Champions League 2008/09, Group F
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Status: French champions
Nickname: Les Gones
UEFA Ranking: 6th
COACH'S CORNER: Claude Puel was a diligent, industrious full-back and defensive midfielder with Monaco and he has enjoyed much success as a coach, steering the same Monte Carlo club to the French League title in 2000 and twice qualifying for the Champions League in 2005 and 2006 with Lille.
After six years at the Lille helm, he was appointed Lyon boss this summer. "No question that our number one aim this term is the Champions League," he says. "To go far, we have to be up to speed in all areas. We must be solid and capable of taking the initiative in games."
Puel has a reputation for being somewhat defensive in his outlook. Not surprisingly for someone who used to be a fitness coach at Monaco, he puts a premium on excellent physical conditioning and also swears by players who follow his tactical instructions to the letter and the frequent rotation of his first team personnel. He is likely to stick with Lyon's time-honoured 4-3-3 system, though he has made it clear that he wants his new side to be comfortable in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 as well.
THE STAR TURN: Karim Benzema will be looking to confirm his class in the Champions League this season. The young French international striker was the top scorer in Ligue 1 last season with 20 goals and has been linked in recent times with a move to Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester United. However, would-be buyers will have to dig deep as Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas slapped a €100m price tag on him.
He was widely-expected to be one of the stars at Euro 2008, only to show next to nothing of his extraordinary talent: the powerful runs, delicate touch and composed finishing with either foot that are seen regularly in the domestic campaign.
THE NEW FACE: Hugo Lloris was outstanding between the posts for Nice over the last two seasons and the 21-year-old turned down offers from Tottenham and AC Milan this summer before saying 'Oui' to Lyon, whom he joined in a £8.3m deal. He now has the onerous task of taking over from the long-serving French number one Gregory Coupet, who has left for Spain.
He has all the qualities a top class keeper needs: wonderful reflexes, courage, quickness off his line in one-on-ones, a good leap and calmness. The son of a Monte Carlo banker, he was also a gifted schoolboy tennis player.
THE WILD CARD: Lyon coach Puel will ration Juninho's appearances this season as he thinks two games in a week might be too much for this 33-year-old Brazilian midfielder. Despite that, his immense know-how, experience, passing ability and especially his magical work at set-pieces are bound to be used in the season's big games. No one in European football is a more devastating taker of a direct free-kick.
Lyon's skipper, he has played an instrumental part in them winning the French League in each of the last seven years, but says he would gladly trade one or two of those titles for the Champions League crown. Extremely versatile, the ex-Vasco da Gama man can play on the left-side or as a ball-winner in front of the back-four.
THE YOUNG GUN: Highly-talented Brazilian attacking midfielder Ederson was bought from Nice this summer. Bernard Lacombe, the former French international striker who is Lyon's recruitment guru says he reminds him of AC Milan star Kaka.
Whether employed as a left-winger or just behind the forwards, the 22-year-old's forte is his dribbling, comfortably able to beat three or four defenders at a time. In contrast he needs to work on his finishing. Since coming to France from Juventude in December 2004, he has managed just 16 goals in almost 100 Ligue 1 appearances.
WORD ON THE STREET: Lyon's great strength lies in the attacking-third. The explosive Benzema, the free-kicks of Juninho, top quality front runners such as Sidney Govou, the Brazilian Fred and Frederic Piquionne - who arrived recently from Saint-Etienne - and the pace and creativity of Ederson, Miralem Pjanic and Abdulkader Keita. Another plus is the dynamism of midfield holders Jeremy Toulalan and Jean Makoun.
Defensively they are not of the same high calibre. The Brazilian Cris is the only-stand-out in the back-four, while Italian left-back Fabio Grosso and central defender Jean-Alain Boumsong can be an error waiting to happen. Their total domination of the French scene is not the best preparation for the much more demanding Champions League.
VERDICT: They have been eliminated in the first knockout round in each of the past two years and it could well be the same old story this time around.
Status: German Bundesliga champions
Nickname: Die Roten (The Reds), FCB
UEFA Ranking: 9th
Their glory years came in the mid-1970s when the team captained by the great Franz Beckenbauer claimed three Champions' Cups in succession (1974, 1975 and 1976).
COACH'S CORNER: No one could possibly have predicted Bayern's announcement early this year that the former national team marksman and coach Jurgen Klinsmann would take over at the helm from the veteran Ottmar Hitzfeld.
During his time as a Bayern striker (1995-97), Klinsi frequently clashed with the club's management and his relationship with the Bavarians became even more strained in the run-up to World Cup 2006, when he chose to pick goalkeeper Jens Lehmann rather than Bayern favourite Oliver Kahn.
Klinsmann will use the same template at Bayern as he did with the national team, favouring a direct, high-tempo attacking game, clever man-management and a large slice of state of the art fitness work. 'I don't accept that we are at a disadvantage in Europe because we don't have the financial clout of, say, the English clubs,' he says. 'If we get the atmosphere and working philosophy right, we can go far.'
STAR TURN: It was no bolt from the blue when the brilliant French midfielder Franck Ribery was recently voted the German League's Player of the Year for 2008. From the moment he arrived from Olympique Marseille a year ago, he has hardly put a foot wrong, enthralling crowds up and down the country with his sublime ball skills, vision and irrepressible nature.
Bayern are praying he is fully fit for Champions League kick-off after he tore ankle ligaments in France's defeat to Italy at Euro 2008. Inexplicably, Les Bleus boss Raymond Domenech thought it wise not to play him in his best position, which as all regular Bayern watchers know, is on the left-side.
NEW FACE: Lanky German international midfielder Tim Borowski has been brought in on a free transfer from Werder Bremen. He is an exceptional all-rounder offering combativeness, thoughtful distribution, dynamic forward runs and above-average tactical nous. One weak point is his lack of pace.
A member of both German squads at World Cup 2006 and Euro 2008, he has fought back with typical determination from the knee injury, which kept him on the sidelines for half of last season.
WILD CARD: Frustrated by two seasons on the fringes at Bayern following a move from Koln, German star striker or attacking midfielder Lukas Podolski looked set to move on this summer, only for Klinsmann to convince him he still has a future at the club. A genuine match winner on his day thanks to his pace and fierce left-footed shooting, he may use the Champions League to re-launch his Bayern career.
Euro 2008 was a positive experience for him in every way, showing up well in a new role on the left-side of midfield and scoring three goals as the Nationalmannschaft finished runners-up. He also showed a more creative side to his game, linking intelligently with good friend and Bayern team-mate Bastain Schweinsteiger.
YOUNG GUN: Bayern did not see the need to produce the chequebook in the wake of long-serving keeper Oliver Kahn's recent retirement. They simply handed the baton to the 24-year-old Michael Rensing, who had been Kahn's deputy for the past four seasons.
With Bayern since the age of 16, he is an exceptional shot-stopper, fearless and very authoritative for someone so young. He is extremely ambitious too, revealing that his short-term goal is to be Germany's number one.
WORD ON THE STREET: Surprisingly for a back-four which only conceded 21 goals in the Bundesliga last season, Bayern have looked less secure this season as they look vulnerable at the back. Klinsmann will require all his powers of persuasion to preserve harmony in a large squad made up of world-class talent and egos. The new skipper, Dutchman Mark van Bommel, can be a hothead and has already been warned he could lose the armband unless he controls his temper.
Miroslav Klose, Luca Toni and Podolski form an excellent trio of finishers, but they have only one real creator in Ribery. If he is unavailable, Bayern may struggle to break down opponents who sit deep.
VERDICT: After a year's absence from European club football's showcase event, Bayern are hungry to re-establish themselves among the continent's elite. Indeed, the Champions League is more of a priority than the Bundesliga and a quarter-final spot should be within their reach.
Status: Second in the Romanian League
Nickname: Ros-Albastrii (Red and Blues)
UEFA Ranking: 19th
Missing out on their domestic championship last season was a major disappointment, but they have more than made up for that by emerging from the Galatasaray cauldron victorious to reach the group stages of this season's Champions League.
COACH'S CORNER: Nothing less than a Steaua living legend, Marius Lacatus starred up front for the club for over 13 years in two separate spells in the 1980s and 90s. Famous for his extraordinary will to win, hunger for goals and pudding-basin haircut, he won 84 caps for Romania and took part in two World Cup finals (1990 and 1998). He is a ten-time domestic league champion.
In addition to coaching FC National, Otelul Galati and Brasov, he has wor ked as an assistant on the Romanian national team. Steaua president Gigi Becali appointed him to replace the Italian Massimo Pedrazzini last autumn. 'What I'm looking to do is to instill the same sort of deep pride the Steaua players had when they were riding high in Europe,' boasts the ambitious Lacatus. 'Romania showed they can compete with the best at Euro 2008 and with many of those same men in our ranks, I'm optimistic.'
THE STAR TURN: Man-mountain centre-back Dorin Goian is one of the most resolute markers in European today. In aerial combat, he is next to unbeatable and as he has consistently proved for club and Romania, he is a heavy-duty weapon when he trundles forward for free-kicks and corners. His positional play and sense of anticipation are both A+, though his ability on the ball is best described as agricultural.
Steaua paid FCM Bacau just £50,000 for him back in 2004 and his worth has multiplied many times since. Indeed, he has been complaining this summer that the price on his head is too high, deterring would-be buyers, including teams in the Premier League and Serie A.
THE NEW FACE: The consensus of opinion among Romanian football pundits was that Steaua pulled off the transfer coup of the summer when they paid Otelul Galati £1.25m for highly-talented right-winger or creative midfielder Janos Szekely, who can dribble for fun, come off his flank to link well with team mates and score his share of goals.
Now 25 years old, he began his career in the youth section of Politehnica Timisoara before moving on to Universitatea Cluj and Galatai, whom he joined at the start of last season. He is yet to make his full debut for Romania but it is only a matter of time.
THE WILD CARD: Whether stationed on the right or left-flank, Banel Nicolita is a high-energy style and bristling determination is a huge asset for Steaua. With him no cause is ever lost and he will run all day. On the debit side his delivery from wide areas can be hit or miss and he can on occasion try to do too much himself.
A member of the Romanian gypsy community, he moved from Politehnica Timisaora to Steaua in 2004 for £250,000. After scoring an own-goal in a Champions League game against Real Madrid two years ago, he says he did not sleep for 48 hours.
THE YOUNG GUN: Gifted Colombian second striker or attacking midfielder Dayro Moreno was bought from Once Caldas for £1.6m in January of this year. Consistency can be a problem for him, but when he is on song, his quick feet, eye for an incisive pass and powerful shooting with his left-foot can str ike fear into the heart of any back-line.
His proudest moment came in 2004 when helping Once Caldas win the South American club cup, the Copa Libertadores. He was on the losing side that same year when Once lost on penalties to FC Porto in the Intercontinental Cup. Besides four seasons headlining at Once, he has been on loan too at Brazilian outfit Atletico Paranaenese.
WORD ON THE STREET: Any team led by Marius Lacatus is sure to be gritty and never likely to hoist the white flag. Their main problem, however, is a lack of cohesion. Owner Gigi Becali offloads and buys large numbers of players every summer, making it very difficult for a coach to blend a unit with a good understanding. New Brazilian striker Arthuro tends to snatch at chances.
They have a surfeit of silky Romanian and Latin American technique. They are cunning operators on the break and from dead-ball situations. Either in central defence or as a midfield holder, skipper Mirel Radoi is an outstanding control tower.
VERDICT: Third in their group is the best they can hope for. They have little or no strength in depth.
Status: 4th in Serie A
Nickname: La Viola (Purple)
UEFA Ranking: 26th
However, they earned a return to this season's Champions League by finishing ahead of AC Milan in Serie A last season.
COACH'S CORNER: Cesare Prandelli's story was one of the more heart-wrenching kind last season, as he achieved his target of a top four finish with Fiorentina after losing his beloved wife to cancer in November.
Since replacing Dino Zoff in 2005, he has guided Fiorentina through some choppy waters and was denied a Champions League spot in his first season at the club after the match-fixing scandal exploded. A proven coach, he was jubilant after plotting a path past Slavia Prague in the third qualifying round of this competition.
'It is relief as much as delight to see Fiorentina back in the Champions League,' says Prandelli. 'We have deserved to be in this competition for the last three years, but the club has had a difficult time and I'm so pleased we can put it behind us now.'
THE STAR TURN: Adrian Mutu needs to pick up plenty of win bonuses this season after Chelsea won their court case against him following his failed drug test in 2004. The courts have ordered him to pay a massive £13.68m in compensation to his former employers in a story that is likely to rumble on for some time yet.
Mutu has rebuilt his reputation on the field with Fiorentina, scoring goals aplenty in their return to the Champions League and his pace and finishing ability will be crucial to Prandelli's men this season. 'It was no surprise when clubs were asking us about Mutu, but Fiorentina know better than to sell a player of this quality,' says the Viola boss.
THE NEW FACE: Alberto Gilardino shot to prominence under the guidance of Cesare Prandelli at Parma between 2002 and 2005, so it was natural that the pair would reunite ahead of Fiorentina's return to the Champions League.
His partnership with Mutu offers real potential and he is especially delighted to be working once again with the coach who helped him hit the heights. 'The fact that Prandelli was here was the big factor in my decision to move from Milan,' confirms Gilardino. 'This club is moving forward and being in the Champions League confirms that.'
THE WILD CARD: Fiorentina's defence will be tested to the full against the cream of the Champions League defences and the arrival of Juan Manuel Vargas in a big-money deal from Catania could be crucial.
This Peruvian international has proved his worth with one of the lesser lights of the Italian league and now comes his chance to sparkle among the European giants. Felipo Melo, another new signing, should add steel to the midfield. There is, however, a concern that they lack a little pace at the back.
YOUNG GUN: Fiorentina Sporting Director Pantaleo Corvino pulled off a coup when he managed to lure teenage striker Stevan Jovetic from Partizan to Italy and the man who made the deal happen is convinced he has a real gem on his hands.
'Every club in Europe wanted this boy, but he decided Fiorentina was the best club for him,' says Corvino of this precious 18-year-old Montenegro international, whose power and strength is not typical for one so young. He may take some time to develop, but could be a valuable super-sub in the Champions League.
WORD ON THE STREET: There is little doubt that Fiorentina have the firepower to make a mark in the Champions League and if Mutu, Gilardino and the youthful Jovetic live up to their billing, La Viola could be one of the dark horses to make a splash in the competition this season.
However, doubts remain about their form on the road as the bulk of their success last season was built on their form at their Stadio Artemio Franchi home. Without the experience of their rivals in the Champions League, time will tell whether Fiorentina are really ready to take on the likes of Bayern Munich and Lyon and make it through to the last 16.
VERDICT: They will battle it out with Lyon for a place in the knock-out phase.