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Sep 11, 2009

Champions League 2009-10, Group H

Group H: Arsenal | AZ Alkmaar | Olympiakos | Standard Liege
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G


ARSENAL
• Status: 4th in English Premier League
• Nickname: The Gunners

THE RECORD: Arsenal came closest to winning this competition in 2006, as they pushed Barcelona close in the Champions League Final staged in Paris. After many years of struggles in Europe, Arsenal are now regular contenders at the cutting end of this competition.

HEADLINER: Cesc Fabregas
The Arsenal skipper was linked with moves to Real Madrid and Barcelona this summer and offered up a few quotes in the media suggesting his loyalty to Arsenal may not last too far beyond this season unless they show signs of improvement.

Fabregas is undoubtedly one of Europe's finest midfielders. Inventive and skilful in equal measure, his small frame does not undermine his ability to withstand the physical aspects of the game he has need to absorb in England. Arsenal look a different side when this little maestro is fit and healthy and if he is on top form this season, his team will succeed.

YOUNG GUN: Theo Walcott
It may seem as if this speedy England winger has been at the top of the game for many a year, but he is still only 20 and enters the most crucial season of his career with very high hopes.

Walcott's hat-trick in England's emphatic 4-1 defeat of Croatia in a World Cup qualifier last year suggested he was about to turn promise into something more tangible last term, but injuries got in his way and he was absent again with a minor problem as this season got underway. He was starting to look like the finished article at times last term and continued progress will benefit club and country this season.

THE MAVERICK: William Gallas
There has never been any doubt about the abilities of this French centre-back, but Gallas' mental stability has not always been as certain as he has appeared to lose his composure on the pitch several times in recent seasons.

His Arsenal career looked to be coming to an end when Arsene Wenger took the captain's armband off him last season, but this former Chelsea man responded with some solid performances and belied his reputation as something of a troublemaker by getting his head down and working hard for the team.

SUMMER SIGNING: Thomas Vermaelen
Arsenal were in desperate need of some defensive reinforcements and the signing of Ajax captain Vermaelen was wrapped up nice and early in the off-season.

This 23-year-old scored on his Premier League debut against Everton and his speed of foot and thought has impressed all observers in his early days sporting Arsenal red. Like all Wenger players, he is very comfortable on the ball and can pick out a pass when required.

COACH: Arsene Wenger
When Wenger joined Arsenal back in 1996, no-one would have predicted he would still be thriving in the role some 13 years later, yet this French icon may well have a job for life at the North London club and merely needs to add a Champions League triumph to cement his legend.

Wenger has certainly been getting close to capturing this elusive trophy in recent years, with regular appearances in the last eight, semi-finals and beyond proving that the Gunners are knocking firmly on the Champions League door. Wenger has the tactical acumen to win the big prize, but are his youthful team up to the task?

CHALKBOARD: Wenger likes to employ a 4-4-2 formation and is also happy to switch to 4-3-2-1 when required, with Dutch hit-man Robin Van Persie generally the focus of his team's attacking intent.

Russian magician Andrey Arshavin is a fine addition for Arsenal's Champions League squad after he was cup-tied last term and the tactics for every Wenger team are simple and generally glorious to watch. Pass your opponents into submission and score more goals than you concede - the beautiful game indeed.

DON'T MENTION: Keeper Manuel Almunia is a weak link, with his tendency to drop the odd clanger when claiming high balls in the box a concern. He is also prone to letting the odd long shot fly past him, as was seen with Cristiano Ronaldo's pile-driver in last season's Champions League semi finals.

Arsenal are also accused of lacking a Plan B. If all out attack is not enough, they tend to lose some direction. Physical sides have also caused them problems in the Premier League and Wenger's back-up players have yet to prove they can fill the void if the likes of Fabregas and Van Persie are injured. Finally, they haven't really replaced the prolific if unpopular forward, Emmanuel Adebayor.

VERDICT: The gulf in class between Arsenal and Manchester United in last season's semi-finals did not bode well. However, Wenger's side look better this term and they may be a good outside Champions League bet this time.


AZ ALKMAAR
• Status: Dutch league champions
• Nickname: AZ

THE RECORD: AZ have been used to a regular helping of UEFA Cup football in recent years, with their semi-final appearance in 2005 and quarter-final showing two years later a decent effort. They lost to English side Ipswich in the 1981 UEFA Cup Final and now comes their Champions League debut.

HEADLINER: Mounir El Hamdaoui
This Moroccan international forward was linked with moves to both Arsenal and Liverpool during the summer, but he is still in Holland and will score goals aplenty in the Dutch league.

It initially seemed as if the Premier League would be the stage for this talented operator to prove his worth when he signed a contract with Tottenham Hotspur back in 2005, but El Hamdaoui never got a first team chance at White Hart Lane. A loan spell at Derby failed to spark him into life and it has only been since he returned to Holland with Willem II and now AZ that his scoring record has caught the eye.

YOUNG GUN: Moussa Dembele
This Belgian international showed promise aplenty at Willem II and his move to AZ in 2006 allowed him to flourish to the point where he now feels ready to step onto the Champions League stage.

Louis van Gaal clearly unlocked the key to this 22-year-old's talent last term as he got him firing and scoring goals aplenty in the title-winning success. Arsenal and a couple of Italian clubs were linked with a move for Dembele during the summer, but he insists he is content to stay with AZ for now.

THE MAVERICK: Sergio Romero
You don't find too many 20-year-old Argentine keepers making a move to Europe in a bid to take their career to the next level, but Romero is making quite a name for himself in AZ colours.

Now 22, he has proved his worth in the Dutch Eredivisie and an international career with Argentina beckons. Blessed with dashing looks, this novice keeper has a colourful private life, with his model wife Eliana Guercio often creating headlines back home. She once appeared fully nude on Argentine TV.

SUMMER SIGNING: Celso Ortiz
AZ have long prided themselves as being one of the finest breeding grounds for youthful talent in the European game and their move to snap up Paraguayan Ortiz followed that trend.

Still only 20, Ortiz has been hailed as one of the finest emerging talents in South America and AZ will welcome him into their ranks when the deal becomes official in the New Year. He will be hoping his new side are still Champions League contestants at that stage. Swede Rasmus Elm was another summer signing.

COACH: Ronald Koeman
This Dutch legend scored the goal that secured European Cup glory for Barcelona at Wembley back in 1992, yet he is the first to accept the notion of repeating that triumph with AZ will be a tough task.

"The challenge of the Champions League made this opportunity seem like the right one for me," states Koeman, who was something of a surprise appointment following Van Gaal's move to Bayern Munich in the summer. "Our goal in Europe this season is simple and it has to be surviving in the competition until the knock-out stages. I believe it is possible. The draw has given us a feeling that we can do well in the Champions League."

CHALKBOARD: Koeman's plans for this AZ team are still very much a work in progress and he may devise a different strategy for home and away ties in the Champions League.

El Hamdaoui's role is flexible enough to allow him to play in a more reserved midfield role when AZ travel to take on the likes of Arsenal and Olympiakos. Dembele is the goal source, with Graziano Pelle and Ari alternative striking options. Expect a 4-4-2 line-up if Koeman is feeling confident, but a 4-3-3 can easily be turned into a 4-5-1 if the pressure is being applied.

DON'T MENTION: Demy de Zeeuw's departure to Ajax was a blow, but Koeman will argue he has boosted his midfield options with the summer captures of Swede Pontus Wernbloom and Danish teenager Morten Nielsen.

AZ's lack of Champions League experience is an obvious flaw, with defender Kew Jaliens one of their only players who has played in this competition before. Many of the club's summer signings are raw talents and may not be ready for the big level competition coming their way.

VERDICT: A decent draw gives them a shot at making the knock-out stages, but AZ must make the most of their home games.


OLYMPIAKOS
• Status: Greek league champions
• Nickname: The Green Blacks

THE RECORD: Their finest hour in the Champions League came back in the 1998-99 season when they reached the quarter-finals. Olympiakos are the most successful club in Greek football history, with a massive 37 title triumphs to their credit and they return to the elite European competition after spending last season in the UEFA Cup.

HEADLINER: Antonios Nikopolidis
The Olympiakos club skipper secured himself a place in Greek football folklore as he played a central role in his nation's historic and unexpected triumph at the Euro 2004 championships in Portugal.

Nikopolidis is closing on his 100th international cap and he will have a big role to play as Zico looks to establish himself in the Olympiakos hot-seat this term. He made a contentious switch from arch rivals Panathinakos in the aftermath of his Euro 2004 heroics and even if he is in the twilight of his career, he remains the key man in this team.

SUMMER SIGNING: Olof Mellberg
This Swedish international adds a healthy dose of experience to the Olympiacos back-line after his move from Italian giants Juventus.

He is something of a globe trotting character as he has plied his trade in Spain with Racing Santander, in England with Aston Villa and he was a resident at Juve last season. The Swede is clearly relishing the Champions League challenge, though he accepts his new club has plenty to prove against top opposition. "This club knows how to win in Greece, but Europe is what they want now," he says.

COACH: Zico
Swapping one Champions League club for another in the week when group stages were getting underway was hardly a conventional plan, but it is one Brazilian football icon Zico pulled off as he swapped CSKA Moscow for Olympiakos in mid-September.

Temuri Ketsbaia's slightly bizarre departure from Olympiakos came after he was criticised for some early performances and yet his side started the Greek season in unbeaten form. The reality that the football legend Zico was willing to move to Greece may have been too tempting for Olympiakos chiefs as this former Japan boss certainly brings a presence and status to the club. He also offers Champions League pedigree as he enjoyed success in this competition with Turkish side Fenerbahce as they reached the knock-out stages in his two seasons at the club.

CHALKBOARD: Kostas Mitroglou or young Diogo are options to lead the line for Olympiakos this season, with talented Brazilian Dudu providing the support and supply line with his invention and energy. The latter's importance to the team was confirmed as he signed a new contract in the summer.

However, new boss Zico may have his own ideas and his compatriot Leonardo was used in an offensive role in their first group game against AZ Alkmaar. Mellberg should add plenty of quality to the defence, which also features ex-Real Madrid star Raul Bravo. Summer signing Jaouad Zairi is a man to watch after his summer move from Greek side Asteras Tripoli, as he is a tricky operator on the flank.

Olympiakos will try to employ a 4-3-3 line-up, but they will be content to switch to something a little more conservative when they are outclassed by some of their Champions League opponents. Mellberg should add plenty of quality to the defence, which also features ex-Real Madrid star Raul Bravo.

DON'T MENTION: Olympiakos are not a club flush with cash as the redevelopment of their Karaiskakis Stadium drained resources to the point where they need a decent run in the Champions League to fend off a few debtors.

Their financial positions means they are unable to compete for the finest players in the game and are left to scrap it out for the rest. When you are fielding performers the top clubs have turned their nose up at, it generally doesn't bring results in the Champions League.

VERDICT: A favourable draw gives them a chance, but they will need to make the most of ties in front of their own enthusiastic supporters.


STANDARD LIEGE
• Status: Belgian champions
• Nickname: Les Rouches (The Reds)

THE RECORD: Standard are about to embark on their inaugural Champions League campaign. However, they do have experience of the old Champions' Cup, going as far as the semi-final in 1962, where they were beaten by Real Madrid. They lost to Barcelona in the final of the 1982 Cup Winners' Cup.

HEADLINER: Steven Defour
It says everything about the quality of the Standard captain and central midfield kingpin Defour that Real Madrid were rumoured to see him as their Plan B if they proved unable to lure Xabi Alonso away from Liverpool. Sadly for the 21-year-old Belgian international, Alonso did become the latest galactico, but rumours persist that Real want this talented performer for next season.

His country's Footballer of the Year in 2007, he is a multi-dimensional player, equally at home driving forward, picking out a pass, closing down opponents and generally making himself busy. He has been playing deeper of late, where his ability to set the tempo of Standard's approach work still shines through.

YOUNG GUN: Axel Witsel
Last season was a vintage one for this local Liege lad. Not only did the attacking midfielder score the penalty which sealed victory for Standard in the Belgian title play-off against arch-rivals Anderlecht, he also had the honour of topping the national Player of the Year ballot.

Brimming over with flair, speed and imagination, Witsel usually lines up on the left-side of Standard's midfield, but does not look out of place in a playmaking role, on the opposite flank or as an old-fashioned inside-forward. This could well be his last season in Standard red and he will want to go out with a bang in the Champions League.

THE MAVERICK: Dieumerci Mbokani
Liverpool central defenders Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher should remember Mbokani. The young Conglese attacker gave them a torrid time a year ago in a Champions League preliminary at Anfield, a match in which he showcased his incessant movement, flamboyant dribbling, feints and tricks.

Dieumerci (which translates to thank God in French) still has some way to go to complete his metamorphosis into the finished article as he can be greedy at times. While his finishing is on the money more often than not, he has a habit of wasting the simplest of chances, much to the annoyance of his team mates.

SUMMER SIGNING: Cedric Collet
Most assumed this Frenchman had been bought from Mons in the close season to serve as a forward-line back up, but it seems he has a bigger role to play. What impressed the Standard management was his versatility and he currently is carving out a niche for himself as a purposeful left-back.

Born in France, he is an international for Guadeloupe who played in the Gallic Second and Third Divisions for Sedan, Tours and Brest before crossing the Belgian border in 2008 to set up home at Mons.

COACH: Laszlo Boloni
This former Romania midfield star knows all about ruling in Europe. He was a key member of the Steaua Bucharest side that tore up the form book to beat Barcelona on penalties in the final of the 1996 Champions' Cup. Incidentally, he missed his spot-kick on the night, but such minor details were forgotten amid the euphoria of victory.

Previously in charge of Romania, French clubs Nancy, Rennes and Monaco and Sporting Lisbon, Boloni was handed the Standard reins in the summer of 2008 following the surprise departure of Michel Preud'homme.

THE CHALKBOARD: Boloni had a reputation in France as safety-first coach, one to play the percentages. However, since arriving in Liege, he has proved considerably more audacious than anyone imagined, putting his trust in a fluid and attractive 4-3-3.

When not in possession Standard press the ball high and efficiently, they keep a compact shape with the three lines of the team close to one another and they play with much width, exploiting speedsters Wilfried Dalmat and Witsel.

DON'T MENTION: Their lack of aerial presence at the back now that US international central defender Oguchi Onyewu has left for AC Milan. They are bound to miss his leadership too.

Boloni himself has declared that the right flank looks too much like a wide-open boulevard this season. Standard have been short of muscle in midfield ever since Marouane Fellaini jumped ship last year for Everton.

VERDICT: Standard Liege will make life difficult for those who cross their path, but the absence of a killer instinct might be fatal to their hopes of lasting into the New Year.


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