Champions League 2011-12, Group C
Status: Premier League champions
Nickname: Red Devils
THE RECORD: United are three-time European champions, with their legendary boss Sir Alex Ferguson making it his priority to add to the club's solitary 1968 victory in this competition when he took over as Old Trafford chief way back in 1986.
He has succeeded in that task, winning his first Champions League crown in 1999 and backing it up with a 2008 triumph in a decisive penalty shoot-out against Chelsea in the Moscow rain. His side's defeat in the final game of last season's competition against Barcelona merely served to fuel Ferguson's ambitions for this campaign.
TACTICIAN: Sir Alex Ferguson
The granddaddy of all football managers, Ferguson's legend was set in stone once he claimed his first Champions League crown in the famous 1999 Final, which featured two last gasp goals to see off a crestfallen Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp.
With a stunning 27-major titles to his credit in his historic reign as United chief, this 69-year-old shows no sign of losing his appetite for the sport he has mastered in nearly four decades patrolling the touchline. Fergie will hope believe there is at least one more Champions League triumph to toast before he heads into retirement sunset.
THE GAMEPLAN: Ferguson opted to play Wayne Rooney as his lone striker in Champions League games a couple of seasons back, especially away from home, yet the emergence of Javier Hernandez meant a two-man attack was favoured at the back end of last term.
Their lack of numbers in midfield allowed Barcelona to overrun United in last season's Champions League Final at Wembley, so bulking up the midfield may be his game plan this time. The electrifying pace the English champions can operate at is too much for most of their rivals to deal with.
MAIN MAN: Wayne Rooney
Rooney suffered a Tiger Woods-style public meltdown last season, which included tabloid scandals, a dramatic decline in form on the field and an attempt to walk out on United to join local rivals Manchester City at the height of the turmoil.
By the end of the campaign, United's No.10 was reinstalled as their talisman in chief and he was one of the few United players to emerge from the Champions League Final defeat against Barcelona with his reputation enhanced. With a trimmed-down physique to go with his cosmetically-planted new hairdo, Rooney looks ready to rock Europe this season.
BIG SIGNING: Ashley Young
A few eyebrows were raised when Ferguson snapped up Young from Aston Villa during the summer as the critics of this speedy winger have long suggested that his end product is not up to the job at the highest level.
However, it seems as if the £15 million move to United has already taken Young's game onto another level, with his confidence soaring and his threat down the flank apparently cranked up a couple of notches. He loves nothing better than cutting inside a full-back and unleashing curling right-footed shots that can be delivered come with unstoppable power and accuracy.
THE RISING STAR: Phil Jones
United beat off competition from Arsenal and Liverpool to secure the services of centre-back Jones this summer and the £16 million fee agreed with Blackburn seemed hefty for teenager unproven at the highest level, yet it seems as if he is already emerging as a genuine threat to first team stalwarts Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
"I have always watched players like Rio in the past and tried to copy what he does, so it seems crazy that I might now be playing alongside him at the biggest club in the world," says the starry-eyed youngster. "I have to prove I'm good enough to play for United every week."
THE X FACTOR: The Young Guns
A fresh and youthful United have emerged this season and they appear to have a few more strings to their repertoire after a summer of heavy transfer investment.
New keeper David de Gea, defensive starlets Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, hungry midfielders Ashley Young and Tom Cleverley and strikers Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck have dramatically dragged down the average age of this United line-up. If they combine with the club's old guard in double quick time, the extra dimension boss Ferguson is looking for may already be within his grasp.
FLAW IN THE MAKE-UP: United's youthful additions could yet turn out to be a weakness for Europe's elite to exploit, with De Gea's uncertainty between the sticks an obvious pressure point for opponents to press. The Spanish stopper is still a raw talent and his mistakes could cost United dear.
There must also be question marks over whether the likes of Cleverley and Young could unsettle Barcelona if a rematch of last season's Wembley Final comes to fruition. Against the very best, any minor defect will be exposed. Ferguson should have pushed through a deal to sign Inter's Wesley Sneijder in the summer, as the Dutch master would have given United's midfield the extra class it still lacks.
WHAT THEY SAY: "There is no doubt that United will be one of our main rivals again and they seem to be even stronger this time," states Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola. "We are talking about a side who played a Champions League semi-final with a lot of reserve players last season and ended up winning 4-1. Their squad is better than everyone else and, obviously, they have the greatest manager of them all."
VERDICT: Another run to the final is a strong possibility, but Barcelona still look a step ahead of United's youthful entertainers.
Status: 2nd in Portuguese league
Nicknames: Eagles of Lisbon
THE RECORD: Champions of Europe in 1961 and 1962, Benfica have also been runners-up five times in the club football's elite competition. Their 1968 Wembley final against Manchester United is one of the most talked about games in this illustrious history of this competition, so the re-matches with the Old Trafford giants this season will be eagerly anticipated.
TACTICIAN: Jorge Jesus
A title winner in his first season as Benfica boss a couple of seasons back, Jesus came under fire last season as Porto recaptured the Portuguese league crown with something to spare.
Jesus was blamed for undermining Benfica's efforts with what was viewed as eccentric tactical changes, with his eagerness to make his mark on a game not always reaping positive results. "Some people may feel I should not be here anymore, but I have two years left on my contract and I'm determined to win more titles at this club," a defiant Jesus says.
THE GAMEPLAN: A 4-3-3 formation gives Jesus a chance to play a pressing game, yet his determination to attack opponents proved to be a failing in his Benfica side as they crashed to some surprise defeats last season.
Their Champions League ride last season summed up their overall campaign in so many ways, with the seven goals they scored in their group games undermined by the 12 they conceded. That carefree attitude can work in their favour at times, but it may need to be diluted if Benfica are to excel in Europe's elite competition.
MAIN MAN: Pablo Aimar
This experienced Argentina playmaker will relish the prospect of playing in the Champions League and, even though he is now in the 30-something category, this proven performer remains a quality operator at the top of the game. "We are delighted to be put into a group with Manchester United because this is the sort of challenge Benfica team thrive on," Aimar says. "The aim in this competition is to compete against the best and try to prove you can match them. We have to do a better job of that than we managed last season."
BIG SIGNING: Axel Witsel
This summer signing from Belgian side Standard Liege made an instant impact in Benfica colours as he scored the goals in the play-off against FC Twente that took them through to the Champions League group stages. His bicycle kick effort in that eliminator tie will stick in the memory for years to come. Arsenal were rumoured to be chasing this talented wide man in the first half of 2011, yet he was delighted to join Benfica and, at the age of 22, the Belgium international has time on his side to turn his potential into something far more valuable. "I have joined a club with one of the most famous names in world football," Witsel says. "Now that we are in the Champions League, this can be a great season."
RISING STAR: Nemanja Matic
Breaking into the Chelsea first team proved to be a step too far for this Serbian midfielder during two years at Stamford Bridge, so he was delighted to secure a move to Benfica as part of the deal that saw David Luiz move to the Premier League giants back in January.
Hungry to prove himself at Champions League level after a spell on loan in the Netherlands with Vitesse last season, he will be keen to cement his place in the Benfica side after a summer of big changes in the playing staff, which included the arrivals of Brazilian midfielder Bruno Cesar, Uruguayan forward Rodrigo and Brazilian striker Nolito.
THE X FACTOR: Javier Saviola and Oscar Cardozo
Along with Pablo Aimar, the front two of Saviola and Cardozo will carry Benfica's hopes in this season's Champions League and there is every reason to believe they can deliver the goods in a group that offers the Portuguese side a chance to progress to the knockout stages.
Paraguay international Cardozo has been a prolific marksman since his arrival at Benfica in 2007, while Saviola is one of the few players who can list both Barcelona and Real Madrid among his former employers. With Cardozo, Saviola, Aimar and new boy Nolita showing good early form after his summer move from Barcelona, Benfica should score against Europe's top sides this season.
FLAW IN THE MAKE-UP: Coach Jesus is under pressure to deliver the goods after his difficulties of last season and that additional burden will hardly help him when the going gets tough in the Champions League.
Their defensive flaws are also a concern, with the signings of defenders Ezequiel Garay (Real Madrid), Joan Capdevila (Villarreal), Emerson (Lille) and 'keeper Artur (Braga) during the summer designed to stem the flow of goals. Brazilian skipper Luisao will be charged with bonding the new-look defensive line together.
WHAT THEY SAY: "We should have reached a European final last season and the ambition now is to prove we can compete against the very best in the Champions League," Benfica boss Jesus says. "Let the critics question us and we will try to provide them with some answers."
VERDICT: The second round beckons for Benfica, but they may be too open defensively to progress much further.
Status: Swiss champions
Nickname: FCB, Bebbis
THE RECORD: FCB's most successful campaign in the Champions League was in the 2002-03 season when, under coach Christian Gross, they defied the pundits by reaching the second group phase. They finished runners-up to Valencia in the first group phase, pipping Liverpool to the final qualifying spot, with Celtic and Juventus also among their victims that season. Such improbable heroics have not been repeated in recent years, despite regular appearances in Europe's premier competition.
TACTICIAN: Thorsten Fink
This former Bayern Munich midfielder has not put a foot wrong during his two years in charge at the St Jakob Park, leading Basel to a League and Cup double in his first season and another domestic championship crown last term. The theory expressed by many cynics that Fink would not be up to the job of managing the vast expectations at Basel have long been dispelled. Previously an assistant-coach at Red Bull Salzburg and the boss of German minor league outfit Ingolstadt, Fink played 150 games over six years for Bayern and was a member of their squad which claimed the Champions League back in 2001.
THE GAMEPLAN: Fink's basic template is a no-frills 4-4-2, where the onus is not so much on tactical niceties as solidarity and raging will-to-win. In common with the bulk of German coaches, he places much emphasis on physical presence, winning challenges and delivering a plentiful supply of crosses from wide areas. It is to Fink's great credit that he has turned Basel into masters of efficiency, sometimes dominated territorially, sometimes shaky at the back and yet often prevailing thanks to the wiles on the flanks of Valentin Stocker and Xherdan Shaqiri and the sharpness of ace goal getter Alex Frei.
MAIN MAN: Alexander Frei
Switzerland's all-time leading marksman, Frei quit the national team last year after becoming infuriated by mounting criticism of his performances in the press. Yet at club level, he continues to fire on all cylinders, topping the domestic league's scoring charts last term with 27 goals. Although not especially quick or strong, the 31-year-old is a natural predator in the box. This ex-Rennes and Borussia Dortmund striker has never enjoyed the best of luck with injuries, notably suffering a blown-out knee within minutes of the start of his country's Euro 2008 campaign.
BIG SIGNING: Radoslav Kovac
An experienced former Czech international centre-back who arrived this summer from relegated Premier League side West Ham United, where Kovac had resided for the previous two-and-a-half years. Also able to put in a shift as a midfield holder, his strengths are his application, honesty and commitment, though at times he can be too hot-headed for his own good. Once on the books of Czech clubs Sigma Olomouc and Sparta Prague as well as Spartak Moscow, he is married to supermodel Klara Medkova, earning him the 'Czech Beckham' tag.
RISING STAR: Xherdan Shaqiri
This little winger is one of the hottest young properties in European football and it is only a matter of time before the multi-talented 19-year-old departs for one of the continent's major leagues. Quick, nimble, a fine crosser of the ball and packing a tremendous shot from distance, Shaqiri can operate on either flank but prefers the left. He was born in Kosovo but moved to Switzerland as a child because of the war. He joined Basle's youth academy at the age of ten and is described by coach Fink as an 'instinctive street player'.
THE X FACTOR: Granit Xhaka
Should, as seems likely, Shaqiri move on soon, FCB already have wonderful creative replacement in the shape of this graceful and intelligent 18-year-old. While at his most comfortable in a central playmaking role, Xhaka can also play wide on the left, but wherever he lines up he stands for shooting power, finesse on the ball, energy and quick-thinking. Of Kosovan stock, he was a key member of the Swiss Under-17 side that won the world title in 2009 and made his full international debut last spring, performing excellently at Wembley as his nation held England to a 2-2 draw in a Euro 2012 qualifier.
FLAW IN THE MAKE UP: All of Basel's centre-backs (Argentine David Abraham, Kovac or the Austrian Aleksandar Dragovic) have their flaws. The defensive midfield duo of Benjamin Huggel and the Ivorian Gilles Yapi can blow hot and cold, with their shortcomings likely to be exposed by Champions League rivals. Basel rely too heavily on Alex Frei. Rather than concentrating on what he does best - scoring goals - he tries to do too much, taking most of the corners and free-kicks. Finally, there are suggestions that cliques have emerged in the camp, with Huggel recently telling the media that young gun Xhaka had been elevated to star status too quickly.
WHAT THEY SAY: "For the sake of Swiss football, we need FCB to do themselves justice in the Champions League and it's not out of the question this season," believes ex-Basel star Patrick Muller. "Frei and Streller up front make for an explosive combination and in Shaqiri, Xhaka and keeper Yann Sommer, they have the best the country has to offer in terms of young promise."
VERDICT: No team can thrive in the Champions League without a competitive back-line, so expect Basel to start slowly and then fade.
Status: Romanian champions
Nicknames: The Ironworkers
THE RECORD: Otelul are Champions League new boys, with their experience in European competition limited to five short-lived UEFA Cup campaigns.
Their most impressive continental performance undoubtedly was their first - a famous 1-0 victory at home to mighty Juventus in the first round, first leg of the 1988-89 UEFA Cup. Unfortunately they lost the return in Turin 5-0. They have only won two other UEFA Cup ties in their history, in 1998-99 versus Sloga Jugomagnat from Macedonia and in 2004-05 against Albanian side Dinamo Tirana.
TACTICIAN: Dorinel Munteanu
Romania's most-capped player of all-time with no fewer than 134 appearances for his country, this former scurrying left-back or attacking midfielder has proved himself a fine coach, too. Taking just two years to turn a group of relatively unknown players at Otelul into a psychologically-resilient and ultra-competitive unit, Munteanu has also proved his worth during spells with Cluj, Arges Pitesti, FC Vaslui and Steaua Bucharest in numerous postings around Romania.
The 43-year-old has a deep well of playing experience to draw upon: a Romanian League title with Dinamo Bucharest in 1992 plus successful spells abroad with Cercle Bruges, Cologne and Wolfsburg, as well as active duty at the World Cup finals of 1994 and 1998 and the European Championships of 1996 and 2000.
THE GAMEPLAN: Although Dorinel Munteanu vehemently denies it, there can be little doubt that his Otelul have a rather defensive mindset. In winning the Romanian title last season, they only scored 46 goals in 34 games and the fact that no Otelul player got among the mix in the national scoring charts for the 2010-11 campaign tells its own story.
Usually employing a 4-2-3-1 template, Munteanu's first target is to keep a clean sheet and to this end his back-four is particularly well-drilled, built around the rock-solid central defensive pairing of captain Sergiu Costin and the Serb Milan Perendija. Risk-taking is not their style, but they can offer an attacking threat with pace down the flanks.
MAIN MAN: Gabriel Viglianti
Very much the Otelul headliner, this Argentine attacking midfielder arrived in 2007 from Bolivian club Bolivar and, while goal-scoring has never been his forte, he is a class apart when it comes to vision, ball-skills and an eye for a killer through-ball.
Born and raised in the Argentine city of Cordoba, the 32-year-old says that football in Romania is much quicker and more aggressive than that played in South America. His idol was Diego Maradona.
BIG SIGNING: Daniel Chavez
The only Peruvian likely to take part in this season's Champions League, 23-year-old attacker Chavez arrived from Belgian outfit Westerlo this summer.
He was spotted by Club Brugge scouts while starring for Peru at the World Under-17 championships and, following a successful trial, was offered a four-year contract. As a youth he attended the Cantolao Academy, the number one soccer school in Peru. With ten full caps for his country, Chavez is eager to make his mark in against the continent's finest. "People have not heard too much about Otelul, but we can change all that in the Champions League," he says.
RISING STAR: Liviu Antal
A combative, quick and resourceful young right-sided midfielder who won his first cap for Romania this year in a friendly with Paraguay, Antal could be a wild card for Otelul coach Munteanu in the Champions League.
Otelul president Marius Stan - once a star player at the club himself - recruited Antal personally in 2009 from second division Tirgu Mures and, while he is not exactly technically-polished, this young man puts his heart and soul into every game. He forms an excellent right-wing pairing with full-back and international colleague Cornel Rapa.
THE X FACTOR: Sorin Frunza
This 33-year-old left-sided attacker may not as speedy as he once was, but he remains a superb dribbler and crosser of the ball. Clashes with authority are another speciality as Frunza never fails to give his opinion to a coach and, while at FC Vaslui, he was placed on the transfer list for allegedly not trying hard enough in a game.
In his second spell at Otelul, Frunza helped Unirea Urziceni claim the Romanian league title in 2009. He started in all six of Unirea's Champions League ties in the 2009-10 campaign.
FLAW IN THE MAKE-UP: Their modest Stadionul Otelul does not meet UEFA standards, so Otelul will have to play their Champions League games in Bucharest and the loss of home comforts will be a major disadvantage.
A meagre annual budget of €3 million is not nearly sufficient to shine against Europe's top teams. Munteanu's hopes for a raft of summer reinforcements largely went ignored and it means they simply do not have enough experience. Nine of their squad are aged between 22 and 24 and this rawness surely will count against them.
WHAT THEY SAY: "It's clear that we are facing the Everest of football," Otelul skipper Sergiu Costin says. "No one will give us too much chance to make an impact in the Champions League, but we thrive on adversity. The prospect of playing Manchester United at Old Trafford is fantastic for this club."
VERDICT: Over-endowed with stubbornness, determination and work ethic but decidedly short on true class. Third spot in Group C is their only realistic target.