looking for a 10th European Cup success, would love nothing more than to succeed their Spanish arch-rivals Barcelona as Champions League winners.
Juventus, demoted from Serie A as a result of a match-fixing scandal after winning the Italian title last season, are ineligible this term.
AC Milan are thus likely to lead Italy's challenge although Inter Milan, Italian champions following a court ruling, have the potential to become European champions for the first time since 1965.
There is also some optimism in France that the country which helped launch the tournament in the mid-1950s might actually win it for only the second time.
Olympique Lyon, who have won the French title for the last five seasons, have reached the quarter-finals for the last three seasons and proved when they beat Real Madrid in the opening phase that they have the capacity to beat the biggest clubs.
Despite their good showing in the World Cup, Germany's clubs might struggle to make an impact.
Bayern Munich president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge says that despite his team's history, fantastic new ground and dominance of German soccer, they can no longer compete with the richer clubs in Europe and he does not expect them to win the trophy.
If the president of Bayern is writing off his club's hopes, what chance do Hamburg SV and Werder Bremen have?
Success in the Champions League is relative, of course, and for the likes of FC Copenhagen and Levski Sofia, making their debuts in the group phase, just being among the 32 top clubs in Europe represents a massive achievement.
Copenhagen saw off four times European champions Ajax Amsterdam to reach the group stage.
They would probably be delighted to finish third in a group that also includes Manchester United, Celtic and Benfica and so claim a place in the later stages of the UEFA Cup.
Levski, the first Bulgarian team to reach the group phase would also be delighted with third place, especially as they have to play Barcelona, Chelsea and Werder Bremen.
It is difficult to argue against Barca and Chelsea advancing from that group and if they then do not meet in the knockout stages both look equipped to go all the way to the final.
Barcelona, who came from behind to beat Arsenal in last season's final in Paris, have strengthened their squad with the addition of Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta from Juventus and are likely to be even harder to beat.
Chelsea, who lost in the first knockout round to Barca last season, have secured serious reinforcements in Germany skipper Michael Ballack, England defender Ashley Cole and Ukraine's former European Footballer of the Year Andriy Shevchenko.
They have happy memories of Athens where they beat Real Madrid in a replay to win the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1971. Barcelona would love to go back there and expunge memories of a crushing 4-0 loss to Milan in the 1994 Champions League final.
If the season follows the form book, which it rarely does, both clubs might get the chance to play out that scenario in the Olympic Stadium next May.