premier status

BRUSSELS - Premier League clubs return to Champions League action this week with fans and bookmakers both believing a winner will emerge from last season's finalists, Manchester United and Chelsea.

BRUSSELS - Premier League clubs return to Champions League action this week with fans and bookmakers both believing a winner will emerge from last season's finalists, Manchester United and Chelsea.

England's top clubs flexed their financial muscle last season by getting three teams, including Liverpool, into the semifinals before United beat Chelsea on penalties in Moscow.

That same trio, along with Arsenal, are back for more and being tipped by bookies to secure a Premier League clean sweep of four group winners with Betfair, William Hill and Bwin favouring either United or Chelsea to go all the way.

Barcelona, Real Madrid, Olympique Lyon and Inter Milan are tipped in the other four groups, though the final stages are expected to show a dominant Premier League in action.

United, aiming to become the first club to win back-to-back Champions League titles since the elite competition was reformed in 1992, face Spain's Villareal, Scottish Champions Celtic and Denmark's AaB Aalborg in Group E.

Victory for the holders against the Spanish team in their opening match on Wednesday, followed by an away win against the Danish debutants should put them in pole position.

Chelsea aim to remain England's most consistent club in Europe in recent years by seeing off the Group A challenge of Italy's AS Roma, Girondins Bordeaux of France and Romanian debutants CFR Cluj.

The Londoners - semifinalists in four of the past five years - first host Bordeaux followed by a trip to Romania before games with Roma that are expected to decide top spot.

Five-time European champions Liverpool look to have the most difficult group of the four English clubs. They face Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven, Atletico Madrid and Olympique Marseille in Group D.

The 2005 winners will need to improve dramatically from their unimpressive last gasp win over Standard Liege of Belgium in the previous round if they are to progress.

Arsenal also face a sticky route to next year's final in Rome. The 2006 finalists are drawn alongside Portugal's Porto, Fenerbahce of Turkey and Ukraine's Dynamo Kiev in Group G.

Elsewhere, many regular Champions League contenders will fancy their chances of progressing. Nine-time champions Real Madrid should get off to a winning start in Group H against Belarussian debutants BATE Borisov, but face more difficult games against Italy's Juventus and UEFA Cup champions Zenit St Petersburg.

Barcelona fans will be confident ahead of their team's Group C campaign where they will play Sporting Lisbon of Portugal, Swiss side Basel and Shakhtar Donetsk.

Inter Milan are favourites to win Group B under former Champions League winning coach Jose Mourinho. They face Greece's Panathinaikos, Germany's Werder Bremen and Cypriot first-timers Anorthosis Famagusta.

Top seeded Olympique Lyon face a tough task in Group F. The French champions are up against German champions Bayern Munich 1986 winners Steaua Bucharest and Italy's Fiorentina. - Reuters

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