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Should Rodgers or Wenger be sacked?

Teams In Crisis 6 hours ago
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Sep 12, 2008

Champions League 2008/09, Group C

Group C: FC Barcelona | Sporting Lisbon | FC Basel | Shakhtar Donetsk
Group A | Group B | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H


BARCELONA
Status: Third in Spanish league
Nickname: Barca
UEFA Ranking: 4th

THE RECORD: European Champions in 1992 and 2006, a club of Barca's size and stature should have won the ultimate prize in the game far more often. The fact that their fierce rivals at Real Madrid are nine-time winners of this competition merely fires their enthusiasm for this year.

Last season's semi-final exit against Manchester United was a little unfortunate as they had the chances to upset the ultimate champions in the second leg at Old Trafford.

COACH'S CORNER: Pep Guardiola has taken on a mighty task as he succeeds Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona and attempts to turn a tide of negativity away from the Nou Camp.

It was ironic that one of the club's most disastrous seasons for many a year so nearly ended with an appearance in the Champions League Final last May, yet such an achievement would merely have papered over the gaping cracks that have developed in the Barca side.

Guardiola has much to prove as a coach and while his fine record as a player with Barca should give him a lengthy honeymoon period, he will have to guard against tarnishing his image as an all-time great at the Nou Camp. He was in charge of Barca's second-string side last season.

THE STAR TURN: Lionel Messi will battle it out with Cristiano Ronaldo for the World Player of the Year awards in 2008 and while this brilliant Argentinean playmaker may come out second best on this occasion, many believe he is the finest footballer on the planet.

Oozing with class and with more tricks than the most masterful magician, Messi admits he has a burning passion to play in a Champions League Final after injury denied him the chance to shine in the 2006 climax against Arsenal. 'The Champions League Final is the ultimate match for a footballer and to get so close and miss out due to injury is something I need to correct,' he says.

THE NEW FACE: Daniel Alves must have been one of the most sought after full-back in football history over the last couple of years and it was Barcelona who secured his services this summer in a massive €35m transfer from Sevilla.

Chelsea and Tottenham were among the English clubs chasing Alves, but the huge asking price and his desire to stay in Spain meant he was always likely to pick Barca and he is expected to slot neatly into a new-look defence featuring summer arrivals Gerard Pique and Martin Caceres.

THE WILD CARD: Do former greats Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry have anything left to offer?

The former was told in no uncertain terms that he had no place in Pep Guardiola's plans at the start of the summer, but his inability to find a few club and a decent pre-season campaign means he is likely to play a super-sub role in the Champions League. As for Henry, the Frenchman clearly still has touches of magic in his boots, but consistency is no longer his best quality as he seems to have lost a yard of pace and spends most of his time on the left-wing.

YOUNG GUN: Bojan Krkic was long hailed as a superstar in the making and he didn't disappoint as he scored goals aplenty and showed several flashes of genuine brilliance in his first full season as a Barca player.

Krkic became the first player born in the 1990s to score a Champions League goal when he netted a crucial away strike in the quarter-finals against Schalke in April and he has his sights set on more glory this term. 'It was a dream come true just to play for Barcelona at the Nou Camp and now the future is so exciting,' says the 18-year-old.

WORD ON THE STREET: You have to give Barcelona President Joan Laporta some credit for showing remarkable staying power in the face of a concerted effort to force him out of a job, with many blaming the club's embattled chief for their demise under Frank Rijkaard in the last couple of years.

Whether Guardiola can ignore the off-field turmoil that is bound to unravel at the Nou Camp in the coming months and successfully rebuild the flagging team remains to be seen. Not for the first time, off-field politics may well be as captivating as the football at Barca this season.

VERDICT: Expectations will always be vast around this club and so long as the brilliant Messi is fit and firing, anything is possible in Guardiola's first season. However, it may take more than a few months to heal the wounds that have seeped so remorselessly at the Nou Camp of late.


SPORTING LISBON
Status: Portuguese league runners-up
Nickname: Leoes (Lions)
UEFA Ranking: 15th

THE RECORD: Sporting's finest moment in European competition came when they lifted the 1964 Cup Winners' Cup and they enjoyed a great run to the UEFA Cup Final back in 2005.

They have never progressed beyond the group stages of the Champions League and will be hoping to break new ground this season.

COACH'S CORNER: Paulo Bento was a fine Portuguese international defender in his playing days and after finishing his career with Sporting, he moved into coaching with the club's youth team in 2004 and he was quickly ushered into the top job after Jose Peseiro was sacked a year later.

Domestic cup glory for Bento has not been backed up by Champions League success as Sporting's lack of quality in depth has undermined his efforts, yet he feels it can change this season.

'We have a good record in cup competitions and have to try to get the same mentality in the biggest competition of them all now,' says Bento. 'There is big pressure for us to improve in Europe this season. Pressure puts demands on people, but we have managed to bring in some experienced players this summer and they will help us.'

THE STAR TURN: Liedson has been a prolific marksman for Sporting since his move to the club in 2003 and he has the experience to take his form onto the Champions League stage this season.

Brazilian-born, he has never been given the chance to pull on the famous shirt of his native land and there has been plenty of talk that he may be tempted by a Portugal call-up. A late bloomer in the professional ranks, he did not start his professional football career until he was 22.

THE NEW FACE: Fabio Rochemback arrives after a less than glorious spell at Premier League side Middlesbrough and this Brazilian will have plenty to prove this season.

Hailed as a star in the making when he sealed his move from Sporting to England, a lack of consistency undermined his stay at Boro and he struggled to shine as either a winger or creative midfield operator. It was no surprise when he returned to his former club in the summer and maybe the home comforts he excelled in before will see him return to form again.

THE WILD CARD: Helder Postiga has all the ability to shine at any level of the game, but he has never quite fulfilled the potential he showed during his early days as a youthful starlet at FC Porto.

A troubled spell in England with Tottenham came too early in his development and after a couple of loan spells in recent years, he will be hoping his summer move to Sporting gives him the chance to rise to the top once again. 'The chance to play for a great club like Sporting in the Champions League was something I could not ignore,' says Postiga.

YOUNG GUN: Joao Moutinho looked destined to leave Sporting this summer, but interest from Premier League side Everton came to nothing and he will continue his development in the Champions League this season.

At 22, this gifted midfield operator is vital to the squad and the fact that he has been handed the captain's armband confirms his importance to the side. 'There was some interest in me during the summer and I wanted to leave at one point, but it can all be forgotten now and my focus can be on Sporting for this season,' he says. 'I'm proud to play for this club in the Champions League.'

WORD ON THE STREET: This club always comes up short when they take the vast step up from the Portuguese level to square off against Europe's elite and there is little evidence that this season will be any different. The arrival of Rochemback and retention of Moutinho and defensive-minded Miguel Veloso are big pluses, but they alone will not be enough to transform the side.

There must also be concern about their lack of depth. What happens if Moutinho is sidelined for a lengthy period? Also, is the capture of Postiga likely to turn Sporting into a Champions League force? Both questions need to be answered.

VERDICT: A decent draw gives them hope of a runners-up finish behind Barcelona. They will battle it out with Shakhtar Donetsk for the second spot in Group C.


FC BASEL
Status: Swiss champions
Nickname: Bebbis
UEFA Ranking: 23rd

THE RECORD: FCB have never done better than the 2002/03 season when they reached the second group phase. In their first round group, they finished second behind Valencia, pipping Liverpool to the final qualifying spot by one point. Among their victims that season were Celtic - whom they beat in the preliminaries - and Juventus. They also held Liverpool (twice) and Manchester United.

A fine away day victory against Portuguese side Vitoria Guimaraes took them into the group stages of this season's Champions League.

COACH'S CORNER: During his unhappy nine-month spell as manager of Tottenham (1997-98), Christian Gross was one of the most ridiculed figures in the history of the Premier League. Yet the fact that many Bundesliga clubs have tried and failed to recruit him in recent years confirms he is not at all a figure of fun. Two Swiss League titles with Grashoppers Zurich and four more since taking over at FCB in 1999 speak for themselves.

At the core of his match day philosophy are his team's fast-paced attacks, collective discipline and physical solidity. 'I don't suppose for a moment we'll be regarded as favourites at any stage in the Champions League,' says Gross. 'What's important is that we are psychologically ready to take on the challenge of facing bigger clubs. If we are, anything is possible. I would have loved to draw Manchester United but Barcelona is not bad.'

THE STAR TURN: Last season was very much a breakthrough campaign for young striker Eren Derdiyok as he established himself in the FCB first team and forcing his way into the full Swiss eleven. Of Turkish descent, he certainly could not have wished for a more memorable international debut, scoring with his first touch after coming on as a substitute against England at Wembley in February. He appeared in all three of his nation's games at Euro 2008.

The scorer of the winner in the 2-1 victory over Vitoria Guimares that booked FCB's place at the Champions League table, his chief attributes are his technical brilliance, heading ability and fearlessness. He is versatile too, able to operate in a midfield role or even at centre-back.

THE NEW FACE: Behrang Safari is a Swedish international left-back with Iranian roots who arrived from Malmo this summer to replace the J League-bound Koji Nakata. He has much experience playing as a winger and needs no invitation to raid in the opposition half, exploiting his sprinter-like pace.

Born in Tehran, he was just two when he migrated to Sweden with his family. His talent as a footballer earned him a place in the Malmo academy and in his first season as a pro there, he claimed a domestic league winner's medal. The 23-year-old was surprisingly left out of Sweden's Euro 2008 squad, but he has plenty of time to make amends.

THE WILD CARD: In normal circumstances, lanky Switzerland striker Marco Streller should be a certain starter. He has a good touch on the ball for a big man, wins a high percentage of headers and is an accomplished finisher, but what has always held him back is his fragile physical make-up. True to form at Euro 2008, he missed two of Switzerland's three games with a groin problem.

Once an employee of a Basel bank, he began his pro career at FCB before switching to Germany in 2004 to play for Stuttgart and Koln and then rejoined Basel a year ago. Catcalls from Swiss fans during an international friendly last spring prompted him to announce his retirement from the team. He has since reconsidered.

THE YOUNG GUN: Valentin Stocker is a dynamic left-sided or central midfielder with a knack for goals on the big occasion. He was on target in the win over Young Boys of Berne last spring, handing FCB the Swiss League title and he was once more on the score-sheet as his side saw off the challenge of Vitoria Guimares in the Champions League qualifiers.

New Switzerland boss Ottmar Hitzfeld gave him his senior debut in a game against Cyprus in August and he scored again. Many thought he should have been included in his country's Euro 2008 squad after the 19-year-old signed for Basel from Kriens in January 2006.

WORD ON THE STREET: Since playmaker Hakan Yakin left the club in 2003, they have severely lacked his killer through balls, imagination and free-kick brilliance. Serb midfield general Ivan Ergic is efficient enough but does not have the same star quality. Christian Gross' authoritarian style can be counter-productive, provoking lingering resentment.

Keeper and captain Franco Costanzo is a top-class last line of defence. They are a tactically sophisticated side, comfortable in a 4-1-3-2, 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1. Backed by a vociferous full-house at their St Jakob Park home, FCB know how to raise their game.

VERDICT: They will struggle to live up to their motto 'Reach for the Stars'. First round exit.


SHAKHTAR DONETSK
Status: Ukraine champions
Nickname: The Miners
UEFA Ranking: 25th

THE RECORD: Shakhtar have never progressed beyond the opening group phase in four previous Champions League campaigns, so they have a clear target this time.

The dominant soccer force in the Ukraine, they have won four domestic league titles since 2002 and completed a league and cup double on home soil last season.

COACH'S CORNER: Mircea Lucescu is a highly-experienced, ever-pragmatic Romanian who certainly knows how to construct championship-winning teams. He proved as much in his homeland with Dinamo and Rapid Bucharest, Galatasaray and Besiktas in Turkey and Shakhtar, whom he has steered to three Ukraine titles (2005, 2006, 2008) since assuming control four years ago. He has also worked with Inter Milan, Pisa, Reggiana, Brescia and the Romanian national team and his experience will be vital to Shakhtar in this season's Champions League.

Considered a fine tactician, the central planks of his approach are sound organisation and meticulous dissection of the opposition's strengths and weaknesses. 'Our priority has to be making the knock-out phase,' says Lucescu. 'This is a very ambitious club. We want to make a mark at the top European level and until we do so, the pressure will accumulate. Second-place in our group behind Barcelona should not be beyond our capabilities.'

THE STAR TURN: The Ukrainian League's reigning Player of the Year, Brazilian Fernandinho is an outstanding 'one size fits all' midfielder, someone who can do both the pretty stuff and get his hands dirty. Coach Lucescu often uses his flair for breaking up attacks and thoughtful use of the ball in a holding role, but he can be equally effective driving forward on the wing or directing the traffic close to the strikers.

A £5.2m buy from Atletico Paranaense in 2005, he was a member of the Brazilian Under 20 side that claimed the world title back in 2003 in the United Arab Emirates. Indeed, he scored the winner in the Final against Spain.

THE NEW FACE: Prolific Bolivian striker Marcelo Moreno recently signed from top Brazilian club Cruzeiro for £7.5m. That he should end up in the Ukraine is something of a surprise as the 21-year-old had been linked with a move to such Euro big-hitters as Real Madrid or Liverpool.

Born in Bolivia to a Brazilian father and Bolivian mother, he represented Brazil's Under 20 side, but later opted for a change of allegiance, agreeing to play for Bolivia's senior team. His first professional club was Vitoria Bahia and he believes he can take his career to a new level with Shakhtar. 'I have signed for a club with real ambition never had any doubt about coming to the Ukraine,' he states. 'I wanted to be with a Champions League club and this is what I have.'

THE WILD CARD: Right-backs are not normally decisive figures, but brilliant Croatian Darijo Srna is an exception to that rule. As well as providing pace, dribbling skills and inch-perfect crosses, he packs a real punch in his shooting and takes a mean curling free-kick into the bargain.

A graduate of the Hajduk Split youth system, he joined Shakhtar in 2003 and is so content there that he insists he would stay loyal to them even if Manchester United came calling. He dedicates all his goals to his brother Igor, who suffers with Down's Syndrome.

YOUNG GUN: Livewire little Brazilian winger Willian usually performs his magic on the right but who often switches flanks at Shakhtar with fellow Samba star Ilsinho. There were rumours this summer that Barcelona were interested in signing him, though nothing concrete would come of it.

The 20-year-old joined Shakhtar a year ago from leading Sao Paulo side Corinthians in a £10m deal. A maverick and a free-kick expert, his buy-out clause apparently stands at £25m and there can be little doubt that he will eventually try his luck at one of the more established European super-powers.

WORD ON THE STREET: If Shakhtar want to finally punch their weight in the Champions League, they have to find a quick antidote to their abysmal away form in the competition. The attack-conscious play of full-backs (Srna and the Romanian Razvan Rat) can leave them sadly exposed at the back.

The man in possession invariably has plenty of passing options and they can open up a defence with ease as they move the ball about with aplomb, but they lack a true taker of chances.

VERDICT: The amalgam of Ukrainian and Brazilian might just be about to bear fruit. A last-16 spot beckons and that would be a decent effort for a side from the less that celebrated Ukrainian league.

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