Champions League 2007/8, Group F
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DYNAMO KYIV (Ukraine champions)
Champions League pedigree: Semi-finalists: 1998/-99, quarter-finalists: 1997/98
THE LOWDOWN: For a team with such a glorious past in continental competitions - notably Cup-Winners' Cup victories in 1975 and 1986 and outstanding performances in the Champions League in the late 1990s - last season in Europe's showcase cup was nothing less than an unmitigated disaster. Dynamo failed to register a single victory in group phase matches against Real Madrid, Lyon and Steaua Bucharest and all that after they lost out to little FC Thun from Switzerland in the qualifying round for the 2005/06 competition.
In marked contrast, Dynamo prospered on the domestic front in 2006/07, reclaiming the Ukrainian League title from Shakhtar Donetsk and then beating their chief rivals in the Cup Final. However, Dynamo are currently struggling to maintain their dominance, making their worst start to a league campaign, with just one win, three draws and a defeat in their opening five games.
THE TECHNICAL AREA: Anatoliy Demyanenko's early season departure left a vacancy that needed to be filled by a manager with experience and Kyiv made a safe appointment when they named Yozhef Sabo as their boss in mid-September.
A fine international for the USSR team when in the prime of his playing career, Sabo has gone on to enjoyed success in coaching. He had a spell in charge of the Ukraine national team, yet it is with Kyiv that he has made his name during two spells as boss and he was welcomed back to try and revive their Champions League challenge this season.
THE WOW FACTOR: As in the good old days, Dynamo are well organised, never lack for physical conditioning and are able to sustain a high tempo for 90 minutes. Technically they have few flaws and their passing and movement is impressive in the attacking-third. What lets them down is their profligacy up front.
The visionary approach play of the Brazilian midfield general Carlos Correa, who joined from Palmeiras of Sao Paulo a year ago in a £2.5million deal is also something to look out for, while on the right-side of midfield, Oleg Husiev is the a threat. Indefatigable, tricky and proven provider of chances, Husiev is a regular in the Ukraine national team.
THE BIG BUY: Despite rumours that he was on his way to the Premier League or Germany, Senegalese central defender Pape Diakate eventually left Ligue 1 outfit Nancy for Dynamo, who paid a club record £4.5million for him.
Quick, tenacious and athletic, Diakate was one of the best defenders in the French League last term. A real weakness, though, is his temperament. He has a tendency to make wild challenges and not surprisingly was red-carded in his first outing for Kyiv.
THE TENDER SPOT: Confidence is not exactly flowing through their ranks at the moment and with president Surkis demanding a vast improvement in Europe, everyone is understandably edgy. The possibility of nationality-led cliques is a potential headache.
Carelessness is a problem at the back as they have a history of switching off at dead-ball situations. Although left-back Andrii Nesmachhnyi is strong on the overlap, his defensive positioning can be rather approximate.
HOT GOSSIP: Before announcing his decision to step down as Lyon coach, ex-Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier was contacted to take over at Dynamo. He was very tempted but finally turned down the offer, hoping to be installed as the French federation's new technical director. Some in France have claimed Houllier was put off by the idea of having a bodyguard in Kyiv, but he has vehemently denied this.
Anatoliy Demyanenko's time in the job was always going to be brief after a summer of speculation about his future, but doubts remain over whether replacement Sabo has the vision to take the club forward in his third stint as Kyiv boss.
IDEAL LINE UP: Shovkovskyi, Nesmachnyi, Diakhate, Gavrancic, Markovic, Mikhalik, Husiev, Diogo Rincon, Michael, Correa, Shatskikh
THE VERDICT: If they had succeeded in their bid to bring Kyiv legend Andriy Shevchenko back on loan, they would have been given hope in the Champions League. Without him, they will bow out early.
MANCHESTER UNITED (English champions)
Champions League pedigree: European Champions 1968, 1999
THE LOW DOWN: United appeared to be back at the top table of European football as they went so close to glory in last season's Champions League, while regaining the league title in England.
A summer of lavish spending should have put Sir Alex Ferguson's men in prime position to challenge on all front, but some misfortune at the start of their domestic season put them on the back foot and it will be fascinating to see if they can recover some composure.
TECHNICAL AREA: There is nothing left in the game for Ferguson to learn and many believe the 65-year-old is extending his career in a bid to land the second Champions League crown to cement his legend.
A 4-4-2 man when he goes at teams in the Premier League, his tendency to play with a lone front man in Europe has not always been successful, so he may opt for the more attacking approach that helped United to record a famous 7-1 win against Roma in last season's quarter-finals.
Finding the right balance in a midfield with classy options such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nani, Anderson, Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick will not be easy.
WOW FACTOR: Ronaldo took time to prove he had the ability to sparkle in the Champions League, but he answered all his critics last season as he added some much needed maturity to his sublime natural talent.
The skills of new-boys Nani and Carlos Tevez gives Ferguson additional attacking options, but United can never be accused of lacking panache. The most thrilling side in European football last season, their determination to entertain sometimes comes at the expense of defensive duties.
THE BIG BUY: As AC Milan ended United's Champions League challenge at the semi-final stage last season, all observers suggested they were lacking a gutsy midfielder to compare with Genaro Gattuso, the Italian who had such a dominant game in the San Siro rain that night.
Ferguson has tried to remedy that weakness by signing England midfielder Owen Hargreaves for £17m from Bayern Munich and while the fee seems more than a little weighty, this diminutive powerhouse performer will not let United down. Bursting with energy and determination, the Canadian-born star has won this competition before and wants another winners medal.
THE TENDER SPOT: There is always a suspicion that United's defence will give you a chance in a game and against the best sides in Europe, one mistake can be fatal.
Centre-back Rio Ferdinand can look like a world beater at times, but he has a tendency to lose concentration from time to time and while partner Nemanja Vidic is brave as they come, his determination to get stuck in often leads to yellow cards and injuries. The pair were badly missed when they were injured at a crucial phase of last season and time will tell whether United are better equipped to cope this time.
United also look to be short of a body in the striking department after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's unfortunate retirement and early season injuries to Wayne Rooney and Louis Saha gave Ferguson major concerns. United are a real threat at full strength, but they cannot afford too many injuries up front.
HOT GOSSIP: Tottenham's Bulgarian hit-man Dimitar Berbatov looks set to end up at Old Trafford and if his current club struggle in the first half of this season, a January move can not be ruled out.
The other big transfer talking point of the summer in England also featured United and while some of the game's luminaries have a problem with Tevez moving from club to club without ever being 'owned' by those paying his wages, there is little doubt that the stocky Argentine hit-man is good enough to be playing on a Champions League stage.
IDEAL LINE-UP: Van der Sar, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Hargreaves, Giggs, Scholes, Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez
THE VERDICT: A strong early showing in the Champions League should compensate a slow start to their domestic season and United deserve to be placed among the favourites for the title this time around.
ROMA (Italian league runners-up)
Champions League pedigree: Runners-up 1984, quarter-finalists 2007
THE LOW DOWN: Roma threatened to make a real impact in last season's Champions League as they established a quarter-final first leg advantage against Manchester United. With Italian teams famed for their hard working defensive abilities, heading to England with a narrow lead looked like the ideal scenario for Luciano Spalletti's men, but they were thrashed out of sight and the astonishing 7-1 final scoreline did not flatter United in the slightest.
That single result tarnished a campaign that provided signs of real progress for Roma, with their second place finish in a disrupted Serie A title race a decent effort. They also managed to add an Italian Cup triumph to their list of achievements last season and they started this term with a morale boosting Italian Super Cup win against champions Inter.
TECHNICAL AREA: Like several top managers in the modern game, Spalletti's playing career was nothing to write home about, but he has excelled since assuming a role on the touchline.
His tactics at Roma have to evolve around getting the best out of Totti, whose influence at the club has long been more significant than any coach. A 4-2-3-1 formation gives the club skipper the support he needs to look his best and on the evidence of that game against Manchester United last season, more resolute defending will be required this time.
WOW FACTOR: Thoughts of Roma rarely come to the mind without an image of skipper and talisman, Francesco Totti. For so long, he has been a faltering enigma of the Italian national team and he decided to call time on his international career this summer as a result, but he can do no wrong in the eye of his adoring Giallorossi faithful.
He will have been stung by the manner of his side's defeat at Old Trafford last season and will want to make a more lasting mark on the Champions League. Employed in a free role, he is given license to drop back and get involved in build-up play, while also being expected to be at the cutting edge of Roma's attacks.
THE BIG BUY: Plenty of top clubs showed an interest in French winger Ludovic Giuly when he was made available by Barcelona during the summer, but Roma were quickest to make the 31-year-old an offer than caught his eye.
Boasting bags of experience and a fine Champions League pedigree, he was a Finalist in this competition with Monaco in 2004 and a winner with Barcelona in 2006, Giuly will give Roma's attacking thrusts real purpose down the flanks.
THE TENDER SPOT: Brazilian defender Juan joined Roma in the off-season and he will help to fill a hole in the defensive line after the departure of Christian Chivu to Serie A title rivals Internazionale. However, only time will tell whether the new-face is as solid and reliable as the departed rock.
There must also be some serious question marks over whether Roma's star names can banish the memory of their harrowing 7-1 thumping against Manchester United last season. Coach Spalletti was quick to proclaim his delighted at being drawn alongside United in this group phase, but can they really bounce back from such a humbling and give the English champions a genuine test?
HOT GOSSIP: Totti's impressive season last time around silenced the doubters who feel he dominates the Roma dressing room a little too much, but the aging forward will not be able to repeat his heroics for long. Spalletti has to pick him for every game whatever his form and that kind of pressure is unwelcome for any coach.
Roma coach Spalletti was furious at the Serie A fixture list which sees his side square off against all of their main rivals in quick succession. If they are distracted by domestic priorities, their Champions League challenge may be overlooked.
IDEAL LINE-UP: Doni, Pannuci, Juan, Mexes, Tonetto, De Rossi, Pizarro, Perrott, Giuly, Totti, Vucinic
THE VERDICT: They should be good enough to see off Sporting Lisbon and Dynamo Kyiv to secure a place in the last-16. Don't expect too much beyond that.
SPORTING LISBON (Portuguese League runners-up)
Champions League pedigree - Group stage: 1997/98, 2006/07
THE LOWDOWN: Not surprisingly for a club boasting one of the best academies in Europe, Sporting had the youngest squad in the Champions League last season. Unfortunately, their fresh-faced exuberance was no match for the more worldly-wise Inter Milan, Bayern Munich and Moscow Spartak.
A single win - albeit an impressive triumph at home to Inter - was all they could muster and they could have no complaints about finishing last in their group.
Every Lions fan was desperately sad to see goalkeeping hero Ricardo and brilliant young winger Nani lured away by Real Betis and Manchester United respectively and even though new faces have flooded in, the consensus of opinion was that it was a case of quantity rather than quality through the in door.
THE TECHNICAL AREA: The youngest coach in the Portuguese League, 38-year-old Paulo Bento took over from Jose Peseiro midway through the 2005/06 season. Critics pointed to the fact that the former Portuguese international defensive midfielder had never led a pro club before, but Bento immediately proved to be made of the right managerial stuff. He demonstrated a sound grasp of tactical matters and natural leadership qualities as he steered the Lions to the runners-up spot in the domestic league.
Often likened to Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho because of his bold choices, Bento's Sporting play a 4-4-2 system, characterised by its compactness, midfield diamond and neat passing triangles. Inevitably for someone who was once the club's youth team coach, he never hesitates to give a first team chance to rookies.
THE WOW FACTOR: The midfield quarter, especially Miguel Veloso and Joao Moutinho, offer real invention for Sporting. The former is a highly intelligent defensive midfielder of no little tactical acumen and athletic ability, while Moutinho is a junior version of Barcelona's Deco, dynamic with exceptional distribution skills.
Main striker, the Brazilian Liedson is one of football's born predators, always on the look out for a chance and lightning-fast in his reactions in the box. 'Liedshow' has been the top scorer in the Portuguese League for the past three seasons and will be desperate to prove himself on a bigger stage.
Then throw into the mix Brazilian central defender Anderson Polga. He may lack a little pace, but more than makes up for it with an astute football brain, good positioning and physical durability.
THE BIG BUY: Russian midfielder Marat Izmailov is only on loan for the season from Lokomotiv Moscow, but no doubt he will be pulling out all the stops to make western Europe sit up and take notice of his talents.
The 25-year-old nominally lines up on the left-side, but Izmailov is even more productive if allowed to take his flair and creativity all over the pitch. He was just 18 when first called up to the full Russian side in 2001, only five months after making his bow as a professional for Lokomotiv.
Also coming into the Sporting squad are Slovak left-back Marian Had (Ex-Lokomotiv Moscow), Serb keeper Vladimir Stojkovic (Nantes), Brazilian defenders Gladstone (Cruzeiro) and Pedro Silva (Corinthians) and Montenegrin midfielder Simon Vukcevic from Russian side Saturn. Time will tell whether the new-faces have the quality to excel at Champions League level.
THE TENDER SPOT: New keeper Vladimir Stojkovic is no Ricardo. The Serb moved from Red Star Belgrade to French club Nantes a year ago, only to be dropped within weeks.
The Brazilian frontrunner Derlei has lost his way since starring in the FC Porto side which won back to back UEFA Cup and Champions League in 2003 and 2004, so Yannick may be a better bet.
Argentine playmaker Leandro Romagnoli, who has earned praise from a certain Diego Maradona, has an abundance of gifts, but can be infuriatingly inconsistent.
HOT GOSSIP: Watch out for the latest class act off the Sporting production line: young French-born midfielder Adrien Silva is tipped to make a splash as a super-sub in the Champions League and he could be the next sporting player to attract the attentions of Europe's elite clubs.
IDEAL LINE UP: Stojkovic, Ronny, Gladstone, Anderson Polga, Abel, Miguel Veloso, Joao Moutinho, Izmailov, Romagnoli, Liedson, Derlei
THE VERDICT: Coach Bento will tell anyone who listens that the loss of Ricardo and Nani is a blow his side can overcome, but few believe him. The Lions will not be roaring in December.