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Sep 12, 2008

Champions League 2008/09, Group B

Group B: Internazionale | Werder Bremen | Panathinaikos | Anorthosis Famagusta
Group A | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H


INTERNAZIONALE
Status: Italian champions
Nickname: Nerazzurri
UEFA Ranking: 7th

THE RECORD: European champions in 1964 and 1965, their history in the continent's premier competition does not back up Inter's status as a European giant as they have failed time and again in recent years. Indeed, they have not reached the final of this event for some 36 years.

Domination of the Italian league has been theirs since the match fixing scandal hurt their main rivals in the Serie A standings, but it will be in Europe where new boss Jose Mourinho is expected to deliver.

COACH'S CORNER: The return of the unpredictable Mourinho is a story all football fans will follow with interest this season as wherever this colourful former FC Porto and Chelsea boss has been, drama and controversy have never been far away.

His desire to return to a top level club was satisfied when Inter offered him the chance to succeed Roberto Mancini this summer and he accepts his greatest challenge is ending Inter's woeful run of form in the Champions League.

'The time has come for Italian football to return to the top because their record in the Champions League has not been good in recent years,' says the ever-combative Mourinho. 'I know much is expected of me because I won European trophies in my time with Porto and came very close with Chelsea, but I like this challenge.'

THE STAR TURN: One of European football's great enigma's has rarely been at his very best in the Champions League, so Mourinho will need to drain the best out of Zlatan Ibrahimovic if Inter are to challenge for the title.

Mourinho worked out the Didier Drogba puzzle during his time at Chelsea and in many ways, the moody Ivory Coast hit-man has many similarities to the powerhouse Swedish striker. Boasting all the attributes required to be a top quality marksman, Ibrahimovic's 17 Serie A goals last term suggested he is finally ready to live up to his billing.

'You can never choose what you want to win in this game, but the Champions League is obviously the target with Mourinho arriving,' says Ibrahimovic. 'He has won the competition before so why not.'

THE NEW FACE: Mourinho's tactics demand he has wingers who can bamboozle defences with moments of inspiration and he will be hoping summer signings Mancini and Ricardo Quaresma give him that injection of brilliance.

Brazilian international Mancini has already proved his worth in Serie A and with his contract winding towards a close at Roma, Mourinho made his move at the ideal moment to seal a cut-price deal. As for Quaresma, he went on record to state his transfer deadline day move to Inter was 'a dream come true'.

THE WILD CARD: Does Luis Figo have anything left to give? Age must be a factor for this Portuguese veteran, but he now has a compatriot in charge of him once again and Mourinho will fancy his chances of getting a final season of magic out of this brilliant playmaker.

At his best, this former Real Madrid and Barcelona star was a world superstar who could change the face of a game with a moment of magic.

YOUNG GUN: It was no secret that Mourinho was desperate to rekindle his close relationship with Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard after his arrival at the San Siro, but the deal was halted by the London club's determination to hang onto their star turn and it left Inter looking elsewhere.

Portsmouth's Ghanaian 23-year-old midfielder Sulley Muntari was the solution to their dilemma and Mourinho is content with his lot. 'It was always going to be difficult to get Lampard out of Chelsea this summer, so Muntari was the best option for us and it was great to get him,' says the Portuguese coach. 'He has worked with an excellent coach in the English league and we are getting a top quality player.'

WORD ON THE STREET: Mourinho was often accused of being a dour and negative coach during his time at Chelsea, with his desperation for winning often put ahead of entertainment. He has been quick to joke that such tactics will not be viewed in a sinister light among Italian fans who expect nothing less, but he will need to find a balance if Inter are to succeed.

His liking for a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 formation proved successful at Chelsea and it requires the attacking midfielders to take on the scoring responsibility. Ibrahimovic should be well suited to the role of leading the line as the target man.

VERDICT: Mourinho has brought success to every club he has worked with and he will raise Inter's level of ambition in Europe. A semi-final appearance would be decent progress this time, but their coach will only have his eyes on the ultimate glory.


WERDER BREMEN
Status: German Bundesliga runners-up
Nickname: Werder
UEFA Ranking: 14th

THE RECORD: Regulars in this competition for the past four years, they enjoyed their best campaigns in the 2004/05 and 2005/06 Champions League when they reached the second round.

Always a threat on home soil, they were on the end of an unwelcome 10-2 aggregate thrashing at the hands of Lyon in the knock-out phase of the 2004/05 competition.

COACH'S CORNER: Thomas Schaaf is the archetypal one-club man. He was a trusty right-back for the northern German club over 17 years and coached at various levels there for 15 seasons, becoming first team boss in May 1999. As a player, he helped Bremen win two Bundesliga titles in 1987/88 and 1992/93, plus the European Cup-winners' Cup in 1992. From the dugout he masterminded their domestic League and Cup double in 2004.

While he is a rather reserved, dry character, the playing style he encourages is much more flamboyant. Bremen only know one way to perform - to go forward and entertain. 'In the Bundesliga and Champions League, we approach the game the same way, with the same ambition. We want to have the ball, not to be chasing it,' says Schaaf .

THE STAR TURN: Diego is a wonderfully gifted Brazilian playmaker and goal scorer signed from FC Porto two years ago for a bargain £5m. At Porto, whom he joined from Santos in 2004, he mainly flattered to deceive but he has blossomed in Bremen's attack-conscious system. Almost unstoppable thanks to cheeky dribbling and rare imagination, the big question this season is how he will react to Werder's attempts to stop him going to the Beijing Olympics.

Furious that he flew to China without permission, Bremen took the matter to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport who agreed with the club's argument that they were not obliged to release the player. Werder could have ordered him back but ultimately decided it was too late in the day to do it. Will he forgive his employers for trying to stop his Olympic dream? Only time will tell.

THE NEW FACE: Sebastian Prodl is a young promising Austrian international centre-back signed from Sturm Graz. He is only 21 and far from the finished article, but with his hard-tackling and aerial ability, he has much potential.

Another asset is the threat he poses at set-pieces. Earlier this year, he scored twice in his country's 4-3 loss at home to Holland in a friendly in Vienna. He featured for Austria's Under 20s as they reached the semis of the 2007 World Cup in Canada.

THE WILD CARD: After failing to make any impact in the Premier League with Chelsea last term, Peruvian front man Claudio Pizarro will be looking to bounce back at old club Bremen, where he starred between 1999 and 2001 before Bayern Munich lured him away.

Behind Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Salomon Kalou in the striking pecking order at Stamford Bridge, he jumped at the chance of a loan switch to Werder. Despite his lack of starts at Chelsea, he remains an outstanding striker and his opportunism, strength in the air, powerful shooting with either foot and Champions League experience can only benefit Bremen. At 29, he is far from finished.

YOUNG GUN: Aaron Hunt is an all-action striker or attacking midfielder who came through the Werder academy. He became the club's youngest ever goal scorer when on target against Borussia Monchengladbach back in February 2005.

The son of a German father and English mother, he has pledged himself to the cause of the Nationalmannschaft. Last season he made headlines after fighting with Diego following a UEFA Cup defeat to Glasgow Rangers.

WORD ON THE STREET: Werder's gung-ho attacking style inevitably leaves them wide open to a swift counter. In spite of central defenders of the class of the Brazilian Naldo and Germany's Per Mertesacker, their back-line is prone to individual errors of positioning and concentration.

They can cause any defence problems with their slick passing and movement, not to mention the finesse of Diego. The arrival of Pizarro gives them a much-needed focal point in attack, while veteran midfield dynamo Torsten Frings provides the muscle to compliment all the pretty stuff.

VERDICT: It's the understatement of the year to say they can be naive defensively, but their high levels of creativity should see them through the group phase.


PANATHINAIKOS
Status: Third in Greek League (Qualified via the national play-offs)
Nickname: Prasinoi (Greens)
UEFA Ranking: 20th

THE RECORD: Panathinaikos created a sensation in 1971 by beating Red Star Belgrade and Everton en-route to the 1971 Champions' Cup Final at Wembley, where they went down to 2-0 to Ajax.

Like many of the Greek and Turkish sides who have been in the Champions League mix, their best results in European competition have come on home soil as they are not the best of travellers.

COACH'S CORNER: Volatile Dutch boss Henk ten Cate was appointed this summer to replace Jose Peseiro. Formerly the number two to Avram Grant at Chelsea and to Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona, he has been in solo charge at Ajax, Sparta Rotterdam, Vitesse Arnhem, Uerdingen, MTK Budapest and NAC Breda.

He was credited as the brains behind Barca's exceptional attacking game when they won the Champions League in 2006 and he remains a devotee of an adventurous, risk-taking approach to the game.

'While I love attacking football, I'm not crazy,' says Ten Cate. 'You don't start with the roof when building a house. In the Champions League, very avoidable defensive error comes at a high price. This is a lesson we must learn if we are to make the knock-out phase, which is a legitimate ambition for a club of our history.'

STAR TURN: The right-sided or central midfielder Giorgos Karagounis represents the heartbeat of the side, offering incisive running with the ball, accurate distribution, free-kick expertise and the willingness to graft for the whole 90 minutes. A weakness is his inability to keep his temper in check.

A key member of the Greek side that triumphed against the odds at Euro 2004, he returned to first club Panathinaikos after a four-year interim (2003-07) with Inter Milan and Benfica. One of his most memorable moments in the Champions League was the fine free-kick he scored in a 3-1 loss for the Greeks at Manchester United in the 2000/01 season.

NEW FACE: After losing his first team place at Arsenal last season to Mathieu Flamini, Brazilian defensive midfielder Gilberto Silva opted to call time on his six-year residency in North London and move to Athens. The fee Panathinaikos paid was officially undisclosed but insiders suggest it was in the region of £1m, a cut-price amount for a World Cup winner in 2002 and who, at the age of 31, still has much to offer.

Tactically-astute, athletic, never flustered and without peer in the art of shepherding opponents into less dangerous parts of the field, his brief is to provide his new club with much-needed ballast in front of the back-four. Champions League success is no stranger to him as the ex-Atletico Mineiro man featured prominently in Arsenal's march to the Final in 2006, when they succumbed to Barcelona.

WILD CARD: Dimitris Salpigidis is a bullish little striker who will run and fight from first whistle to last. Always hungry for goals, the Panathinaikos captain has the happy knack of being where the chances are and has razor-sharp reactions.

He first pulled on the famous green shirt in the summer of 2006 following a move from PAOK Salonika, a deal that cost Panathinaikos £4.2m in cash and players. He instantaneously justified the outlay, scoring a hat-trick on his Greek League debut.

YOUNG GUN: Teenage attacking midfielder Sotiris Ninis is widely-touted as the most exciting Greek talent for a decade or more. Only 18, he is at his most productive on the right-side or in the hole behind the strikers. His quick feet, precise crosses and excellent composure in front of goal are his best attributes and his maturity has been confirmed as he has already captained Panathinaikos.

Born in Albania and brought up in Greece, he nailed his colours to the latter's mast and starred as the Hellenic under-19s came runners up at the 2007 European Championships. He might well have featured at Euro 2008 if he had not been plagued with hamstring and stomach muscle injuries last term.

WORD ON THE STREET: Ten Cate has wasted no time in ushering in a revolution in the team's playing style, discarding the patient and measured for the 'up and at 'em'. He wants his team to grab the initiative straight away, insisting on a high pressing game and attacking players who take on and beat defenders at every possible opportunity. The dramatic change of focus could catch unsuspecting opponents unawares as they have a nice mix of the cultured and the dynamic in the final third.

The relative slowness of centre-backs Josu Sarriegi and Ioannis Goumas must be a concern, though Gilberto Silva and fellow midfield holder Alexandros Tziolis constitute a tough outer shell. Ten Cate's confrontational dressing room manner could quickly make the atmosphere ugly.

VERDICT: On the whole the quality is too thinly-spread to make the last-16, but they will die with their boots on.


ANORTHOSIS FAMAGUSTA
Status: Cypriot League Champions
Nickname: Old Lady
UEFA Ranking: 31st

THE RECORD: Anorthosis are Champions League rookies and the first club from Cyprus to qualify for the continental showpiece.

A 3-0 first leg victory against the fancied Olympiakos set up their third round qualifying success and now comes their chance to make some Cypriot football history.

COACH'S CORNER: During his playing career for Georgia, Dinamo Tbilisi and Newcastle United, wildly eccentric and unpredictable winger Temuri Ketsbaia gave little indication that he would remain in the game as a manager, but appearances can be deceptive. Since taking over at Anorthosis in 2004, he has proved himself a good judge of talent, a shrewd tactician and above all a peerless motivator. Two domestic league titles (2005 and 2008) plus a Champions League ticket is testimony to his ability to produce a team worth more than the sum of its parts.

'We've made history, but I'm not the sort of person who says our aim in the Champions League is simply to enjoy the experience,' states Ketsbaia. 'Neither the players or myself intend to go into our games with an inferiority complex. We've got this far by believing in ourselves. The odds favoured Olympiakos and Rapid Vienna. We took no notice. This attitude must not change.'

THE STAR TURN: Towering, battle-hardened Greek international centre-back Traianos Dellas signed for Anorthosis after AEK Athens opted to release him this summer and at the age of 32, he is far from finished. He is particularly strong in the air, reads the game well and is comfortable on the ball. While not the quickest, his anticipation usually prevents him being exposed.

One of the Greek heroes of their Euro 2004, he can be used in many ways: as a sweeper, a man-marker or even in front of the back-line as a defensive midfielder. Other postings in a somewhat chequered club career include Aris Salonika, Sheffield United and Italian outfits Perugia and Roma.

THE NEW FACE: Veteran Brazilian left-sided attacker midfielder Savio was recruited from Desportiva Capixaba, a lower league club in his homeland. He starred for eight years in the Spanish Liga with Real Madrid, Zaragoza and Real Sociedad and won 25 caps for Brazil, yet the all-important question is whether a 34-year-old can still deliver at the top European level after a series of injuries.

He first exploded on Rio's vibrant soccer scene as a teenager with Flamengo, earning himself the tag of the 'new Zico'. In 1997 he moved in a £8m deal to Real Madrid, whom he helped win the Champions League in 2000.

THE WILD CARD: Tall Polish striker Lukasz Sosin combines aerial threat, the ability to hold the ball up and adroit finishing from close quarters. During six years in Cyprus, first at Apollon Limassol and since 2007 with Anorthosis, he has accumulated no fewer than 110 league goals and has been the country's top scorer four times (2004, 2005, 2006, 2008).

Once a marksman with Polish sides Hutnik Krakow, Wisla Krakow - with whom he won the Polish League in 2001 - and Odra Wlodzislaw, he scored twice on his full international debut against Saudi Arabia in March 2006 but then surprisingly faded out of the picture.

THE YOUNG GUN: French left-winger or midfielder Vincent Laban became an instant Anorthosis cult hero this summer thanks to goals in the stunning qualifying victories over Rapid Vienna and Olympiakos. Speedy, clever in his off the ball movement and unselfish, he has a reputation for making things happen after coming on as a substitute.

A graduate of the respected Nantes academy in western France, he helped them claim the national Youth Cup and was given a pro contract. However, he never made the first team cut and following unsuccessful trials in Belgium and Spain, was picked up by mid-table Cypriot club Morphou. He joined Anorthosis two years later.

WORD ON THE STREET: Coach Ketsbaia will be banking on the element of surprise. His team are off the mainstream Euro radar and big-name opponents may be tempted not to take them seriously. They are extremely well-organised and dripping with commitment and industry, but also know how to take their foot of the gas when it suits them. Overlapping full-backs Predrag Ocokojic and Jeffrey Leiwakabessy are very important to their system.

The danger is these so-called minnows will be at full throttle in the early stages of the Champions League and then burn out. While at home they are proactive and confident, they can be excessively timid on their travels. Anorthosis can overdo the long, hopeful punts in the direction of Sosin up front.

VERDICT: Almost certain to be eliminated in December, but they will enjoy the ride.

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