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Feb 17, 2009

Champions League preview

The knockout stage of the Champions League begins on February 24 and ESPN Soccernet's game returns with it.

We've enhanced the transfer system for the game after feedback from the group stage. Now, rather than having a block of transfers to last you the whole game, we're introducing a rations system which gives everyone a set of transfers for every round, meaning you cannot blow your allocation right at the start and be left short.

At the beginning of each round, every team will get a quota of five transfers which must be used by the time the following round kicks off. If you don't use them, you lose them, though you do not have to use them all. It means there will be a maximum of 20 changes over the competition providing plenty of scope to correct faux pas transfers.

As with the first stage there will be no fluctuating values due to the short nature of the competition. With so many players being eliminated at each stage values can swing too wildly and make it difficult to switch things around in the latter stages.

Again we'll have great prizes for the overall winner and runner-up. The winner will pick up an official Champions League shirt for the current season, a $100 ESPN Soccernet Store gift card and five EA Sports games for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 or Nintendo Wii. And the second place manager will win three EA Sports games.

Click here to sign up for Champions League fantasy

The top scoring player from the group stage was Liverpool's Steven Gerrard after he plundered five goals and a key contribution from his five appearances. Gerrard is understandably a pricey purchase at £11m, and there is plenty to consider with him being a fitness doubt not to mention the fact that Liverpool take on Real Madrid in the Round of 16.

Everyone knows about Rafael Benitez's cautious nature and when you couple that with Real Madrid's new found defensive strength under Juande Ramos it might be that attacking points are few and far between. Unless Gerrard is guaranteed to play in the first leg it is sage advice to use him as one of your transfers ahead of the second leg back at Anfield.

Building a defence is always difficult for this phase of the competition. While you do want players in your squad who will qualify for the later stages it could be that at the back you target players who feature in games look low scoring. Maybe even one of your defenders will score a goal which can go a long way to having a successful fantasy team.

The possible shortage of goals in the Real-Liverpool tie has already been discussed. Sergio Ramos has often been known to pop up with the odd goal and he falls in just below the top tranche of defenders at £6.5m. Daniel Alves, with Barcelona the tournament favourites, at £7m is the most expensive defender along with Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Carles Puyol. Surely most managers will opt to bring in £6.5m Nemanja Vidic over Ferdinand.

It could be that Chelsea against Juventus turns out to be a tight affair. At £5m Juve's Christian Molinaro looks to be very good value. Even if he is a player purely for this round of games he provides an intelligent mid-range option to free up funds. Inter's Maicon is pricey at £6.5m when you consider they must face Manchester United.

A leftfield selection would be Josu Sarriegi of Panathinaikos. The Greek outfit take on Villarreal and the defender, priced at £4m, scored during the group stage.

Between the sticks Villarreal's Diego Lopez is a snip at £4m while with Bayern Munich facing Sporting Lisbon there's every chance Michael Rensing could be in the tournament for the long haul. Rensing is £6m and was one of the top scoring goalkeepers in the group stage.

Along with Gerrard in the centre of the park there are the usual star names which will be at the top of the wish lists. Xavi (£10m) and Cristiano Ronaldo (£12m) are likely to be among the most selected players. Elsewhere, though, where are the hidden gems?

Giorgias Karagounis of Panathinaikos is only £5m, making him one of the cheapest midfielders yet as he is a set-piece taker he may be an option. He was the eighth best midfielder of the first phase with three of those above him were eliminated from the competition.

Possible mid-range options are Franck Ribery (£9.5m) of Bayern - remembering they have that favourable fixture - and Atletico's set-piece maestro Maxi Rodríguez (£7m). For Maxi to shine, though, Atletico need to turn around their poor form against FC Porto.

The fact that Porto play Atletico makes a couple of their players are a good bet. Their clean sheet at Recreativo Huelva ten days ago was their first in nine matches and the Portuguese side's attacking drive could garner points for midfielder Lucho González and striker Lisandro López (both £6m). Also, consider that Arsenal will be looking to the Champions League for success this season and with Francesc Fabregas crocked then Samir Nasri (£7m) provides excellent value.

Another Gunner, Robin van Persie, barely made an impact in the group stage due to injury and scored just 16 points placing him 32nd in the striker rankings. Now back to fitness and on form and with a value of £8.5m he is worth a punt.

The obvious, but costly, targets up front are Lionel Messi (£12m), Fernando Torres (£11m) and Samuel Eto'o (£10m) but again Bayern could provide a bargain in Miroslav Klose, the top points scoring striker in the group stage, at £9m. And Atletico's Diego Forlan is certainly tempting at £7m.

Decisions, decisions...

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