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The Champions League of nations.

From Portugal's Atlantic coast in the west to the hostile winters of Moscow and Donetsk in the east; from the small town of Farum, Denmark, to the bright lights of London, Paris, Milan and Madrid; from multi-million pound signings to financial meltdown. However you look at it, the 2012/13 Uefa Champions League group stage, which begins on Tuesday, is surely one of the most diverse in the famous competition's history.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Hulk, Eden Hazard and Robin van Persie have all made mega-money moves since Didier Drogba decided last season's final, when the now China-based striker gave a stubborn Chelsea side a penalty shootout victory in opponents Bayern Munich's own Allianz Arena.

The London club have signalled their intent to hang on to that long-desired crown, investing heavily in the likes of Hazard, Oscar and Marko Marin, but they are far from the biggest spenders taking part in Europe's premier club competition this season.

Qatar-backed French club Paris St-Germain have splurged more than EoAeu100m (Dh471m) on Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Thiago Motta, while ambitious Russians Zenit St Petersburg made sure they weren't left out by spending EoAeu40m each on Hulk and, extraordinarily, the relatively obscure Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel.

At the other end of the scale, Champions League debutants Malaga -- another club with Middle East backers -- have seen star player Santi Cazorla sold to Arsenal amid reports their Qatari owners are backing out, leaving their financial future uncertain to say the least.

In the middle of all those boom and bust transfer dealings, there are fascinating stories such as the emergence of FC Nordsjaelland, the Danish minnows who will face Chelsea, Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk in Group E.

FCN, nicknamed the Wild Tigers, have a home ground -- Farum Park -- which has a capacity of just 10,100, and they have never previously made it past the qualifying rounds of any European competition. But they were the surprise winners of last season's Danish Superliga -- their first ever league title -- and have earned their place in the Champions League. Only formed in 1991 as Farum Boldklub before changing their name in 2003, Nordsjaelland haven't even won a European match since 2008, when they beat Scotland's Queen of the South home and away in a Uefa Cup qualifier.

Their coach, Kasper Hjulmand, remains realistic when considering their chances in the competition. "It's a master-class group with the potential for some fun and exciting games. We will be the underdogs in every game and will remain humble and take on the group as we did the league," Hjulmand said.

One of the highlights of this season's group stage will surely be the chance to witness something of a Champions League rarity -- four actual champions going head-to-head in Group D.

Manchester City, hurt by last season's inability to progress from a difficult group on their Champions League debut, could deem themselves unlucky to be drawn alongside Germany's Borussia Dortmund and the Netherlands' Ajax Amsterdam, but throw in new Spanish champions Real Madrid as well and it's clear they will have to improve again if they are to reach the knockout stages.

But Madrid too are concerned about facing the fast-rising Blues, with manager Jose Mourinho saying: "Manchester City are powerful because they have players at the highest world level. City are a team built to win the Champions League."

Real's biggest rivals Barcelona, meanwhile, go into this year's competition without the man who led them to their victories in 2009 and 2011, as all-conquering coach Pep Guardiola stepped down in the summer after the club surprisingly missed out on winning any major honours.

Beaten at last season's semi-final stage after two hugely dramatic games against Chelsea, it is now down to Guardiola's former assistant coach Tito Vilanova to try and take the title back to the Basque region.

And he has the same high expectations of his predecessor. "I'm hoping to win it all, that's what I'm hoping for this season. We have a good enough team to win any match. Barca is used to winning everything, especially in the last few years. We have to try and keep the ball, have the ambition to win and know who we are competing against," Vilanova said.

So the road to Wembley Stadium in London -- where the 2013 final will be held on May 25 -- begins in Zagreb, Paris, Montpellier, Piraeus, Milan, Malaga, Dortmund and Madrid on Tuesday, taking in a total of 77 matches across nine months before the 58th champions of Europe and 21st since the formation of the Champions League are crowned.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Sep 16, 2012
Words:777
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