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Fantasy follow-up: Week 18

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Champions League 2007/8, Group B

Group B: Chelsea | Rosenborg | Schalke 04 | Valencia
Group A | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Chelsea (2nd in English league)

Champions League pedigree: Semi-finalists 2005, 2007

THE LOW DOWN: Few expected Jose Mourinho to be leading Chelsea into a fourth Champions League campaign after frenzied speculation over his future for much of last season, so it was no surprise to see him part company with the club just one game into their European campaign.

Chelsea could well have qualified for this season's competition as English champions were it not for injuries to keeper Petr Cech and inspirational captain John Terry last season, but they look hungry for more trophy glory in the months ahead.

TECHNICAL AREA: With the enigmatic Mourinho gone, the little known Avram Grant steps up from his position as Director of Football with plenty to prove at Champions League level.

Previously coach of the Israeli national team, Grant is viewed as little more than a 'yes man' for his friend and Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich. Generally a 4-4-2 fan, he looks certain to spend most of his time in the Blues hot-seat answering questions about his long-term future in the post. He has yet to prove that he has the tactical brains to overcome the best coaches in the game and is under pressure from the off.

WOW FACTOR: Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich was said to be intent on a change of coach this summer and part of the reason for his discontent was the dour football Mourinho tended to play, so he will be expecting new man Grant to give him what he wants.

The Israeli coach claims he is determined to employ a more attacking approach and with Didier Drogba leading the line, the Blues have an attacking powerhouse who is capable of unsettling the best of defences. If they find the balance between excitement and success, Chelsea will be a powerful force, but few expect it to happen for them this season after so much turmoil in September.

THE BIG BUY: Florent Malouda was a target for several top clubs this summer, but he was won over the by the charms of Mourinho and the big wages on offer at Chelsea. 'The manager here knew everything about my game and that is the reason I felt wanted,' claims the £13.5m signing from Lyon.

The former Blues boss saw the French flyer as a key man in his determination to revert back to the reliance on wingers that served him so well in his first season at Chelsea and Malouda's goal scoring prowess makes him a sound investment.

THE TENDER SPOT: While it's hard to pick a hole in Chelsea's solid side, there is a feeling that they can be vulnerable on either side of their defence, with Ashley Cole unconvincing in his first year at the club.

Mourinho's decision to omit Michael Ballack from his Champions League squad list seemed to prove that the German has little chance of extending his career at Stamford Bridge beyond the January transfer window and the same appeared to be true of Andriy Shevchenko. With Grant now in charge, the superstar duo may be pushing for regular starting rolls.

Finally, there are doubts over their ability to win games if key men Terry, Frank Lampard or Drogba are absent for a lengthy period.

HOT GOSSIP: The one flaw in Chelsea's make-up appeared to be the complicated management structure imposed on Mourinho and with Grant now given control of the first team, one layer of management seems to have been removed for now. If a new coach is installed in due course, he will take time to find his feet and that could derail the transitional period club's immediate plans.

Talk of an unsettled dressing room was said to be behind Mourinho's departure, but his exit has sparked more speculation that the likes of Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba want to leave the club. Time will tell whether Chelsea can hold it together to mount a serious challenge for the Champions League.

IDEAL LINE-UP: Cech, A Cole, Terry, Carvalho, Belletti, Wright-Phillips, Lampard, Essien, Malouda, Shevchenko, Drogba

THE VERDICT: Some bookmakers make Chelsea second favourites for the crown, but with Mourinho now a former coach, those odds seems foolish. Their moment in the Champions League spotlight will have to wait.

ROSENBORG (Norwegian champions)


Champions League pedigree - Quarter-finalists: 1995/96

THE LOWDOWN: The Trondheim club are not in the best of shape for a Champions League campaign. Domestic top dogs in 14 out of the last 15 years, they seem most unlikely to repeat the trick in 2007, trailing behind pacesetters Brann Bergen and Lillestrom. Rosenborg's away form has proved disappointing to say the least and there is a real danger that they might not even qualify for next season's UEFA Cup.

Once far and away the best-run team in Scandinavia, they have allowed others to catch them up in the personnel, commercial and organisation fronts. From the moment Rosenborg emerged as a genuine force in Europe in the mid-90s, they were powerless to prevent their star names emigrating, mainly to the Premiership.

They always seemed to cope as they were able to attract the very best Norwegian players simply by clicking their fingers, but their monopoly on indigenous talent has been shattered in the past couple of years. Domestic rivals are not selling and Rosenborg are increasingly looking for reinforcements in overseas markets such as Canada, Slovakia and Africa.

THE TECHNICAL AREA: Assistant-coach Knut Torum stepped into the breach last season when his boss Per Mathias Hogmo was forced to take sick leave because of exhaustion. A former utility man with Brann Bergen and manager of Moss and Stabaek, the 36-year-old Torum proved a highly-capable deputy, steering the club to the 2006 league title. Following Hogmo's resignation, Torum was given the job on a permanent basis.

For almost two decades, Rosenborg have built their success on a 4-3-3 system and Torum has stuck religiously to the tried and tested formula: the emphasis on solid teamwork, the athletic defensive work, the long aerial ball to catch the opposition off guard and wing-play. Having said that, thanks to the influence of their foreigners, the Rosenborg Class of 2007 play with more fantasy than in the good old days.

THE WOW FACTOR: The brilliant Burkina Faso duo of left-winger Abdou Traore and striker Yssouf Kone give them their spark. Eighteen-year-old Traore is a real handful thanks to his speed, low centre of gravity and sheer unpredictability, while Kone - who has played for Italian side Lecce, Raja Casablanca and in China - is renowned for his acrobatic goals.

Highly-promising home-grown midfielders Alexander Tettey and Per Ciljan Skjelbred, a pair of much energy and thoughtful users of the ball, are also men to watch. They combine perfectly with the refinement of the skilful Slovak schemer Marek Sapara, whose invention and excellent free-kick delivery has won him admirers at French and German clubs.

The drive and good crosses of attack-minded full-backs, the left-sided Swede Michael Dorsin and the evergreen 37-year-old Roar Strand on the right will also pose a threat. Strand has claimed no fewer than 14 Norwegian League titles with Rosenborg.

THE BIG BUY: Rosenborg are said to have made 40 trips to the Ivory Coast to run the rule over right-winger Didier Konan, who was eventually signed early this year from ASEC of Abidjan, the club where Arsenal defenders Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue started out.

Konan, who can also play as an attacking midfielder or up front, is a good team man with excellent individual skills and a strong shot from distance.

THE TENDER SPOT: Defensively they are not the quickest, especially through the middle where Christer Basma and the Finn Mika Koppinen are stationed. Koppinen does like to come out with the ball and at times his adventurous wandering can prove costly.

This season Rosenborg have been alarmingly inconsistent, good one week, shambolic the next. This inability to maintain a performance does not augur well for the Champions League. In the past, they knew they had the game plan, presence and fitness to worry the big boys. Such self-belief is no longer so evident.

HOT GOSSIP: Canadian keeper Lars Hirschfeld put club before country this summer, refusing to turn out for his country at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, so his stock has risen at Rosenborg.

Paris Saint-Germain were rumoured to be very keen on midfielder Marek Sapara, only for the would-be deal to stall. Early this season Rosenborg turned down an offer for Yssouf Kone from Norwegian rivals Start.

IDEAL LINE UP: Hirschfeld, Dorsin, Basma, Koppinen, Strand, Skjelbred, Tettey, Sapara, Traore, Kone, Konan

THE VERDICT: Rank outsiders, there is little chance of emulating past achievements.


SCHALKE 04 (German league runners-up)


Champions League pedigree: First round: 2001/02, 2005/06

THE LOWDOWN: In 2001 and again last season, the Royal Blues looked set fair to win the Bundesliga, only to fall in the final furlongs, so a long run in Europe would the be the perfect response to all those who have dubbed them 'chokers'.

The next few months represent a major test of their character. What Schalke will be hoping to rediscover is the gutsy, all-action form that carried them to UEFA Cup glory in 1997. Back then they might not have boasted the classiest individuals, but no team was tighter knit and wanted it more.

THE TECHNICAL AREA: Mirko Slomka's appointment as Schalke boss in January 2006 led the German media to criticise the decision to hand the keys to someone with no experience as a head coach, but the former Hannover and Schalke number two has proved to be more than capable. Although the Bundesliga title eluded him last season, fourth and second-place league finishes, plus the semi-finals of the 2005/06 UEFA Cup are not to be sniffed at.

Slomka favours a 4-3-3 system, featuring an attacking trident of striker Kevin Kuranyi flanked by Danish speedster Peter Lovenkrands on the left and German international Gerald Asamoah on the right. Schalke are equally at home in a 4-4-2, a system apparently favoured by a number of their senior pros.

THE WOW FACTOR: The line leading ability and goals of Kevin Kuranyi, who has bounced back with a vengeance after being sensationally left out of the German World Cup 2006 squad by Jurgen Klinsmann, gives Schalke their bite.

Their renowned defensive solidity, built upon the redoubtable centre-back partnership of Serbia's Mladen Krstajic and the Brazilian Marcelo Bordon provide the bedrock of their success.

Slomka surprised many last season by axing battle-hardened keeper Frank Rost in favour of rookie Manuel Neuner, yet he instantly repaid his coach's faith in him with a string of exceptional displays. So much so that the 21-year-old is now on the brink of national team selection.

Their brilliant attacking full-backs are also key men. The left-sided Christian Pander gave further proof of his shooting power with a stunning goal against England at Wembley in August, while on the right, his Brazilian counterpart Rafinha needs no invitation to get forward with menace.

THE BIG BUY: Schalke went shopping in Switzerland to land FC Basel's highly-rated teenage attacking midfielder Ivan Rakitic. His strengths are his delicate technique, finely-timed breaks into the opposition box and composed finishing.

Swiss-born to Croat parents, Rakitic could have played his representative football for either country, but plumped for the Balkan nation, a decision which resulted in his family receiving death threats from disgruntled Swiss fans.

THE TENDER SPOT: On the whole, their midfield looks weaker following the departure of Hamit Altintop to Bayern Munich and the Brazilian playmaker Lincoln to Galatasaray. Altintop's dynamism will be badly missed, as will Lincoln's flair and creativity.

The limitations of Lovenkrands and Asamoah are also a concern. Lovenkrands tends to drift in and out of games, while Asamoah can be rather one-dimensional in his approach, too reliant on muscling his way through.

There must also be worries over Schalke's team spirit. Players here like to speak their mind in public, even if it means upsetting a colleague.

HOT GOSSIP: Bordon and Kuranyi did not hesitate to come out and slam what they considered a less than ambitious summer recruitment drive. Coach Slomka has admitted the squad is too small, lacking adequate cover in certain positions.

The signs of disharmony in the camp are there for all to see. Reserve striker Soren Larsen complained to a Danish newspaper that an unnamed team mate - thought to be Krstajic - had tried to hurt him on the training ground. Larsen accused Slomka of turning a blind eye because it involved an established first-teamer.

IDEAL LINE UP: Neuer, Pander, Krstajic, Bordon, Rafinha, Kobiashvili, Ernst, Rakitic, Lovenkrands, Kuranyi, Asamoah

THE VERDICT: The role of underdog will suit them in Europe. Schalke are a good outside bet to still be around come the New Year.


VALENCIA: (4th in Spanish league)


Champions League pedigree: Runners-up 2000, 2001

THE LOW DOWN: Valencia took up their now familiar place in the group stages of the Champions League with a comfortable win against Swedish kings Elfsborg and a decent group stage draw means they can look forward to another lengthy run.

Many felt 'Los Che' were the better side in their quarter-final against Chelsea last season, but Jose Mourinho's men have a habit of finding a route to victory when they are not at their best and a late sucker punch undid plenty of solid Valencia work.

TECHNICAL AREA: Coach Quique Sanchez Flores is widely respected as one of the most astute young coaches in the game and his performances in the Champions League have helped to confirm that status.

A former full-back for Real Madrid and then Valencia, this ex-Getafe boss has done a fine job since succeeding Claudio Ranieri at the Mestalla. Preferring to employ a 4-4-2 line-up, he has a squad packed full of hardened Champions League performers who cannot be overawed by any occasion after many years of near misses in this competition.

'There is no lack of self belief at this club when it comes to the Champions League,' he says. 'Our supporters and, most importantly, my players believe they should be right in there when it matters against the best teams in Europe. It's a winning attitude that serves us well.'

WOW FACTOR: David Villa confirmed his arrival on the big stage of European football last season by turning in consistently superb displays. Most pundits expected huge cash offers to be thrown at Valencia in a bid to lure their star turn away, but he remains in place at the Metsalla and will be looking to build his reputation in the months ahead.

Then, of course, there is the brilliant Joaquin, who has the ability to give the best of full-backs real trouble down the flanks. 'El Artista' cost Valencia €25m when he signed from Real Betis in 2006 and he was worth every penny. Young David Silva was also a revelation last season, scoring some memorable goals.

THE BIG BUY: Manuel Fernandes looked certain to sign for English side Everton at the end of August, but he opted to commit his future to Valencia instead. The ex-Benfica man should give his new club an extra bit of spark in the midfield, though he faces a battle to oust Ruben Baraja and David Albelda from the starting line-up.

The term 'big buy' has never been more apt than when discussing the giant frame of Nicola Zigic. Standing at an imposing 6'8', the Serb will be a useful man to throw into the action if a late goal is needed.

The defensive ranks have been boosted by the capture of Alexis from Getafe, Portugal's Marco Caneria and the veteran Ivan Helguera, who arrived from Real Madrid. Nigerian-born Stephen Sunday is another summer capture and he will provide competition for midfield places.

THE TENDER SPOT: The Valencia squad has been given a major revamp in the summer and with so many new arrivals, it may take time for the dust to settle and for Flores to discover his best starting line-up.

The other concern must be that some of Valencia's key men are prone to injury. Even though Flores has decent strength in depth, he wouldn't want to be without the likes of Edu, Vicente and Ruben Baraja for as long periods, as he was last season.

HOT GOSSIP: Winger Vicente will miss the start of the Champions League effort as he is struggling to recover from a tough thigh muscle. He may not be fully fit until mid-October at the earliest.

Valencia were among those said to be interested in signing French striker Nicolas Anelka from Bolton before the transfer window slammed shut. They might make a fresh move for the rarely settled hit-man in January.

IDEAL LINE-UP: Canizarez, Miguel, Marchena, Albiol, Moretti, Joaquin, Albelda, Baraja, Vicente, Silva, Villa

THE VERDICT: Every club wanted to be paired with Rosenborg, so as long as Valencia claim their six points against the Norwegians, they should be moving through to the knock-out phase once again.


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