Champions League 2009-10, Group C
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• Status: Italian league 3rd place
• Nickname: Rossoneri THE RECORD: Milan have a proud record in this competition, winning the title seven times in total. Their most recent triumph came in 2007, when they overcame a strong Liverpool side in the final. They return to the Champions League after competing in the UEFA Cup last season.
HEADLINER: Andrea Pirlo
He may have already celebrated his 30th birthday, but he became one of the most talked about midfielders of the summer as Chelsea tried to prise him away from Milan.
This Italian international pulls the strings in the Milan midfield and has been given the name of 'The Architect' thanks to his fine reading of the game. "Even though we have lost a great player in Kaka, I believe this Milan side are ready to challenge for titles again," says Pirlo. "We can expect the best in the Champions League."
YOUNG GUN: Alexandre Pato
Pato was the subject of plenty of transfer speculation in the off season as departed Milan boss Carlo Ancelotti seemed, at one point, to be on the brink of bringing his former starlet with him to London.
After losing Kaka to Real Madrid, Milan were not willing to allow their next big star to head for the exit door as well and he will be looking to form an exciting partnership with new arrival Klass-Jan Huntelaar. This Brazilian only celebrated his 20th birthday in September and will relish the chance to sparkle on the Champions League stage.
THE MAVERICK: Ronaldinho
Ronaldinho has plummeted from his position as the finest player on the planet, but Kaka's exit from Milan means he now needs to rediscover the old magic. He did little to banish the notion that he is yesterday's man in his first season as a Milan player last term, but the World Cup finals are looming large and Milan fans will be hoping 'Ronnie' finds his passion for the game all over again. If the master of 2005 re-emerges, Milan and Brazil will be better for it.
SUMMER SIGNING: Klass-Jan Huntelaar
The striker's arrival from Real Madrid gives the Milan forward line some fresh focus and the time has come for the highly-rated Dutchman to prove he has the talent to fulfil his lofty reputation.
His failure to sparkle in Madrid means the 26-year-old has to prove he can cut it in the Champions League with Milan and the signs are he has what it takes to make his mark. His record at international level is impressive and that has to bode well as he prepares to take on the best defenders in European football. "Huntelaar is a player with something to prove and he will make Real Madrid regret their decision to sell him," believes Milan boss Leonardo.
Leonardo has been handed the task of filling the big void left by the long-serving Carlo Ancelotti and the doubters have already been out in force suggesting this coaching novice is not up to the task.
A smooth talker with the media he may be, but this former Milan star needs to prove he can handle a job as big as this. "This is not a case of rebuilding a brand new team as many of the champions we have at the club know all about winning as they have been doing it for many years," says Leonardo. "I just have to instil fresh belief."
THE CHALKBOARD: There is a feeling that Leonardo will attempt to give Milan a touch more attacking flair this season and his diamond midfield featuring Ronaldinho in the role Kaka used to fill is full of ambition.
Expect Leonardo to employ a 4-4-2 formation, but this whole season is likely to be based around finding a way of replacing Kaka. It is likely to need a team effort to plug the gap as one man will struggle to do the job of the departed maestro.
DON'T MENTION: Summer signings Thiago Silva and Team USA star Oguchi Onyewu may take time to settle as they attempt to form a defensive partnership, but they will not have much space to breath as they are thrown straight into the heat of the Champions League battle.
There is also a feeling that Milan have lost the winning habit in the last couple of years, with a few of their squad well past their best. Finally, Ronaldinho and Huntelaar have plenty to prove after falling from their respective pedestals - do they have what it takes to bounce back?
VERDICT: A tough opening group featuring a high-profile double header with Real Madrid will test Leonardo's side, but they could be a threat if they make the knock out phase. The return of David Beckham to Milan in January could give them an extra dimension in the latter stages of the competition.
• Status: Spanish league runners-up
• Nickname: Los Merengues
THE RECORD: No team has a C.V. in this competition to compare with the mighty Real Madrid. Their nine European Cup trophies take pride of place in the club's trophy-laden museum at their Bernabeu base. Quite simply, this club is obsessed with European glory and this is the competition they want once again this season.
HEADLINER: Cristiano Ronaldo
There can only be one man filling the starring role for Real Madrid this season and it is the world's costliest footballer, the club's £80m summer capture from Manchester United.
A Champions League winner in 2008, Ronaldo fluffed his lines as he attempted to win a second European crown with United last May, as he turned in a less than impressive performance in last season's final against Barcelona. It goes without saying that plenty is expected of this Portuguese genius in the months ahead and he is too good to disappoint.
YOUNG GUN: Karim Benzema
Real Madrid have attempted to buy their way to glory in a summer that changed the face of transfer spending in the European game and they took a punt on some highly-promising youthful talent in the shape of this French striker.
At the age of 21, Benzema has proved his worth in the Champions League with Lyon and he should get chances aplenty in an attack-obsessed Real Madrid side. Oozing with pace and with a clinical eye in front of goal, Benzema seems to have all the qualities he needs to shine in the Spanish capital, but can he live up to his £35m price tag?
THE MAVERICK: Raul
Many Spanish observers will scoff at the suggestion that a Real Madrid icon of Raul's legendary stature has been tossed into the category of maverick, but this veteran needs to prove his worth in a side overloaded with attacking talent.
His scoring record is second to none, but this club captain has to prove the considerable influence he carries at the club is still justified at the age of 32. He should get plenty of chances in the box if he can keep up with the speed of his team-mates.
SUMMER SIGNINGS: Kaka and Xabi Alonso
The £58m signing of the great Kaka would generally represent a landmark moment for Real Madrid if this had been a normal summer, but it has been anything but that. The club's previously flawed los galacticos policy is back on the agenda and that means the Brazilian hero shares top billing with £30m signing Alonso. Behind Ronaldo of course.
Kaka's magical touches are bound to add an extra dimension to Madrid's attacking options, while Alonso's arrival will provide them with a touch of composed class to feed the superstars in the team. Signing this Spanish international from Liverpool should prove to be the masterstroke in Real Madrid's record-breaking spending splurge.
COACH: Manuel Pellegrini
Pellegrini inherited a king's ransom when he left Villarreal this summer and now he has the complicated task of finding a balance amid of host of thrilling attacking talent.
"We don't need to be told about the expectation that we are under this season," admits the Chilean coach. "We want to win the Champions League and La Liga. Anything else would be a disappointment. That means we have to deal with a lot of pressure, but this is what Real Madrid should be all about."
CHALKBOARD: A 2-2-6 formation may be the only way to get all of Madrid's attacking stars into the side, with Alonso, Kaka, Benzema, Ronaldo, Raul and Ruud van Nistelrooy all keen to claim a staring berth.
Pellegrini has gone on record to suggest he prefers to employ a 4-4-2 formation, but that will mean having a reserves bench overloaded with superstar attacking talent. A 3-5-2 line-up may be a way to get around his dilemma, but that could leave the door open at the back.
DON'T MENTION: Veteran Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is among those who predicting Real Madrid's lack of balance will cost them dear and it is an obvious area of concern.
Pellegrini may need to be firm in telling a host of star names that they are most useful to the team sitting in the stands or on the bench and that is bound to cause unrest among a handful of highly paid stars. Finding a place for midfield rock Lassana Diarra would give Pellegrini some defensive cover.
PREDICTION: If the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place from day one, Real Madrid may be unstoppable. However, no club has ever tired to construct such a high-profile team in the space of a few weeks and they have plenty of questions to answer.
OLYMPIQUE DE MARSEILLE
• Status: French league runners-up
• Nickname: OM
THE RECORD: Marseille's European glory days came in the early 1990s. In the Final of the 1991 Champions' Cup they were unfortunate to lose to Red Star Belgrade on penalties, but they made up for that crushing disappointment two years later, beating hot favourites AC Milan 1-0 in the Munich showpiece.
HEADLINER: Mamadou Niang
Niang is in his fifth season at the Stade Velodrome following a move from Strasbourg and the potent Senegalese striker can always be relied on for his wholehearted running and explosive finishing. As far as he is concerned, no cause is ever lost and if he can match his five-goal Champions League tally of last term, no one will be complaining.
At the age of 29, Niang was contemplating leaving the club this summer, particularly tempted by the prospect of performing in the English Premier League. However, new Marseille coach Didier Deschamps managed to talk him out of it, offering the captaincy as an incentive. He suffered with injuries last term.
YOUNG GUN: Steve Mandanda
This Kinshasa-born French international keeper did not start last season well, often appearing uncertain behind a decidedly shaky back four. However, he found his touch in the second half of the campaign, confounding opposition attackers time and time again with his amazing reflexes and bravery. AC Milan were rumoured to be interested, but OM wisely issued a 'hands off' warning.
A graduate of the youth scheme of Norman club Le Havre, he joined Marseille for £2.2m in the summer of 2007 and is currently number one for the French national team. He is part of a footballing dynasty; his three younger brothers, Parfait, Riffi and Ever, all play between the sticks.
THE MAVERICK: Hatem Ben Arfa
There is no question about the raw talent this 21-year-old attacker possesses as Ben Arfa can punch holes in any defence with his mesmerising dribbling, speed of thought and flair for a killer through ball.
Now for the bad news. At both first club Lyon and Marseille, whom he joined a year ago, he is inconsistency personified, infuriatingly prone to disappear to the margins in the heat of battle. OM boss Deschamps rates him, but if he does not mature quicker and learn how to be more effective every week, he will run out of lives.
SUMMER SIGNING: Lucho Gonzalez
The Marseille management should pat themselves on the back for prising away this excellent Argentine right-sided midfielder from FC Porto. A fee of £16.3m was hardly cheap, but it may look like a bargain by the end of the season. Gonzalez boasts a wide range of abilities; thoughtful distribution, final-ball delivery, drive, set-piece accuracy and goals aplenty.
Deschamps calls him 'world class' and who would argue? Known in Argentina as 'El Comandante', the 28-year-old also offers OM extensive Champions League experience. In four seasons at Porto, whom he joined for £6.1m from River Plate in 2005, he was regularly a stand-out performer in Europe's elite competition. Curiously, Argentina boss Diego Maradona continues to ignore him at international level.
COACH: Didier Deschamps
Two years after his resignation as boss of Juventus, the 1998 French World Cup-winning skipper finally decided to end his sabbatical, jumping at the chance to lead the club he skippered to Champions' Cup glory back in 1993.
Clearly OM have hired a winner. While in charge of Monaco, he led them against the odds to the Final of the 2004 Champions League - where they succumbed to Jose Mourinho's FC Porto - and won a Serie B title with Juventus in 2006-07, the season following their demotion from the Italian top flight for match-fixing.
THE CHALKBOARD: Deschamps' preferred 4-1-2-3 will be based on three pillars: power, pace and tactical discipline. Last season his predecessor, Eric Gerets, regularly complained of the team losing its shape, of players ignoring instructions, yet this will not happen with the respected DD at the helm.
By nature Deschamps is a rather conservative football strategist and away from home in Europe, we can expect a 'wait and see' approach. However, on home turf, Marseille fans simply will not tolerate anything less than all-out attack and Deschamps knows it.
DON'T MENTION: Hit or miss Brazilian target man Brandao is a loose cannon. Against teams uncomfortable with his overtly physical, elbows-out style, he can wreak havoc. Yet if the centre-backs in his vicinity are not intimidated, then Brandao renders their forward play too predictable, too long-ball orientated.
Opponents are bound to look to isolate Marseille's new Argentine centre-back Gabriel Heinze, a summer recruit from Real Madrid. His enthusiasm is commendable and he boasts a great will to win, but lacks pace.
VERDICT: If Deschamps can find an antidote to the team's mediocre home results last term, they will be up and running to the last 16.
• Status: Swiss champions
• Nickname: Golden Lions
THE RECORD: FCZ have not competed in the Champions League previously, though they have enjoyed a couple of high points in the old European Champions' Cup spotlight. Twice progressing to the semi-finals, they lost to Real Madrid in 1963-64 and Liverpool in 1976-77, a season that saw the Anfield side go all the way in the competition.
HEADLINER: Almen Abdi
This Swiss international playmaker of Kosovan stock takes top billing for FC Zurich after a season when he was in unstoppable form, scoring 18 goals and making many more. He may only be 22, but Switzerland boss Ottmar Hitzfeld - a Champions League winner with both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich - is a big fan. Abdi is perfectly two-footed, has great vision and has been working recently with a sports psychologist to become even tougher mentally.
The word this summer was that Abdi would be taking the high road out of Zurich, with Serie A side Udinese said to be in pole position for his signature, but the deal was not done. He has been with FCZ since 2003 and was just 16 when he broke into the first team, initially on the right side of midfield.
YOUNG GUN: Dusan Djuric
Like Barcelona star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, this talented attacking midfielder is an amalgam of the Balkan and the Scandinavian, born in Sweden to Serb parents. Usually found on the left side of midfield, though he can play further forward, he moved to FCZ in January 2008 from Halmstads, where he began his pro career at the age of 18.
Nicknamed 'Dolle', he was a mainstay of the Swedish Under-21 XI, but has found the senior side something of a closed shop since making his full debut in 2005. A more relevant mark of his ability is Roma's apparent interest in him.
THE MAVERICK: Alexandre Alphonse
Alphonse is a pocket-sized, always-lively forward blessed with a sharp turn of speed and the ability to leave a defender for dead with his mesmerising dribbling skills. He can finish too, contributing 13 goals to FCZ's Swiss title last term.
Although he was born and brought up in the Paris region, the 27-year-old plays his international football for Guadeloupe, the land of his father. Apart from a spell with Grenoble, most of his sporting life has been Swiss, at Geneva side Etoile Carouge, Chaux-de-Fonds and FCZ since 2006.
SUMMER SIGNING: Johan Vonlanthen
This versatile Swiss international attacker was brought in on loan from Austrian top dogs Red Bull Salzburg. Pacy and technically-gifted, he can be used as an out and out striker or in a withdrawn role on the right of midfield. He has 36 caps for Switzerland to his credit and represented his country at Euro 2008.
Vonlanthen was born in the Colombian city of Santa Marta - the hometown of the great Carlos Valderrama - but qualified to play for Switzerland through his stepfather. Very much a Euro traveller, he has also worn the colours of Young Boys of Bern, PSV Eindhoven, Brescia in Italy, and Dutch side NAC Breda.
COACH: Bernard Challandes
When FCZ first appointed the former Swiss Under-21 boss two years ago, many thought it a mistake to plump for a man primarily known for his youth development work and who had never claimed any silverware with a pro club. Zurich's title last term emphatically proved the doubters wrong.
After Daniel Jeandupeux and Lucien Favre, Challandes is the third French-speaking Swiss to steer FCZ to the domestic championship. He is one of the game's most animated characters, regularly seen contesting refereeing decisions on the touchline.
THE CHALKBOARD: Challandes' favourite tactical template is a 4-2-3-1, in which the lone frontrunner is the towering Frenchman Eric Hassli, whose physical presence, aerial ability and neat touch on the ball are absolutely indispensable to the system. In close support are the trio of Vonlanthen or Alphonse, Abdi and Djuric, all of whom are skilled in making the decisive, well-timed run into the box.
FCZ's unsung heroes are their pair of midfield holders; Sylvan Aergerter, who had a taste of the Champions League with Thun in 2005, and the Nigerian Onyekachi Okonkwo, a one-time bad boy, who has finally discovered discipline.
DON'T MENTION: The rather ponderous central-defensive guard made up of the Finnish veteran Hannu Tihinen and Alain Rochat. They can be turned quite easily and doubtless will be by Champions League strikers.
Challandes may also have problems with squad unity as he has so many forward players at his disposal. The roster in this department features Abdi, Alphonse, Vonlanthen, Djuric and two more playmakers in the Tunisian star Yassine Chikhaoui and the Swiss international Xavier Margairaz. How can the boss possibly keep them all happy?
VERDICT: Only the fourth Swiss club to participate in the Champions League, history says they will have a half-dozen games to enjoy and no more.