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Champions League 2008/09, Group A

Group A: Chelsea | AS Roma | Bordeaux | CFR 1907 Cluj
Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Status: Premier League runners-up, Champions League runners-up
Nickname: The Blues
UEFA Ranking: 2nd

THE RECORD: It seems a little curious that a team who have never claimed the title of European champions are ranked second by UEFA, but Chelsea's level of consistency in this competition means they are up there with the best for this season.

A couple of semi-final appearances were backed up by the ultimate near miss in last season's Final as skipper John Terry blew the chance to claim the trophy by missing a vital spot kick in the shoot-out against Manchester United. Now comes the moment to confirm they deserve to be recognised as European champions.

COACH'S CORNER: Luiz Felipe Scolari arrives in place of the much-maligned Avram Grant and many experts believe the ambitious change at the top should turn Chelsea into winners once again.

Scolari has vowed to use a rotation system as he targets success in all four competitions he is entering this season and his mental approach to the Champions League suggests he will not prioritise.

'Just because Chelsea have not won the big European trophy, we cannot say this is the main target,' he says. 'If I say we focus only on the Champions League, my players will not worry about the rest. Yes, this competition is a big target, but not the ultimate.'

THE STAR TURN: Few expected Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba to remain at Chelsea this summer, yet both have committed their immediate future to the club and it is the latter's continued presence that could be decisive.

At his best, there are few more powerful or potent strikers in world football than the mighty Drogba and his impressive record of success in the Champions League suggests he relishes the battle against Europe's finest defenders. 'Didier has assured me he is committed to Chelsea and he has always been one of my favourite players,' says Scolari.

THE NEW FACE: Deco joins a crowded midfield that will prove timely with Michael Essien's knee injury ruling him out of the entire group stage. The Portuguese maestro may be used in a three-man midfield as a playmaker with two more solid players holding behind. There can be no doubting his quality.

'Chelsea have a big ambition to win the Champions League and my job is to help them do this,' he says. 'I won it with Porto and Barcelona and there can be no better feeling for a player.'

THE WILD CARD: Nicolas Anelka missed the crucial penalty in the Final shoot-out against Manchester United in Moscow last year and his desire to prove himself in a Chelsea shirt should see this French enigma turn on the style in this season's Champions League.

Anelka reverted to his previous guise as something of a sulking child when he was confined to the bench after making a £15m move to Chelsea in January and he was hardly in the right frame of mind to make an impact when sent into the action as a substitute for the Final back in May. Could this be the year for Anelka to show his class again?

YOUNG GUN: John Obi Mikel showed he can be a force in the Chelsea team with some fine performances last season, but he faces a major uphill climb to force his way past Ballack, Lampard and Deco to break into Scolari's plans this time around.

It's a challenge the Nigerian should rise to as he has enough ability to find a spot in this Chelsea side as either a starter or valuable squad member.

WORD ON THE STREET: Rumours persist that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is not as passionate about his West London fantasy football toy as he once was, but Scolari's arrival has brought a level of stability and confidence back to a club that never looked entirely content last season.

Whether Abramovich gets the free-flowing football he craves remains to be seen as Scolari is very much like predecessor Jose Mourinho as he places winning trophies ahead of entertainment.

VERDICT: Expectations have rarely been higher at Stamford Bridge after their near misses of last season and they have a squad more than strong enough to finally lift the Champions League crown.

Status: 2nd in Italian Serie A
Nickname: Giallorossi
UEFA Ranking: 12th

THE RECORD: Italian Serie A champions on three occasions, the closest Roma have come to the ultimate glory in Europe was back in 1984, when they lost a penalty shoot-out in the 1984 Final against Liverpool on home soil.

Their only European success came in the old Fairs Cup of 1961 and they will be desperate to add to that with the prospect of this season's Champions League Final being staged in their own Stadio Olympico in Rome.

COACH'S CORNER: Rumours linking highly respected Roma coach Luciano Spalletti with a move to the English Premier League with Chelsea came to nothing during the summer, so he is preparing for another season in the Champions League after last season's quarter-final near miss.

Victory over Real Madrid in last season's Champions League was a fine addition for Spalletti's CV. and he clearly relishes the challenge of taking on Europe's best. 'We have proved what is possible for Roma in Europe in the last couple of years, but Manchester United have been a little too strong for us in the key moments,' admits Spalletti.

THE STAR TURN: The symbol of this Roma side has long been Francesco Totti and he remains a pivotal figure at the club as he enters the final few years of his glorious career. Yet he started this campaign on the injury list and time will tell if he gets back to his best.

A one-club man, Totti admits his dream has long been to lead his beloved Giallorossi to the ultimate trophy in European club football. 'I can think of nothing better than holding up the Champions League trophy,' he says. 'We don't need to be told what victory in this competition would mean to our fans and the way we will be remembered in this history of this club. With the Final in Rome this season, we have to push even harder.'

THE NEW FACE: Julio 'The Beast' Baptista has been searching for the right stage to display his talents on over the last few years and he will be hoping this latest move to Roma gives him the stability he needs.

After making his name in European football with Sevilla, this Brazilian earned a high-profile move to Real Madrid, yet he failed to live up to his billing at the Bernabeu. A less than successful spell at Arsenal followed and now he will try his luck in Italian football. A powerhouse attacking talent, he will be a handful for the best of defenders this season.

THE WILD CARD: Montenegro striker Mirko Vucinic was the Roma hero in last season's famous win against Real Madrid in the first knock-out phase of the Champions League and he can be a real handful when firing on all cylinders.

A successful loan spell at Roma in 2006 saw the club go through with his transfer from Leece and while Totti will always be the focus of attacking attention so long he is at the club, Vucinic tends to slot into a wide role in Spalletti's fluid 4-2-3-1 formation. His delivery into the box can be deadly, while he can also snap up chances when they come his way.

YOUNG GUN: While Roma's squad is packed with hugely experienced players, they lack a touch of youthful exuberance until the secure the serves of highly-rated French striker Jeremy Menez from Monaco.

Even though Arsenal and Liverpool had been linked with this French under-21 star who has drawn comparisons to Zinedine Zidane, it will be in Italy's Serie A that he continues his football development this season. 'We have signed a player with real potential and Menez gives us that enthusiasm you get from young players,' says Roma boss Spalletti.

WORD ON THE STREET: Multi-millionaire George Soros has been involved in a complex battle to take over the club from the Sensi family, with supporters keen to welcome a man of such wealth and ambition. Famous for his support of liberal political influence in America, Soros certainly has the financial firepower to turn Roma into superpowers.

The injuries to Totti is also a concern. Age is catching up with the legendary Roma forward and Spalletti's men miss him badly when he is absent. Menez will be under big pressure to fill his boots if the Roma talisman is missing for period this term.

VERDICT: There are a few too many questions surrounding Roma. They should reach the knock-out phase again, but don't seem to have the quality to go much further.

Status: 2nd in French League
Nickname: Les Girondins
UEFA Ranking: 21st

THE RECORD: They went as a far as the 1985 semi-final in the old European Cup, losing to eventual winners Juventus. As for the Champions League, their best effort was in 1999/00 when they reached the second group stage.

Domestic performances have been impressive in the last 12 months, but now comes Bordeaux's ultimate test.

COACH'S CORNER: A stylish libero for France, Montpellier, Auxerre, Barcelona and Manchester United amongst others, Laurent Blanc was always a commanding and influential personality. So it was no surprise that he was an immediate success as a coach, leading Bordeaux to the runners-up spot in Ligue 1 in his first season in charge of a professional club.

Known in France as 'Le President', he stands for thoughtful, constructive football, a solid defensive base and constant first team turnover. 'In many ways the Champions League will be a learning experience for us,' says Blanc. 'We don't have many players with experience of it, but if we don't rest on our laurels and continue to make the sort of progress we did last season, we can be competitive.'

THE STAR TURN: So often compared to his legendary compatriot Gabriel Batistuta, Argentine striker Fernando Cavenaghi exploded into life in the second half of last season, scoring 15 times in just four months. A teenage star at leading Buenos Aires club River Plate, he earned himself a big-money move to Spartak Moscow in 2004, but never delivered there and two-and-a-half years later signed on the dotted line for Bordeaux, where he has slowly but surely regained his goal-scoring touch.

'El Torito' (The Little Bull) is an old-fashioned prowler in the box, always to be found where the chances fall and ice-cool in his finishing; simple tap-ins or acrobatic overhead kick, it's all the same to him.

THE NEW FACE: After two years mainly warming the bench at AC Milan, ex-French Under-21 and Rennes playmaker Yoann Gourcuff made the wise decision to return to his homeland to resurrect his career. He is only on loan to Bordeaux for this season, but it will be a major shock if he does not come good again and the club don't take up the option they have to bring him in permanently.

The son of Christian Gourcuff, the coach French First Division outfit Lorient, he succeeds the retired Johan Micoud at the apex of Bordeaux's midfield diamond and sure to have considerably more playing time than in Italy, his intelligence, vision and cultured approach could soon be on show in the full French side.

THE WILD CARD: Brazilian left-sided midfielder Wendel was in sensational form last term, scoring a dozen goals and making many others. Especially impressive was his work at set-pieces, the pin-point corners and the curling free-kicks which a Zico or Juninho would have been proud.

Bought from Pele's old club Santos in 2006, he was linked this summer with a move to Italy or Spain. Hence Bordeaux's relief when he recently signed a new, improved contract to take him through until 2012.

THE YOUNG GUN: Yoan Gouffran is a very promising attacking midfielder or front man who caused quite a stir early this year when he apparently agreed to leave Norman outfit Caen for Paris Saint-Germain, only to change his mind shortly afterwards. PSG's loss was Bordeaux's gain, the 22-year-old signing on this summer in a £5.9m deal.

A star of the French Under-21s, his pace, power and silky technique can either be used on the right-side of midfield or as a second striker; the position in which Laurent Blanc sees as his best. Opponents need to be wary of him getting on the end of long balls over the top.

WORD ON THE STREET: Bordeaux benefit enormously from their South American connection: the marksmanship of Cavenaghi, Wendel's free-kicks, the clever distribution in midfield of another Brazilian, Fernando. They have plenty of strength in depth up front (notably the Moroccan Marouane Chamakh and the former Manchester United striker David Bellion) and in Gourcuff and Gouffran, they possess two of France's brightest attacking talents.

During the second-half of last season, they were the toughest nut to crack in Ligue 1, but they will face much more potent forwards in the Champions League. The Brazilian central defender Henrique has lost a degree of intensity since returning from a cruciate ligament injury mid-way through last, while and new Argentine left-back Diego Placente has, frankly, seen better days.

VERDICT: Laurent Blanc would settle right now for a last-16 spot. He might be disappointed.

Status: Romanian champions
Nickname: The Railwaymen
UEFA Ranking: 29th

THE RECORD: This is their first taste of the Champions League, though they have been regulars in UEFA's minor competitions since their first foray into Europe back in 2005.

The rising force of Eastern European soccer, they are finally going to mix it with the best in Europe as they enter the biggest competition of them all.

COACH'S CORNER: Just two months after his appointment as assistant coach at Cluj, 46-year-old Italian Maurizio Trombetta found himself promoted to the top job at the Romanian champions following the early season sacking of Ioan Andone, who paid the ultimate price for the team's poor start to 2008/09 campaign (only two wins in their opening eleven matches).

Most of his managerial career has been as a number two, serving as the right-hand man to Giovanni Galeone at Udinese, Perugia, Napoli and Ancoa and to Francesco Guidolin at Udinese and Bologna. 'The priority is to stabilise a team which has lost confidence,' states Trombetta. 'I hope the exciting prospect of the Champions League will galvanise us at home and abroad.'

THE STAR TURN: Intelligent, skilful playmaker and one of the rare Romanians in the Cluj line-up, Eugen Trica arrived from CSKA Sofia two years ago following spells at another Bulgarian outfit Litex Lovech, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Steaua Bucharest and Universitatea Craiova.

The son-in-law of ex-Romanian international midfield general Ilie Balaci, he earned notoriety last term for attempting to lead his team mates off the pitch in protest at a dubious refereeing call in a league match.

THE NEW FACE: Young Uruguayan left-winger Alvaro Pereira was bought from Argentinos Juniors this summer for £2m. Quick and an excellent crosser of the ball, he also works very hard for the team and tackles with gusto. His intense competitiveness, can, in an emergency, be used at full-back.

The Montevideo-born 22-year-old was linked with several Spanish clubs, but chose Cluj because of their involvement in the Champions League. He learnt his trade in Argentina with the Quilmes club.

THE WILD CARD: The return of fast and tricky Brazilian forward Didi from a long-term injury has given Cluj a major boost for their Champions League baptism. Cledimar Magalhaes Silva - to give him his full name - arrived from Portuguese side Pacos de Ferreira in the summer of 2007.

He began his career in the Brazilian city of Recife with Santa Cruz FC. Then, following in the footsteps of so many Brazilian players, he crossed the Atlantic to seek employment in Portugal, where he made a name for himself at Oporto Second Division club FC Marco.

YOUNG GUN: Twenty-three-year-old Argentine right-sided midfielder Cristian Prette bought recently from Buenos Aires club Huracan. Diminutive, yet he has the drive and determination which characterises most of the footballers from his country. He also has a good touch on the ball.

A graduate of the Huracan youth academy, he made his first team debut for the club in 2003 and four years later was an instrumental figure in their promotion to the Argentine top-flight.

WORD ON THE STREET: No one questions Cluj's heart and desire. Coach Andone has them running till they drop and they are excellent counter-attackers, adept at switching defence into attack in an instant. They play to a high technical standard and when on song, the ball circulates very freely.

Their soft underbelly is a clear lack of top level European experience. Burkina Faso striker Youssouf Kone, who used to feature for the Norwegian side Rosenborg, is the only one with extensive Champions League knowledge, so this is a clear weak spot.

Also they are not the most subtle of sides tactically, often looking lost when Plan A does not work. Finally, there is a real danger that their Portuguese and Argentine players forming cliques which would quickly destroy the spirit in the dressing room.

VERDICT: No-hopers. Qualification for the knock-out rounds is a pipe dream.


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