Inter opens CL defense at FC Twente
Inter Milan begins its Champions League title defense with an away match at FC Twente on Tuesday as the Serie A team struggles to recapture the form and swagger that took it to an unprecedented treble last season.
Rafa Benitez has failed to add any major signings to the Inter squad since taking over as coach from Jose Mourinho, and the club has won just one of its first three games this season.
Inter, which also won Serie A and the Italian Cup last season, was beaten 2-0 by Atletico Madrid in the European Super Cup and held to a goalless draw by Bologna in its league opener. Samuel Eto'o's second-half winner in the 2-1 victory over Udinese on Saturday kickstarted Benitez's reign but the former Liverpool manager is far from satisfied heading into the club's European campaign.
"Right now, there isn't much of my stamp on this squad," Benitez said. "We need to do something in January."
The group stage will be over by then and Benitez has been given a kind draw, with Werder Bremen and Tottenham the other teams in Group A.
First up, though, for the defending champions is Twente, which has qualified for the group stage of Europe's elite club competition for the first time and is looking to mark its debut with a famous win.
Inter president Massimo Moratti is far less concerned than Benitez about the club's current plight.
"You can see that the play is evolving, it just takes some time for the squad to get going," Moratti said.
Maicon, Dejan Stankovic and Christian Chivu are all in doubt with fitness issues, while defensive midfielder Thiago Motta is suspended.
The group's other game sees Tottenham - also playing in the group stages for the first time - visit Werder.
Barcelona, beaten by Inter in the semifinals last season, has been given a benign draw in Europe but its surprise 2-0 home defeat to promoted Hercules in the Spanish league on Saturday will have been a shock to the system ahead of a Champions League Group D opener at home to Panathinaikos on Tuesday.
With Barcelona carrying the bulk of Spain's World Cup squad, the effects of so many international matches and trips may be taking their toll on the Spanish champions. Eight players that featured in a midweek friendly between Argentina and Spain were in Barcelona's lineup against Hercules at the Camp Nou.
"We normally play faster, and we couldn't get the ball circulating," left back Eric Abidal said. "But it'll be a different game on Tuesday against Panathinaikos. We have to forget this one as quickly as possible."
Defender Carles Puyol should feature against the Greeks after missing out last weekend with a leg injury. Puyol's return is well-timed, with fellow center back Gerard Pique receiving six stitches to a head knock received against Hercules.
Elsewhere in Group D, FC Copenhagen hosts Rubin Kazan.
Group G includes three clubs who have won the European Cup 20 times between them - Real Madrid (9), AC Milan (7) and Ajax (4).
Madrid, which opens the group round at home to Ajax on Wednesday, is now coached by Mourinho, who is looking to become the first person to win the Champions League with three different clubs.
The Spanish giants come into the match on the back of a 1-0 win over Osasuna, which followed a scoreless draw at Mallorca.
"We are the favorites and we must win because it's crucial to get off to a good start in the Champions League," Mourinho said. "Ajax's style of play is different to that of Osasuna, so it should be quite a different match. They have some very talented players."
Madrid has not won the competition since 2002 and has not been past the quarterfinals since 2004.
Milan, looking to rally from a shock 2-0 home defeat to Cesena in the Serie A on Saturday, hosts French club Auxerre.
Elsewhere on Wednesday; last season's finalist Bayern Munich hosts AS Roma and Cluj is at home to FC Basel in Group E; Arsenal hosts Braga and Partizan Belgrade travels to Shakhtar Donetsk in Group H; pool favorite Chelsea visits competition newcomer Zilina and Marseille hosts Spartak Moscow in Group F.
On Tuesday, Manchester United hosts Glasgow Rangers and Bursaspor is at home to Valencia in Group C, while Lyon hosts Schalke and Hapoel Tel Aviv visits Benfica in Group B.