Group F: Bayern Munich | Valencia | Lille | BATE Borisov
Group A | Group B |
Group C |
Group D |
Group E |
Group G |
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BAYERN MUNICH Status: Bundesliga Runners-Up
Nicknames: FCB, the Bavarians, FC Hollywood, Die Roten
THE LEGEND: Bayern first established themselves as a genuine Euro powerhouse in the mid-1970s, when a team built around the considerable talents of libero Franz Beckenbauer, centre forward Gerd Muller and keeper Sepp Maier won three consecutive European Cups in 1974, 1975 and 1976. They reclaimed the trophy again 25 years later, beating Valencia on penalties in the 2001 final in Milan.
Yet for all those glory-filled nights, Bayern have had to endure some Champions League nightmares too, notably the Manchester United late show that deprived them of the 1999 crown and the shootout defeat to Chelsea in last season's final at their Allianz Arena home. Painful indeed.
CALLING THE SHOTS: Jupp Heynckes
This 67-year-old boss may be in the twilight of his career, but remains an intensely ambitious leader and meticulous training-ground taskmaster. In his third spell at the Bayern helm, he knows every nook and cranny at the club and, despite the heartbreak of last term, has the total backing of boardroom power brokers, president Uli Hoeness and chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
A prolific goal scorer in the 1970s with Borussia Monchengladbach -- with whom he won no fewer than five Bundesliga titles and the 1975 UEFA Cup -- and the West German national team, he has coached all over Europe: in Germany with Gladbach, Bayern, Eintracht Frankfurt, Schalke and Leverkusen; Spanish outfits Real Madrid (with whom he won the European Cup in 1998), Athletic Bilbao and Tenerife; and Portuguese giants Benfica. This is scheduled to be his last season on the Bayern bridge.
THE GAME PLAN: No matter if Heynckes uses his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation or goes with an alternative 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, the match-day methodology of "Uncle Jupp" is all about finding the right balance between a compact, teak-tough defensive operation and the attacking enterprise of the many world-class individuals at his disposal.
With deep-lying midfield general Bastian Schweinsteiger at the controls alongside new signing Javi Martinez, Bayern generally are excellent in possession, moving the ball around slickly before upping the tempo in and around the danger zone.
This season, one of Heynckes' top priorities will be to make better use of the wings, to supply more crosses. Star wide men Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery tend to cut in too often and, as exemplified in last term's Champions League final loss, Bayern can become rather static and predictable out wide.
The identity of the central figure in the attacking midfield triumvirate gives a clue to Bayern's intentions. If that man is to be Toni Kroos, strategy and distribution is the order of the day, while Thomas Muller or new Swiss signing Xherdan Shaqiri will bring incisiveness and verve.
BIG HITTER: Franck Ribery
Few players polarise opinion as much as this 29-year-old French wing wizard. Back in his homeland, Ribery finds himself regularly slammed for a lack of consistency and poor attitude, yet deep in the heart of Bavaria, his home for the past five years, he is nothing less than an icon, a package of extravagant skills considered to be worth every penny of the £22.7 million Bayern paid Olympique Marseille for him.
Although far from his best in the 2012 Champions League final, he more often than not is the man to fire Bayern into attacking life and, taken as a whole, last season was his most productive for the club, scoring and making goals with aplomb. If reports are to be believed, he doesn't see eye to eye with teammate Robben, but they are generally far enough away from each other on the pitch for that not to be a major problem.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Philipp Lahm
While not a clenched-fist rabble-rouser on the pitch, the Germany full back is an outstanding leader by example. Spirited, determined, intelligent and with strong views about the game, his diminutive stature and boyish looks ensure that he does not quite appear to fit the bill of a skipper, but scratch the surface and you will find a winner.
At home on either flank, Lahm may have his weaknesses defensively, but he more than compensates with his brilliant work going forward, his dribbling skills and clever combination play.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Javi Martinez
Evidence that holding midfielders do not come cheap in the current transfer market arrived as Bayern handed Athletic Bilbao more than £30 million to secure the services of this gifted performer. Martinez will now be expected to give Bayern the final push they need to get over the Champions League finish line.
"He was the player we have been looking for all summer, and it was a great piece of business when we got Javi Martinez to sign for Bayern," coach Heynckes said. "His passing is excellent, and his attitude is also first-class. We have a great player."
SHOOTING STAR: Xherdan Shaqiri
Lured away from FC Basel this summer in an £8.2 million deal, the pocket-sized Swiss starlet with Kosovan roots is the prototype of the adaptable modern pro, comfortable anywhere in and around the frontline and even capable of slotting in at full back in an emergency. The 20-year-old is sure to make a sustained push for a regular starting berth, as he is at his most dangerous turning on the artistic style on the wing or in the No. 10 position. Shaqiri's arrival has boosted Bayern's strength in depth no end.
SECRET WEAPON: Mitchell Weiser
A young right-sided midfielder of no little dynamism and flair, the 20-year-old has been compared to rising Germany star Marco Reus, and Bayern were delighted to prise him away from Cologne recently. A chip off the old footballing block, his father is the former Cologne and Wolfsburg full back Patrick Weiser.
THE WEAK SPOT: Even though they have one of the best keepers in the world in Manuel Neuer, the Bavarians still appear defensively shaky at times, vulnerable in the air and surprisingly prone to unforced individual errors. Brazilian centre back Dante was brought in this summer to stiffen the rear guard but might not prove a cure-all.
Injuries are also a headache. Gomez and promising young left back David Alba both miss the start of the season, and it remains to be seen whether Schweinsteiger has resolved the ankle pains that have discomforted him for a good six months. Also, where does expensive summer signing Martinez fit into Heynckes' lineup?
The excessive individualism of Robben is a further concern, and after two crucial missed penalties last spring (in the Champions League final and in the Bundesliga loss to Dortmund) he is skating on thin ice with Bayern supporters.
VERDICT: The question everyone associated with Bayern is asking is how quickly they will bounce back from the psychological trauma of the latter stages of last season. If there are lasting scars, they may struggle to live up to their lofty billing.
VALENCIA Status: Third in La Liga
Nickname: Los Che
THE LEGEND: Champions League runners-up in 2000 and 2001, Valencia have been fighting financial fires over the last couple of seasons and have done well to remain in the mix with the continent's elite. UEFA Cup winners in 2004, they also won the forerunner to that competition, the Fairs Cup, in 1962 and 1963. Valencia also have a Cup Winners' Cup title on their record from back in 1980.
CALLING THE SHOTS: Mauricio Pellegrino
A star player for Valencia between 1999 and 2005, Pellegrino cut his coaching teeth with the club's junior side and then worked under Rafael Benitez at both Liverpool and Inter Milan. When a vacancy was created at the Mestalla following the exit of Unai Emery during the summer, Pellegrino was somewhat of a surprise pick given his lack of experience or track record.
Some suggested that a return for former La Liga-title winning boss Benitez, with Pellegrino standing alongside him as a trusty assistant once more, would have been a safer bet, and we are about to find out whether this bold appointment can reap dividends. Pellegrino does, though, come with a stellar reputation and a link to the club that ensures all concerned will give him time to find his feet.
THE GAME PLAN: Pellegrino's debut as Valencia boss was a triumph as he claimed a point against champions Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, with students of tactics eager to get a grasp of his coaching ethos. The 4-2-3-1 system Benitez introduced during his days as Valencia boss has served the club well in the years since his departure, and the expectation is the new man in the hot seat will not look to make radical changes.
One of Pellegrino's key jobs will be slotting summer signings Joao Pereira, Fernando Gago and Andres Guardado into his lineup, yet this is a side with a proven track record of consistency, and the new man in the job is merely looking to add some gloss to their makeup.
BIG HITTER: Roberto Soldado
Rumours suggesting this marksman was attracting the interest of Premier League clubs during the summer sent shivers down the spines of Valencia supporters who feared their next star name was about to head for the Mestalla exit door. But Soldado has retained the No. 9 shirt he has made his own for another season.
His 24 goals last term were taken with the kind of clinical aplomb Valencia fans have become used to seeing from the former Getafe star, who has rarely been given the sort of chance at international level many believe he deserves. That said, he did score a vital winner for Spain in their opening 2014 World Cup qualifier against Georgia.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: David Albelda
The heartbeat of the Valencia team since making his debut in 1996, Albelda is one of the few players in the modern game who seems genuinely honoured to play for his club and sees them as much more than just an employer. This defensive midfielder has a love for Los Che that runs deep, and the fans cherish his passion for the cause.
His staying power was confirmed in 2007, when he was axed from the first-team squad after falling out with boss Ronald Koeman. Albelda's desire to persevere and return to the Valencia lineup at a moment when many players would have jumped ship confirmed that his heart lies with the club, and he has long outlasted Koeman and his clan at the Mestalla.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Fernando Gago
Signed from Real Madrid, Gago is an experienced Argentina international who couldn't force his way into Jose Mourinho's plans at the Bernabeu and spent last season on loan at Roma. His availability proved to be good news for Valencia, who were delighted to snap up a player whose class on the ball and hunger to succeed should inspire him to success. "I have not come to Valencia to take a step back as my ambition is to win trophies here," Gago has stated.
SHOOTING STAR: Sofiane Feghouli
The attacking midfielder suggested his move to Valencia in 2010 would enhance his hopes of launching his international career with France, who he had represented at junior level. Yet he was signing up to play for Algeria a year later, having quickly grown frustrated by the lack of chances coming his way with Les Bleus. He scored some useful goals from midfield last season, but the tag of "the new Zidane" he carried in his formative years has proved to be a little extravagant.
SECRET WEAPON: Nelson Valdez
Valencia needed some cover in their striking positions as the transfer window edged towards closure, and their move to sign the Paraguay hit man from Russian outfit Rubin Kazan may prove to be a masterstroke. Previously with Werder Bremen and Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, Valdez's poaching instincts in the box could be useful for Valencia if he is used as an impact player from the bench or a foil for Soldado. With pace, power and a good eye for goal, the Champions League could be his stage to shine.
THE WEAK SPOT: The insatiable level of expectancy at Valencia, which flows from the club's hierarchy and supporters, tends to put managers under intolerable pressure. Pellegrino will find out very quickly that he needs to deliver success if he is not to come in for criticism. When the manager is under fire, the team tends to struggle, and Valencia need to stay patient with their novice coach.
A steady flow of player departures over recent years have persistently weakened Los Che, and the exit of the gifted Jordi Alba this summer was another blow. His defensive skills and counterattacking qualities will be missed. Finally, will the financial uncertainty at Valencia continue to unsettle the club's star names?
VERDICT: A quarterfinal spot is possible for Valencia, but anything more would be a major bonus.
LILLE Status: Third in Ligue 1
Nicknames: LOSC, Les Dogues
THE LEGEND: When compared to the great and the good in Europe, Lille are very much novices, having only made their continental debut in 2001.
This northern French club have had four bites at the Champions League cherry, but only once have avoided pre-Christmas elimination, reaching the first knockout round in the 2006-07 campaign before losing 2-0 on aggregate to Manchester United. That season saw their best ever result in European football as they went into the lions' den of the San Siro and came away with a fully deserved 2-0 win against eventual winners AC Milan.
Lille failed to win any of their home games in the group phase of last season's Champions League, and this is an area that needs to be addressed this time around.
CALLING THE SHOTS: Rudi Garcia
The 48-year-old Frenchman with Spanish roots has had two careers at Lille: the first as a journeyman midfielder from 1982 until 1988; the second in the guise of outstanding, history-making coach. During his four years in charge, Garcia's team has not once finished outside the top five in Ligue 1 and, in the 2010-11 season, he not only led them to their first French championship in over half a century but added the domestic cup for good measure.
Previously in charge of Saint-Etienne, Dijon and Le Mans, Garcia stands for attractive football and has assembled an exceptional team on a restricted budget -- never taking himself too seriously. Whether his side wins or loses, he retains his sense of perspective.
THE GAME PLAN: Following the £32.5 million departure to Chelsea of attacking star Eden Hazard, the Lille coach has opted to change his tactical system, switching from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1. The theory is that Hazard will be replaced by not one but two new buys: ex-Chelsea man Salomon Kalou and live-wire former Sochaux playmaker Marvin Martin. Vital to LOSC's hopes will be the effectiveness of their central midfield triumvirate, the amalgam of holding players Rio Mavuba and Florent Balmont with Martin.
Garcia's core principles remain the same: a solid defensive base, the retaining of possession, lots of movement and short passes, full backs who plunge forward at every opportunity and plenty of speed and explosiveness in the final third.
BIG HITTER: Marvin Martin
This busy and inventive attacking midfielder was snapped up by Lille from Sochaux for a £7.8 million fee this summer, thus making him the biggest internal French transfer of the offseason. With a great touch and an eye for a killer ball, the 24-year-old Parisian is effective playing deep in midfield and on either flank, but it seems that Lille plan to use him in "the hole."
If Martin has a weakness it is his lack of goals, and Lille boss Rudi Garcia has said he wants him to be more individualistic in the finishing department. He broke into France's senior side in June 2011 and featured in their Euro 2012 squad.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Rio Mavuba
This always-smiling defensive midfielder boasts an outstanding all-round game, and his ball-winning ability, tactical awareness and accurate distribution are essential to the team's equilibrium. Mavuba joined Lille in 2008 from Spanish outfit Villarreal, where he had inexplicably become a bit-part player.
He made his professional debut at Bordeaux early in 2004 and was so impressive that he was awarded his first cap for France just eight months later. His father, Mafuila Mavuba, played for Zaire at the 1974 World Cup.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Salomon Kalou
A Champions League winner with Chelsea last season, the Ivory Coast front-runner recently joined LOSC on a free transfer and did not take long to make an impact at his new club, becoming the first player to score at their brand-new stadium, the Grand Stade Lille Metropole.
During his six seasons at Stamford Bridge, the 27-year-old wide man generally struggled for consistency and was often used from the bench, but he certainly has top-level European experience by the bucketful, having appeared in 49 Champions League ties.
"It was time for me to end the story with Chelsea, and Lille have offered me a challenge that is fresh and exciting," Kalou said. "The Champions League is important to this club and they have brought me here to help in this competition. We have set the targets high this season."
SHOOTING STAR: Djibril Sidibe
A highly promising right back or central defender recruited this summer from Troyes. The fact that Lille have tied him to a five-year contract speaks volumes for the potential he boasts. Still only 20, Sidibe chose Lille over fellow Ligue 1 heavyweights Lyon, who, up until he signed for the northerners, thought they had their man.
SECRET WEAPON: Nolan Roux
An up-and-coming striker signed from Brest early this year, Roux is a good mixture of force and finesse, extremely mobile and an ice-cool finisher. He was very close to a move to German side Schalke in 2011, only for the deal to fall through at the last moment. A France Under-21 international, he is the son of Bruno Roux, a goal-getter for Paris Saint-Germain in the mid-1980s.
THE WEAK SPOT: Lille will undeniably miss the creative instincts of Eden Hazard as, after all, he was involved in almost half of their goals last term.
Both first-choice wide men, Salomon Kalou and Dmitri Payet, can blow hot and cold. They need to be at their best if Champions League success is realistic.
Lille's back line is good enough for the French league, but Europe may be another story. Also, keeper Mickael Landreau can suffer rushes of blood to the head, and one slip could be fatal against Europe's finest.
VERDICT: No team put together by Rudi Garcia is without hope, but unlike last term in the Champions League, Lille must learn how to hold onto a lead.
Status: Belarussian champions
Nicknames: The Car Workers, Zholto-Sinie (Yellow and Blues)
THE LEGEND: The only team from Belarus to have ever qualified for the Champions League, BATE have twice rubbed shoulders with Europe's finest, finishing bottom of their group in the 2008-09 edition of the competition with three points, and again dead last in their pool last term, then achieving just two points.
They can, however, be proud of their record in the competition against Italian teams, drawing home and away with Juventus in 2008-09 and managing a very creditable 1-1 draw against AC Milan a year ago. Arguably their worst night in Europe came in August 1999 when thrashed 7-1 by Lokomotiv Moscow in a UEFA Cup eliminator.
CALLING THE SHOTS: Viktor Goncharenko
Since taking over as BATE boss from Igor Kriushenko five years ago, this 35-year-old has worked nothing less than a minor miracle, guiding the club to four straight Belarusian league titles, three Champions League pilgrimages and a spot in the round of 32 of the 2010-11 Europa League.
Aged 31 when he first took BATE into the Champions League, he became the youngest-ever coach in the competition's history. He says he has drawn many of his ideas and methods from a period he spent as an observer at Spanish side Villarreal.
Goncharenko played in defence for BATE from 1998 to 2002, only to be forced to retire prematurely through injury, staying on to work with the juniors before being promoted to first-team assistant and then manager.
THE GAME PLAN: An enthusiastic disciple of tactical discipline, a compact team unit and impeccable physical conditioning, Goncharenko is a pragmatist above all and realises that, in the face of superior firepower, the only viable course of action open to him is for his side to battle, run and stifle, hoping to eventually get a break.
He has used a variety of setups -- 4-4-2, 4-3-1-2 and 4-2-3-1 -- on the road to this season's Champions League, and it says much for the application and intelligence of the players that whatever the formulation, they tenaciously retain their shape. Used either on the left-flank or in "the hole," highly experienced new signing Alexander Hleb will be key to their hopes of springing a surprise.
BIG HITTER: Renan Bressan
Both an inventive midfielder and a very assured finisher, the Brazilian-born 23-year-old has been a Belarusian Premier League star ever since arriving in the country from his little hometown club Atletico Tuborao, first impressing with FC Gomel and then headlining with BATE, his home for the past two years.
He is a master free-kick taker and is in his element threading though inch-perfect final balls, but also plays with a great deal of tactical awareness and discipline. Early this year he was granted Belarusian citizenship and featured for his adopted nation at the London Olympics, where he scored against Brazil in a 3-1 defeat.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Dzmitry Likhtarovic
A veteran defensive midfielder and authoritative skipper who has served BATE loyally for the past 11 years, Likhtarovic is an industrious and thoughtful player who does a fine job sweeping up in front of the back four and brings extensive European competition experience to the table, with more than 70 games on his record. Belarus Player of the Year in 2002, he is consistency itself and most unfortunate to have only won one full cap for his country.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Alexander Hleb
Having played for BATE at the turn of the millennium before heading west to find fame and fortune at Stuttgart and Arsenal, the classy left winger or attacking midfielder opted to retrace his sporting steps this summer, agreeing to walk away from Russian outfit Kryila Sovertov Samara and ink a contract with the Belarusian champions.
Still only 31, this ace ball manipulator featured in the Arsenal side that lost to Barcelona in the final of the 2006 Champions League, and three years later pocketed a winners' medal in the same competition with Barcelona, though he was generally only a bench-warmer in that campaign.
SHOOTING STAR: Aleksandr Gutor
This tall and commanding 23-year-old keeper has been fundamental to the growing competitiveness of Belarus' junior international sides -- featuring in the unexpected third-place finish at the 2011 European Under-21 championship and subsequent appearance at the 2012 London Olympic Games. Minsk-born, he claimed a BATE first-team spot in 2008 and was a runaway winner in the Belarus Footballer of the Year poll last year.
SECRET WEAPON: Kalizuri
This clever and skilful Brazilian striker, who has been brought in on loan from Polish side Jagiellonia Bialystok, is also capable of playing just behind the main hit men, and certainly knows how to finish, with plenty of tricks up his sleeve.
A product of the Fluminense academy in Rio, he began his professional career in the state of Minas Gerais with Uniao Recreativa and Extrema FC. He first came to Europe in 2008 when joining Belarusian side FC Gomel, and he proved an immediate success. His full name is Maycon Rogerio Silva Calijuri, though in Belarus he is simply known as Kailzuri.
THE WEAK SPOT: Both full backs Aleksandr Yurevich and Maksim Bordachev have their limitations, strong and rugged but not offering sufficient technical polish or attacking assistance. Generally speaking, the standard of their final ball from the flanks should be much better. Despite playing in last season's Champions League, BATE remain naive at the highest level, while strikers Vitali Rodionov and Dzmitry Mazalevski need to be more clinical in front of goal.
VERDICT: BATE should have enough in their locker to ensure they will not be humiliated, but will not gain many points either. A Europa League spot after Christmas is the best they can aim for.