Facebook Twitter

Madrid in disarray ahead of Champions League start

SHARE Madrid in disarray ahead of Champions League start

LONDON — Struggling in the Spanish league and with its star player and coach publicly unhappy, the last thing beleaguered Real Madrid needed was a Champions League opener against a Manchester City side desperate to muscle in on Europe's elite this season.

A trip to the Santiago Bernabeu looked to have consigned City to the harshest of starts to the continent's premier club competition but the English champions will be relishing the chance to pile more misery on Madrid.

The Spanish giants have dropped eight points from a possible 12 in the defense of their La Liga title, leaving the team in the unusual position of mid-table and prompting heavy criticism from coach Jose Mourinho about the players' lack of commitment and spirit.

Add in Cristiano Ronaldo's comments at the start of the month about feeling "sad" for "professional reasons" and Madrid appears to be in disarray ahead of the standout match of the first round of group fixtures.

"We are having a bad run, but we have to think of Tuesday's game as a chance to boost our morale," Brazilian defender Marcelo said. "Today we are all sad, but we have to move forward."

Chelsea welcomes Italian champion Juventus to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday to begin the defense of a title won in a penalty shootout four months ago in Munich, while Barcelona is at home to Spartak Moscow as it goes in search of a fourth Champions League trophy in seven years.

The highlight of this week's games, however, is undoubtedly Madrid-Man City, which pitches the competition's most successful team with a cash-rich upstart hungry for European success after climbing to the top of English football last season.

"To play the first game away will be very tough but at the same time I think it will be a fantastic game for everyone," City manager Roberto Mancini said.

Madrid, bidding for its 10th European Cup title, is coming into the game off a 1-0 loss at Sevilla that appears to have triggered a state of alarm in the Spanish capital.

"My players' heads are not focused, for many of them football is not a priority," Mourinho said. "But I am the coach and if there are heads that are not focused, it is my fault."

Madrid and City were placed in the hardest of the eight pools along with Borussia Dortmund and Ajax, who meet in Germany on Tuesday in Group D.

Also that night, AC Milan will look to join Madrid in putting its domestic problems aside when the Italian team hosts Belgian side Anderlecht at the San Siro in Group C.

A 1-0 loss to Atalanta on Saturday marked the first time Milan has lost its opening two Serie A home matches in 82 years.

"Fortunately the Champions League gives us a chance to bounce back," said Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri, who deflected talk of his job being at risk. "We're all in the same boat. ... There's little to say and a lot to do."

Spanish team Malaga hosts Zenit St. Petersburg in the group's other match and is one of three clubs making their debuts in the competition, along with Montpellier and FC Nordsjaelland of Denmark.

Montpellier is at home to Arsenal in Group B, where 2011 semifinalist Schalke travels to Olympiakos. Also Tuesday, Dinamo Zagreb hosts FC Porto and Dynamo Kiev visits Paris Saint-Germain, the expensively assembled French club which is back in the Champions League for the first time since 2004.

Barcelona, led by the peerless Lionel Messi and its galaxy of midfield maestros, again starts as the competition favorite and will be buoyed by its perfect start to the Spanish league this season.

"We are playing well," said Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez. "We now face the beginning of the Champions League with a lot of excitement and hope."

Tito Vilanova's side, which is without injured trio Andres Iniesta, Alexis Sanchez and Carles Puyol this week, should have no problem topping a group that also includes Celtic and Benfica.

Chelsea was the team that ended Barca's dreams at the semifinal stage of last season's tournament before going on to beat Bayern Munich on penalties and lift the trophy for the first time.

No team has ever defended the Champions League since its inception in 1992 but Roberto di Matteo's side is the early leader of the Premier League and has refreshed its forward line with exciting talent like Belgium winger Eden Hazard and Brazil playmaker Oscar.

"It's fantastic to have it in the bank but we can't relax on that if we want to be a club that creates a real mark in Europe," Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard said. "It does get harder every year."

Juventus coach Antonio Conte won't be on the touchline at Stamford Bridge after his 10-month suspension in Italy for match-fixing violations was extended worldwide by FIFA on Friday.

Shakhtar Donetsk hosts FC Nordsjaelland in the other Group E game.

Bayern starts on the road to redemption with a home match against Valencia in Group F, where Lille also plays BATE Borisov.

Manchester United is the clear favorite in Group H and starts off at home to Galatasaray. Braga hosts another minnow in Romanian team Cluj in the other game.