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Sep 12, 2007

Champions League 2007/8, Group C

Group C: Lazio | Olympiakos | Real Madrid | Werder Bremen
Group A | Group B | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

LAZIO (3rd in Italian league)


Champions League pedigree: Quarter-finalists 1999/2000

THE LOW DOWN: After his side saw off Dinamo Bucharest with a thrilling second half comeback in the third qualifying round, high-rated Lazio coach Delio Rossi gets his chance to test himself against Europe's best.

This is a very different club to the free-spending Lazio that threatened to established Italian football elite under Sven Goran Eriksson's management in the late 1990s. New owner Claudio Lotito has done his best to keep player wages low, but his prudent policy damaged their ambitions in the transfer market during the summer.

TECHNICAL AREA: Delio Rossi has been frustrated by a summer of transfer activity that did not culminate with the arrival of the glut of players he hoped for. It means he may need to make some realistic decisions about his side's Champions League challenge as fighting in all competitions may not be possible with the squad he has.

Rossi's modest playing career has been followed up by a more impressive coaching record and he did a fine job in guiding Lazio to a third place Serie A finish last time. He did equally well to dig his side out of a hole in the Champions League qualifying round and will relish his chance to shine in Europe's elite competition. He was linked with the vacant Juventus job during the summer, but remains in place at the Stadio Olympico.

The key to Lazio's third-place finish in Serie A last term was the decision of Delio Rossi to switch from a bog-standard 4-4-2 to a 4-3-1-2 system. It's a set-up almost identical to the one used by AC Milan when they employed Andriy Shevchenko.

WOW FACTOR: Lazio's top scorer last term with 16 goals, Tomasso Rocchi is a powerful and opportunistic frontrunner. His two goals in the third qualifying round secured his side's path to the group phase and suggested he is ready to continue his surprisingly impressive scoring exploits from last season this time around.

This ex-Empoli striker is a late developer who made his Italy debut at the age of 29 last year and such was his success last year that he has been linked with a transfer this summer. Biancocelesti fans will be relieved to see him starting the Champions League campaign in their colours as his goals will be crucial to Lazio's hopes.

THE BIG BUY: The retirement of Angelo Peruzzi left Lazio with a big hole to fill between their sticks and it took them some time for them to find a replacement. So much so that they were forced to start the Serie A campaign with 43-year-old Marco Ballotta as their keeper.

They set their heart on signing River Plate keeper Pablo Carrizo, but after red tape delayed his arrival, they made a move for Uruguayan Fernando Muslera just before the transfer window closed. It may be that Lazio end up with two decent keepers when the Italian authorities eventually clear the South American duo to play.

THE TENDER SPOT: A lack of proven match winners at this level may be exposed against the likes of Real Madrid in the group stages. After all, inventive coaching and good team spirit can only take you so far.

Star names are generally required for a team to succeed at this level and Lazio failed to sign the sort of players they needed during the off-season.

HOT GOSSIP: The embarrassing saga surrounding their search for a new keeper summed up what was a frustrating few months in the transfer market for Lazio and sporting director, Walter Sabatini, offered his resignation in early September after a host of summer targets slipped through the net.

It means Lazio are facing up to a Champions League challenge with a squad that may not be able to cope with the demands of challenging at home and abroad. 'It's a shame that the window has closed because we were looking for more players and additional quality," moaned coach Rossi. 'I'm just the coach and have to get on with the players I have been given."

IDEAL LINE-UP: Muslera, Scaloni, Cribari, Siviglia, Ledsema, Mutarelli, Mudingayi, De Nero, Meghni, Pandev, Rocchi

THE VERDICT: They have been handed a tough group stage draw and could be one of the big name casualties from the first phase.


OLYMPIAKOS (Greek champions)

Champions League pedigree: Quarter-finals 1998/99

THE LOWDOWN: National champions in ten out of the last eleven seasons, they have squashed all the domestic competition underfoot, but the Piraeus club have found life considerably harder at the top European level. Absent from the knock-out stages since 1999 when they made the last-eight, only to lose to Juventus. Oh, and don't remind them of the dramatic defeat against Liverpool at Anfield which robbed them of a place in the second round in 2004/05.

In a bid to redress the balance, wholesale changes have been made to the squad. Among the many departures were the Brazilian veteran Rivaldo (to bitter capital city rivals AEK Athens) and the Mexican attacking midfielder Nery Castillo (Shakhtar Donetsk), while the new boys include the ex-Portsmouth striker Lomana Lua Lua and ex-Real Madrid defender Raul Bravo.

THE TECHNICAL AREA: Boss Takis Lemonis, appointed in December 2006 for a second spell in charge, divides fan opinion. Some see the former Olympiakos player as someone in tune with their heritage and a safe pair of hands. Others see him as tactically naive and agree with Rivaldo, who once claimed that Greek coaches do not have enough experience to succeed in the Champions League.

Lemonis gained his coaching badge in England and, not surprisingly, likes to use a 4-4-2, in which the key midfield area is staffed by two men holding (Ieroklis Stoltidis and the Argentine Cristian Ledesma) and two linking the play out wide (the Serb Predrag Djordjevic on the left and Argentina's Luciano Galletti on the right).

THE WOW FACTOR: Their brand new front-line duo of the Argentine Lionel Nunez (ex-Argentinos Junior) and Lua Lua. The latter provides flair and explosiveness in and around the box. Nunez is an excellent dribbler and shoots powerfully. They also boast attacking strength in depth in the form of Kostas Mitroglou, the Serb Darko Kovacevic and Cypriot Michalis Konstantinou.

Another plus is the craft of Djordjevic, the thoughtful, elegant schemer with outstanding crossing ability and set-piece delivery. Unfortunately, he is now 35 and slowing down, while also becoming injury prone.

Olympiakos might not travel well at all, but with their home crowd baying, they are very much a force to be reckoned with, always capable of raising their game.

THE BIG BUY: An elusive, effervescent right-flank provider recruited from Atletico Madrid this summer, 27-year-old Argentine international Luciano Galletti has also played for Parma and Napoli in Italy and La Liga outfit Real Zaragoza.

It seems he likes to play for clubs wearing red and white stripes, having turned out for Estudiantes de la Plata in his homeland, Atletico Madrid and now Olympiakos.

THE TENDER SPOT: A ponderous central defence has proved a weak link for some time and the problem does not seem to have been solved by the signing of Paraskevas Antzas (ex-Xanthi) and Real Madrid's Raul Bravo, who can also play left-back. A solid rearguard is of paramount importance in this competition and the naked truth is that Olympiakos do not possess one.

Performing for a full 90 minutes can be difficult. In the Champions League they have a history of looking good for nine-tenths of a game, then self-destructing with a lapse in concentration.

HOT GOSSIP: Club president Socrates Kokkalis and his board came in for much criticism for allowing the team's two most gifted creators, Rivaldo and Nery Castillo to head for the exit. Should the season not pan out well, expect the mood among the fans to turn nasty.

Star names such as Chelsea enforcer Claude Makelele and Argentine playmaker Juan Riquelme were linked with a move to Piraeu during the summer, but ultimately, it was just smoke and mirrors and the failure to land experienced additions will cost them in the Champions League.

IDEAL LINE UP: Nikopolidis, Zewlakow, Bravo, Antzas, Torosidis, Ledesma, Stoltidis, Djordjevic, Galletti, Nunez, Lua Lua

THE VERDICT: Quite simply, they don't have enough individual talent or collective cohesion to sustain them beyond Christmas. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.


REAL MADRID (Spanish champions)


Champions League pedigree: Winners 1957, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1966, 1998, 2000, 2002 (record nine times)

THE LOW DOWN: The drama and tension surrounding Madrid's remarkable La Liga title triumph back in May will never be forgotten, but the changes made at the club during the summer means all the progress of last season counts for little this time around.

With manager Fabio Capello disposed off along with title winning heroes David Beckham and Roberto Carlos, it may take time for the new men in the frame to find their feet, so Real Madrid could be vulnerable in early group games. Much will depend on how quickly new signings Wesley Sneijder, Royston Drenthe, Saviola, Gabriel Heinze and Arjen Robben settle in.

TECHNICAL AREA: New coach Bernd Schuster is already a man under pressure as nothing but victory will do when you are Real Madrid manager. The former Getafe boss felt the heat as his Madridista players struggled to find their feet in some pre-season outings and if they stumble in the group stages, doubts over his credentials for such a colossal job will be raised again.

He has vowed to get the side playing the sort of attractive football some felt they neglected under Capello's guidance and the early signs are that Schuster will rely heavily on set-plays to produce scoring positions for his team. The delivery of Sneijder, Robben and Guti will be key areas for the opposition to look out for.

WOW FACTOR: Real Madrid have long prided themselves on having an array of talent to throw at their opponents and while the 'Galacticos' era may have come to an end this summer, coach Schuster now seems to have a depth of squad that has been lacking at the club in recent times.

His determination to introduce a fluent style featuring 'touch passing' could make Los Merengues the most entertaining side in Europe once again and that tag seems to be just as important to President Ramon Calderon as collecting trophies.

THE BIG BUY: Working out where to start when picking out the star summer signing at free-spending Madrid is a tough task and it may be that the combination of Sneijder and Robben give Schuster's side the sort of flair they lacked at times last season.

Neither came cheap with Robben costing around Euro30m and Sneijder Euro27m, but the Spanish champs know they have signed proven quality in both. Robben is a threat to any full-back with his pace and trickery, while Sneijder looks ready to move his career up a couple of levels having proved his worth in recent years with Ajax.

THE TENDER SPOT: With so many attractive options in his disposal after a hectic summer of transfer activity, Schuster may struggle to fit Guti, Robinho, Sneijder, Robben, Royston Drenthe and Mahamadou Diarra into the same midfield line-up. Upsetting big egos is always a tricky balancing act, so Drenthe may find a home in defence.

As ever, the Real Madrid defence will be viewed as a weak spot that can be exploited, but they seemed to find a decent balance at the back end of last season and the arrival of Heinze from Manchester United gives them a great option in either full-back role. The Argentine should also be a factor in the attacking third as he relishes the chance to burst forward.

HOT GOSSIP: Schuster is under pressure to play Real Madrid icon Raul alongside Ruud van Nistelrooy, but the feeling is he would rather pick a more mobile sidekick for the Dutch goal scoring machine. Raul carries plenty of political weight at the Bernabeu so a battle of wills may not be won by the new coach.

A similar political balancing act may trouble Schuster when it comes to the selection of Guti, whose first team options may be limited after so many new midfielders arriving this summer.

IDEAL LINE-UP: Casillas, Heinze, Sergio Ramos, Cannavaro, Drenthe, Robben Diarra, Sneijder, Robinho, Raul, Van Nistelrooy

THE VERDICT: With good strength in depth, Schuster looks to have the tools to develop a winning machine in his first season at Real Madrid, but he may come under pressure if he fails to find the right formula straight away. This squad should be good enough for the Champions League semi-finals at least.


WERDER BREMEN (3rd in German league)


Champions League pedigree: Second round: 2004/05, 2005/06

THE LOWDOWN: This northern German outfit did not enjoy the best of summers. After long insisting that German international striker Miroslav Klose was not for sale, they finally caved in, agreeing to let him go to Bayern Munich in return for £8.5m.

They then suffered a further blow when key midfielder Torsten Frings damaged a knee in pre-season and even if he wins his battle to be on the team sheet for the group stages, his match-fitness is bound to be in question.

Such major setbacks mean will be impossible for Werder to fire on all cylinders in the early part of the 2007/08 campaign. Hampered by an endless stream of niggles and knocks, they have not looked particularly convincing in the Bundesliga or the Champions League third qualifying round, where they made hard work of defeating Croats Dinamo Zagreb 5-3 on aggregate.

THE TECHNICAL AREA: On the face of it, a rather introverted former full-back would be a long shot to become a risk-taking coach whose side plays some of the most attractive football on the continent, but that's what Thomas Schaaf has developed into since being handed responsibility for the Bremen first team in May 1999. His PR may not be great, but the playing style he promotes certainly is.

A member of the Bremen side which won the European Cup-winners' Cup in 1992, Schaaf's base formation is a 4-4-2, of which the heartbeat is their very fluid midfield diamond. Aided by a pair of constantly-advancing full-backs and forwards who work the channels very well indeed, Bremen have few equals in their slick passing and fast-paced counter-attacks.

THE WOW FACTOR: The impish playmaking of Brazilian genius Diego has been quite sensational since arriving from FC Porto at the start of last season. His ability to find space, his twists and turns with the ball, eye for a killer through pass and invention from free-kicks makes him their number one attacking weapon.

Bremen desperately need a fully fit Torsten Frings. Not only does he put in a full shift in the pressing, tackling and covering department, he can play too and loves to drive into enemy territory with a style that has been compared to Lothar Matthaus in his pomp. He packs quite a shot from outside the box.

German international centre-back Per Mertesacker continues to improve by leaps and bounds. Naturally for someone so tall, he dominates in the air, but also specialises in timely-interventions on the floor and excellent positioning.

THE BIG BUY: It took several weeks of negotiations to complete, but finally Bremen general manager Klaus Allofs sealed the £5.6m deal to bring in Brazilian attacking midfielder/forward Carlos Alberto from Corinthians of Sao Paulo. He has a reputation for inconsistency and nightclubbing, but insists he will be on his best behaviour at Werder.

Carlos Alberto has an outstanding Champions League track record, having scored in FC Porto's 2004 Final victory over Monaco in Gelsenkirchen.

THE TENDER SPOT: The first rule of the Champions League is that you have to get it right defensively. Werder's policy of all-out attack could be thought of as naive.

Ex-Hamburg striker Boubacar Sango has looked the part as Klose's replacement, but who will Schaaf pick to partner him? Both the Portuguese Hugo Almeida and the Swede Markus Rosenberg are decidedly out of touch and look unlikely to test Europe's best defenders.

With midfield all-rounders Frings and Tim Borowski both struggling with knee injuries, Bremen are in trouble. Would-be replacements Daniel Jensen and Jurica Vranjes offer ball-winning capacity and little more.

HOT GOSSIP: Croat attacker Ivan Klasnic is now back in training after a successful kidney transplant operation and his return to action would give Werder's Champions League campaign a major lift.

Thomas Schaaf has high hopes for young Austrian striker Martin Harnik, who recently scored on his Bundesliga debut. He may just be the wild card to fire the challenge of the German underdogs.

IDEAL LINE UP: Wiese, Schulz, Mertesacker, Naldo, Fritz, Frings, Borowski, Carlos Alberto, Diego, Sanogo, Almeida

THE VERDICT: If Diego stays fit and Frings can recover from his injury, Bremen will go marching on.


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