Champions League 2007/8, Group G
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CSKA MOSCOW (Russian champions)
Champions League pedigree: Group stage: 2004/05, 2005/06, 2006/07
THE LOWDOWN: CSKA would do well to savour every moment of this campaign as they are very unlikely to be in the next phase. After going top of the Russian Premier League at the end of May, they have since slumped badly and it will take a Herculean effort for them to qualify for the Champions League via a top-two finish.
One of the main reasons why the former army club have gone off the boil is their terrible luck with injuries. Their brilliant young goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev damaged cruciate ligaments in his left-knee this spring and is almost certain to miss the Champions League group phase. As for Brazilian play maker Daniel Carvalho, he has been out with knee trouble for several months too and faces a race against time to be fit.
THE TECHNICAL AREA: A prolific striker for Dynamo Moscow in the 1970s and 80s, Valeri Gazzayev has enjoyed much success as a coach, first with Alania Vladikavkaz, whom he steered to the Russian title in 1995, then CSKA (league titles in 2003, 2005 and 2006 and the 2005 UEFA Cup).
Gazzayev is an advocate of high-tempo attacking football. He places much emphasis on penetration on the flanks and gives total freedom to Carvalho to roam where his instincts take him. Gazzayev will switch from a three to a four-man defence according to the opposition.
THE WOW FACTOR: Carvalho's vision, ability to pick out an incisive through-ball and lively imagination, not to mention his superb free-kicks, are CSKA's trump cards. Never mind that he is all left-foot, because without him CSKA are not half the team.
The Brazilian strike-force of Vagner Love and Jo are also crucial. Good in the air, a mazy dribbler and unselfish, Jo has been a revelation since arriving from Corinthians in early 2006. As for the maverick Vagner Love, his tricks and speed make him a very slippery customer and European nights bring the best out of him. Their back-up, the young Pole Dawid Janczyk - who signed this summer from Legia Warsaw - has the potential to make an impact too.
CSKA's continuity in team selection is another plus. The bulk of their side has been together for years, so it's no surprise that their play is fluid and the fact that the Russian Championship began in March means they are up to full speed already at this time of the year.
THE BIG BUY: The Muscovites recently sealed a deal to bring in the much-vaunted Brazilian right-back or wing-back Eduardo Ratinho from Corinthians on loan. The 20-year-old brims over with energy and application, but it is his work going forward, which really catches the eye. His blinding acceleration, dexterity on the ball and accurate crossing are impressive and the cherries on his cake are cunningly flighted direct free-kicks.
THE TENDER SPOT: Their defence is a little sluggish. The likes of Sergei Ignashevich and brothers Alexei and Vasiliy Berezutsky are all imposing physically, strong in the air and combative, but they can be exposed by the sort of speedy strikers they will come up against on a regular basis in the Champions League.
If Daniel Carvalho does not make it, CSKA will struggle for creativity. Wide midfielders Yuri Zhirkov and the Serb Milos Krasic are fast and skilful, but do not possess Carvalho's charisma or magical powers of invention. Also, Akinfeev's absence leaves a big hole in goal and stand-in Veniamin Mandrikin is inevitably of inferior quality.
HOT GOSSIP: Jo, Vagner Love, Daniel Carvalho and Krasic have all been the subject of transfer speculation in recent times. Club president Evgeni Giner stresses they are not for sale, but how unsettled have these CSKA headliners become in the process. With so much unrest in the camp, a successful Champions League push seems unrealistic.
IDEAL LINE UP: Mandrikin, A Berezutsky, Ignashevich, V Berezutsky, Aldonin, Eduardo, Ratinho, Zhirkov, Krasic, Daniel Carvalho, Jo, Vagner Love
THE VERDICT: Low on confidence at the moment, it may be a case of six group games and out. It's hard to see them causing too many upsets outside of their Moscow power base.
FENERBAHCE (Turkish champions)
Champions League pedigree - Group stage: 1996/97, 2004/05, 2005/06
THE LOWDOWN: President Aziz Yildrim has not poured money into the club simply to win domestic titles in 2001, 2004, 2005 and 2007. He craves continental respectability and that means finally achieving his dream of a spot in the knock-out rounds of the Champions League.
Nor is Yildrim the only one with grandiose plans for the team known as 'The Canaries'. With an estimated 25 million supporters both in Istanbul, the Turkish provinces and scattered around Europe, Fener have a massive following who will demand success in this, their centenary season.
THE TECHNICAL AREA: One of Brazil's greatest-ever players and nicknamed the 'White Pele' during his glory days in the late 1970s and 80s, Zico was handed the Fener hot-seat in July 2006 following the departure of Christoph Daum.
Aziz Yildrim was taking something of a risk as the Brazilian had never coached in Europe before, only having worked in Japan at Kashima Antlers and with the national team, whom he led at the 2006 World Cup finals. The critics went to town early, yet a 2007 championship win silenced their scepticism.
True to his Brazilian roots, Zico favours a fluid short-passing game and gives his players full licence to express themselves. There is however a decidedly unromantic side to his coaching persona: the tactical discipline he expects from his 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formations and his repeated calls for his men to keep going until the final whistle. Critics don't like his rotation policy, but it works.
THE WOW FACTOR: The wonderful left-foot of Alex, the Brazilian who can play in a conventional playmaking role or up front, is a joy to behold. He may be small of stature, but his technical class and finishing nous are gargantuan. Fener got themselves a bargain when they paid Cruzeiro just £3million for him in 2004.
Their great strength in depth is also an asset. Already this season, so-called reserves such as attacker Colin Kazim-Richards - bought from Sheffield United this summer - central defender Yasin Cakmak, midfielders Ali Bilgin and Kemal Aslan and striker Semih Senturk have come in and done a sterling job.
Then you can throw in the magnificent all-round contribution in central midfield of Aurelio, who offers leadership, sound distribution and intensity. Born in Brazil, he became the first naturalised Turk to play for their national team in 2006.
THE BIG BUY: After eleven years starring at Real Madrid, Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos opted to decamp to Fener, citing his desire to work with Zico as one of the reasons for his choice.
Now 34, the great left-back might be regarded as being past his prime, but if the early part of this season is anything to go by, he has lost none of formidable attacking qualities or immense will to win.
THE TENDER SPOT: They will miss the speed of Tuncay Sanli on the left-flank after his move to English side Middlesbrough. Replacement Tumer Metin is skilful and a good team man, but does not have the same gung-ho flair. Despite being a striker by vocation, the Brazilian Deivid is employed by Zico in a right-sided attacking midfield role, a position he seems ill-suited to.
Keeper Volkan Demirel is never far away from a gaffe and has the Fener faithful living on their nerves. A few years ago, his form was good enough to supplant Turkish international Rustu Recber between the Fenerbahce posts, but Volkan has failed to confirm this early promise.
Serb striker Mateja Kezman did not make the grade at Chelsea and is in danger of going the same way at Fener. Quick and always willing but too clumsy in front of goal.
HOT GOSSIP: On the first weekend of this term, Fener sensationally lost to newly promoted Belediyespor and word began to spread that Zico's job was on the line. Ex-Real Madrid boss Fabio Capello and Ersun Yanal were said to be in the frame to take over.
Ghanian midfielder Stephen Appiah, who is currently honing his fitness after a summer knee operation, is rumoured to be unsettled and keen to move to Schalke in the German Bundesliga.
IDEAL LINE UP: Volkan, Roberto Carlos, Edu, Lugano, Onder, Aurelio, Appiah, Tumer, Deivid, Alex, Kezman
THE VERDICT: Insufficient firepower should extinguish their aspirations at the earliest stage.
INTERNAZIONALE (Italian champions)
Champions League pedigree: European Champions 1964, 1965
THE LOW DOWN: After romping to glory in the most uninspiring and tarnished Italian title race in history last season, Inter get their chance to prove that Serie A dominance was down to their class as much as the Calciopoli scandal that helped to make their success so comfortable.
Defeat at the last 16 stage against Valencia last time did little to silence the doubters who questioned their abilities and the unseemly mass brawl at the end of the tie in Spain was arguably the most memorable moment of their entire season. What cannot be doubted is that this Inter side have the strength in depth to do much better this time.
TECHNICAL AREA: Roberto Mancini's achievement in lifting the Serie A title last season did not receive the plaudits he might have expected as Italian football was still reeling from the match fixing shame. He will certainly prove his worth if he emerges as a winner in this competition come May.
A 4-4-2 man, he has proved himself to be an inventive and versatile coach when the need arises, with the move to employ Luis Figo in central midfield last season proving to be a major triumph and his man management skills also seem to be spot on. Getting the best out of Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has proved to be a task beyond many a top manager down the years, but Mancini managed to get him firing last season.
WOW FACTOR: The enigma who goes by the name of Ibrahimovic has found a home for his talents and he possesses the cutting edge Inter will need in this competition. On top form throughout last season, he loves performing on the big stage.
Also look out for revived Portuguese veteran Luis Figo, who has been excelling at the heart of the Inter midfield. His pace may have gone, but his class is still shining through.
The other big tick in the Inter box is the vast squad Mancini has at his disposal. Many sides in the Champions League would struggle without certain key men, but the nerazzurri look to be well covered for every eventuality.
THE BIG BUY: David Suazo's move to Inter was as complicated as any transfer in Europe this summer and finished up with an investigation from the Italian authorities, but he may well be worth the hassle. A proven Serie A scorer during his time with Cagliari, he now gets a chance to test himself against Europe's best.
Romanian Christian Chivu arrives from Roma and should add some defensive solidity, while Colombian Nelson Rivas has the class to make his mark after his move from River Plate.
THE TENDER SPOT: The alarming pre-season blood clot suffered by veteran defender Marco Matterazzi has hit Inter hard and they will miss his goals as well as his strength at the back. Mancini may have plenty of defensive back-up and Chivu will do a good job, but Matterazzi is his leader-in-chief.
With so many star names in the squad, Mancini will have a tough task keeping them all happy. Internal discontent with grumpy star names grumbling behind the coach's back is never a recipe for success.
HOT GOSSIP: What can be done with Adriano? The former 'next big thing' of Brazilian football has become little more than a piece of heavy baggage at Inter and despite their concerted attempts to offload him during the summer, he is still hanging around in Mancini's squad.
Omitted from Inter's Champions League squad list, it is blatantly clear that his over-inflated ego has no place in Mancini's plans, but he could still be a disruptive influence with his occasional outbursts in the media.
IDEAL LINE-UP: Julio Cesar, Maxwell, Chivu, Cordoba, Maicon, Vieira, Dacourt, Stankovic, Figo, Ibrahimovic, Suazo
THE VERDICT: With bags of experience and proven match winners throughout their squad, Inter should emerge as serious contenders for the Champions League crown. However, they need to find the right balance and prove they can convert domestic form onto the bigger stage.
PSV EINDHOVEN (Dutch champions)
Champions League pedigree: European Champions 1988
THE LOW DOWN: A run to last season's quarter-finals exceeded all expectations for PSV, with their ousting of Arsenal at the last-16 stage handing them a major scalp. However, the departures of defensive king-pin Alex to Chelsea, midfield veteran Phillip Cocu to the UAE and striker Arouna Kone to Sevilla ,leaves coach Ronald Koeman with a rebuilding job in this new campaign.
Without the finances or talent to compete with the elite of the European game, the side who snatched the Dutch title from Ajax and AZ Alkmaar in the most dramatic fashion possible back in April are something of an unknown quantity in this season's Champions League.
TECHNICAL AREA: After a tough spell in charge at Ajax, Koeman's standing as a coach has risen dramatically in his two years at the PSV Eindhoven helm and he has done a great job in filling the considerable boots of Guus Hiddink. This former Holland and Barcelona defensive maestro is a cool customer on the touchline.
Preferring a 4-4-2 line-up against the majority of opponents, he has been known to take a more adventurous approach against some of the lesser lights in the Dutch league.
WOW FACTOR: Jefferson Farfan has long been tipped to excel at the highest levels of the game and it seemed as if his time at PSV Eindhoven may be up after he was linked with a move to Spain during the summer, but this 22-year-old Peruvian scoring machine remains at the heart of Koeman's plans. He had formed a fine striking partnership with Arouna Kone, only for the Ivory Coast man to join Sevilla just before the transfer window closed.
Cocu could never be described as providing the glitz in the PSV side, but his brand of hard working industry made them tick and the tag of unsung hero will now be passed to the reliable Timmy Simons.
THE BIG BUY: The departure of Kone left a hole in Ronald Koeman's squad and he has attempted to fill it with the signing of AZ Alkmaar's Dutch international striker, Danny Koevermans. With experience to go with a decent track record, he should be a decent foil for the gifted Farfan.
Koevermans is joined by fellow new-arrivals Kenneth Perez (Ajax) and Danko Lazovic (Vitesse) and PSV were also active in signing up some South American talent in the shape of Brazilians Jonathan Reis, Cassio Ramos and Fagner. All will take time to settle, but they offer an exciting mix of flair. Lazovic, especially, has impressed early on.
THE TENDER SPOT: Their record on the road in the Champions League is not impressive and a lack of goals has also let them down at times. Those two areas will need to be solved if PSV are to emerge as anything other than nuisance value to the giants they will come up against.
Their other difficulty this season will be finding out which players are up to the task at Champions League level. So many of Koeman's revamped PSV side are new to this competition and they may just make their mistakes in the full glare of the watching millions.
HOT GOSSIP: Linked with managerial positions at Manchester City and Tottenham in recent weeks, Ronald Koeman is a manager in demand. The Dutch great has opted to commit himself to PSV so far, but if a big club do come calling during the Champions League campaign, he may take the bait.
Star man Farfan is far from fully fit for the start of the Champions League effort and if PSV fail to get off to a decent start, they could be up against it in the battle to match last season's impressive run.
IDEAL LINE-UP: Gomes, Kromkamp, Addo, Salcido, Da Costa, Zonneveld, Simons, Mendez, Afellay, Farfan, Lazovic
THE VERDICT: Fortunate to make the quarter-finals last time, Koeman will need to produce a miracle to repeat that run this time. However, they have a decent group stage draw, so PSV could still be in the competition after Christmas.