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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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Champions League 2009-10, Group E

Group E: Liverpool | Lyon | Fiorentina | Debrecen
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group F | Group G | Group H


LIVERPOOL
•  Status: 2nd in English Premier League
•  Nickname: The Reds

THE RECORD: The five-time European champions are very proud of their record in this competition, with the most recent of their triumphs coming in the remarkable 2005 final against AC Milan, when they came from 3-0 behind to win on penalties. A series of near misses have denied them a repeat success in recent seasons.

HEADLINER: Fernando Torres
Regarded by many observers as the finest striker in world football, Torres is a colossus of a frontman who never runs out of ways to find the back of the net. In the air, with volleys or using his own creative touch, this Spanish super-striker is always deadly.

His winning goal in the Euro 2008 Final means his position as a Spanish national hero is assured, but he wants to claim a similar status at Liverpool and that could come with a major contribution to a Champions League triumph. If he stays fit, and that has been a concern in the last couple of years, Torres is a match winner of the highest order.

YOUNG GUN: Emiliano Insua
Boss Rafael Benitez has not enjoyed the best of success when it has come to bringing defensive talent to Liverpool, but he picked up a gem when he signed this Argentine left-back in 2007.

Insua started his career at Boca Juniors and looks set to establish himself in the Liverpool defensive line this season, with his brand of tidy defence and enterprising bursts forward moving him up Benitez's pecking order. At the age of just 20, he is an Argentine international in the making.

THE MAVERICK: Javier Mascherano
Mascherano's association with controversial agent Kia Joorabchian seems certain to ensure he will be a player for hire every summer and, true to form, there were plenty of rumours linking this tough-tackling midfielder with a move to Barcelona during the summer.

Having lost Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid, Reds boss Benitez could not contemplate sanctioning a deal for Mascherano to leave and he will have to play a massive role in a midfield lacking a touch of flair without their departed Spanish international. The captain of the Argentina national side is a high-energy performer, but he may struggle to replace the creative touch Alonso offered.

SUMMER SIGNING: Glen Johnson
While few sides have been transformed by the arrival of a full-back, Johnson may be a valuable addition for Liverpool after his £17m move from Portsmouth.

His first experience at a Champions League club did not prove to be successful as he struggled to make the mark at Chelsea, but the years since that failure seem to have given him the maturity to shine on the big stage at last. A real threat bursting forward, he is a maker and taker of chances as he uses his pace down the flank.

COACH: Rafael Benitez
Benitez never seems far away from a crisis and some of them are self-inflicted. His ongoing battles with club owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks are hardly ideal and his determination to pick fights with formidable opponents like Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United merely serves to pile pressure onto his shoulders.

When he focuses his mind on the tactics of winning Champions League games, there are few better than Benitez and he has proved as much time and again in the last few years. He won this trophy with Liverpool in 2005 and while the Premier League was meant to be his priority this season, Europe may be his best bet again.

CHALKBOARD: Liverpool's lack of striking options mean they rely on Torres leading the line alone, with inspirational skipper Steven Gerrard asked to play a supporting role as he breaks from the midfield in a flexible 4-5-1 line-up.

One question mark this season may come in the heart of the midfield. Someone needs to step up and replace the departed Alonso and the Liverpool manager believes Brazilian Lucas is the man to do that job. Not too many of the Anfield faithful agree with that assessment.

DON'T MENTION: Benitez's obsession with zonal marking when defending set-pieces has long been a concern and it proved to be their undoing as Chelsea beat them comfortably in a Champions League quarter-final at Anfield last season.

Liverpool's reliance on Gerrard and Torres is another obvious weak spot. While their star men may be among the best players in the world game, no side should be so dependent on the fitness and form of two players. If Torres, in particular, is injured for an extended period of time, the backup options are wide men Dirk Kuyt or Ryan Babel. If Liverpool come to rely on youngsters David Ngog or Nabil El Zhar up front, they will not frighten too many Champions League rivals.

VERDICT: There are too many question marks surrounding Liverpool to suggest they are major contenders for the title.


OLYMPIQUE LYONNAIS
•  Status: French league 3rd place
•  Nickname: Les Gones

THE RECORD: This season is their tenth straight Champions League expedition, a figure club president Jean-Michel Aulas is immensely proud of. Their most successful runs came in the 2003-04, 2004-05 and 2005-06 campaigns, when they reached the last eight.

HEADLINER: Lisandro Lopez
After receiving over £30m from Real Madrid for star striker Karim Benzema, Lyon duly went shopping in the FC Porto mall, splashing out a club-record £21.8m on Argentine international striker Lopez.

Certain critics in France think Lyon paid over the odds and yet the fans at the Stade Gerland beg to differ, as they are already enamoured with his explosive finishing, relentless movement, strength in the air and obvious relish of a physical battle. One of his strongest suits is the 26-year-old's versatility. He can the lead the line on his own, play as a second striker or pose a threat from a deep-lying position wide on the left. He began his pro career at top Argentine outfit Racing Club before crossing the Atlantic in 2005 to join Porto.

YOUNG GUN: Hugo Lloris
In his second season at Lyon, following a £8.3m switch from Nice, the unassuming 22-year-old keeper lets his many and varied qualities do his talking for him: his sharp reflexes, courage, quickness off his line, punching and unflappable temperament.

A full French international, he comes from an unusual background. His father is a Monte Carlo banker and at one point Hugo was a very promising young tennis player, ranked high in the national standings.

THE MAVERICK: Cesar Delgado
Since joining Lyon from Mexican side Cruz Azul for a £6m fee in January 2008, the little Argentine winger has flattered to deceive, only intermittently demonstrating the blistering speed and trickery he undoubtedly has. However, he finally seems to have come to grips with European football as this season has got underway, looking far more consistent, purposeful and creative on the right flank.

At Cruz Azul, he weighed in with goals a plenty and he must do the same for Lyon if he is to definitively establish himself in their first team. He won a gold medal with the Argentine Olympic side in 2004.

SUMMER SIGNING: Michel Bastos
An incisive and skilful Brazilian left-sided midfielder and free-kick specialist bought from Lille for £16.3m. Lyon have been lacking in this area since Florent Malouda left for Chelsea three years ago and he will go some way to replacing Juninho too.

The word is that a power struggle took place at Lyon over his transfer. Coach Claude Puel, who used to work with Bastos at Lille, wanted to move heaven and earth to sign him, while recruitment advisor, Bernard Lacombe, thought the price exorbitant.

COACH: Claude Puel
This former Monaco and Lille boss certainly has no margin for error. Brought in last season to maintain Lyon's stranglehold on the Ligue 1 title - seven straight crowns - he could do no better than a third-place finish.

Not surprisingly for someone who was a full-back or defensive midfielder in his playing days at Monaco, Puel has a reputation as an austere tactician, one averse to taking attacking risks. He will need to develop a taste for champagne football if Lyon are to rediscover their form.

THE CHALKBOARD: In order to place their former Brazilian midfield general Juninho in the best possible framework, successive Lyon coaches have stuck religiously to a 4-3-3 formation. But 'Juni' left the club this summer and now Puel is likely to use either a 4-4-2 with new strikers Lisandro and Bafetimbi Gomis up top. Alternatively, they could employ a 4-2-3-1, featuring a trio of attacking talent (Delgado or Sidney Govou, Lisandro and Bastos) behind Gomis.

Puel's Lyon excel in their tactical discipline and in their ability to dominate possession. They are adept at instantaneously switching the play from one flank to the other and the arrival of striker Gomis from Saint Etienne gives them a deep threat they previously lacked.

DON'T MENTION: A potentially porous central defence. Mathieu Bodmer is, in reality, a midfielder, while Jean-Alain Boumsong, formerly of Rangers and Newcastle United, is not the most solid and is too often guilty of lapses in concentration.

A distinct shortage of imagination in central midfield is another flaw. They might be ever willing but the holding duo of Jeremy Toulalan and Jean Makoun simply do not offer enough technical polish or conviction. Furthermore, the duo are just too similar in style.

VERDICT: It might be a struggle, but if Lisandro hits his straps up front, then Lyonnais should make the second phase.


FIORENTINA
•  Status: 4th in Italian league
•  Nickname: La Viola

THE RECORD: Runners-up in the old Champions' Cup back in 1957, Fiorentina's only European triumph came four years after that near miss as they claimed the Cup Winners' Cup. They finished in third place in their group in last season's Champions League.

HEADLINER: Alberto Gilardino
Filling the role of the lone striker in this Fiorentina side is a powerhouse Italian international who will give the best of defenders plenty to think about in the Champions League this season.

Gilardino's first campaign with Viola was a roaring success as he scored 19 Serie A goals last term, turning in match-winning performances aplenty along the way. "We were not at our best in the Champions League last season and that was partly down to a lack of experience," he believes. "We created enough to make the knock-out stages and that is our target this time."

YOUNG GUN: Stevan Jovetic
This exciting Montenegrin was the subject of plenty of interest from a variety of top clubs around Europe, but the promise of regular first team exposure persuaded him to sign on the dotted line for Fiorentina last year.

Oozing with potential and with tricks aplenty on the wing, he scored a few useful goals for Viola last season and is being tipped to make his mark in the Champions League after starring in the win against Sporting Lisbon that got the team into this season's group stages. "Some people said we had some luck to get through against Sporting, but we are in the Champions League and have to prove we can handle the pressure," says Jovetic.

THE MAVERICK: Adrian Mutu
It still seems a little curious that Juventus were allowed to sign Mutu and make a profit on his subsequent sale to Fiorentina, even though he only became a free agent after he was sacked by Chelsea for failing a drugs ban.

As it stands, Mutu is still liable to pay the London club around £14m in compensation for his antics, but the case looks certain to rumble on in the courts for many months to come. "I don't have that kind of money to give Chelsea," he argues. "What can they do to take something I don't have?"

Mutu will be keen to prove his troubles off the pitch are not affecting his form on it as he returns to the Champions League stage. Much is expected of the Romanian international.

SUMMER SIGNING: Marco Marchionni
Fiorentina were always going to struggle to replace the influential Felipe Melo after his summer defection to Juventus and while Marchionni may not be the man to fill the void entirely, his arrival was a welcome part of the deal for Viola.

Having worked with Fiorentina boss Cesare Prandelli at Parma a few years back, these two clearly gel well together. This former Empoli star is at home on the right wing and he has won full international honours with the Italian national team. Cristiano Zanetti is another summer capture and he will add solidity in the central midfield as he returns to Viola from Juventus.

COACH: Cesare Prandelli
Carlo Ancelotti's move to Chelsea during the summer made Prandelli the longest serving coach in Serie A, with his run at the helm of the club stretching back four years to 2005.

This highly-respected coach is often linked with the top jobs in Italian football and is held in high esteem having collected the Panchina D'Oro (Italian coach of the year award) in both 2006 and 2007. "The aim is to be one of the top sides in the Serie A title race and we have to find a way to show more belief in the Champions League," he says. "Our experiences in this competition last season will help, but we cannot be viewed as favourites in many games."

CHALKBOARD: Prandelli has been in place at Viola for some time now and that staying power has allowed him to bed down a 4-2-3-1 formation that everyone at the club is familiar with.

Mutu will be a key man slotting in behind Gilardino, who is relied upon heavily to score the goals; while Jovetic suggested he may be ready to come of age with an impressive effort in the Champions League qualifier against Sporting Lisbon. They are generally solid in defence, especially on home soil.

DON'T MENTION: Fiorentina are operating with a modest number of players compared to some of their Champions League rivals and they may struggle to plug the gaps if injuries and suspensions become an issue.

Prandelli is the first to admit his side lack the experience required to compete with Europe's elite group and you need more than commitment to get you results in the Champions League. The experienced Zanetti will need to settle a few fraying nerves if the going gets tough.

VERDICT: A decent group draw gives Viola a chance to make the knock-out phase.


DEBRECEN
•  Status: Hungarian champions
•  Nickname: Loki

THE RECORD: Hungarian League winners four times in the past five seasons, 'Loki', as they commonly are known, finally have cleared all the hurdles to make it to the Champions League group stages. They are only the second Magyar club to reach this elite 32-team phase after Ferencvaros 14 years ago.

HEADLINER: Gergely Rudolf
Rudolf is a mainstay up front for a Hungarian national team which is stirring into life after many years of under-achievement. The 24-year-old represents Debrecen's main source of firepower courtesy of his crafty movement off the ball, fierce shooting with either foot and technical trickery. He netted 16 league goals as well as three in the UEFA Cup last season.

He learnt his football at the Nyiregyhaza Spartacus club in north-east Hungary before being spotted at the age of 14 by French outfit Nancy, who inducted him into their academy. He would stay there for eight years, shining in the youth team and reserves, but was unconvincing in the first XI. In 2007, he returned home to play for Debrecen, quickly getting back on track.

YOUNG GUN: Jozsef Varga
The Debrecen management make a point of giving local youngsters every chance to make the grade and the 21-year-old defensive midfielder is a perfect example, successfully coming through the youth scheme to carve out a niche for himself with the pros. Forming a tight central midfield partnership with Laszlo Kiss, the shaven-headed Varga is a bulldog of a player, biting into the tackle and never giving opponents a minute's peace.

He turned out to be a surprise hero of the Champions League qualifying campaign this summer, scoring in both legs against Kalmar of Sweden and adding another - a good side-footed finish - in the victory over Levski Sofia.

THE MAVERICK: Tibor Dombi
Debrecen's super sub, this veteran right-winger makes a habit of coming off the bench to alter the course of a match. Either with some flank magic followed by a pin-point cross or a goal himself, he can change a game. At the age of 35, he cannot last the full 90 minutes, but in short bursts he is extremely effective.

He is a graduate of the Debrecen soccer school and went on to star in the first team before leaving in 1999 to try his luck abroad, first at Eintracht Frankfurt - where he fell out with coach Felix Magath - then in Holland with Utrecht. He has 35 full caps for Hungary, his last appearance dating back to 2001.

SUMMER SIGNING: Adamo Coulibaly
Some Debrecen fans were unimpressed on hearing that their club had recruited the Franco-Senegalese striker from Royal Antwerp. The supporters had expected a 'big name' signing, but they got a frontrunner who had spent most of his career in the lower reaches of the Belgian and French pyramids instead.

To his credit, the Paris-born Coulibaly is winning over the faithful at the Hungarian champions. Strong, athletic, mobile, ever-willing and good in the air, Adamo is shaping up to be a good foil for Rudolf. One problem - his shaky technique.

COACH: Andras Herczeg
The archetypal one-club man, Herczeg has been at Debrecen for over 40 years, serving them as a player, youth team boss, assistant and head coach. He was the second-in-command to title-winning Attila Supka before receiving the call to replace Miroslav Beranek as first team boss in 2007.

Now aged 53, he has proved a most steady hand on the tiller, guiding the club to the Hungarian League runners-up spot in his first season in charge and the title last term. Renowned for his eye for raw talent, he was once an assistant coach with the Magyar Olympic squad.

THE CHALKBOARD: Debrecen's 4-4-2 line-up is based on their first-rate organisation. Every player has a well-defined task and single-mindedly performs them. The fact that many of the team hail from the locality gives them a unity of purpose that many expensively-assembled sides never have.

They often switch to a 4-4-1-1, with a deep-lying striker on the shoulder of the point man. They are skilled at changing the tempo of a game and pose a major threat with their long-range shooting as Rudolf, Varga and Kiss are all masters of the dipping and swerving strike from distance.

DON'T MENTION: Montenegrin keeper Vukasin Poleksic, who once played in Italy with Lecce, is prone to flapping at high balls. Generally, Debrecen are desperately short of top-level know-how, an inevitable consequence of a transfer policy that concentrates on players from the lower leagues.

Also, they will not be playing at home in the Champions League. Their 9,640-capacity stadium does not meet UEFA requirements and for European nights they will play in Budapest. Right-back Laszlo Bodnar might be unavailable after the car he was driving struck and killed a cyclist.

VERDICT: They will not readily hoist the white flag, but rock bottom in Group E is unavoidable.

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