BERLIN (dpa) – Real Madrid start their Champions League title defence in shaky form while English and German clubs renew their rivalry when the elite event kicks off on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Real beat crosstown rivals Atletico 4-1 in extra time to win Europe’s top club trophy a tenth time, and now want to become the first team to defend the title since a group stage was introduced in 1991-92.
The last team to win the competition in successive years were AC Milan in 1989 and 1990.
However, Real are coming off a 2-1 home defeat against the Spanish champions Atletico, their second loss in the first three Liga games.
Real open on Tuesday in group B against Swiss side Basel while Atletico start group A play in Greece at Olympiakos Piraeus. The 2013 winners Bayern Munich meanwhile begin their bid to reach the June 6, 2015, final in Berlin with a Wednesday group E home game against English champions Manchester City.
The two sides meet in the group stage for the third time in four years, just as the 2013 runners-up Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal, who renew their rivalry in group D on Tuesday.
Ailing Schalke complete the Anglo-German duels at home against Chelsea in group G on Wednesday as they meet the second straight year.
“England versus Germany are always fierce battles,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said.
Liverpool complete the English quartet with an opening Anfield date against Ludogorets in Real’s group B. Germany’s fourth team, Bayer Leverkusen, are at French league side Monaco in group C.
Spain also have four teams in the competition, with mighty Barcelona starting in group F against Apoel Nicosia of Cyprus, and Athletic Bilbao hosting Shakhtar Donetsk in group H.
The Bulgarians of Ludogorets are new faces in the money-laden event along with Malmo of Sweden, who visit Italian champions Juventus in their debut Tuesday in group A.
In Madrid, disgruntled Real fans have vented their fury on veteran keeper Iker Casillas, out-of-form striker Karim Benzema and club president Florentino Perez, who is unpopular for having sold off Xabi Alonso and Angel di Maria, after bringing in German world champion Toni Kroos and Colombian World Cup top scorer James Rodriguez.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti must decide whether to stick by Casillas and Benzema, or whether to replace them with newcomers Keylor Navas and Javier Hernandez.
“We have to stay united. The important thing is not how you start but how you finish!” reserve striker Jese said.
Xabi Alonso has moved to Munich to replace Kroos there. Coach Pep Guardiola is happy to have Franck Ribery back from injury but defender Holger Badstuber has joined a long injury which also features Thiago, Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
“Man City are a great team, but we need the win,” Xabi Alonso said after a weekend 2-0 league win against VfB Stuttgart.
City, who were completely outplayed by Bayern at home last year but then won in Munich, are coming off a 2-2 draw at Arsenal.
“We should take confidence out of the last game we played in Munich. We’re up for the challenge,” captain Vincent Kompany said.
The Gunners also won last year in Dortmund (1-0), where Shinji Kagawa made an immediate impact for Borussia in his return after two unsuccessful years at Manchester United.
Kagawa scored one and was involved in another as Dortmund beat Freiburg 3-1 in the league on Saturday, and Arsenal’s England forward Jack Wilshere spoke of “a tough game and we go there first this time, so the hardest match of the group will be the first one.
“We can put a marker down in that game to say we’re here to win this group. Even if we don’t win the game, we don’t want to lose it.”
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea go to Schalke, where they won 3-0 last year, with a perfect Premier League record while the hosts are third bottom in the Bundesliga and with no competitive game win so far.
The 2005 champions Liverpool crashed 1-0 at home to Aston Villa and hope for a better result against Ludogorets who have goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov suspended but not defender Cosmin Moti in his place again.
Moti famously went between the posts when Stoyanov was sent off at the end of extra time in the play-off against Steaua Bucharest, then converted his team’s first penalty and saved two from the Romanians in the shoot-out to ensure their group stage debut.
“We will play our football – good, nice football and after that we will see what happens,” Moti told the Daily Telegraph.