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50-50 Challenge: Real Madrid vs. Barcelona

El Clasico 1 day ago
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Sep 12, 2008

Champions League 2008/09, Group D

Group D: Liverpool | PSV Eindhoven | Marseille | Atlético Madrid
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H


LIVERPOOL
Status: 3rd in English Premier League
Nickname: Reds
UEFA Ranking: 3rd

THE RECORD: The five-time European champions last claimed the trophy they cherish more than any other with their famous victory against AC Milan in the extraordinary 2005 Final, when they came back from 3-0 down to win on penalties in Istanbul.

After winning two European titles at Rome's Stadio Olympico (1977 and 1984), they will be hoping history repeats itself and they are celebrating at the same venue in the 2008 Final.

COACH'S CORNER: Rafael Benitez has been battling on a number of fronts during his turbulent reign as Liverpool manager and while he has brought some success to the club, political infighting has never been far away and has often undermined his efforts.

While the Spanish coach has a superb record in European competition, he has been less successful at Premier League level and admits finding a balance between domestic and Champions League commitments is a key this season. 'We have not always responded so well to playing league games after European trips and have to try and find a better balance in the side during these busy times,' admits Benitez.

THE STAR TURN: Captain Steven Gerrard is generally the man to pull Liverpool through when the chips are down and he shares top billing with the brilliant Fernando Torres.

Torres proved his class as he scored the goal that won Euro 2008 for Spain last summer and his combination with English midfield powerhouse Gerrard carried Liverpool to the brink of last season's Champions League final. If these two are firing, they are a handful for the best of defences.

THE NEW FACE: Republic of Ireland striker Robbie Keane arrived amid much fanfare for a deal worth around £20m and he was quickly tipped to be the ideal foil for the ever dangerous Torres. Always lively, this Dubliner's movement is his key asset.

A lifelong Liverpool fan, Keane's first few games in his beloved red shirt did not go as well as he would have hoped, but at least he will get his chance to experience Champions League nights at Anfield after the club scraped through the qualifying round against Standard Liege. 'Playing for Liverpool in the Champions League is something that will mean so much to me,' says Keane. 'The Liege game was tight, but we got through it and that's all important in the end.'

THE WILD CARD: Xabi Alonso was widely tipped to be sold by Liverpool this summer, with Rafa Benitez apparently determined to push through a deal to snap up Aston Villa midfielder Gareth Barry.

However, some will argue he has ended up with a better scenario as Alonso has stayed at Liverpool and his class may be crucial in the heart of the midfield battle. A crisp passer of the ball, this Spanish international also packs a powerful shot from the edge of the box.

YOUNG GUN: Ryan Babel needs prove he is good enough to shine in a Liverpool shirt this season.

The Dutch youngster showed flashes of brilliance on the Liverpool flanks last term, but the moment has come for this former Ajax youngster to confirm he is worth the £11.5m Benitez paid out for him last year. Liverpool have concerns in the wide positions and Babel could be the man to ease their woes.

WORD ON THE STREET: The ongoing top level infighting at Anfield may just explode at some point during the Champions League group stages. Benitez and chief executive Rick Parry recently held clear the air talks, yet Anfield owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett continue to have big differences and will eventually clash in public once again.

On the field, Benitez may be forced to use skipper Gerrard in a wide position he loathes. A lack of quality on the flanks means Liverpool will struggle to create chances and stretch teams, so Gerrard will need to be employed on the right side to accommodate Alonso and Javier Mascherano. The trouble may come if Gerrard vents his frustration at being moved out of his favoured position.

Finally, Liverpool rely far too heavily on Gerrard and Torres and it is hard to know how they would cope if either or both miss crucial Champions League games.

VERDICT: There are too many questions surrounding Liverpool. A tough group draw means they may struggle to claim top spot and will face a scrap to claim a last 16 spot.


PSV EINDHOVEN
Status: Dutch league champions
Nickname: Boeren (The Farmers)
UEFA Ranking: 10th

THE RECORD: PSV's 1988 European Cup winning side was a classy mix of all that is good about Dutch football, with the bulk of the side going onto to help the Holland squad win Euro'88 in glorious fashion.

Recent form in the Champions League has been less spectacular since the departure of masterful coach Guus Hiddink in 2006. Indeed, the club's European focus last season was on the less glamorous UEFA Cup.

COACH'S CORNER: Huub Stevens took over in the summer and he arrived with a big reputation. A former PSV player, he was an international defender with Holland and can now be classed among the experienced coaches as his career on the touchline has taken in more than a few clubs over the last 15 years.

Roda JC, Schalke, Hertha Berlin, FC Koln and Hamburg have all been stopping off points on the coaching career of Stevens, but it is back at his old home of PSV that he is more determined than ever to succeed. 'This club is part of my life as I spent so long here as a player and it is natural that I have always had an ambition to be the coach in Eindhoven one day,' says the coach who won the UEFA Cup in his days with Schalke.

'Everything is possible with PSV. I have come from a poor background and worked my way into this position, so this may be why I have such strong convictions and a determination to succeed.'

THE STAR TURN: Captain Timmy Simons sums up what PSV are all about. Solid and resolute, his star billing could be taken by several members of this hard working side, though you feel this experienced Belgian star will be just the kind of gutsy performer tough new boss Stevens will warm to.

He made his name with Club Brugge before making the move to PSV in 2005 and has established himself as the heartbeat of the club's midfield in the three years since.

THE NEW FACE: The departure of colourful keeper Heurelho Gomes to Premier League side Tottenham left a gaping hole between the sticks for PSV and they filled it by snapping up experienced Swedish keeper Andreas Isaksson from Manchester City.

His spell in England had not been as successful as he would have wished as young Joe Hart kept him out of the City side (even after compatriot Sven Goran Eriksson became the club's manager) and at the age of 26, he should be a sound investment for the Dutch champions over the course of the next decade.

THE WILD CARD: Danny Kovermans is one of those players who can look like a world beater one day and a second rate performer the next. At Sparta Rotterdam and AZ Alkmaar, this Dutch international has shown signs of real potential and he has also been on the fringes of the Dutch national team for many a year.

Now comes his chance to prove he can be a striker to be reckoned with on the Champions League stage and new PSV boss Huub Stevens seems keen to give him every chance to shine as a first choice striker.

YOUNG GUN: Dutch international Ibrahim Afellay is a talented midfielder operator who has taken over a starring roll in this team after the departure of many a big name in the last few years.

He had the option of playing his international football with Morocco, but opted to commit his future to the Dutch cause and played his part in their Euro 2008 exploits last summer. Speculation over his PSV future surfaced prior to the close of the transfer window, yet links with a move to Roma never materialised as boss Stevens is keen to have this attacking talent at his disposal.

WORD ON THE STREET: Stevens is known to be a flexible coach who likes to have a few options to switch the pattern of a game mid-way through. He is still finding his feet at PSV, yet most expect to see him opting for a 4-5-1 formation, with Afellay given the vital role of being the key creative force behind the main striker.

Stevens likes to rule with an iron fist. His nick name at Hamburg was 'tough dog' and his reputation was that of a coach who no player would dare to cross. His new charges may find out about his vicious bite if they let him down in the Champions League

VERDICT: PSV will take time to settle under their new coach and they may not make the cut after the group stage draw that was less than kind to the Dutch champions.


OLYMPIQUE MARSEILLE
Status: 3rd in French league
Nickname: OM
UEFA Ranking: 17th

THE RECORD: OM fans still look back fondly on the early 1990s when their team beat AC Milan in the 1993 Champions League Final in Munich. Two years previously they just missed out on glory, losing on penalties to Red Star Belgrade.

However, they have been bit part players in European football of late and needed to come through a tricky qualifying round to claim their spot back at the top table this season.

COACH'S CORNER: Eric Gerets is a hard-nosed Belgian boss who has brought some much-needed discipline and cohesion to a team that was sinking fast when he turned up in the autumn of 2007. That he took them from 17th to third-place in Ligue 1 in just seven months says everything about his organisational skills and power to motivate. What is more, his team play with attacking verve - a must as far as supporters in these parts are concerned.

Previously in charge of FC Liege, Lierse, Club Brugge, PSV Eindhoven, Kaiserslautern, Wolfsburg and Galatasaray, he played at right-back in the PSV side that claimed the Champions' Cup in 1988.

German outfit Hamburg tried to convince him to come to the Bundesliga this summer, but he refused. 'I didn't have the right to go,' he claims. 'We're constructing something interesting here and I believe we have the players to make a good impression both domestically and in Europe.'

THE STAR TURN: Arguably the most naturally gifted player of his generation, 21-year-old French international Hatem Ben Arfa is an attacking midfielder who was bought from Lyon in June for a cool £10m. The public at the Stade Velodrome love virtuoso footballers and the youngster certainly fits this category, almost Maradona-like in his dribbling skills and flair for improvisation.

He comes with a certain amount of baggage, namely a marked reluctance to pass the ball and unwillingness to perform even the minimum amount of tracking back. Look no further for the reason why ex-Lyon coaches Gerard Houllier and Alain Perrin never played him regularly. Last season relations between him and several Lyon team-mates were said to be strained and he was involved in a training ground fight with defender Sebastien Squillaci.

THE NEW FACE: Bakari Kone is a livewire pocket-sized Ivory Coast attacker lured away from Nice, for whom he scored 14-times last season. Gerets is reported to have told OM president Pape Diouf: 'You give me Kone and we'll be French champions.'

Mobile, gutsy and equally adept at creating as scoring goals, he packs a powerful shot from distance. He graduated from the same ASEC Abidjan club, which produced the likes of Arsenal stars Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue.

THE WILD CARD: Since arriving from Strasbourg three years ago, Mamadou Niang has proved a guaranteed source of goals, particularly last season when he netted 18-times in Ligue 1 to finish runner-up in the scoring charts and a further half-dozen in the Champions League.

As well as composure in front of goal, this Senegalese striker is sturdy enough to withstand the attentions of the roughest marker, is an excellent dribbler, works well on the flanks and takes a mean free-kick. It's a shame that his talent has been overshadowed by the presence in the Marseille attack of the larger than life Djibril Cisse, but with the enigma gone, Niang gets his chance to star.

THE YOUNG GUN: Brilliant Congo-born keeper Steve Mandanda performed so ably last season, his first at OM following a move from Le Havre, that he was selected by Raymond Domenech for France's ill-fated trip to Euro 2008. He only made his full debut for Les Bleus last May in a friendly with Ecuador, coming on as a substitute for Sebastien Frey. Many believe he is in pole position to be his country's first-choice at the 2010 World Cup.

Although only 23 and with just one season in the French top flight under his best, Gerets claims he is by far the calmest player in the squad. The most impressive of his other attributes is the way he dominates when coming for crosses.

WORD ON THE STREET: The extensive European experience of their coach and their numerous attacking weapons should serve them well. Much will depend on Ben Arfa and if he can play with more maturity and consistency, they could be quite a force.

Defence was their Achilles heel last term and it remains to be seen whether a new centre-back pairing of the Moroccan Elamin Erbate and the Brazilian Hilton will provide the stability required. Nigerian left-back Taye Taiwo is good going forward, but sometimes a liability because of his indifferent positional sense.

VERDICT: A sturdy back-line is a pre-requisite for European success, yet OM's has too many holes to stay afloat until the New Year.


ATLETICO MADRID
Status: 4th in Spanish league
Nickname: Los Rojiblancos (Red and Whites)
UEFA Ranking: 27th

THE RECORD: Runners-up in the old European Cup back in 1974, Atletico have so often been left in the shadow of city rivals Real Madrid, but they are back in the big time after coming through a testing third qualifying round tie against German outfit Schalke thanks to a stunning second leg display.

The 1962 UEFA Cup winners have won the Spanish title on nine occasions, with their last triumph coming some 12 years ago.

COACH'S CORNER: Former Mexican national team boss Javier Aguirre arrived at Atletico with bags of coaching experience in 2006 and he has proved to be a steadying influence at the Vicente Calderon Stadium.

Aguirre likes to keep things simple, so expect a 4-4-2 formation to continue this season and he is confident his summer of squad strengthening will give him a realistic chance of competing in both La Liga and the Champions League in the months ahead. 'Our home form will be so important and that much was proved as he we came through the qualifying round against Schalke,' he says. 'I'm sure we have a squad that will be able to deal with all challenges this season.'

THE STAR TURN: Diego Forlan struggled to make any kind of impact in his time at Manchester United, yet he has set the Spanish league alight during spells with Villarreal and now Atletico.

Energetic, skilful and potent in front of goal, the Uruguayan is now a proven performer at the highest level and his partnership with Argentinian Sergio Aguero will be the deciding factor in Atletico's Champions League hopes. The duo looked deadly last season, as did the side's attacking unit as a whole.

THE NEW FACE: Aguirre needed a new keeper after the loan spell of Italian Christian Abbiati came to an end and he moved quickly to snap up the services of the highly experienced Gregory Coupet.

This French international certainly won't be intimidated by the Champions League atmosphere as he has played numerous games in this competition for Lyon down the years, so he should be a risk-free signing for Atletico. 'I have been used to playing at the top level and winning trophies and this still has to be my ambition now that I'm in Madrid,' says Coupet.

THE WILD CARD: Simao Sabrosa has the ability to carve open teams with blistering play on the flanks and he will be delighted to get the chance to show his worth on the Champions League stage once again.

Liverpool targeted this Portuguese winger for many a year when he was starring for Benfica, yet it was a move to Madrid that eventually ended his stay in his homeland. He is not always the most consistent of performers, but has been more successful during his second stint in Spanish football after a disappointing first stay with Barcelona between 1999 and 2001.

YOUNG GUN: It seemed as if Atletico Madrid needed to make a special signing when Fernando Torres left for Liverpool in the summer of 2007, yet they already had a replacement at the club and Sergio Aguero has grown into his role as a star performer.

He only celebrated his 20th birthday in June, yet already this Argentine maestro is a world superstar after his sparkling performances in the Spanish league last season, where he was third in the scoring charts. 'For someone so young, Aguero has so much maturity and he is perfect to play with,' states strike partner Diego Forlan.

WORD ON THE STREET: Atletico have rebuilt their defence this summer and have brought in experienced performers like Coupet, Dutch international Johnny Heitinga and Czech star Tomas Ujfalusi, while Brazilian Paulo Assuncao arrives to add a touch of steel to the attack-minded midfield. It seems to be a summer of intelligent spending and should serve Atletico well.

Aguirre's task is to find a balance between the exciting array of attacking stars at his disposal and his new defensive performers. The experience he has in his ranks should ensure he is given plenty of help by the troops on the field.

VERDICT: Atletico have the attacking talent to make a splash in the Champions League and are a good bet for a last 16 spot. However, they may well struggle to combine success on home soil with European ambitions as they are not used to such a heavy workload.

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