Champions League 2007/8, Group H
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ARSENAL (4th in English league)
Champions League pedigree: Finalists 2006
THE LOW DOWN: The reverberations following Thierry Henry's £16million departure to Barcelona during the summer are only just beginning to subside around Arsene Wenger's squad, with the players and the manager Henry left behind appreciating the reality that they have a massive point to prove.
The Frenchman's brilliance carried Arsenal through many a tight game during his eight glorious years in north London, but it now falls to the likes of Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas to fill the Frenchman's considerable shoes. However, Wenger hopes his young Gunners team find it easier to perform when all the eyes are not just focused on one brilliant individual.
TECHNICAL AREA: Wenger has done a remarkable job in turning Arsenal into consistent Champions League contenders, but he has yet to take the final step he craves by winning the one trophy that has eluded him in his stunning decade of achievement as Arsenal boss.
A 4-4-2 man, Wenger's gospel promotes an open flowing style that rarely fails to entertain. He relies on his team producing brilliance to break down opponents rather than taking a hard-working route and when plan A works, Arsenal are the best team in Europe to watch. However, they need to develop a plan B to overcome teams who shut up shop at the Emirates Stadium.
WOW FACTOR: Wenger's willingness to offload Henry may have been partly due to the faith he has in Dutch striker Robin van Persie. Long compared to compatriot and Arsenal legend Dennis Bergkamp, this brilliantly gifted forward struggled with injuries last season, but his combination of silky flair and finishing ability should come to the fore this season.
Wenger will also look to the sublime Fabregas to dictate play and even though he is a novice in terms of years, the 20-year-old Spaniard is experienced enough on the field to confirm himself as one of Europe's finest midfield players in the months ahead.
THE BIG BUY: Arsenal were keen to make a signing who did not look like a direct replacement for Henry and in capturing Brazilian-born Croatian international Eduardo, they struck the perfect balance. He may have cost around £9.5m, but will face a battle to oust Emmanuel Adebayor and Van Persie from their starting berths and the lower expectations around him will help him settle.
The arrival of French international full-back Bacary Sagna may also be a crucial to Arsenal's hopes as this blonde haired performer is more reliable that the often hot-headed Emmanuel Eboue.
THE TENDER SPOT: Arsenal's determination to carve out the perfect goal is an infuriating and unprofessional flaw in their make-up that they seem reluctant to kick. The Gunners often spurn the chance to shoot in favour of another pass and against Europe's best, they will need to be more clinical.
Wenger has also failed to find a solution to his side's ongoing difficulties defending set-pieces. Keeping captain William Gallas fully fit would help in that respect, but opponents know they have a soft centre when they drop corners or free-kicks into the heart of Arsenal's penalty area.
HOT GOSSIP: Speculation over Wenger's long-term future at Arsenal has been rife all summer and it all stems from the club's decision to sack his friend and colleague, David Dein, from his influential role as vice-Chairman back in March.
Henry's departure was a major blow for Gunners fans, but all concerned appreciate the damage Wenger's departure would cause and with or without an extended contract, his plans will depend on the form of his team on the field as well as the ongoing rumours of a take over at boardroom level. Off-field issues may well effect the team at some point this season.
IDEAL LINE-UP: Lehmann, Sagna, Toure, Gallas, Clichy, Fabregas, Gilberto, Rosicky, Hleb, Van Persie, Adebayor
THE VERDICT: Wenger rejects the claim that that this is a transitional year after Henry's exit, but it would be too much for this youthful team to end Arsenal's wait for Champions League glory this time around. Getting into the last eight would be a decent achievement.
SEVILLA (3rd in Spanish league)
Champions League pedigree: Debut appearance in competition
THE LOW DOWN: They may be novices when it comes to the Champions League, but only a fool would dismiss the threat Sevilla will pose to Europe's established elite this season.
Coach Juande Ramos has built an attractive and effective team in his time at the Andalusia-based club and their impressive back-to-back UEFA Cup wins in 2006 and 2007 mean they arrived on the Champions League stage as strong contenders from the off. With bags of European experience to call upon and a decent group stage draw, they will be a side to watch in the second half of the competition.
TECHNICAL AREA: Juande Ramos hit the headlines in August as he apparently turned down the chance to take over as Tottenham Hotspur manager and it's easy to see why he stayed loyal to the club that has allowed him to establish a reputation as one of Europe's finest coaches.
Combining entertainment with a cutting edge, Sevilla's 4-4-2 line-up has overpowered some of the biggest name in Europe over the past couple of years and it will be fascinating to see how Ramos and his team fair after making a step up to face the game's true giants.
WOW FACTOR: Fredi Kanoute has been a storming success in his two years as the club's leading forward and even though there were rumours linking him with a move back to England during the summer, the leggy forward was more than content to stay at Sevilla and signed a new contract to prove as much. Bursting with pace and skill, he is a handful for any defender.
The other key man in the Sevilla game plan is Danish playmaker, Christian Poulsen. Capable of dictating a game from the centre of the park, his all-round ability has been crucial to the Juande Ramos success story and has won widespread praise from the Spanish media since his move from Schalke in 2006.
THE BIG BUY: It looked as if Sevilla would be benefitting from a cash windfall as the transfer saga surrounding defender Daniel Alves seemed destined to end with a big money move, but Juande Ramos didn't get the chance to spend big as he might have expected as the proposed transfer fell through.
Instead, Sevilla invested in potential by signing Milan midfielder Seydou Keita and Belgian winger Tom De Mul. Dutch defender Khalid Boulahrouz arrived on loan from Chelsea.
THE TENDER SPOT: The tragic passing of Sevilla star Antonio Puerta stunned the football world and it would be natural for all who played alongside the likeable Spaniard to be left reeling by his loss. Yet Ramos and his players owe it to their fallen team mate to excel in the Champions League so Sevilla's pain may just give them divine inspiration.
They tend to rely heavily on Kanoute to finish off their neat passing football, so they may have a problem if the big striker was out for a considerable period of time.
HOT GOSSIP: After a summer of frenzied transfer speculation, Daniel Alves was forced to accept that he will be staying at Sevilla for the first half of this season at least.
The Brazilian's price tag of around £25m scared off the advances of Real Madrid and Chelsea, but it is easy to see why they were so keen to land this brilliant attack-minded full-back. Ramos now has to get this Brazilian's mind back on the job for Sevilla and if he shines in the Champions League, Alves' stock should rise again.
The future of the coach must also be in doubt as he is known to want to manage in England and may yet end up at Tottenham at some point during the season. If the inspirational Ramos leaves, it would be a hammer blow Sevilla couldn't recover from.
IDEAL LINE-UP: Palop, Hinkle, Dragutinovic, Escude, Alves, Navas, Poulsen, Keita, Adriano, Fabiano, Kanoute
THE VERDICT: Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger is among those who believes Sevilla are real contenders for the Champions League prize and it would be quite a story if these rookies could lift the trophy in honour of the sadly departed Antonio Puerta.
SLAVIA PRAGUE (Czech League runners-up)
Champions League pedigree: Debut appearance in competition
THE LOWDOWN: After failing five times in the qualifying round, Slavia have finally made it to the Champions League, clinching their spot with shock home and away victories over Ajax. Not bad for a team made up of raw youngsters, old hands in their twilight years and the odd low profile import.
Even more remarkably, Slavia achieved it without their two best midfielders from last season - the Slovak Dusan Svento is out for six months with a serious knee injury, while skipper Lukas Jarolim left for Italian outfit Siena.
To back up their optimism that they can make a good fist of this competition, Slavia players and officials like to point to the 1995/96 season when they managed to reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup against all the odds, beating Italian giants Roma along the way.
THE TECHNICAL AREA: Slavia have a long tradition of employing an inventive short-passing game and though coach Karel Jarolim has been at pains to maintain the style content since being appointed in 2005, he has been busy in grafting a 'they shall not pass' attitude. He usually goes with a 4-4-2 formation, though a one-striker option may well be used on perilous-looking away days.
A former Czech international midfielder, Jarolim is in his second spell as Slavia boss and has also worked at FC Slovacko and at French club Strasbourg, where he was the number two to Ivan Hasek. His sons Lukas and Davis are both current professionals at Siena and Hamburg.
THE WOW FACTOR: Despite the recruitment of ten new players this summer, Slavia are certainly not lacking in togetherness, with everyone prepared to go that extra mile for a team mate.
Young guns such as central defender Marek Suchy and attacking midfielder Petr Janda, both of whom starred in the Czech Republic's surprise second-place finish at this year's under-20 World Cup, have impressed. A number of top European sides are reported to be following Suchy's progress closely, while Janda's long-striding runs form a vital part of the team's counter-attacking strategy.
The opportunism of striker Stanislav Vlcek, who scored both goals in the 2-1 victory over Ajax in the second-leg of the qualifiers is also crucial to them. He joined the club in 2004 after stints at Bohemians Prague, Olomouc, Ceske Budejovice and Dinamo Moscow.
THE BIG BUY: Eleven years after leaving Slavia for Lens in France, veteran midfielder Vladimir Smicer is back in the famous red and white halved shirt and hopes that his return to the Czech League will rekindle his national team aspirations. Capped 81 times, he has not played representative football since a World Cup play-off against Norway in November 2005.
Besides two tours of duty with Slavia, he has also turned out for Bordeaux and Liverpool, for whom he scored a memorable long-range goal in the comeback against AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League Final.
THE TENDER SPOT: Smicer himself. Although he is sure to be a influential dressing room presence, has great creative ability and can play in a variety of positions in the middle of the park, the fact remains that he has always been plagued by injuries.
The general lack of Champions League know-how in the camp is also a worry. There is no substitute for it. For example, new French midfielder Mickael Tavares has talent, but experience of the Gallic Second Division with Tours will not cut much ice at this infinitely higher level.
In addition, they are too reliant on Vlcek up front. Other forwards such as the Slovak Milan Ivana, the Brazilian Gaucho and Zdenek Senkerik all have their faults. Left-back Frantisek Drizdal has his limitations too.
HOT GOSSIP: Slavia looked ready to hit the panic button when first-choice keeper Michal Vorel badly injured his knee in pre-season, but they need not have worried. His replacement, the 36-year-old Martin Vaniak - who arrived from SIAD Most - has proved a lifesaver especially when saving a penalty in the first-leg with Ajax.
Smicer has been promised a management role here when he eventually retires from the game.
IDEAL LINE UP: Varnik, Drizdal, Brabec, Suchy, Krajcik, Kalivoda, Tavares, Smicer, Janda, Vlcek, Senkerik
THE VERDICT: They have no chance of progress, but at least they can lord it over local rivals Sparta, who did not qualify this time.