Football: Liverpool back among the elite as Champions League kicks off

The Liverpool squad stretch during a training session at their Melwood training ground in Liverpool, north-west England, on Sept 15, 2014, ahead of their Uefa Champions League match against Ludogorets at Anfield. -- PHOTO: AFP
The Liverpool squad stretch during a training session at their Melwood training ground in Liverpool, north-west England, on Sept 15, 2014, ahead of their Uefa Champions League match against Ludogorets at Anfield. -- PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Liverpool's return to Champions League action for the first time in five years and Real Madrid's shaky start to the season dominate the start of the new battle for the elite European title on Tuesday.

Liverpool take on surprise Bulgarian team Ludogorets Razgrad, while defending champions Real clash with Switzerland's Basel in the key matches of the first day. German champions Bayern Munich play English counterparts Manchester City on Wednesday when Barcelona, Chelsea and Paris St Germain also set off on the gruelling campaign.

Only captain Steven Gerrard remains from the 18-man squad which featured in Liverpool's last Champions League match, a 2-1 loss at home to Fiorentina in December 2009.

Manager Brendan Rodgers, who has spent big to bring in the likes of Italy striker Mario Balotelli and England midfielder Adam Lallana, says the five-time European champions are not nervous about the return.

"We have a very young squad and they will gain experience - it is about embracing it. There is certainly no fear of the competition," Rodgers said. "I think success is about qualifying from the group. We will take one game at a time: we are at home in our first game and we aim to perform well and get three points but we will respect them like we would if we were playing Real Madrid."

Liverpool are in Group B with Real who also have a lot to prove to their fans after losing two Spanish league games in a row. Despite the struggle, Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti believes the defending champions remain the best in the European competition. Madrid sold Angel di Maria and Xabi Alonso, but bought Colombian ace James Rodriguez and German star Toni Kroos to assist Cristiano Ronaldo in the hunt for goals.

"We have a lot of desire for this competition, we want to be competitive and try to win it again," Ancelotti said. "It is a motivating factor to be competitive in the most important competition in the world. We have good memories of last season's competition and we will fight to repeat it this season. I wouldn't change this squad for any other in Europe."

Seventeen-time Swedish champions Malmo FF get their campaign underway at Italian giants Juventus in Group A, which also sees Olympiakos of Greece take on Atletico Madrid, Spanish champions and beaten Champions League finalists last season. Much focus will be on whether coach Diego Simeone can maintain their dynamic form.

In Group C, Monaco play Bayer Leverkusen and Benfica entertain Russian league leaders Zenit St Petersburg, still looking for a return on their heavy spending. Galatasaray of Turkey play Belgium's Anderlecht in Group D, which also sees Borussia Dortmund up against Arsenal. Arsene Wenger's side beat Dortmund in last year's Champions League.

The German side are without Mats Hummels and Marco Reus, but have been bolstered by the return of Shinji Kagawa from Manchester United who scored in a 3-1 win over Freiburg at the weekend.