Group H: Manchester United | Braga | Galatasaray | CFR Cluj
Group A | Group B |
Group C |
Group D |
Group E |
Group F |
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MANCHESTER UNITED Status: English runners-up
Nickname: Red Devils
THE LEGEND: European champions in 1968, 1999 and 2008, legendary United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has constantly bemoaned the Old Trafford giants' lack of success in this competition during his 26-year reign as manager and his side have come up narrowly short time and again in the latter stages of the competition in recent years.
United's defeat in the 2009 and 2011 finals against a rampant Barcelona side were hammer blows to Ferguson's hopes of cementing his personal legacy, while their exit in the group stages last season was another embarrassing low point for the Red Devils.
CALLING THE SHOTS: Sir Alex Ferguson
The evergreen Ferguson is truly a unique figure during an era when coaching changes tend to come with relentless frequency.
The last of the authoritarian managers who appears to frighten his players with his brash Scottish manner, his tactical acumen should never be underestimated. Many believe United have won trophies with mediocre teams in recent seasons purely because they had this football legend in the dugout and it is hard to argue against that point.
After the shock of a group-stage exit in last season's Champions League, the 70-year-old Ferguson has vowed to "take no chances" in the first round of this year's tournament. "We rested players and got ourselves into trouble last season, but we will put strong sides out from the start this time and make sure we get the job done."
THE GAME PLAN: From the moment Robin van Persie completed his £24 million move from Arsenal to Manchester United in August, the debate over whether the Dutch sharpshooter can thrive in a team alongside star striker Wayne Rooney began. We may find out over the course of this Champions League campaign whether these two Premier League superstars can form a deadly partnership.
Ferguson has often played with one up front in the Champions League in recent years, so it may be that Rooney is asked to drop back into a deeper role to support van Persie, with fellow new boy Shinji Kagawa also vying to claim that support-striking role following his summer arrival.
United had long been a side with a dynamic ability to hit opponents on the break, but they are likely to adopt a more dominant role in this opening phase of the Champions League as they look to assert their authority in Group H.
BIG HITTER: Robin van Persie
The Dutch striker who claimed the Premier League top scorer's title last season has joined United to be a part of a team with genuine ambitions to win the Champions League. As long as he stays fit, this master goal-taker could propel Ferguson towards his third European crown.
Oozing class and positive intent, van Persie is a fresh and hungry 29-year-old, having spent large chunks of his career in the treatment room. Arsenal may have put the groundwork into moulding him into a superstar, but United will reap the benefits of his brilliance now.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Nemanja Vidic
United may never have surrendered their Premier League title to neighbours Manchester City in May had this powerhouse Serbian defender remained fully fit for the entire season. His lengthy absence after he was injured in the group stage of the Champions League last term hit hard.
Vidic is not just a fantastic defender; he is also a fine leader for Ferguson whose calming presence rubs off on those around him. His return to full fitness feels like a sparkling new signing for United.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Shinji Kagawa
United moved quickly to snap up this Japan international from Borussia Dortmund in the offseason and he has made a big impression on all at Old Trafford in his opening few weeks with the club.
Hugely determined, boasting a fine first touch and with the ability to time his runs into the opposition box to perfection, the midfielder has the potential to replace the evergreen Paul Scholes in the United midfield. If he enjoys half the career Scholes can look back on, Kagawa will have been a huge success.
SHOOTING STAR: Danny Welbeck
Van Persie's presence in the United ranks may restrict Welbeck's first-team chances this season, but he has more than enough class and potential to ensure he does not become a bit-part player behind Rooney and the new United scoring hero.
Decent performances with England at Euro 2012 helped to cement the belief that Welbeck can mix it with the best defenders in the game, with United boss Ferguson among his biggest admirers. "Danny is one of the best strikers in the Premier League now and he will have a big role to play for us this season," the manager says. "We have great options in attack now, but Welbeck is as good as anyone we have at the club."
SECRET WEAPON: Tom Cleverley
This young Englishman looked ready to make his first-team breakthrough at United last season, but injury was to get in the way of his ambitions. He is now aiming to make up for lost time this term.
Calm on the ball and a fine passer, he is a modern English player who has been raised among star names whose ball-retention ability is a step ahead of many homegrown players who have come through the ranks of top Premier League clubs down the years. Along with Arsenal's Jack Wilshere, he may be the future of the England national team's midfield.
THE WEAK SPOT: Ferguson has struggled to settle on his first-choice goalkeeper over the last 12 months, with Spaniard David de Gea and Dane Anders Lindegaard both failing to secure the position as they have shown flashes of frailty.
United's defensive vulnerability if they are without the experienced duo of Vidic and Rio Ferdinand was exposed last season, and they have to hope that reliable duo can stay out of the treatment room in the months ahead. Novice replacements Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling may not be up to the job against the Champions League elite.
There are also some question marks hanging over the form and fitness of Rooney, with suggestions that he returned for preseason training carrying too much weight a cause for concern. If Ferguson decides to leave him on the bench in favour of van Persie, Rooney is liable to react to such a decision negatively.
VERDICT: Progression to the knockout stages is a certainty this time, but doubts remain over United's potential to match the very best in the semifinals and beyond.
BRAGA Status: Third in Portugal
Nicknames: Os Arsenalistas, Os Guerreiros do Minho (Minho Warriors)
THE LEGEND: Since starting out in European competition with a couple of rounds in the 1966-67 Cup Winners' Cup, Braga have been infrequent international participants, only taking part in 16 campaigns in all competitions.
The 2010-11 season stands out from the rest like a beacon, with the club not only enjoying their first taste of the Champions League group phase -- eventually finishing third in their pool behind Arsenal and Shakhtar Donetsk -- but also going on a Europa League odyssey, beating Lech Poznan, Liverpool, Dynamo Kiev and Benfica before falling in the final to FC Porto.
A 6-0 Champions loss to Arsenal in September 2010 remains their heaviest Euro defeat, while their most handsome victory was a 5-0 triumph against Maltese team Hibernians in a 1978-79 UEFA Cup tie.
CALLING THE SHOTS: Jose Peseiro
Handed the Braga first-team reins this summer following the departure of Leonardo Jardim, this 52-year-old ex-Sporting, Panathinaikos and Saudi Arabia coach was a rather surprising choice, as he had not worked in his native land since being sacked by Sporting in October 2005.
Once regarded alongside Jose Mourinho as one of the hottest properties on the Portuguese coaching circuit, Peseiro's career has been a curious mix of highs and lows. There was high praise for securing Nacional's promotion to the top flight in 2002 and Sporting's march to the 2005 UEFA Cup final, yet barbs aplenty were flowing when Sporting failed to qualify for the 2005-06 Champions League and when his Saudi side did not make it to the 2010 World Cup finals.
THE GAME PLAN: Favouring a 4-2-3-1 system, Jose Peseiro makes no concessions in his insistence that any side coached by him must look to dominate possession, go on the attack and play a slick passing game.
Last season Braga were known for essentially playing on the counter, for pulling large numbers back into defence and waiting for their moment to strike, but that sort of strategy is not for the new man in charge as the Braga class of 2012-13 seems much more comfortable on the front foot. They confirmed as much by going for broke in the supposedly perilous Champions League playoff game against Udinese.
Braga are inventive in the way they press, happy to let opposition centre backs have the ball but ready to pounce as soon as the other team's creators get possession. The attacking midfield trio is an excellent mix of mobility, acceleration and urgency, while neither full back needs prompting off the leash.
Fundamental to Braga are deep-lying engine-room controllers Hugo Viana and Custodio, the former acting as the Pirlo-like playmaker, the latter supplying aerial and tackling strength and tactical discipline.
BIG HITTER: Hugo Viana
This classy left-footed midfield co-ordinator is at long last delivering on the promise he showed at Sporting in the early part of the new millennium. Constantly off-colour during spells overseas with Newcastle United and Valencia, Viana's career was going nowhere fast, but since returning to Portugal in 2009 to play for Braga he has found his mojo again.
His first season as a professional could not have been more satisfying, with the teenage Viana proving to be a vital cog in the Sporting side that scooped both the Portuguese league and cup in the 2001-02 season. He has been capped 26 times for Portugal.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Alan
Alan Osorio da Costa Silva -- to give this experienced Brazilian winger his full name -- is one of that rare breed who never seem to have a bad game. He is always a busy and enterprising presence on the right flank and someone who perfectly personifies the never-say-die Braga spirit.
With Braga since the summer of 2008, he has been a stalwart of the Portuguese scene for 11 years now, starting out with Maritimo (2001-05) before switching to FC Porto, where, despite the intense competition for places in the starting lineup, he more than did himself justice.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Ruben Micael
Currently on a season-long loan from Atletico Madrid, this tricky attacking midfielder has certainly started with a bang at his new club, first scoring the equaliser in Braga's 1-1 draw in Udinese in a recent Champions League qualifier and then converting the decisive penalty in the shootout.
Like Cristiano Ronaldo, the 26-year-old creative ace is from Madeira and began his career there with Uniao and Nacional before joining FC Porto in January 2010 in a £2.5 million deal. Unfortunately, he was used only sparingly in the 2010-11 season by Porto boss Andre Villas-Boas and was snapped up a year ago by Atletico Madrid, who straight away sent him to Zaragoza on loan.
SHOOTING STAR: Ismaily
A swashbuckling 22-year-old Brazilian left back who sent in an early entry for goal of the season when he fired in a long-distance piledriver in the 1-1 draw with Udinese in the first leg of the Champions League playoff. A relatively unknown player for a string of second-tier Sao Paulo sides, he has truly blossomed since coming to Portugal three years ago, starring for Estoril and Olhanense before being picked up by Braga this summer.
SECRET WEAPON: Mossoro
This 29-year-old playmaker might not be particularly well-known outside of his native Brazil or Portugal, but don't let his relative European anonymity fool you. Brilliant in his distribution, a shrewd judge of options and the sort of strong personality team-mates look up to, he is very much in the mould of ex-Porto, Barcelona and Portugal star Deco, the strategist who sets the tone.
A member of the Internacional side that won the Libertadores Cup back in 2006, he joined Braga from Madeiran outfit Maritimo in 2008.
THE WEAK SPOT: Seeing leading striker Lima depart for Benfica late in the transfer window was a bitter pill, as the remaining strikers are not remotely of the same calibre.
For all his good work, Hugo Viana has a tendency to overdo the long and hopeful "glory ball" when occasionally more simplicity is required. Also, Braga send too many speculative long shots high and wide. When on the back foot, the compactness of the unit can fracture, with too much space between midfield and defence.
VERDICT: Brave, well-organised and desperate to make a mark in Europe, they could quite conceivably sneak through to the last 16 if they get the better of Galatasaray in Group H.
GALATASARAY Status: Turkish champions
Nicknames: Cim Bom Bom
THE LEGEND: The only Turkish team ever to win a European trophy, Galatasaray wrote their name in the history books in May 2000 in Copenhagen, beating Arsenal on penalties in the final of the UEFA Cup before claiming the UEFA Super Cup later that year, beating Real Madrid 2-1.
Their most impressive campaign in the European Cup was the 1988-89 season, when they went as far as the semifinals before going down to Steaua Bucharest. They were not so competitive back in the first round of the 1972-73 European Cup, unable to prevent Bayern Munich hammering them 6-0 in a walkover in Bavaria.
CALLING THE SHOTS: Fatih Terim
The 58-year-old coach, known to his many admirers as "The Emperor," is the most successful Turkish coach of all time, not only claiming five domestic league titles and the UEFA Cup with Galatasaray but also working wonders with Turkey's national team, not least when qualifying them for Euro '96 -- their first major tournament in 42 years -- and masterminding their progress to the semifinals of the 2008 European Championship.
He is talking up his side's chances of making progress in a Champions League group that appears to offer his side hope of progress. "Clearly Manchester United are the big favourites, but there is a big chance for the other three teams to progress," Terim says. "The time has come for Galatasaray to show something in this competition once more and I believe we can be the surprise team of this Champions League."
THE GAME PLAN: An almost messianic figure on the training ground and in the technical area, Terim's default formation is a fluid, positive and aggressively interpreted 4-4-2 in which every player knows precisely what his job entails and in which the whole is worth much more than the sum of its parts.
Of the two nominal midfield holders, the Brazilian Felipe Melo tends to sit, while the classy Selcuk Inan pushes on to orchestrate the team's smart combination play. The wide midfielders -- Hamit Altintop and Emre Colak -- are two distinct types, the former hard-working, the latter more of a live wire. Burak Yilmaz, Umut Bulut, the Swede Johan Elmander and Czech Milan Baros will slug it out for the right to fill the two striking berths.
A Terim trademark is his ability to spring surprises, both in terms of personnel employed and formation. He could pack his midfield full of options in a 4-5-1 or just as easily turn to a 4-1-4-1, a system designed to give the wingers and full backs licence to thrill.
BIG HITTER: Burak Yilmaz
This prolific striker joined Galatasaray in a £4.5 million deal this summer after netting 52 times in two seasons for Trabzonspor. The top scorer in Turkey last term with 33 goals, his total was more than twice as many as anyone else and his arrival has fuelled hope that Champions League progress is within reach this season.
Equally at home leading the line as making menace from a deeper position, he is one of a rare breed in Turkish professionals who has played for every one of the nation's Big Four: Galatasaray, Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Trabzonspor.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Tomas Ujfalusi
A veteran Czech central defender or right back handed the captaincy on arriving in Istanbul at the start of last season from Atletico Madrid. Gritty, naturally authoritative, a good organiser and comfortable on the ball, he has all the qualities you need in a leader.
Aged 34 and capped 78 times for Czech Republic, his extensive experience of the European scene -- he has starred in Italy (Fiorentina), Germany (Hamburg) and Spain (Atletico Madrid) -- makes him the ideal focal point of Galatasaray's latest foray into the Champions League.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Hamit Altintop
This 29-year-old Turkey international utility player may have found the competition for places too hot to handle at Real Madrid last season, but he still has much to offer an ambitious side and Galatasaray certainly thought so, paying Los Blancos £3.1 million for his services.
Ultra-competitive, hard-running and extremely dangerous when letting fly from distance, Altintop can fill virtually any midfield role and can turn his hand to full back if required. During his four seasons at Bayern Munich he frequently featured in the Champions League and started the 2010 final that the Bavarians lost to Inter Milan.
SHOOTING STAR: Emre Colak
A diminutive box of tricks on the left wing who turned himself into a first-team fixture last term, he has often been compared to Galatasaray legend Gheorghe Hagi and can cause havoc when drifting inside. Nicknamed the "Little Diamond," this graduate of the club's youth system has played for Turkey at every level from Under-15s through to Under-21s.
SECRET WEAPON: Selcuk Inan
Although not especially well-known outside of Turkey, the multi-dimensional midfielder is a class act in every sense and was absolutely sensational last season, his first in Galatasaray colours following a switch from Trabzonspor.
With 13 league goals and 16 assists, no one made a more important contribution to the club's domestic dominance in 2011-12 and his reward is a crack at Europe's finest in the Champions League. A wonderfully gifted taker of direct set plays and always neat, tidy and imaginative in his passing and movement.
THE WEAK SPOT: They have a tendency to switch off defensively at exactly the wrong moment, a cardinal sin in the Champions League. Then there are the hair-trigger temperaments of Felipe Melo and ex-Arsenal full back Emmanuel Eboue. Both could be a liability, and top-class attacking units may look to expose them.
Their chance conversion rate is not the most impressive, and they cannot afford to let golden opportunities go begging in the Champions League. Yilmaz has been signed to solve this problem.
VERDICT: Fatih Terim is a team-builder and motivator extraordinaire and he has been handed a glorious chance to progress to the last 16 of this competition after Gala were thrown in with Cluj and Braga. Second spot in Group H is up for grabs.
Status: Romanian champions
Nickname: The Railwaymen
THE LEGEND: This season will be Cluj's third taste of the Champions League group phase action. "Must do better" would sum up their story so far.
In their inaugural European campaign in 2008-09, they came last in a pool containing Roma, Chelsea and Bordeaux and could do no better in their next brush with the continent's finest, this time finishing adrift of FC Basel, Roma and Bayern Munich.
In each of those campaigns, they managed just four points, but they showed flashes of glorious resistance, beating Roma away in the autumn of 2008 and winning at home to Basel.
CALLING THE SHOTS: Ioan Andone
You could say this former Romania international has unfinished Champions League business as, after he led Cluj to Champions League qualification in 2007-08, he was unceremoniously kicked out on the eve of the club's first night with the Euro big boys. He was reappointed in April of this year, immediately guiding them to the Romanian league title.
Capped 55 times by Romania, his coaching career has taken him on quite an odyssey, featuring spells with a host of Romanian sides (Rapid and Dinamo Bucharest, Brasov and Petrolul Ploiesti among others), Omonia Nicosia in Cyprus, Bulgarian outfit CSKA Sofia and clubs in the Gulf.
THE GAME PLAN: Predictably for such an uncompromising defender in his playing days, Andone puts a premium on keeping it as tight at the back as possible.
He normally goes with a meticulously organised 4-2-3-1 template, though he does on occasion use a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1. His side are lightning-fast on the counterattack and have more than enough individual quality to ensure neat interplay and good possession.
Much will depend on how well their foreign stars acquit themselves this autumn, notably Greek striker Pantelis Kapetanos, Senegalese right winger Modou Sougou and multi-dimensional Uruguayan attacker Jorge Martinez. And Andone likes to keep his back four unchanged, while mixing and matching in the forward berths.
BIG HITTER: Jorge Martinez
On the radar of Manchester City not so long ago, this talented 29-year-old Uruguayan front-runner or attacking midfielder arrived in Romania this summer on a season-long loan deal from Juventus. Martinez is able to line up anywhere in and around the frontline, and his elusive running, creativity and eye for goal could be just what Cluj need.
A full Uruguay international, he began his career with leading Montevideo sides Wanderers and Nacional before crossing the Atlantic to join Sicilian club Catania, where he spent three extremely productive years. Martinez signed for Italian giants Juventus in 2010 for £10 million, but unfortunately could not hold down a regular spot in Turin and spent last term on loan to Cesena.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Cadu
Cluj has proved a home from home for Portuguese imports in recent times and one of the very best in that category is this ultra-reliable central defender.
After starting out in his homeland with Pacos de Ferreira and Boavista, he has starred with Cluj for the past half-dozen years, during five of which he has been their influential skipper, and he fits into that category of players who rarely seem to have an off day. In a Champions League tie away to Bayern Munich in October 2010, Cadu scored at both ends in a 3-2 defeat. He took up Romanian citizenship earlier this year.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Ciprian Deac
A tricky Romanian winger or attacking midfielder who, following an unhappy two-year spell under contract to German side Schalke, returned this summer to Cluj, the club he starred for between 2006 and 2010.
Capped for Romania on 11 occasions, Deac has also played for Romanian outfits Rapid Bucharest and Otelul. Twice a Romanian champion with Cluj in 2009 and 2010, he is one of those players who has to be in the right mood. If he is, he is unstoppable, yet there are days when he simply doesn't look up for the challenge. Here's hoping the sound of the Champions League theme tune will fire his burners.
SHOOTING STAR: Matias Aguirregaray
A dynamic right-sided Uruguayan midfielder or full back who is always looking to burst forward into opposition territory, this 23-year-old recently joined Cluj from Palermo of Serie A.
The son of former Uruguay defender Diego Aguirregaray, he was previously a leading light at Penarol in his homeland and appeared for his country at the London Olympics prior to starting his career with Cluj. "We needed some extra quality for the Champions League that is what we have with Matias," coach Andone said. "He gives us something extra and it is clear that we need just that in these games. The Champions League is all about handling pressure and believing you deserve to be there and Matias has the confidence required."
SECRET WEAPON: Modou Sougou
Speedy, busy and a calm taker of chances, the right winger from Senegal played a key role in Cluj's qualification for the Champions League, scoring both goals in the shock 2-1 win away to FC Basel in the first leg of the playoff round. He joined Cluj at the start of last season, previously having played in Portugal with such outfits as Uniao Leiria, Vitoria Setubal and Academica.
THE WEAK SPOT: Cluj have been shopping with a fervour in the close season transfer market and it will take time for all these new faces to be incorporated into an effective whole. It's a moot question whether their defensive midfielders are good enough to mind the store in Europe, and we will not have to wait long to get an answer to that question.
Their backline is not the quickest and can be susceptible to extremes of pace, a quality not exactly in short supply in the Champions League. When chasing a game, they can look ragged, and Europe's finest should be good enough to make them pay if they allow themselves to be exposed at the back.
VERDICT: Many Romanian insiders claim Cluj were less than impressive domestic title-winners last term, and that suggests the step up to the Champions League will be too far.