Champions League 2009-10, Group F
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group G | Group H
• Status: Spanish champions, European champions
• Nickname: Barca
THE RECORD: A club of Barcelona's stature may expect to have won this competition more than the three times they have managed, but they went some way to addressing that by beating Manchester United in last season's final. Their first Champions' Cup triumph came at Wembley back in 1992 and they won the trophy again in 2006.
HEADLINER: Leo Messi
In a summer when their fierce rivals Real Madrid signed a handful of the game's most sparkling stars, it would have been easy to neglect the reality that the brilliant Messi is still very much in the Barca camp and he is not for sale at any price.
If Cristiano Ronaldo was the undisputed World Player of the Year in 2008, then this impish Argentine seems certain to claim the title for himself this time after his consistent brilliance set up Barca's treble triumph last season. It will be hard for Messi and his team-mates to match those achievements this term, but this genius is capable of anything.
YOUNG GUN: Bojan Krkic
This young Spaniard seems to have been bubbling under the surface at Barca for some time since becoming the club's youngest Spanish league performer at the tender age of 17 back in September 2007.
He has enjoyed the odd high point in the Champions League, but the truth is Krkic struggled to live up to his billing last season and will want to put that right this season. Like so many protégés who are hyped to unrealistic levels in their teenage years, Krkic now needs to prove he is as good as his reputation.
THE MAVERICK: Thierry Henry
Even though Henry seems to spend most of his time lamenting the fact that he is no longer playing for his beloved Arsenal, the Frenchman found his feet at Barca last season as he played a full part in their dominant season.
He claimed the one trophy that had eluded him in his glorious career as he won the Champions League in Roma last May and he admits he has finally got to grips with his challenge in Spain after a poor first season at Barca. "Of course I miss Arsenal and I will do until the day I die, but I'm lucky to be at an amazing club and part of a great team," says 32-year-old Henry.
SUMMER SIGNING: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
More than a few eyebrows were raised when Barca opted to hand over £40m as well as scoring machine Samuel Eto'o in their desperate bid to sign this Swedish striker this summer.
So often a disappointment when he has played in the Champions League, Ibrahimovic needs to banish the notion that he is incapable of taking his game to another level as he joins this all-conquering Barca side. He scored goals aplenty for Inter Milan last season, but now faces the biggest challenge of his career.
COACH: Pep Guardiola
Any questions surrounding Guardiola's lack of experience as he took over as Barca boss last summer were answered by the time he completed an historic first season in charge of the club he played for with considerable distinction between 1990 and 2001.
Success with the Barcelona B side earned him a crack at the top job after Frank Rijkaard's exit and even though he lost his first league game of last season, it was a story of almost unbroken success after that. Winning plaudits aplenty from all observers, Guardiola got Barca playing the flair they had lost after their 2006 Champions League success. Repeating the trick this season will not be so easy.
CHALKBOARD: Barca may have to change the way they play to accommodate summer signing Ibrahimovic, as they had a very different focus to their attack when diminutive poacher Eto'o was in the line-up.
A fan of the 4-3-3 formation, Guardiola looks to give Henry and Messi the freedom they relish and will hope his major summer signing backs up the faith he has shown in him.
DON'T MENTION: There were doubts surrounding Barca's back line for much of last season, but they proved to be strong enough to prop up the attacking talent that fired the side to glory on all fronts.
There may also be questions over the size of their squad and whether their back-up players can do the job in an emergency. Guardiola was reasonably fortunate with injuries last season and he will need the same scenario again.
PREDICTION: The only way may be down when you are standing the peak of the game, but this Barca side have too much class to fall flat on their faces. They are likely to have a stronger challenge in their domestic league this season and it may affect their Champions League defence.
• Status: Italian champions
• Nickname: Nerazzurri
THE RECORD: Inter's lack of success in this competition is a cause of great annoyance for all associated with the Nerazzurri, with the club's two triumphs back in 1964 and 1965 never being built upon. False dawns and near misses aplenty have been the tale of woe in recent years and they have to find a way to crack the Champions League code this time.
HEADLINER: Samuel Eto'o
This Cameroon striker was considered to be surplus to requirements after six years of fine service at Barcelona and Inter may well have snapped up a bargain after they secured Eto'o's services as well as £40m in cash in exchange for the enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
This penalty-box poacher still has plenty to offer at the age of 28, which is still relatively youthful for a player who has a proven record at the very highest levels of the game. He is often considered to be something of a difficult character, but Inter boss Jose Mourinho is a master of handling such individuals.
YOUNG GUN: Davide Santon
This teenage full-back shot to prominence in last season's Champions League as he came away from a battle with then Manchester United wing wizard Cristiano Ronaldo with his dignity intact and reputation enhanced.
Still only 18, Santon's first team chances may not be plentiful in this hugely experienced Inter side, but coach Mourinho is convinced he will become an Inter regular in years to come. He has already been rewarded for his progress with a call up to the full Italian national team squad.
THE MAVERICK: Patrick Vieira
There was a time when Vieira was one of the finest midfield operators in the game, but Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger clearly felt he was past his best when he let him leave for Inter in the summer of 2006.
This 33-year-old leggy Frenchman has never looked quite at his best in an Inter shirt and there was fevered speculation that he may return to Arsenal or even sign for their fierce rivals Tottenham during the summer, but he has opted to stay in Milan and scrap for a first team spot.
SUMMER SIGNING: Wesley Sneijder
Lucio, Thiago Motta and Diego Milito all arrived at Inter in the summer as Mourinho looked to spend some of the money he received in the Ibrahimovic transfer, but the capture of Dutch midfielder Sneijder from Real Madrid could prove to be his best piece of business.
Sneijder was not happy to be moved on in a deal worth around £12m and gave Real Madrid officials a piece of his mind as he sealed the switch, so he should be a man with plenty to prove in the Champions League and his free-kick prowess makes him a threat.
COACH: Jose Mourinho
Confidence will never be lacking for the man known in England as the 'Special One' and he has made it clear that his chief objective as Inter boss is to end the club's long and painful run of flops in the Champions League.
"Inter have had a problem in Europe and I'm here to solve it," confirms the former Chelsea manager, who managed to pull off a miraculous Champions League success in his final act as FC Porto boss back in 2004. If Mourinho fails to deliver on his European promise this season, most experts predict it will be his last as Inter boss.
CHALKBOARD: Mourinho got Chelsea firing by employing a 4-3-3 formation that was perfectly suited to the tools he had at his disposal at Stamford Bridge, but he has modified his approach since taking over the reigns at Inter.
A 4-4-2 formation has been effective for Mourinho at Inter, but he often talks about having flexibility in his side and his tactical acumen on the touchline means he can change a game quickly with a well-timed substitution. "Tactically, Serie A has very unique characteristics and a lot of the teams try to simply block up games and get to the finish with 0-0," says Mourinho. "It's not normally like this in the Champions League, especially after the group stages."
DON'T MENTION: Inter's woeful Champions League record. It is a source of great embarrassment that the champions of Italy found themselves languishing in the second pot for the group stage draw in Monaco, but they can have no complaints as their results simply do not justify a higher seeding.
In addition, Inter have been accused of lacking the pace and drive required to unsettled the best of Spanish or English sides at the back. Slow build-up play works in Serie A, but Mourinho needs to inject some pace for Champions League ties.
VERDICT: It is hard to see them progressing too far beyond the last eight.
• Status: Ukrainian champions
• Nickname: Bilo-Syni (White-Blues)
THE RECORD: Their recent form in the competition is depressing, but it was not always so grim. In the late 1990s, Kiev were a match for the very best, reaching the quarter-finals in 1997-98 and the last four the following year, when they narrowly lost out to Bayern Munich.
HEADLINER: Artem Milevskiy
A tall, classy young striker who was rightly voted the Ukraine Player of the Year last term, Milevskiy has been with Dynamo since he signed from local rivals Borysfen Boryspil in 2002. Although he can be injury-prone, Milevskiy makes for an exciting combination of strength, athleticism and ball skills when he is 100% fit. He is a naturally elegant player, though some might describe him as languid or lazy.
Milevskiy was born in Belarus and represented them at junior level before he took up Ukraine citizenship and went on to star for his adopted land at the 2006 European Under-21 Championships, helping them finish runners-up to Holland. His reward was an 11th-hour call-up to the full squad for that year's World Cup finals in Germany, where he contributed to Ukraine's march to the last eight.
YOUNG GUN: Gerson Magrao
A promising Brazilian midfielder recruited this summer from Cruzeiro, the famous Belo Horizonte club which has featured so many of the country's leading footballing lights such as Tostao, Dirceu and Wilson Piazza. He earned himself the move thanks to a string of good performances for Cruzeiro in this year's Libertadores Cup, in which his team were losing finalists to Estudiantes.
Magrao's main position these days is the left side of midfield, shuttling back and forth with a great deal of purpose and verve. He also has experience in a holding role in front of the defence. From 2004 to 2007, he was employed in Holland by Feyenoord and played European football during his time there.
THE MAVERICK: Oleksandr Aliyev
Once regarded as completely ill-disciplined both on and off the field of play, this playmaker showed a maturity to his game last season, scoring 13 league goals and creating seven more for team-mates.
Of Azerbaijani descent, this 24-year-old had a decidedly mixed Champions League last season, scoring with a brilliant long-distance free-kick in the win over FC Porto, but given a red card against Arsenal for pushing Luxembourgian referee Alain Hamer.
SUMMER SIGNING: Andriy Shevchenko
So it is back to square one for Sheva. As soon as new boss Carlo Ancelotti told this one-time attacking superstar he had no future at Chelsea, this Kiev legend jumped at the chance to return to the club where it all began for him, the venue where he ruled supreme for five seasons (1994-99). Now 32, Shevchenko must regret quitting AC Milan for Chelsea back in 2006 as he has not been the same player since, looking anything but the thoroughbred striker who used to terrorise the whole continent. A Champions League winner with Milan in 2003, he has bagged a stunning 61 goals in European competition, a total bettered only by a select group including Real Madrid captain Raul.
COACH: Valeriy Gazzaev
The former Russian national team boss was appointed last May to fill the shoes of Yuri Semin, who was head-hunted by Lokomotiv Moscow. Gazzaev is Russia's most successful manager of the past two decades, steering both Alania Vladikavkaz (1995) and CSKA Moscow (2003, 2005, 2006) to the domestic league title. He also led CSKA to glory in the 2005 UEFA Cup.
A striker for a number of Soviet league teams, including Muscovite outfits, Lokomotiv and Dynamo, he played eight times for the old USSR between 1979 and 1983, scoring four goals.
THE CHALKBOARD: While Yuri Semin's base formation was a safety-first 4-5-1, Gazzaev wants his new charges to be much more pro-active. He was initially thinking of using a 4-3-3, with Andriy Yarmolenko and Oleh Husyev as the wide men, but the arrival of Shevchenko is likely to result in a switch to a basic 4-4-2 or even a 3-4-3.
Much will depend on the effectiveness of the number ten - Aliyev or Milos Ninkovic - and powerful Croatian midfield holder Ognjen Vukojevic. As with all Gazzaev teams, the approach work will be neat and methodical. They will keep a compact shape and use the whole width of the pitch.
DON'T MENTION: The cliques in the Dynamo dressing room are a worry, with the South American, African, Ukrainian and Balkan groupings doing little for team harmony. Furthermore, Gazzaev is a notoriously hard taskmaster and in these times of very well-paid players, it is open to question whether wielding the big stick works.
A common complaint is Dynamo's play is too static. With higher skill levels than most of their domestic rivals, they can get away with it in the Ukraine League but not in Europe.
VERDICT: Gazzaev promised he would win the Champions League within three years. No, no and no.
• Status: Russian league champions
• Nickname: Ruby
THE RECORD: The surprise 2008 Russian title winners are Champions League virgins. Indeed, the club from the republic of Tatarstan have taken part in only three European campaigns, their best performance being the first round of the 2006-07 UEFA Cup, where they lost 2-0 on aggregate to Parma.
HEADLINER: Sergei Semak
At the age of 33, Semak's birth certificate may be yellowing a touch, but the legs and football brain of the Rubin captain and midfield cornerstone remain incredibly active. It is easy to see why Russia boss Guus Hiddink swears by the ex-CSKA Moscow as Semak is one of those players who never seems to have an off day. He provides lashings of defensive steel, outstanding distribution, box-to-box energy and a scoring touch to boot.
It is a little curious that he has taken so long to come to the fore as he had been on the international fringes for over a decade until Hiddink came along and deemed a flop during an anonymous spell in France with Paris Saint-Germain in 2005.
YOUNG GUN: Aleksandr Bukharov
An up-and-coming striker, Bukharov only contributed half-a-dozen goals to Rubin's title-winning campaign. However, he has exploded into life this term, netting ten in 14 starts up to the end of August and hitting top form ahead of the Champions League ties. A call-up to the national team was due reward for his sparkling efforts.
Previously with Krasnodar and Chernomorets Novorossiysk, he joined Rubin in 2004 and has since developed into a fine target man, using every inch of his giant frame to dominate in the air. His right-footed finishing is not bad either, so he offers a variety of threats to his opponents. He scored the fastest-ever goal in the history of the Russian League last season, timed at just 26 seconds in the 3-0 win over Spartak Nalchik.
THE MAVERICK: Gokdeniz Karadeniz
This 29-year-old Turkish international is a bundle of guile, invention and sheer unpredictability in the hole or on the left side of midfield. His mazy dribbling, eye for a through ball and speed off the mark were key ingredients in Rubin's rise to prominence in Russia.
After nine brilliant years with Trabzonspor, he unexpectedly opted to quit them in March 2003, signing for Rubin in a £7.9m deal. Capped 49 times for Turkey, he has one large blemish on his report card: a six-month ban from his country's federation for betting on games.
SUMMER SIGNING: Alan Kasaev
This highly-rated young left-sided attacking midfielder cost £4.5m from FC Kuban and he should prove to be a shrewd capture. From the Caucasus city of Vladikavkaz, he started out with Tinan Reutov and Shinnik Yarosvl and seemed to have made an important career breakthrough when Zenit St Petersburg signed him in 2004, only to fail to make the grade there.
Small and dynamic, the Russian Under-21 star was instrumental to Kuban winning promotion back to the top flight in 2008 and he looks ready to step onto the Champions League stage.
COACH: Gurban Berdiyew
This long-serving boss has been in charge of Rubin since 2001 and he has turned them into a force to be reckoned with in Russia. First masterminding their promotion to the Premier League in 2002 and a fantastic third-place finish the following season, he then oversaw a period of consolidation and the side's first-ever league title in 2008.
He has something of the great Soviet and Dynamo Kiev coach Valeri Lobanovskiy about him as he is a quiet and reserved man whose apparent unemotional exterior hides a burning passion for the game and a meticulous attention to detail. Among his other managerial appointments are a spell in charge of Turkish club Genclerbirligi and the Turkmenistan national team.
THE CHALKBOARD: Berdiyew's cohesive 4-4-1-1 system looks well-suited to the rigours of European competition. They boast a solid back line built around the central pairing of Cesar Navas and Roman Sharonov and they are masters of the piercing counter-attack. Their teamwork is second to none.
In the attacking third, they play with great fluidity and nominal lone striker Bukharov is never short of back-up, with Kasaev, Karadeniz, Semak and the technically-accomplished Argentine Alejandro Dominguez flooding forward at every opportunity.
DON'T MENTION: Young Argentine right-back Cristian Ansaldi is a good prospect and gets forward to excellent effect, but he can overdo the burst into the opposition half as he forgets that his primary duty is to defend.
Another concern must be experience. Apart from Semak, there is next to no Champions League knowledge in the ranks and that may be a problem considering the extensive nous their Group F opponents boast. Rubin can sometimes be at a tactical loss when Plan A goes wrong.
VERDICT: Rubin will be competitive at home, but a third-place finish in a group also containing European champs Barcelona, Italians Inter and Ukrainian powerhouses Dynamo Kiev has to be the height of their ambition.