Champions League 2008/09, Group H
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Status: Spanish champions
Nickname: Los Merengues
UEFA Ranking: 8th
The delay in adding a tenth European crown to their resume has infuriated Real Madrid players and fans alike and current coach Bernd Schuster will be under maximum pressure to end the 'drought' this season.
COACH'S CORNER: Many a pundit felt the arrival of Schuster as successor to title winning coach Fabio Capello was merely a temporary appointment in the summer of 2007, yet the former Bernabeu favourite has proved a success in the dug-out after leading the side to another La Liga triumph last season.
This former West Germany international is a cool customer under pressure and he has built up quite a reputation as a coach in Spain with Levante, Gatafe and now in the biggest La Liga job of them all. His Champions League pedigree is yet to be established and he needs to put that right in the months ahead.
'I know what the Champions League means to this club and our performances last season were not good enough,' accepts Schuster. 'With an extra year together, this team will be so much stronger.'
THE STAR TURN: Raul's scoring record in the Champions League is second to none and even at the age of 31, the Real Madrid captain remains the heartbeat of this side.
His 18 league goals last season confirmed he still has plenty to offer and this veteran hit-man seems to come alive when the European spotlight shines down on the Bernabeu. A fine reader of the game, his ability to snap-up chances in the box means he often picks up the scraps from the gifted stars who have played with him during his historic 14 years at the club.
THE NEW FACE: The unfortunate injury to Wesley Sneijder in pre-season meant the need to add Dutch star Rafael van der Vaart to the Real Madrid side became a necessity and he duly arrived from Hamburg.
He is unlikely to have the sort of impact Cristiano Ronaldo might have inspired had Real's long and often desperate pursuit of the Manchester United star come to fruition, but 25-year-old Van der Vaart is an attacking midfielder who plays in a manner that should fit into the attacking philosophy of this club.
'I have joined the biggest club in the world and could not be happier,' says Van der Vaart. 'When you make a move like this, there is no guarantee of a place in the team, but it's my job to show I am worth it.'
THE WILD CARD: Arjen Robben spent much of his first year at Real Madrid on the treatment table, but a full season of this flying Dutch winger will give the Spanish champions an edge they were lacking in last season's Champions League. 'It has been so frustrating for me to not be able to show my true form with Madrid, but this season will be different,' says the former Chelsea man.
Boss Schuster believes Robben could be his most potent attacking weapon this season. 'We could see what he brings to the team when he was fit to play last season and I'm sure he will be vital this time,' states the Bernabeu coach. 'This is the type of player you need in a tight Champions League game.'
YOUNG GUN: At the age of 22, Fernando Gago has already proved he can be an influential man in the midfield for club and country and he will have a big role to play in Madrid and Argentina's efforts this season.
A graduate of the Boca Juniors ranks, Gago dreams of landing Champions League glory. 'This competition is the greatest you can win behind the World Cup,' he says. 'We have proved we are the best in Spain - now for Europe.'
WORD ON THE STREET: Coach Schuster fears Real Madrid's obsession with signing Cristiano Ronaldo has left them trailing their rivals in the chase for additional talent this summer. 'We have had our focus on one player at the expense of trying to sign others,' he confirms. 'The attacking players we have are exceptional, but maybe we would want more.'
Doubts remains over their defensive abilities against the top Premier League sides. In addition, they have struggled to combine La Liga challenges and Champions League pushes in tandem.
VERDICT: A succession of Champions League flops means belief may be an issue when the knock-out stages of the competition roll around. Quarter-finals at best.
Status: Third in Serie A
Nickname: Bianconeri and The Old Lady
UEFA Ranking: 16th
Coach Claudio Ranieri has done well to continue the rebuilding process at Juve after their high-profile fall from grace when the Italian match-fixing scandal hit the headlines in 2006 and now comes their biggest test of all against Europe's elite.
COACH'S CORNER: Ranieri has been forced to wait for his return to the Champions League after he guided Chelsea to a semi-final before his sacking from the Stamford Bridge club in 2004.
Since then, the affable Italian has had spells in charge of Valencia and Parma before he accepted the challenge at Juve last summer. A third place finish last season gave him a passage back to the European elite and he is relishing the chance to take on the best on the continent again.
'The Champions League should have Juventus in its line-up and I'm delighted to be the coach to take them back,' says the coach famed for his tendency to tinker with his line-up on a regular basis.
THE STAR TURN: Alessandro Del Piero has filled the role of Juve's star man for what seems like a generation and he deserves to hang onto his star status for this Champions League challenge after his stunning return to form last season.
The club skipper's brand of skills and powerful finishing make him a formidable force and even though he was approaching his 34th birthday he finished last season as Serie A's top scorer. Del Piero's experience could be vital for Ranieri when the heat is applied in the Champions League.
THE NEW FACE: New arrival Amauri faces stiff competition for a first team spot as established Juve stars Del Piero and David Trezeguet guard their first team places jealously, but this free-scoring Brazilian could just give Ranieri the firepower he needs in the Champions League.
Previously with Chievo and Palermo, Amauri's lengthy stay in Italy means he may turn out for the Italian national team. Having never represented his native Brazil, he admits he may be tempted to turn out for the Azzurri and believes his move to Juve will boost his international hopes. 'When you play for a great club like Juventus, everyone has to take notice,' says Amauri.
THE WILD CARD: Christian Poulsen's arrival from Sevilla did not go down well with some Juventus fans who did not believe the Danish midfielder was the sort of quality performer they needed in the midfield.
His troubled disciplinary track record means he may be something of a risky signing, but his passing ability could give Juve an extra dimension in the Champions League.
YOUNG GUN: Italian youngster Sebastian Giovinco spent the second half of his summer playing at the Olympic Games and believes his experiences in Beijing were the perfect preparation for what he hopes will be his first successful season at Juve.
After proving his worth during an extended loan spell at Empoli last season, this talented attacking midfielder with excellent ball control hopes he will get his chance in the Champions League this season. 'I know it will be very difficult for me to make it at Juve because there are so many experienced players in the club, but I'm optimistic I can make it,' says the 21-year-old.
WORD ON THE STREET: Juve supporters were hoping this would be the summer that saw their club challenge to capture some of the game's top talent for the first time in many a year, yet they have voiced the disappointment at the arrival of Scandinavian stars Christian Poulsen and Olof Mellberg.
'Some are looking at our rivals and believe they have made better signings than us, but I have faith in my squad and the results will tell us whether we have it right or not,' was Ranieri's response the criticism.
Despite some pessimism, the strike force on offer to Ranieri looks certain to be a threat in the Champions League. Can he fit Del Piero, Trezeguet, Amauri and Vincenzo Iaquinta in the same side?
VERDICT: An instant return to the very top may be too much to ask for Juventus, but a place in the knock-out stages should not be out of reach.
ZENIT ST PETERSBURG
Status: Russian champions 2007
Nickname: Sine belo golubye (Blue white sky blues)
UEFA Ranking: 18th
They lifted the UEFA Cup back in May and their European Super Cup triumph came thanks to a fine victory over Manchester United in Monaco.
COACH'S CORNER: Most Dutch football experts would cite Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and Guus Hiddink as the best coaches ever to come out of their small country, but 'Little General' Dick Advocaat is not too far away in terms of achievements. He has won domestic league titles with PSV Eindhoven and Glasgow Rangers, steered Holland to the World Cup quarter-final in 1994 and the semis of Euro 2004 and has lifted Zenit to unexpected heights since taking over in July 2006.
He has brought success with a stylish attacking system which never fails to entertain. 'This season is the biggest test for us,' says Advocaat. 'We were rarely favourites in Europe and could play without too much pressure until recently, but our victory in the UEFA Cup and my players' part in Russia's good Euro 2008 means the bar has been raised.'
THE STAR TURN: Brilliant attacking midfielder or forward Andrei Arsahvin leapt into the limelight last season with a string of exceptional performances for Zenit and Russia in the UEFA Cup and European Championships. In theory he lines up on the left-side of the front-three, but he has licence to roam wherever the mood takes him. A player of uncommon touch, vision and inventiveness, he is also a confirmed team man, more interested in setting up colleagues than in personal glory.
A graduate of the prolific Smena football academy in St Petersburg, he has been a Zenit first-team star since 2000. The 27-year-old made no secret of his desire to move to the West this summer, but the likes of Tottenham, Arsenal and Barcelona weren't prepared to come up with the asking price which was upwards of £20million. He has a university diploma in fashion design.
THE NEW FACE: Willowy, highly-skilled attacking midfielder Danny was bought for Russian League record transfer fee of £25m from Dynamo Moscow. The Portuguese international marked his competitive debut for his new club with an excellent solo goal in the Super Cup victory over Manchester United in Monaco.
Born in Venezuela to Portuguese parents, he was brought up on the island of Madeira, where he began his football career at Maritimo before joining Sporting Lisbon in 2002. Three years later Dynamo Moscow swooped for him and his stellar displays quickly established himself among the top two or three foreign players in the Russian League. He recently made his full debut for Portugal against the Faroe Islands.
THE WILD CARD: Resilient, muscular central striker Pavel Pogrebnyak does a fine job for Zenit as their number one finisher and attacking pivot, perfectly at home holding the ball up or jumping to flick on headers. The 24-year-old has an enviable track record in Europe. Last season he was the joint top scorer in the UEFA Cup with ten goals (level with Bayern Munich's Luca Toni).
He will be looking to make up for a thoroughly disappointing end to the 2007/08 campaign. Suspension ruled him out of the UEFA Cup Final in Manchester and an ill-timed knee injury forced him to pull out of Russia's Euro 2008 squad. He joined Zenit in 2007 after stints with Spartak Moscow, Shinnik Yaroslavl and Tom Tomsk.
YOUNG GUN: Outstanding midfield all-rounder Igor Denisov comes with a versatile tag. He is industrious, tackles strongly, runs well with the ball, passes and moves with intelligence and knows where the goal is. He opened the scoring with a calm finish in Zenit's UEFA Cup Final victory over Rangers.
He is also infamous for a rebellious streak and has been disciplined by Dick Advocaat for nocturnal antics and sensationally turned down the chance to be in Russia's Euro 2008 squad; it is thought he was offended not to have been included in Guus Hiddink's original party.
WORD ON THE STREET: Few teams in Europe play as fluidly as Zenit. Masterly in their ability to dictate the pace of a game, they are just as comfortable taking the initiative as hitting on the counter-attack.
The 4-3-3 formation which Advocaat favours places a lot of emphasis on wing-play, with both full-backs pushing on purposefully, flawless organisation and players who regularly swap positions. Ukraine defensive midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk has a vital role, often dropping deep as a third centre-back, though goalkeeper Viacheslav Malafeev is a potential liability.
VERDICT: Even though they are in the Group of Death alongside Real Madrid and Juventus, their flair for total football might well prevail.
Status: Bealrus champions 2007
Nickname: The Car Workers
UEFA Ranking: 32nd
Already heroes for getting this far, the pressure will be off when they square up to the might of Juventus and Real Madrid in the group stages and will be the original banana skin for the giants.
COACH'S CORNER: At the tender age of 31, Viktor Goncharenko is the youngest coach in the history of the Champions League. A defender with BATE from 1998 to 2002, his career was ended prematurely by injury and he stayed on at the club to work with the juniors.
For three years he was an assistant to BATE first team boss Igor Kriushenko, taking over when the latter departed in November 2007. One of his strong suits is his man-management and when asked to explain why his half-time team talks are always brief, he replied that the interval was not the moment to bluster or make long, involved speeches. All that is needed, he says, were a few hints and tips.
'Our dream to be involved in the Champions League has come true, but I can't help thinking we are not quite ready for this challenge,' says Goncharenko. 'We focused on one step at a time in the qualifying games. We didn't look too far ahead, but now we've made it and time is tight to prepare. Still, we have character and the fearlessness of youth on our side.'
THE STAR TURN: Prolific 28-year-old striker Gennadiy Bliznyuk hit three goals in the qualifying campaign, two against Valur and another in the 2-2 draw at home to Anderlecht. Mobile, polished technically and packing a blistering shot, he is equally effective at the point of attack or operating slightly deeper.
From Svetlogorsk, a town in western Belarus, he started his life as a professional with FC Gomel - where he won the league in 2003 - before moving to Russia in 2004 to play for Second Division side Sokol Saratov. Two years later he signed for BATE and last season he managed the fine strike-rate of 18 domestic league goals in 24 games. He is a full Belarus international.
THE NEW FACE: Ultra-reliable, very combative centre-back signed from fellow Belarus top flight side Neman Grodno, Sergei Sosnovsky is a shrewd capture. The 27-year-old settled in immediately and was on target in the 1-1 draw with Levski, the game which clinched his team's Champions League ticket.
Born in the capital Minsk, he began his career there with lower league club Traktor, then switched to another club in the city, MTZ-RIPO, whom he helped go from the Third to First Division in two whirlwind years. It is incredible that his international resume is limited to one U-21 cap.
THE WILD CARD: Accomplished Belarus front-man Vitali Rodionov took a some time to adapt to his new surroundings after joining BATE from Torpedo Zhodino in 2006, but came good spectacularly last season, scoring 15 goals in the domestic league and making many more.
His understanding with attacking side-kick Bliznyuk is special, both knowing exactly what the other intends to do. His first club was Lokomotiv 96 in Vitebsk.
YOUNG GUN: Multi-dimensional central midfielder Sergei Krivets has the ability to pick out a good pass, drive forward and do his share of defensive toil. The mark of a superior player, he always seems to have time on the ball. The 22-year-old is also the team's free-kick and penalty specialist.
A Real Madrid fan, he was born in the city of Grodno on the Polish border but escaped the net of top local side Neman, instead opting to learn his trade at Lokomotiv Minsk prior to joining BATE in 2006. After winning praise for his displays for the Belarussian U19 and U21, he is now at the dawn of a promising senior international career.
WORD ON THE STREET: BATE are an incredibly fit side and will scrap to the end of every game they play. Another plus is the disciplined way they hold their shape in coach Goncharenko's favoured 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 systems. They will provide a breath of fresh air in the Champions League with their youthful vigour, heart and obvious pride in the shirt they wear. New keeper Sergei Veremko, bought from Neman, looks the real deal.
In their victories over Anderlecht and Levski Sofia, they played very defensively and enjoyed more than a little good fortune. There is always the danger that the big-name players lining up against them will overawe these Champions League rookies.
VERDICT: The longest of long-shots to make the next round, they have already claimed their Holy Grail.