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Finally it's back. And what a welcome back! Manchester United-Juventus, Inter-Barcelona and Real Madrid-B. Dortmund are just a few examples of what is coming our way next week. Probably this is the most balanced Champions League 2nd Stage of recent years, seeing how nearly all major teams succeeded in qualifying for this round. The favourites are the usual suspects and the ultimate winner will most surely emerge out of one of the English, Spanish or Italian teams.

This is the first time all teams for two countries (Spain and Italy) qualified to the 2nd stage. Ironically, for Spain it's Barcelona who are doing best in this stage (1st with Inter in Group A), while the other teams are either 3rd or 4th.

On the other hand, all Italian teams, bar Roma, are in the first 2 positions of each group, thus showing an inversion of tendency from recent years, which saw Italian clubs crushing out of Europe's most important club competition in the early stages. In fact, the last Italian team to lift the trophy was Juventus in the 95/96 season, which by Italian standards is a long time.

English teams are very well represented by Manchester Utd. and Arsenal, and seeing their recent form, I would be very surprised if both teams don't reach the semi-finals. Newcastle have an uphill task to succeed in arriving in the first two positions of their group, especially after losing both of their first games in this second stage.

Real Madrid, who were the clear cut favourites for this edition of the Champions League, seem to be in trouble of reaching the next round. They currently lie last in their group behind Milan and Dortmund, and level on points (but worse goal difference) with Lokomotiv Moscow. To make things worse, their main man in defence, Fernando Hierro, is out for around 6 weeks, and this might be a big problem for the Spaniards.

Other teams with injury problems are Inter and Juventus, who both have star players Crespo and Del Piero out up till April. But unlike Real Madrid, both teams seem to have adequate reserves for these players, and the passing of this stage should not be at risk.

Milan must have played some of the most impressive football this season, both domestically and in Europe, and away wins to Deportivo and Bayern Munich, and a home win against Real Madrid confirm this theory. However, their recent form has raised quite a few eyebrows, especially after losing two of their last three league games against middle table teams.

The only German team that realistically stands a chance of going through the next round is Borussia Dortmund. The former Champions League winners, lie second in what might be considered the toughest group of this second stage, which included both Milan and Real Madrid. They currently lay second, three points behind Milan, but two ahead of Lokomotiv Moscow and Real Madrid, and their next two games against the Spanish giants will tell us a lot about their qualifications hopes.

Deportivo, who have done so well in recent years, seem to have lost that sparkle that distinguished them in the previous editions. Still, they are a team that cannot be taken lightly, and both Manchester Utd. and Juventus should be wary of this sturdy team. Ajax are currently doing very well, and they can be considered one of the nicest surprises this edition of the Champions League has offered us. Few believed in these talented but young players, and their lack of experience was considered a drawback. Praise should be given to Ronald Koeman, who has done a fantastic job in Amsterdam and showed his coaching abilities match his past playing skills.

The biggest surprise was offered by Basle, who knocked Liverpool out of the first stage and who made history by being the first Swiss team to arrive at this stage. They will find it difficult to gather points against these more quoted opponents; however in their minds they already won the Champions League.

Who will win the trophy in the end? Various teams seem to possess the qualities to reach this goal, and therefore much will depend on the random match combinations that will come into effect from the quarter finals stage. The favourites are Real Madrid, but if they do not make it past this stage (a very good possibility), then the top 4 teams fighting for the Champions League will most probably be Arsenal, Manchester United, Milan and Juventus.