Champions League 2007/8, Group E
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BARCELONA (2nd in Spanish league)
Champions League pedigree: European Champions 1992, 2006
THE LOW DOWN: After their dominant year of 2006, Frank Rijkaard's men were left stunned by their failure to land a trophy last season and the pressure is on for the revamped Barca to deliver this time around.
Thierry Henry's arrival has to be viewed as a major boost, while their achievement in hanging on to Samuel Eto'o, Ronaldinho and Leo Messi in spite of plenty of transfer speculation was a significant triumph.
TECHNICAL AREA: While many were surprised to see Rijkaard standing in the Barca dug-out as this season got underway, his determination to bounce back from the disappointment of the last campaign will fire the enthusiasm of this placid Dutchman.
With so much attacking talent to squeeze into one side, it will be tough for Rijkaard to find a winning balance. It may be that he throws his superstars onto the field and allows them to weave their magic, yet the 4-2-4 formation has never been a success for any manager. An injury to Eto'o means the Cameroon forward will miss the start of the Champions League push, so that's one problem solved.
WOW FACTOR: Everywhere you look in this Barcelona squad there is a 'wow' factor and Rijkaard has to mould it into a cohesive attacking unit.
One thing he has in his favour this season is that all four of his attacking stars have a real passion to prove their worth. Henry needs to show his vast presence can slot neatly into the Barca set-up, while Ronaldinho and Eto'o have slipped from their pedestals as world leaders. As for Messi, he may just feel the time has come for him to confirm he is ready to accept the mantle of the world's best player.
THE BIG BUY: Henry's arrival may have captured the headlines, but Barca's most significant signing of the summer may turn out to be Ivory Coast midfielder, Yaya Toure.
Rijkaard's attack-minded side will need more cover in the midfield and he may have signed the perfect man for the job in the robust Toure. Brother of Arsenal defender Kolo, Yaya has similar enthusiasm for the game and his all-round game will make him a real asset for Barca in the heart of the action.
THE TENDER SPOT: Their greatest asset could also be their weakness as Rijkaard's temptation to field his quartet of attack minded of icons could backfire against sides who know how to cut off their supply. Against gritty Italian sides or a powerful unit such as Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, you need more than pure flair to emerge victorious.
It may also take time for captain Carles Puyol to form an understanding with new defensive sidekicks Gabi Milito and Eric Abidal. Both of the summer signings are quality performers, but every player needs a period of acclimatisation after a big move.
Finally, there is a theory that this Barca side showed a lack of passion for the job last season after they won it all the year before, so they may need to rediscover their hunger once again.
HOT GOSSIP: Chelsea boss Roman Abramovich is said to be desperate to sign Ronaldinho and it may be that he comes calling with a vast offer when the transfer window reopens in January. The Spanish tax laws will hit the Brazilian in the pocket if he extends his stay in Spain, so he may be keen to move on and it could be a mid-season distraction Rijkaard could do without.
That's assuming the Dutch boss is still in position by the half-way point in the season because if his Barca side stumble as they did in the second half of last season, his tenure at the Nou Camp will be brought to a rapid conclusion.
IDEAL LINE-UP: Valdes, Abidal, Puyol, Milito, Thuram, Toure, Deco, Henry, Messi, Ronaldinho, Eto'o
THE VERDICT: If this team of brilliant individuals hit top form, Barca could reclaim their crown as kings of Europe, but there are too many question marks around Rijkaard's men to have any significant faith in them.
OLYMPIQUE LYONNAIS (French champions)
Champions League pedigree: Quarter-finalists: 2004, 2005, 2006
THE LOWDOWN: After claiming six straight French league titles, their domestic dominance is utter and complete. However, despite regularly earning rave reviews for their spectacular form in the group stages of the Champions League, they have consistently failed to push on in the sudden-death phase, often showing unmistakeable signs of naivety and springtime burn-out.
OL president Jean-Michel Aulas, the head of the powerful G14 lobbying group of leading European sides, is desperate for his club to finally punch their weight in this competition. However, many believe that Lyon may be on the wane, pointing to the exodus of talent they have suffered this summer, notably the sales of left-flank ace Florent Malouda (Chelsea ), full-back Eric Abidal (Barcelona) and midfield all- rounder Tiago (Juventus).
THE TECHNICAL AREA: Although he may not have proved a success in the Premiership with Portsmouth, Alain Perrin retains much credibility as a coach in the French game and after leading Sochaux to victory in the 2007 Cup Final, he was appointed to take over from Gerard Houllier.
Perrin's first move was to scrap the time-honoured 4-3-3 formation used by both Houllier and his predecessor Paul Le Guen, replacing it with a vanilla 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1. He is convinced the new system will give the team more flexibility and allow them to turn defence into attack so much quicker.
THE WOW FACTOR: Home grown kids such as striker Karim Benzema and attacking midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa can light up any game. The latter is an extremely gifted player who with his tricks and feints takes some stopping when he runs with the ball, while Benzema combines, elegance, clever movement and predatory finishing.
The other key for Lyon will be the magical free-kick ability of the midfielder Juninho. Since arriving at the club in 2001, the Brazilian has scored no fewer than 32 goals from set-pieces, sometimes employing power, on other occasions turning to precision.
No wonder OL were so keen to buy him. In the previous two seasons, he was arguably the most exciting player in Ligue 1, a nightmare for defenders with his delicate dribbling skills and extreme pace. The 26-year-old does however come with a government health warning. He can be casual to the point of comatose, is not known for his consistency and has a tendency to lose his cool.
THE TENDER SPOT: OL were hit with a double whammy this summer when first-choice keeper Gregory Coupet and Brazilian central defender Cris both fell victim to knee ligament injuries. Coupet will be sidelined for four months, while Cris will not be back before March.
To replace them, Perrin should turn to the raw number two goal keeper Remy Vercoutre and Cleber Anderson, another boy from Brazil recently acquired from Benfica.
If new Italian left-back and World Cup winner Fabio Grosso offers a great deal on the overlap, the same cannot be said of the former Inter Milan's defending, which can be slapdash at times.
HOT GOSSIP: During the off-season winger Sidney Govou caused a storm with his public criticism of Juninho, claiming the latter benefited from special treatment from club management and that it was having a divisive effect on the dressing room. Juninho angrily denied it and resigned the captaincy in a huff.
Brazilian striker Fred - he of the baby's dummy goal celebration - incensed his employers by taking part in this summer's Copa America without the club's permission. To make matters worse, he broke a bone in his foot while in Venezuela, resulting in a three-month lay-off. Fred will miss his team's first three Champions League ties because of suspension after TV cameras caught him elbowing Christian Chivu off the ball in last season's fixture with Roma,
IDEAL LINE UP: Vercoutre, Grosso, Cleber, Bodmer, Clerc, Toulalan, Kallstrom, Ben Arfa, Juninho, Keita, Benzema.
THE VERDICT: After a summer of change, there is some evidence that it's the end of an era at Lyon, but provided they can adjust to their new tactical set-up, they still have enough quality in their ranks to make the knock-out rounds.
RANGERS (2nd in Scottish league)
Champions League pedigree: First knock-out round in 2006
THE LOW DOWN: Scottish clubs are not renowned for their steely resolution away from home so Rangers deserved great credit for snatching a 0-0 draw against Crvena Zvezda and progressing to the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in two seasons.
A rising force again under the guidance of former Scotland boss Walter Smith, the blue half of Glasgow's Old Firm will be formidable opponents at their Ibrox home, but the draw for the group stage has been cruel to them.
TECHNICAL AREA: Smith has already done a fine job in reviving Rangers after the disastrous and brief tenure of Frenchman Paul Le Guen. Dressing room discontent and woeful results against some of Scottish football's lesser lights meant Le Guen had to go and he left behind a major rebuilding job.
Smith was brave to walk out of the Scotland national team job and return to former club Rangers, yet he has already got them back on track. Indeed, many expect the Gers to reclaim the Scottish league title this season.
A 4-4-2 man, he has got the Rangers players fighting for the cause again and playing with the sort of belief that drained away under Le Guen. A great man motivator, he knows how this club works better than anyone and even though his odds of success in the 'Group of Death' are long, Smith will relish his task.
WOW FACTOR: Captain Barry Ferguson is a hugely influential figure at the club and that much was confirmed as he played a central role in hastening Le Guen's departure from the club last season.
A solid and dependable midfielder with no little technical ability, he is a playmaker and ball winner all at once and even though there are question marks about his ability to mix it with the very best, Rangers fans won't have a word said against their talisman.
Kris Boyd is another key player and he has proved his worth at international level as well as in the less than competitive Scottish League. The cynics will claim he doesn't have the class to sparkle in the Champions League, but he gets his chance now.
THE BIG BUY: Frenchman Jean-Claude Darcheville arrived from Bordeaux during the summer and seems to have settled well in Glasgow. Bursting with pace and power, he has all the attributes required to excel in the tough Scottish Premier League.
Lee McCullough was another addition ahead of the Champions League campaign and his brand of hard working creative play should give Rangers an extra dimension. Having excelled in Wigan colours in the English Premier League, making the leap to Champions League level should not be so big for McCulloch.
Also look out for new-boy DaMarcus Beasley, with this American international a talented performer in the midfield. Having excelled in the Champions League for PSV Eindhoven of late, he will not be daunted by the mammoth task Rangers face at the group stage of this season's competition.
THE TENDER SPOT: Their defensive line was viewed as a weak link last season and while Smith has brought in Frenchman Carlos Cuellar in a bid to add some steel, the sides they will face in the Champions League will expose them once again.
Like neighbours Celtic, Rangers suffer from the fact that they are not given the sort of competition at home to prepare them for battles against Europe's elite. Thrown into a group featuring so many giants, the side so used to winning every week in domestic football are very much cast in the unfamiliar role of minnows.
HOT GOSSIP: Belgian forward Thomas Buffel is on the way back from a long-term injury and if he can discover anything like his best form, he could be a decent wild card for manager Smith to have up his sleeve.
IDEAL LINE-UP: McGregor, Hutton, Cuella, Weir, Papac, Beasley, Ferguson, Thomson, McCulloch, Darcheville, Boyd
THE VERDICT: Walter Smith must have been tempted to request a re-draw after being grouped with Barcelona, Stuttgart and Lyon. He is experienced enough to know his side are destined to finish bottom of Group E.
STUTTGART (German champions)
Champions League pedigree: Second round: 2003/04
THE LOW DOWN: Stuttgart stunned German football by coming from nowhere to beat the likes of Schalke, Werder Bremen and Bayern Munich to the league title last season, their first national crown since 1992. Many critics argued they owed their success more to the failings of others than their own ability, yet that would be highly unfair on a young side - average age 25 - whose confidence and performance levels grew steadily throughout the campaign.
The jury is out whether the south-western club have strengthened in the summer marketplace. While they did well to replace the Valencia-bound keeper Timo Hildebrand with Nurnberg's Raphael Schafer, newcomers such as Brazilian attacker Ewerthon (ex-Zaragoza) and Turkish playmaker Yildiray Basturk (Hertha Berlin) could both be described as over the hill.
THE TECHNICAL AREA: When Armin Veh took over from legendary Italian Giovanni Trapattoni in February 2006, it was assumed that the former was merely a caretaker, but he has defied his doubters. Veh's man-management and team-building skills would convince the Stuttgart movers and shakers to keep him for the long haul and within 15 months of his appointment, the ex-Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder had repaid them with Bundesliga silverware.
Veh prefers a slick, short-passing game and tactical flexibility. His team can switch effortlessly from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 to 4-1-4-1 and while they are comfortable dictating the play, they are even more potent on the break, adept at launching lightning counter-attacks on either flank.
THE WOW FACTOR: Stuttgart's youthful players are a joy to watch. The versatile utility player Serdar Tasci, goal scoring midfielder Sami Khedira, the activity and ball-skills of Robert Hilpert on the right-flank and 'Super Mario' Gomez, an outstanding striker of Spanish origins, who was recently voted Germany's Footballer of the Year for 2007, a reward for 14 league goals last season and a goal on his debut for the Nationalmannschaft.
The Mexican duo of right-back Ricardo Osorio and midfield workhorse Pavel Pardo are also key performers. On arriving a year ago, a widespread view was that the Hispanic pair would struggle to adapt to the hustle and bustle of the Bundesliga, yet the sceptics have been proved wrong.
The central defensive tandem of Portugal's Fernando Meira and Frenchman Mathieu Delpierre was by common consent the best in Germany last term, mixing athleticism, muscle and intelligence. Delpierre damaged a tendon in his right knee in pre-season, so he may not reach peak fitness for a while yet. His place should go to the versatile Tasci or Gledson, a Brazilian bought from Hansa Rostock.
THE BIG BUY: Stuttgart smashed their record transfer fee by spending £5.7million on Shakhtar Donetsk's Romanian frontrunner Ciprian Marica. Previously with Dinamo Bucharest, the 21-year-old had been linked with Premier League sides Derby County and Manchester City.
Marica, capped 15 times for Romania, is robust, mobile, good in the air and has fine technical ability too. He has won league titles and domestic cups in the Ukraine and Romania.
THE TENDER SPOT: Experience of the Champions League is thinly spread in these parts. Only Fernando Meira, Brazilian striker Cacau, Basturk and Ewerthon have tasted the continent's showcase competition and this lack of nous may prove damaging.
Given that Gomez and Marica are the first-choice strike pairing, questions have to be asked as to how long Cacau and Ewerthon will put up with the role of bench warming partners.
HOT GOSSIP: Former Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger was the subject of plenty of transfer speculation during the summer, but he signed an extension to his deal at Stuttgart to confirm his commitment.
Try as they might, Juventus could not prise away Fernando Meira in the off-season. Both the Stuttgart management and their skipper insist the interest from Serie A had not turned his head, but they may return with a renewed bid in January
IDEAL LINE UP: Schafer, Boka, Tasci, Meira, Osorio, Pardo, Hitzlsperger, Hilbert, Khedira, Gomez, Marica
THE VERDICT: They may be raw, but Stuttgart have the talent, organisation and fearlessness to make the knock-out phase at least.