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Alarm bells sounding for Everton

Everton
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Champions League 2009-10, Group G

Group G: Sevilla FC | Rangers | VfB Stuttgart | Unirea Urziceni
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group H


SEVILLA
• Status: 3rd in Spanish league
• Nickname: Rojiblancos (Red-Whites)

THE RECORD: Back-to-back triumphs in the UEFA Cup in 2006 and 2007 confirmed Sevilla had arrived as major players on the European stage and their position among the top seeds for this year's Champions League secured them a decent draw for the group stage.

HEADLINER: Luis Fabiano
After so much transfer speculation this summer, it was somewhat surprising to see this gifted Brazilian starting the new campaign in a Sevilla shirt.

Milan were among those said to be willing to offer big money to sign a player who has formed a fearsome strike partnership with Fredi Kanoute at Sevilla, confirming his class time and again in this attack-minded side. There have been suggestions that this ex-FC Porto star was angling for a move away from Spain this summer, so it will be interesting to see if his heart is still in the Sevilla cause.

YOUNG GUN: Diego Perotti
A young Argentine winger who looks set to stake his place for a regular spot in the side this season, 21-year-old Perotti is fighting it out with Spanish youngster Diego Capel for the title of the most talented youngster on the books at Sevilla.

His goal against Deportivo La Coruna last May ensured Sevilla would seal a top-three finish in La Liga and automatic progression to the Champions League group stages. At home on the left flank, he offers speed and invention that should assist the potent strike duo of Fabiano and Kanoute.

THE MAVERICK: Fredi Kanoute
Kanoute has that languid style that makes you think he is not overly interested in his task, yet there can be little doubting his ability to turn a game with a moment of sublime inspiration.

French-born, this Mali international has been a big hit at Sevilla since his switch from Premier League side Tottenham in 2006, with his leggy stride making him a distinctive presence in the club's increasingly impressive march towards the top table of the European game. His temperament is often called into question and he has already been sent off in a domestic game this season.

SUMMER SIGNING: Didier Zokora
Tottenham wanted big money for this Ivory Coast midfielder and they got their wish when Sevilla came in with an offer of around £8.65m for a player whose energy can never be questioned.

He may lack a touch of finesse, especially in front of goal where he is prone to wasting glorious chances, but he should add something to the Sevilla engine room. Zokora's experience will stand him in good stead as he tries to make a step up to the Champions League.

COACH: Manolo Jimenez
Juande Ramos must regret the day he walked away from the Sevilla empire he had built to take on a challenge at Tottenham that proved too much for him to handle. The success of his former assistant Jiminez merely serves to confirm he may have been better off staying at the club in the two seasons since.

Recently rewarded for his achievements with a contract extension, this former Spanish international always seemed destined to coach the club he made over 350 appearances for in an illustrious playing career that also included a handful of full international caps with Spain. "We have proved that this squad deserves to be in the Champions League, so let's be the team that causes a few surprises this season," says Jimenez.

CHALKBOARD: Jesus Navas is a vital cog in this Sevilla side as he is given licence to run riot on the right side of a 4-4-2 line-up, with Perotti roaming on the left and a stable midfield base provided by Zokora and his Ivory Coast compatriot, Ndri Roaric.

Oozing with experienced performers, the best news from the summer was undoubtedly Sevilla's ability to buck a trend and hang onto all their star turns for a change. It will stand them in good stead this season.

DON'T MENTION: Sevilla's reliance on Kanoute and Luis Fabiano has been highlighted as something of a weak point, but the arrival of Spanish striker Alvaro Negredo this summer gives Sevilla the sort of back-up that will serve them well.

There are some concerns over their defensive abilities. The left footed Adriano could be forced to fill in at right-back, with Frenchman Abdoulay Konko also an option in that position. If they can keep them out at the back, Sevilla have enough attacking stars to cause any opponent trouble.

VERDICT: They look certain to take their place in the knock-out stages and may be an outsider to watch in the latter stages. In a one-off game, Sevilla have the class to upset any side.


RANGERS
• Status: Scottish champions
• Nickname: The Gers

THE RECORD: Rangers became the first British side to compete in a major European final when they lost in the decisive tie of the 1961 Cup Winners' Cup. Their most recent high point came when they reached the 2008 UEFA Cup Final, losing out to Zenit St Petersburg in Manchester. They reached the semi-finals of the old Champions' Cup in 1960.

HEADLINER: Kenny Miller
With goals likely to be an elusive commodity for a Rangers side who may find themselves trying to hit sides on the break, they have a man who is capable of taking a chance in Scotland international Miller.

In his second spell at the club after he had a stint in English football with Wolves and Derby, he also squeezed in a season with Rangers' fierce rivals Celtic before making a stunning return to Ibrox in the summer of 2008. Hamstring problems affected his progress last term so Rangers will be hoping their main man stays fit this time around.

YOUNG GUN: Kyle Lafferty
At the age of 21, Lafferty is entering the most important season of his career and the fact that he will have the chance to perform in the Champions League means he has every chance to make it his best yet.

An established international with Northern Ireland, there was plenty of speculation surrounding Lafferty's future as he made his way through the ranks at Burnley and after a move to Rangers initially fell through, he completed a move to Ibrox in the summer of 2008. He played his part in Rangers' Double -winning season last time out.

THE MAVERICK: Kris Boyd
There can be little doubting Boyd's scoring record in a Rangers shirt and his achievement in breaking through the 30-goal barrier last season can only be commended, yet there always seems to be a cloud hanging over this former Kilmarnock striker.

His decision to call time on his Scottish international career and refuse to play for national team boss George Burley caused a huge stir last season and he was linked with a move to Premier League new-boys Birmingham during the summer. Time will tell whether he is a striker with genuine Champions League quality.

SUMMER SIGNING: Jerome Rothen
Experienced winger Jerome Rothen arrived from Paris Saint Germain on transfer deadline day as Gers manager Walter Smith persuaded his board to part with some cash as he sealed a season-long loan deal.

The cash crunch at Rangers meant Smith spent his summer trying to hang onto his star names rather then strengthen his own squad. The exits of Barry Ferguson and Christian Dailly saw two experienced professionals leave the club and a glut of injuries at the start of the new SPL season served to highlight that this Rangers squad is a little thin on numbers.

COACH: Walter Smith
It is always so tough for Rangers to make the step up from the relatively modest standard of the Scottish Premier League to take on Europe's finest in this competition, but Walter Smith believes his side can bridge the gap in class this season.

Having missed out in the qualifying round for this competition last season, the former Everton boss is determined to have a better stab at the biggest tournament of them all, but he accepts his side are up against it. "The leap in quality is difficult for any Scottish side, but Celtic have done quite well in recent years, especially on home soil, and we can take confidence from that," says Smith, who guided Rangers to a domestic league and cup Double last season.

CHALKBOARD: Home and away day ambitions will be contrasting, with the intimidating Ibrox Park atmosphere giving Rangers their best chance to pull off the odd surprise result.

It will be on their travels that Smith is likely to revert to a 4-5-1 formation and he would settle for a couple of hard-fought draws away from home. Portuguese international Pedro Mendes and partner in crime Steven Davis have a big role to play in the heart of the midfield scrap.

DON'T MENTION: The record of Scottish clubs in the Champions League is nothing to write home about and few are backing Rangers to buck that trend this season.

Veteran defender David Weir may struggle to handle the best of strikers at the tender age of 39 and it is hard to see how manager Smith and his trusty assistant Ally McCoist can embark on much more than a damage limitation exercise in away games.

VERDICT: A third-place finish in their group and the Europa League place that goes with it is the best Rangers can hope for.


VfB STUTTGART
• Status: German league 3rd place
• Nickname: Die Roten

THE RECORD: The 2003-04 season saw Stuttgart at their best in Europe, beating Manchester United, Panathinaikos and Glasgow Rangers en route to the second round of the Champions League, where they fell 1-0 on aggregate to Chelsea.

HEADLINER: Jens Lehmann
His 40th birthday is looming large and yet this ex-Germany, Schalke, AC Milan, Dortmund and Arsenal keeper remains a high-class performer, still boasting impressive shot-stopping qualities, command of his box and supreme confidence in his own skills.

He retired from the international stage after the Nationalmannschaft's Euro 2008 Final loss to Spain, but he may yet make a comeback in World Cup year. The problem with Lehmann is not ability but temperament. He too easily slips into outraged mode when forwards dare come into contact with him. The red mist descends on him far too frequently for his own good.

YOUNG GUN: Sami Khedira
The captain of the German Under-21 side that recently won the European Championship, he nominally lines up in a defensive midfield slot, but can do much more than merely destroy. His passing is crisp and accurate, he breaks forward intelligently and packs a powerful shot.

He first came to the attention of the German football-loving public in the 2006-07 season, supplying bravado and grit in equal measure to the young Stuttgart side that came from nowhere to snatch the '07 Bundesliga title. Sami, the son of a Tunisian father and German mother, says he models his style on Barcelona star Xavi.

THE MAVERICK: Alexander Hleb
Stuttgart supporters were overjoyed this summer to hear the news that the Belarus attacking midfielder was arriving on a single-season loan deal from Barcelona, where he spent last term manacled to the bench following his departure from Arsenal.

Hleb is no stranger to Stuttgart; it was at the Gottlieb Daimler stadium that he first got his career off and running from 2000 to 2005. Then, during his time at Arsenal, Hleb did become tougher physically, but his greatest asset is still his mazy dribbling ability, his flair for effortlessly taking on and beating opponents. Like all wing wizards, he can overdo the solo stuff. It goes with the territory.

SUMMER SIGNING: Pavel Pogrebnyak
When star striker Mario Gomez elected to move to Bayern Munich in the summer, he left a void up front of canyon-like proportions and Stuttgart are banking on the former Zenit St Petersburg front man to bridge the gap. It is well within him as with both Zenit and the Russian national team, Pogrebnyak has proved himself the complete number nine: strong, mobile, good in the air and opportunistic in the danger zone.

Stuttgart will be hoping he repeats his goalscoring feats for Zenit in the 2007-08 UEFA Cup when he netted no fewer than ten times. Unfortunately he missed his team's final victory over Glasgow Rangers through suspension.

COACH: Markus Babbel
The former Germany, Bayern Munich and Liverpool defender has revelled in the role since taking over as head coach from the sacked Armin Veh in November 2008. His predecessor thought he did not have enough quality in his squad, but Babbel proved the contrary quietly and effectively, transforming a mid-table team into Champions League qualifiers.

His main problem this year - and it is a big one - is his status as a part-time boss. He does not have a full coaching licence and with the German authorities insisting that he qualifies immediately, he is required to spend several days a week studying at the national academy in Cologne.

THE CHALKBOARD: Babbel has a marked preference for the sort of 4-4-2 that Germany employed to such fine effect at the 2006 World Cup. It is a system based on two controlling central midfielders (Khedira and Thomas Hitzlsperger), who as well as providing solid cover for the back four, are strong on the ball, plus two incisive wide men (Hleb on the left and young Timo Gebhart on the right).

The coach prides himself on the fluidity of his side's attacking play and the high tempo they maintain. Opponents would be well advised to avoid conceding direct free-kicks anywhere near goal. Hitzlsperger's left-foot is a lethal weapon.

DON'T MENTION: They are slow to switch from attack to defensive mode at times, a failing that makes them vulnerable to a cleverly-constructed counter. In central defence, Serdar Tasci and Mathieu Delpierre are not especially happy when forwards run at them.

It's no exaggeration to say that Stuttgart were Mario Gomez-dependant last season as the whole attacking system was designed around him. New striker Pogrebnyak and his team-mates need time to reach an understanding. It is time they may not have.

VERDICT: The club from the southern German city known for manufacturing luxury cars may have a breakdown on the road to the last 16.


UNIREA URZICENI
• Status: Romanian champions
• Nickname: Chelsea de Ialomita (Chelsea of Ialomita)

THE RECORD: The Romanian champions are Champions League virgins after claiming victory in their domestic title race last season. The limit of their continental experience is a short-lived run in last season's UEFA Cup, eliminated 2-0 on aggregate at the first round stage by Hamburg of Germany.

HEADLINER: Iulian Apostol
An intelligent and subtle midfielder, Apostol's passing ability has been at the heart of Unirea's rise up the national hierarchy. The 28-year-old can play anywhere in the engine room, right, left or centre. His reward for a brilliant 2008-09 campaign was a first senior cap for Romania last June in a World Cup qualifier in Lithuania.

Small of stature, but perfectly-balanced and ever-alert, he hails from the eastern city of Galati on the Danube and made his top-flight debut back in 1997 for leading local side Otelul. He went on to play for Dunarea Galati, Metalul Plopeni, Gloria Buzau and Farul Constanta before signing for Unirea in 2007.

YOUNG GUN: Giedrius Arlauskis
This 21-year-old Lithuanian was voted the best keeper in Romania last season and how he deserved the award, commanding his defence with rare authority for one so young and repeatedly getting his side off the hook with his reflex stops and excellence in one-on-ones.

His place atop the poll was by no means a foregone conclusion, having to battle for the honour with Romanian national team stars such as Bogdan Lobont of Dinamo Bucharest and Danut Coman from Brasov. After beginning his career in his homeland with FK Siauliai, he joined Unirea in 2007, wasting no time in making a positive impression. He claims he does not appreciate the hot climate in Romania.

THE MAVERICK: Sorin Frunza
No one can question the ability of this 31-year-old left-sided midfielder. He is a brilliant dribbler and crosser and frequently cuts inside to slice open the opposition defence with an inch-perfect pass. Frunza is no mean finisher either, packing a fierce shot. Two years ago, he scored an astonishing solo goal against Universitatea Craiova, running half the length of the pitch with the ball at his feet before firing home.

Clashes with authority are nothing to Frunza as he has never been frightened to give his opinion to a paymaster. While at FC Vasui, club president Adrian Porumboiu placed him on the transfer list for under-performing in a game against Steaua Bucharest.

SUMMER SIGNING: Vasile Maftei
Unirea reinforced their side wisely when they brought in the Romanian international defender from Rapid Bucharest. He can operate equally proficiently at right-back or in central defence and, crucially, this 28-year-old has a wealth of experience in European competition, notably playing for Rapid in the 2003-04 Champions League.

After starting out at Second Division Tractorul Brasov, he spent nine seasons at Rapid, playing in over 200 league games for them - many as captain - and won a domestic championship with them in the 2002-03 season.

COACH: Dan Petrescu
A legendary figure in the Romanian game, the former right-back won 95 caps for his country and starred for Steaua Bucharest, Italian outfits Foggia and Genoa and in the English Premier League with Sheffield Wednesday, Chelsea, Bradford and Southampton. He was part of the Steaua side that lost to AC Milan in the Final of the 1989 Champions' Cup and won the 1998 Cup Winners' Cup with Chelsea.

Proving himself both an astute man-manager and an excellent organiser of a side, the 41-year-old has excelled as a coach. He has led Rapid Bucharest, Sportul Studentesc, Wisla Krakow in Poland and Unirea since 2006. It was Petrescu who gave Unirea their nickname of Chelsea de Ialomita due to his connections with both clubs and their shared blue shirts.

THE CHALKBOARD: Petrescu's 4-4-2 is a pragmatic, counter-attacking system. His first priority is to keep things tight at the back and, inspired by central defender and captain George Galamaz, Unirea are extremely hard to break down; last season they conceded just 20 goals in 34 league games. Defensively they like to play a high line and they press the ball very well indeed.

For the most part Unirea play an athletic power game, aiming to pressurise the opposition into mistakes. They can be quite direct and regularly hit long balls in the direction of the head of striker Marius Bilasco.

DON'T MENTION: Unirea's strike-force does not look strong enough to sparkle at the top end of European football. The fact that Bilasco and partner Raul Rusescu only managed 13 goals between them in the Romanian League last term does little to suggest they will light up the Champions League.

Also, Unirea don't have enough game-changing flair to trouble the great and the good. If Frunza and Apostol are cancelled out, the outlook is gloomy.

VERDICT: Unirea look certain to fill the role of whipping boys.


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