By Mike Collett
Barcelona start the Champions League campaign aiming to become the first club since AC Milan in 1990 to win successive titles, a feat they could achieve at the Italian club’s San Siro stadium next May.
Milan, European champions seven times and the last club to retain the trophy, are powerless to stop Barca emulating that success because they have failed to qualify for European competition.
AS Roma and Juventus, who Barca beat in last season’s final, are leading Italy’s challenge although the real threat is likely to come from the usual powerhouses, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Chelsea as well as mega-wealthy Manchester City and Paris St Germain.
Barca are one of five Spanish clubs involved, Sevilla joining Real, Atletico Madrid and Valencia as winners of last season’s Europa League, and another Barca success would represent a hat-trick for Spain after Real’s triumph in 2014.
A flood of 122 goals from Lionel Messi (58), Neymar (39) and Luis Suarez (25) swept Barcelona to the treble of Champions League and Spanish Cup and League last season.
“The ambitions are the same. We won the treble last season and we know it won’t be easy to do it again, but we’ll try to,” Barca’s Belgium defender Thomas Vermaelen said.
“We have the same team and we’ll do all we can game by game.”
Barca start their campaign against Roma on Wednesday and also face BATE Borisov of Belarus and Bayer Leverkusen in Group E.
While Barca could well get back to the final, Juventus are unlikely to repeat the feat.
They face Manchester City, Sevilla and Borussia Monchengladbach in a tough group and have lost key players in Carlos Tevez, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo.
Although Barca have been the dominant force in Europe over the last decade, Real hold the record with 10 titles – double Barca’s tally.
“Like always our goal is to win everything. We know that will be very difficult, that expectations are high, but anything other than aspiring to win all the titles is not good enough at this club,” Real full back Alvaro Arbeloa said.
Real start against Shakhtar Donetsk at home on Tuesday in Group A which also includes PSG and Malmo.
That draw was greeted with huge enthusiasm in Sweden as it brings PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who his compatriots have voted as their greatest ever player, face to face with his boyhood club Malmo.
“It will be great to have Zlatan here,” Malmo coach Age Hareide told Reuters.
“It will be a party for the people, but we would have preferred a slightly weaker third team than Shakhtar,” he added.
With many of the same teams now regularly featuring in the competition every season, there is an air of familiarity about some clashes, with many former team mates coming up against each other.
Arsenal meet Olympiakos Piraeus in the group stage for the fourth time in seven seasons and will face Bayern Munich for the third time in the last four years.
Memphis Depay, who shone for Manchester United when they secured their return to the competition with a 7-1 aggregate win over Club Bruges in the playoffs, will face his old club PSV Eindhoven in Group B which also includes VfL Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow.
Angel Di Maria, who left Real for 59 million pounds to join United before decamping to PSG after a miserable spell at Old Trafford, will come up against his old mates in Madrid.
Former Real boss Jose Mourinho, who led Porto to victory in the 2004 Champions League final will now be looking to beat them when his Chelsea side face them, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Dynamo Kiev in Group G.
Among all that familiarity, Astana are breaking new ground as the first team from Kazakhstan to take part, in Group C along with Benfica, Galatasaray and Atletico Madrid.