Champions League 2007/8, Group D
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H
AC MILAN (Champions League holders)
Champions League pedigree: European Champions 1963, 1969, 1989, 1990, 1994, 2003, 2007
THE LOW DOWN: Being docked Serie A points in the Calciopoli scandal may have played into Milan's hands when it came to their Champions League campaign last season as boss Carlos Ancelotti could put all the focus on the ultimately successful battle to claim a seventh European crown for the Rossoneri.
The results were spectacular as they triumphed with victory over Manchester United and Liverpool in the final two rounds of last season's Champions League and the pressure is on to combine a Serie A title push with the defence of their European crown.
TECHNICAL AREA: Once again, Ancelotti proved himself to be a tactical master in last season's Champions League and the way he stopped Manchester United wonder kid Cristiano Ronaldo in the semi-finals was a key to his side's eventual triumph.
A fan of the 4-3-2-1 or a 4-3-1-2 formation, his game plan last season was based around getting Kaka into the game as much as possible. It proved to be a winning formula in the Champions League and even though his defence has had a tag of veteran all over it for a few years now, they remained rock solid under intense pressure against the Premier League giants.
WOW FACTOR: You need look no further than the mercurial Kaka to provide the magic and flair in this Milan side and Rossoneri worshipers must be relieved that all the talk of a summer move to Spain came to nothing. Allowing their trump card to walk away from the San Siro would have been a suicidal act and this club don't tend to indulge in such radical antics.
The summer speculation linking Ronaldinho with a move to Milan was persistent, yet it came to nothing in the end and coach Ancelotti has professed himself to be satisfied with the squad he is working with for the new season.
THE BIG BUY: Brazilian midfielder Emerson threatened to retire from football unless he was released from his contract at Real Madrid, so he was clearly passionate about completing the move to Milan. 'I feel reborn after joining the best club in the world,' proclaimed the former Roma and Juventus star as he returned to Italy.
Alexandre Pato also arrives from SC Internacional and if the hype around him is to be believed, this Brazilian will be a sensation when he finds his feet at Milan. Due to red tape, he won't be allowed to play competitive matches for his new club until January, so he could be a great wild card to play in the second phase of the Champions League.
THE TENDER SPOT: There will come a time when the likes of Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta begin to show their age and the speedy forwards they will come up against this year test their resolve to the full. So far, they have found the answers, but the sands of time catch up on even the greatest players in the end.
Also, it is always felt that keeper Dida is vulnerable when coming to collect crosses. Playing behind the human wall that is the Milan defence covers his flaws, but if the Brazilian stopper is stretched, he may be exposed as a weak link.
HOT GOSSIP: Veteran Brazilian striker Ronaldo is said to be in the best shape of his career having shed plenty of weight during the summer and if he can rediscover his best form in the months ahead, he could emerge as a trump card for Milan. With Milan President Silvio Berlusconi vowing to reunite 'Roni' with Ronaldinho in 2008, there could be one final glorious chapter to be written for the former 'fat boy'.
Another story to follow this season will be that of skipper Maldini, with the legendary Milan No.3 set to hang up his boots at the end of the season. 'I have reserved a special place for a final Champions League winners medal,' says the veteran full-back and another European crown would be the dream finale to a remarkable career.
IDEAL LINE-UP: Dida, Maldini, Nesta, Kaladze, Oddo, Gattuso, Emerson, Pirlo, Kaka, Seedorf, Ronaldo
THE VERDICT: They have been quiet in the transfer market, but stability is often a good policy. With a revitalised Ronaldo giving Milan some much needed extra firepower up front, another tilt at the big prize is in the offing this season.
BENFICA (3rd in Portuguese League)
Champions League pedigree: European champions: 1961, 1962
THE LOWDOWN: How not to prepare for the Champions League. Following a dismal 1-1 draw with newly-promoted Leixoes on the opening day of season, club President Luis Filipe Viera angrily confronted coach Fernando Santos and in such a head to head, there can only be one winner. Santos was axed and replaced by the former Spain boss Jose Antonio Camacho, who stood on the Benfica bridge from 2002 to 2004. Cue changes plenty in training methods, tactics and line-up.
After several years of speculation, star Portuguese international winger Simao Sabrosa at last flew the nest, joining Atletico Madrid. Another key man to leave was diminutive but talented on-loan striker Fabrizio Miccoli, who returned to Italy to lead the line at Palermo. As usual the Benfica entrance-door was extensively used this summer, with no fewer than a dozen new arrivals. Camacho will have to work fast to produce a cohesive, competitive unit.
THE TECHNICAL AREA: Camacho was never anything less than an intensely-motivated left-back for Spain and Real Madrid and now that he is a coach he expects the same fire in the bellies of his players. Previously in charge of Rayo Vallecano, Espanyol, Real Madrid and the Spanish national team, he favours 4-4-2, but is infamous for being a persistent tinkerer with formations. Rotating his first-eleven is another speciality.
In an outstanding playing career, this fiery, forthright character was unable to get his hands on the European Champions' Cup. The closest he came was in 1981 when his Real side lost 1-0 to Liverpool in the Final in Paris. He did however help Real lift the UEFA Cup in 1985 and 1986.
THE WOW FACTOR: Although not in the first flush of youth, 35-year-old playmaker Rui Costa remains as influential as ever with his sublime dribbling ability, defence-splitting passes and merciless shooting. He returned to his hometown club last summer after a dozen stellar years in Italy with Fiorentina and AC Milan, participating in the latter's Champions League triumph in 2003.
The rock-solid Brazilian central defensive partnership of Luisao and new signing from Vitoria, David Luiz. Luisao, in particular, is a one man-barrier, a fearsome marker and almost unbeatable in the air.
If Rui Costa is free to weave his magic, it's largely because twin defensive midfielders, Petit and the Greek Kostas Katsouranis, back him up superbly. As well as being extremely efficient at performing the team's dirty work, both are more than comfortable with the ball at their feet.
THE BIG BUY: Benfica splashed out £6.4m to bring in Paraguayan attacker Oscar Cardozo from Argentine side Newell's Old Boys. A prolific goal scorer for Club Nacional in his homeland and Newell's, the 24-year-old was voted Paraguay's Footballer of the Year for 2006. His strengths are his aerial power, accuracy of shot and intelligent link up play.
He is the second most expensive player in Benfica's history, the record held by Simao, who was bought from Barcelona for £9.2m in 2001.
THE TENDER SPOT: Their last line of defence always looks vulnerable. Both Portuguese international Quim and new German signing Hans Jorg Butt have seen better days.
Rui Costa cannot be expected to carry the team's creative burden on his own and Simao's excellent work on the flank, his knack of making chances out of nothing, will be badly missed. His would-be replacement, the young Argentine Angel Di Maria - signed from Rosario Central - has much potential but needs time to adjust to the game in Europe.
At left-back, Leo is fine in attacking mode, but can neglect his defensive duties. There are also doubts over Portugal striker Nuno Gomes, who is not as sharp as he once was.
HOT GOSSIP: The Eagles won the race for the signature of much-vaunted America and Real Salt Lake striker or attacking midfielder Freddy Adu.
A debutant in the MLS at the age of just 14 - making him the youngest professional athlete in modern US history - Adu cost Benfica £1m and it will be fascinating to see how one of the most talked about kids in the game in recent years settles into life as a Champions League performer.
IDEAL LINE UP: Quim, Leo, Luisao, David Luiz, Zoro, Petit, Katsouranis, Nuno Assis, Rui Costa, Cardozo, Nuno Gomes
THE VERDICT: They may just scrape into the second phase, but don't put too much money on it.
CELTIC (Scottish champions)
Champions League pedigree: European Champions 1967
THE LOW DOWN: Involved in the most dramatic of third round qualifying ties as they saw off Spartak Moscow on penalties after a couple of memorable matches, Gordon Strachan's men now have the challenge of emulating their Champions League achievements of last season.
A fortunate victory over mighty Manchester United handed them an unlikely passport to the knock-out stages last time and they impressed in losing narrowly to eventual champions AC Milan. No team will relish a trip to a Parkhead home Celtic supporters call 'Paradise', but a team boasting little more than hard working commitment can only take you so far.
TECHNICAL AREA: Strachan took time to win over his doubters at Celtic after replacing the celebrated Martin O'Neill in the summer of 2005, but back-to-back Scottish titles have won him plenty of admirers. His relative success in the Champions League last season did his stock no harm either.
Generally a 4-4-2 man, he has been known to revert to 4-5-1 for away games in Europe, but such a negative tactic has rarely proved successful. With that in mind, he may feel the best form of defence is attack and start with Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and summer capture Scott McDonald up top against the cream of the Champions League sides.
WOW FACTOR: Gifted Japanese star Shunsuke Nakamura was the star turn for Celtic throughout last season, with his late free-kick that beat Manchester United securing him a place in Parkhead folklore forever more. Many felt this fragile looking performer would struggle in the tough world of Scottish football, but his class has won out.
The other star man in the Celtic line-up is their remarkable army of fans who turn home games into some kind of state occasion. The cauldron of passion that is Parkhead on European nights has regularly carried 'The Bhoys' to unlikely victories in recent years, with the display of flags and scarves complemented by communal signing that would rival any pop concert.
THE BIG BUY: Attracting top talent to Scotland is always a major challenge, so Strachan did well to lure former AC Milan midfielder Massimo Donati to Glasgow during the summer. Handed the No.18 shirt previously owned by departed Celtic skipper Neil Lennon, much is expected of a star who has lost his way somewhat in recent years.
The arrival of Scott Brown from Hibernian was an interesting move because at a reported £4.4m, Strachan proved he was prepared to use much of his summer transfer kitty on a 22-year-old who had never performed at Champions League level before. Rumours of interest from Premier League clubs in England inflated his fee, but time will tell if he is good enough to shine in this elite competition.
THE TENDER SPOT: Celtic's form away from home in the Champions League has been truly appalling and while they have come close to success from time to time, they always tend to come up short in the end. Lacking the self-belief to attack teams as they do on home soil, they have proved time again to be unable to keep a clean sheet when the pressure is applied. They have yet to win a game on their travels in the Champions League group stages.
Their other major problem is an inability to get themselves match-sharp for games against the best in Europe when they are squaring up to modest competition at home every week. Beating the likes of Dunfermline and Motherwell with ease is not a real warm-up prior to facing the likes of AC Milan at the San Siro.
HOT GOSSIP: Reports linking Nakamura with moves to the English Premier League or back to Italy came to nothing during the summer, but if he shines again in the Champions League group stages, tempting offers are bound to be thrust onto the table in January.
IDEAL LINE-UP: Boruc, Caldwell, McManus, Naylor, Wilson, Brown, Donati, McGeady, Nakamura, McDonald, Vennegoor of Hesselink
THE VERDICT: Their failings on the road will cost them dear again, so they would be happy to claim a UEFA Cup spot for the New Year.
SHAKHTAR DONETSK (Ukraine League runner-up):
Champions League pedigree - Group stage: 2004/05, 2006/-07
THE LOWDOWN: Owner Rinat Akhmetov, a billionaire businessman, is the Ukraine's answer to Roman Abramovich and has never counted the pennies while investing heavily in high-price foreign talent and the club's facilities; they boast a state of the art training centre and next year will inaugurate a new £120million 50,000-seater stadium. Three domestic league titles in the last five years are all well and good, but what Akhmetov really craves is Europe-wide credibility and that means surviving until March.
Despite their obvious financial clout, Shakhtar could not, however, prevent their three best players exiting stage left in the off-season. Brazilian midfield ace Elano was lured away by Sven-Goran Eriksson's Manchester City, Romanian striker Ciprian Marica went to German champions Stuttgart and Brazilian playmaker Matuzalem signed for Real Zaragoza. Akhmetov's response was immediate, spending £27million on among others Mexican creator Nery Castillo, Brazilian full-back Ilsinho from Sao Paulo and much-travelled Italian striker Cristiano Lucarelli (ex-Livorno).
THE TECHNICAL AREA: Veteran Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu certainly knows how to produce championship-winning teams, having done so with Dinamo and Rapid Bucharest, Turkish sides Galatasaray and Besiktas and now Shakhtar. He has also taken charge of Romania and Serie A clubs Inter Milan, Reggiana, Brescia and Pisa. A strict disciplinarian and clever tactician, he normally plumps for a 4-4-2 formation with the emphasis on possession and a very active, industrious midfield diamond.
Lucescu, a former Romanian international attacker, is an English-style manager who does both the coaching and is responsible for transfer policy. He can be hot-headed, often at loggerheads with referees.
THE WOW FACTOR: Great service from the flanks is guaranteed. Right-sided midfielder, the Croat Darijo Srna and Romanian left-back Razvan Rat are both tireless, technically-gifted and can supply a wide-range of accurate balls into the box. Srna is a magnificent striker of a free-kick into the bargain.
The breathtaking flair of the Brazilians Fernandinho, Jadson and new signing from Corinthians, Willian in the middle of the park also provide some verve. Fernandinho, who can play in the centre or out wide is maturing nicely, Jadson is a wonderful dribbler and Willian will cause problems to any defence with his mobility and laser-guided shooting from distance.
Shakhtar look to have assembled a top ranking strike-force in the experienced Italian target man Cristiano Lucarelli and the exciting young Ukrainian goal poacher Oleexander Gladyy, who was the top flight's leading scorer last term with 13 goals for FC Kharkiv.
THE BIG BUY: Fresh from a starring role in Mexico's Copa America campaign, attacking midfielder or forward Nery Castillo arrived in a £13.5million deal from Olympiakos. The 23-year-old's left-foot is something to behold and spectacular goals are a speciality, an example being his brilliant effort against Brazil this summer, flicking a ball over a defender and then volleying home. Shades of Pele in the 1958 World Cup final.
Castillo had the choice of playing for three national teams. Mexico, the land of his birth; Uruguay from where his parents hailed and Greece, who were on the verge of offering him citizenship. As a teenager he was due to join Manchester United, only for the deal to be scuppered by work permit difficulties.
THE TENDER SPOT: The decision making of keeper Andriy Pyatov, bought from Vorskla late last year, can be called into question. He is not at all secure dealing with high balls.
Castillo could pose problems with his tendency to retaliate and his excessive individualism. He does his own thing, regardless of what team mates may think.
At times Shakhtar struggle to find the right blend of South American audacity and Eastern European athleticism and discipline. The lack of competition in their domestic league hardly prepares them for the top continental level.
HOT GOSSIP: Although he is only 20, central defender Dytro Chygrynsky is proving himself to be an excellent captain, authoritative, calm and a good organiser of the back-line, the top clubs are bound to make him some tempting offers soon.
Sources in Greece claim Olympiakos sold Castillo to Shakhtar behind the player's back, so time will tell whether he is content with a move he never sanctioned.
IDEAL LINE UP: Pyatov, Rat, Chygrynsky, Kucher, Ilsinho, Priyomov, Jadson, Fernandinho, Srna, Lucarelli, Gladkyy
THE VERDICT: Away from the Ukraine, they are not half the side. Another European anti-climax.