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Sep 12, 2007

Champions League 2007/8, Group H

Group H: Arsenal | Sevilla | Slavia Prague | Steaua Bucharest
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G

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.


Steau Bucharest (Romanian champions)

Champions League pedigree: European Champions 1986, runners-up 1989

THE LOWDOWN: The glory days of the 1980s when Steaua beat Barcelona on penalties in the 1986 Final and were runners-up to AC Milan three years later are long gone and are unlikely to return.

For all the ambitious words of outspoken club owner Gigi Becali, deep down he must know that his side are simply not competing in the same ball park as the cash-rich G14 outfits and that they have already achieved their only realistic goal by seeing off BATE Borisov of Belarus in the third qualifying round. Now it's all a matter of respectability, not embarrassing themselves against the big boys.

THE TECHNICAL AREA: No one could accuse departed coach Gheorghe Hagi of lacking passion. The former Romania, Steaua, Barcelona and Real Madrid No.10 was total animation on the side lines, bellowing instructions, loudly bemoaning refereeing decisions he does not agree with and berating his own men, a trait which a number of his players do not take kindly too. However, his failure to see eye to eye with Steaua owner Becali meant his departure in September was no shock.

Becali's determination to meddle in team affairs means whoever is brave enough to fill Hagi's shoes will be faced with a tough task.

THE WOW FACTOR: The goal scoring ability of striker Nicolae Dica, who hit five in last season's Champions League, is their trump card. The ex-Arges Pitesti front-man is an extraordinarily-gifted all-rounder; a mazy dribbler, sensational from free-kicks and packing a rocket-like shot. He may well be on the move to western Europe come the New Year.

Steaua have no worries about the centre of their defence with Sorin Ghionea and Dorin Goian on duty as both read the game well, are monsters in the air and are physically intimidating. Goian has a reputation for going up the other end to head home set-pieces.

Also look out for the excellence in midfield of skipper Mirel Radoi and Banel Nicolta. The former who can also play centre-back if required, always gives value for money as the midfield enforcer and finds time to serve as the springboard for their counter-attacks. The right-sided Nicolita is a huge crowd favourite thanks to his never-say-die spirit and directness.

THE BIG BUY: One of Hagi's first acts as Steaua boss was to return to old club Timisoara to sign central or left-sided midfielder Mihaita Plesan, who cost close to £1million. The 24-year-old Romanian international is not only hard-working and creative, as he proved when scoring in his country's 5-1 humiliation of Germany in a 2004 friendly, but he also has a fearsome shot from distance.

The Steaua side which won against all the odds in 1986 was 100 per-cent Romanian and Gigi Becali declared earlier this summer that he intended to make his side a foreigner free-zone too. That is easier said than done and ultimately Becali had no qualms about crossing frontiers to bring in Nigerian left-back Iefananyi Emeghara (ex-Timisoara), Polish right-back Pawel Golanski (Kielce) and Colombian keeper Robinson Zapata (Cucuta Deportvo).

THE TENDER SPOT: Flamboyant new keeper Zapata has great reflexes, but can be erratic, particularly prone to making injudicious rushes off his line.

Their dependence on Radoi and Dica is a concern and if they are absent, Steaua are very much rudderless, desperately short of drive, leadership and finishing power. Hagi's departure also leaves them lacking in a little inspiration.

HOT GOSSIP: Owner Becali has big ambitions and many now believe he will be picking the team following the departure of Hagi. Such a plan has never worked in the past and is only a recipe for disaster.

Emeghara, a boyhood friend of Newcastle striker Obafemi Martins, recently had a scare when a medical revealed a larger than normal heart. After extensive tests, he was given the green light to carry on playing.

IDEAL LINE UP: Zapata, Emeghara, Goian, Ghionea, Golanski, Radoi, Plesan, Croitoru, Nicolita, Dica, Iacob

THE VERDICT: Hagi's departure confirms that Steaua will be little more than whipping boys in Group H.


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