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Four-goal Faris dreams of AFC Cup final


Champions League 2006/7, Group A

Group A: Barcelona | Chelsea | Werder Bremen | Levski Sofia
Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H


Domestic finish last season: Spanish champions

Champions League form guide: It was something of a blot on the Barca record that they had only been crowned European champions once in their illustrious history, but they went some way to putting that right with their victory last season.

The coach: Frank Rijkaard

Rumours suggesting the Dutchman considered standing down as Barcelona coach following his side's La Liga and Champions League double last season proved to be wide of the mark as Rijkaard came back for the new campaign looking for more of the same.

'Our success is all about everyone in the squad showing respect for each other,' states the coach who is amazingly the longest serving in Spain's top league. 'There were times last season when things became difficult, but we found a way to come through those moments and in the end that strength was too much for our opponents.'

Rijkaard's triumph in Paris last May allowed him to join a select band who have won Europe's top trophy as both a player and a coach. 'The emotions of winning the competition in my current position was so different,' he reflects. 'When you are a player, the excitement is so intense, but as a coach, it is more about relief as you have achieved your goal.'

The star turn: Samuel Eto'o

The Cameroon hitman was voted the best attacking player in last season's Champions League, ahead of team-mate Ronaldinho with good reason.

While his goofy superstar Brazilian sidekick at Barca produced moments to savour over the course of the season, he ran out of gas long before the end and that put plenty of pressure on the elusive Eto'o. 'People ask if I am the best striker in the world, but that is impossible for anyone to decide,' states the forward who scored a crucial goal in Paris.

'You look at someone like Thierry Henry and he is so different, so brilliant. Then Ronaldinho, who does something every week that makes you stand back in amazement. In the end, you can only judge a player on the trophies he wins and Barcelona did something very special last season.'

The new face: Eidur Gudjohnsen

Very much the unsung hero of Chelsea's success in recent years, Gudjohnsen is one of those footballers who have an ability to play in a variety of positions to great effect.

As either an out-and-out striker of a midfield operator, he is one of the finest players to have emerged from Iceland and is convinced he has what it takes to make a big impact in what is already a star-studded Barca line-up. 'I have not come here to sit on the bench, but I need to play at my very best from the first minute to get into this team,' states the £8m signing.

'Everyone sees the quality of this squad and I have been lucky to see that close up with Chelsea in the last couple of years. We had two very tight games against Barcelona in the Champions League and now I get the chance to play against my former team. I'd love to knock Chelsea out of the competition this season.'

The weak spot: Of all the teams in the Champions League, it's hard to find a flaw in the make up of the reigning European champions.

Some believe they lack quality in the full-back positions, but the summer captures of Gianluca Zambrotta and Lilian Thuram should give them additional options in those positions, while the addition of Gudjohnsen offers them the sort of subtle goal scoring threat that is always useful when a game is tight.

In fact, by the time Barca reach the later stages of this season's Champions League, they may be much stronger than the side that triumphed last time around as Leo Messi and Xavi are among the stars who missed a bulk of the glorious successes of the 2005/06 campaign.

Verdict: They are the team to beat once again and it's hard to see any side cutting them down if Rijkaard can keep his star names fit and healthy through to next May.


Domestic finish last season: Premiership champions

Champions League form guide: Semi-finalists in 2005, Jose Mourinho's men are slowly climbing the UEFA rankings, but the fact that they are some way off a top eight seeding says much about the strides they need to take. Beaten at the last 16 stage last season, anything less than a last four spot will be viewed as failure this time.

The coach: Jose Mourinho

The most outspoken coach at the top end of world football is never short of an opinion and he will not rest until he claims the Champions League at his second major club.

Winning the 2004 European crown on a limited budget with FC Porto is likely to go down as the greatest moment in Mourinho's career whatever he achieves at Chelsea, but his determination to repeat the trick with the biggest budget in world football history has been dimmed by his apparent disillusion with the competition.

'The Champions League is not our priority this season,' states Mourinho. 'For me, UEFA have made this tournament a lottery after the group stages, so I would prefer to be the best team in the Premiership first of all. As long as we win one major trophy this season, we will can claim to be successful. That means the English title or the European Cup.'

Star turn: Andriy Shevchenko

Mourinho broke with policy when he sanctioned to the transfers of Shevchenko and Michael Ballack during the summer and he must have had both eyes trained firmly on the Champions League when he closed the deals.

The Portuguese coach has generally preferred to target players just outside the 'superstar' bracket, but for the Blues to join the elite, he clearly felt the need to add some proven talent to his ranks and they come no better than the record scorer in this competition.

'Chelsea are keen to do well in the Champions League and my dream is to win the competition again with a different club,' states the prolific Shevchenko, who scored AC Milan's winning penalty in the 2003 Final shoot-out against Juventus. 'This club have won the Premiership and now they want the big prize. I hope to help them achieve it.'

The new face: Michael Ballack

Mourinho may have given himself something of a dilemma when he signed Germany's inspirational captain during the summer and there is widely held belief that he will not be an ideal foil for Chelsea talisman Frank Lampard in the midfield.

With both of his star turns relishing the chance to burst forward and score goals aplenty, the Chelsea midfield looks imbalanced, yet the ever-bullish Mourinho insists he has no doubts about his midfield duo becoming a dream partnership.

'Great players can always work together,' barks the Blues boss. 'They say Lampard and Steven Gerrard cannot play in the same England team, but that's because there were other problems with that side at the World Cup. Ballack and Frank will be fantastic together, I have no doubts. They are the best two midfielders in the world.'

The weak spot: England left-back Ashley Cole has arrived from Arsenal, yet Chelsea may come undone if they stumble across injuries to their key defenders this season.

John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho provide a reliable and solid base to build upon, but the departures of Robert Huth and William Gallas means they are lacking in quality cover at the heart of the backline.

There are also major concerns that Ballack's arrival will destroy the midfield balance that has served Chelsea so well in the last couple of years. Mourinho finds himself with a host of midfielders who do the same thing - Michael Essien, Michael Ballack, and Frank Lampard are in danger of tripping over each other's feet.

Verdict: After two years of domestic success, Chelsea's desire to add the jewel of Europe's crown to their collection is burning brightly, yet even with Shevchenko and Ballack on board, they may not be capable of matching the best in the latter stages. Expect the Blues to crash out at the last eight stage.

Werder Bremen

Domestic league finish last season: Bundesliga runners-up

Champions League form guide: In each of the two previous seasons, Werder have been eliminated from the competition at the second round stage, beaten by Lyon in 2004/05 and on goal-difference by Juventus last term. They also reached the last-eight in 1993/94.

The coach: Thomas Schaaf

The 45-year-old may be a rather dour character and not particularly media-friendly, but that has not stopped him building one of the most attack-conscious sides in Europe, one whose modus operandi is to pour forward relentlessly and to attack with verve and style.

Although Bremen fans could be excused for feeling deflated on hearing they had been drawn in a 'Group of Death' alongside Chelsea and Barcelona, Schaaf takes the boldly optimistic approach: 'It's better for us to meet some favourites straight away,' he claims. 'The tougher the opponents, the better we play. Everyone will expect us to finish behind Chelsea and Barcelona, but we have the chance to cause the biggest upset.'

Schaaf is a one-club man, having spent his entire playing career as full-back for Werder. He then coached the club's juniors and amateurs before being appointed first team coach in May 1999.

Star turn: Miroslav Klose

This German international striker can simply do no wrong at the moment. Not only was he the top scorer in last season's Bundesliga and the 2006 World Cup, he also romped home in the vote for the country's Footballer of the Year.

Earlier in his career, he was mainly a threat in the air. Now, he has developed into a many-faceted world-class frontman, equally dangerous with his feet as his head. Klose's movement of the ball has improved leaps and bounds, he has a better first touch and he creates chances for others.

Speculation that he would immediately trade on his excellent World Cup by moving abroad proved groundless, though many suspect this will be his last season in Werder colours. Arsenal and Newcastle have been suggested as possible destinations and if he shines in the toughest of Champions League groups, his market value is bound to sore.

The new face: Diego

Once hailed as the next big thing in Brazilian football, the diminutive playmaker did not live up to expectations following a move to FC Porto in 2004. However, form is temporary and class permanent, so Werder opted to pay a club record fee of £4.2m for his silky services this summer.

The idea was for the 21-year-old to step into the shoes of the Bordeaux-bound midfield general Johan Micoud and the early signs are that the plan has worked out superbly, with Diego a constant source of invention early in the season. If he carries on in this vein, he is convinced he will get back into the Brazil line-up. 'I came to Europe looking to establish myself and win a place in the national team, but I was on the bench too often at Porto,' he says. 'This move gives me the chance to try again with a Champions League team.'

He made his name at Pele's old club Santos, where he formed an electrifying attacking duo with Robinho. The pair's irreverent dribbling skills used to send opponents crazy and he came close to joining Premiership outfit Tottenham before opting to start his European career in Portugal.

The weak spot: Werder's all-out attacking style is also their Achilles heel. A team that looks to get forward so much inevitably leaves the back door open at times.

It is possible their established German internationals - Klose, midfielders Torsten Frings and Tim Borowski and newly-signed centre-back Per Mertesacker (ex-Hannover) - could suffer a hangover from their World Cup exertions, with fatigue an obvious concern after an all-too brief summer break.

In addition, they may be vulnerable in wide areas at the back. All their full-backs, Clemens Fritz and Patrick Owomoyela on the right and Pierre Wome and Christian Schulz on the left, are better overlapping than defending.

Verdict: In any other group they would cruise through but with the champions of England and Spain in their pool, they will probably bow out. Entertainment is guaranteed though.

Levski Sofia

Domestic league finish last season: Bulgarian League champions

Champions League form guide: Levski are the first-ever Bulgarian side to gain admission to the continent's elite tournament by beating Italy's Chievo in the qualifying round. Before now, the closest they came to the Champions League was in 1993/94 when they narrowly lost out to Werder Bremen in an eliminating round.

The coach: Stanimir Stoilov

Only 39, he can do no wrong at the moment. Stoilov guided Levski to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup last season, not to mention their first Bulgarian league title since 2002, but it got even better this summer when he masterminded victory over Italy's Chievo in the third qualifying round. No wonder the Levski board recently extended his contract with them to 2009.

In charge of Levski since 2004, his team is a nice blend of athleticism and technical polish. Stoilov has a reputation for locating opposition weaknesses and then exploiting them to the full, while he has also been particularly successful in building a never-say-die spirit at the club.

A former captain of Levski, he also played in Turkey and Portugal, as well as for Levski's fierce local rivals, CSKA Sofia.

Star turn: Daniel Borimirov

This evergreen 36-year-old midfielder and club captain is still highly influential in the Levski scheme of things. He no longer has the extreme pace with which he used to glide past defenders, but Borimirov very much retains his above-average ball-skills, vision and creativity.

He was a member of the Bulgarian side that made history by reaching the semi-finals of the 1994 World Cup, eventually bowing out to Italy. Indeed, Borimirov is the only player in that team who has yet to hang up his boots.

Capped 67 times for Bulgaria, he returned for a second spell at Levski in January 2004 after spending eight seasons in Germany with 1860 Munich. He intends to move into management soon, but is relishing a final shot in the big-time.

'Reaching the Champions League group stage means so much to this club,' he says. 'The hard work starts now, but it's work we will enjoy.'

The new face: Georgi Surmov

This frontrunner or attacking midfielder was recently recruited from Second Division outfit Chernomorets Burgas. The 21-year-old, who signed a contract with Levski to 2009, is regarded as one of the most talented youngsters in the country and now he gets his chance to prove his worth against the best in the game.

Surmov has a good turn of pace, is technically proficient, always energetic and loves nothing better than being in the thick of the action. Some have compared him to Hristo Bonev, the great Bulgarian schemer of the 1970s, but he has a long way to go before he lives up to such a billing.

'Coming to Levski and having the opportunity to play in the Champions League is a dream come true,' he says. 'I know I'm not sure to start, but I'm determined to show what I can do. If I play against Barcelona and Chelsea, I'd be overjoyed.'

The weak spot: The spirit will be wiling, but Levski do not have enough individual quality to make a dent on the armour of the big boys. The fact that Cedric Bardon, a French journeyman midfielder, is one of their stars speaks volumes.

Their defensive unit is not without its glitches. They can be caught square and they have a tendency to dive in for challenges rather than staying on their feet, leaving themselves wide open to bookings.

Levski's best striker and crowd idol, Georgi Ivanov, can be a handful thanks to directness and quick feet. On the other hand, he not a model of consistency and time will tell whether he has what it takes to mix it with the best defenders in European football.

Verdict: Putting their romantic dreams of giant killings aside, nothing other than last place in Group A is on the agenda.

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