Champions League 2011-12, Group B
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Gian Piero Gasperini's disastrous stint as Inter boss was as brief as many cynics predicted it would be and after just one Champions League game, the highly experienced Claudio Ranieri was ushered in to revive Inter's flagging fortunes. The former Chelsea, Valencia, Juventus and Roma boss is the latest candidate to emerge through the revolving door of Inter managers in the last few years and it can only be hoped that this affable Italian can provide the club with some much-needed stability. THE GAMEPLAN: Gasperini's desire to introduce a 3-4-3 formation did not produce any form of success and it also failed to make the most of the talent he had at his disposal, so Ranieri will attempt to get the team back into a shape that will suit their playing resources. Getting Wesley Sneijder back to his best has to be a priority for Ranieri and if he can play to Diego Forlan's goalscoring strengths, all may not be lost for Inter this season. The three man-defence Inter started the season with failed to deliver and changes need to be made to stabilise the backline. MAIN MAN: Wesley Sneijder
The Dutch midfield maestro admits he came close to joining Manchester United during the summer, but Inter's success in hanging onto their midfield creator-in-chief means they will be a more potent threat in the Champions League. Oozing with class and proven at all levels of the game, Sneijder is one of the game's modern greats and his performances as Inter lifted the greatest prize in European club football in 2010 cemented his reputation as a modern great. "Anyone who doubts whether Inter can compete for the Champions League don't have to think too far back to change their opinions," Sneijder says. "We can surprise a few people once again this season." BIG SIGNING: Ricardo Alvarez
Plenty of top clubs were chasing the services of Alvarez during the off-season, but Inter won the race to secure the signature of this attacking maestro as he sealed a switch from Velez Sarsfield. "Zinedine Zidane is a hero for me and my dream is to make an impact in the game like he did," Alvarez says. "Inter is the club of my dreams and the South American players already at this club will make my adaptation to a new country and a different style of football much easier. At Inter there can only be one target: winning the biggest prizes in the game." RISING STAR: Andrea Poli
Much is expected of this Italy Under-21 international after he sealed a season-long loan at Inter and he has the raw potential to emerge as a star in this season's Champions League. Having proved his worth in a successful Sampdoria side a couple of seasons back, Poli was helpless as they suffered relegation last term, yet a player of this quality was never likely to languish in Serie B for long. "When you join a club of Inter's stature, the first task is to prove you are worthy of the shirt and this is a pressure I look forward to," Poli says. THE X FACTOR: Mauro Zarate
After plenty of speculation linking Diego Forlan to a variety of clubs across Europe, the player crowned as the finest at last summer's World Cup finals sealed his move to Inter just as the transfer window was about to close. However, as he represented Atletico Madrid in the Europa League preliminary rounds, he will not be eligible to play for Inter in the Champions League group stage. As a result, Zarate - a bonus loan signing from Lazio on transfer deadline day - will be required to give the Inter attack a fresh vibrancy. FLAW IN THE MAKE-UP: Instability in the managerial hot-seat meant it was tough for Inter to find any cohesion on the pitch last season, with Rafael Benitez and Leonardo both struggling to make their mark as Nerazzurri's leading men. The appointment of Gasperini was always viewed as a gamble by Inter and it backfired in double quick time. Can Ranieri now lift a team shorn of confidence mid-way through a challenging season? He may be forced to sacrifice the Champions League to get the side winning once again in Serie A. WHAT THEY SAY: "It was not an easy start to the season, but this is what happens when a big club does not win as often as people expect it to," states summer signing Diego Forlan. "One win can start everything for this team and you can see what can happen for Inter in the Champions League. Only two years ago, they were champions. No one expected it then, so why not now." VERDICT:After the horrible start overseen by Gasperini, Inter are not certain to win this group. They should still be good enough to make the knockout stages.
Nickname: The Horses
In charge as CSKA made it through to the Champions League last eight in 2010, Slutsky emerged as a surprise candidate to become Chelsea manager last summer, yet those well-informed rumours did not end with the 40-year-old taking up the reins at Stamford Bridge. One of an increasing number of modern coaches reaching the top of the management game without the help of successful career on the field to provide a springboard, Slutsky has been hailed as 'The Russian Mourinho' and is often accused of looking grumpy on the touchline. His career as a budding young goalkeeper ended when he sustained an injury trying to rescue a neighbour's cat from a tree. THE GAMEPLAN: Slutsky favours a 4-3-3 formation and encourages his midfielders to try and assist strikers Vagner Love and Seydou Doumbia when possible, yet the verve they show in their domestic competition may not be so easy to replicate against the Champions League elite. Slutsky will target a healthy return in his side's home matches, with their away trips unlikely to produce enough points to secure progress to the knockout stages. MAIN MAN: Vagner Love
This prolific Brazilian striker is back at CSKA after spending the first half of 2011 on loan in his homeland with Flamengo and he will be expected to ignite their Champions League campaign. Love is a proven scoring machine in European competition, with his haul of 11 goals in eight UEFA Cup matches in the 2008-09 season a highlight of his stint at CSKA, which nearly ended this summer. "I know there was some interest in me from other clubs and maybe it would have been nice to breathe fresh air somewhere else, but it was not to be this time," states Love. BIG SIGNING: Aleksandrs Cauna
This Latvian international struggled to make his mark during a loan spell with CSKA as injury got in the way of his ambitions, yet club officials liked what they saw from this experienced midfielder and he was handed a lengthy contract by the Russian side during the summer. Champions League football is quite a leap for a player who was trying his luck at English second division side Watford not so long ago and he is determined to make the most of his opportunity. "CSKA are one of the most ambitious clubs in Europe, so this is a great move for me," he states. THE RISING STAR: Pavel Mamaev
This burly midfielder captained Russian national teams at junior levels and he offers a touch of versatility that may be vital for CSKA boss Slutsky as he looks to shuffle his pack for Champions League challenge. Mamaev, 23, made his senior debut for the Russian national team last season and the challenge of testing himself against the Champions League giants seems like the ideal next step in his development. "We see so much potential in Pavel and it will be interesting to see what position turns out to be his most effective," says Slutsky. THE X FACTOR: Keisuke Honda
A darling of the fanatical Japanese football public as he turned in some sparkling displays in the 2010 World Cup finals, Honda was linked with moves to Juventus, Liverpool and Arsenal during the summer. While some players from the Far East are signed by European clubs with an eye on expanding commercial opportunities, Honda is very much a Champions League performer on merit. "There is always a temptation to play in a more competitive league, yet I am at a club preparing to play in the biggest competition of them all and that is enough for me right now" says Honda, who has found his best form on the right of midfield of late. FLAW IN THE MAKE-UP: CSKA's are not one of the big spenders in the Russian league, with their lack of huge finance restricting their potential to attract the biggest names in the game. That means Slutsky is working with a relatively modest number of star names and is being asked to produce a few miracles against Europe's elite this season. The knee injury suffered by keeper Igor Akinfeev is a major blow and it could unsettle a defensive line that is heavy on experience and a little light on real pace. Also, who will provide the magic up front if Love and Doumbia fail in that task? WHAT THEY SAY: "I believe we have a group that can be negotiated if we are at our best," says Slutsky. "Clearly Inter are the favourites, but we should not fear Lille or Trabzonspor. I will tell my players that we should not fear anyone." VERDICT: A battle with Lille for second spot in Group B beckons and CSKA may end up in the Europa League come the New Year.
Nicknames: LOSC (Lille Olympique Sporting Club), Les Dogues
A rather unremarkable midfielder for Lille and Caen in the 1980s, Garcia has developed into French football's finest coach. A superb organiser and motivator, as well as totally committed to spectacular attacking football, many credit Garcia with turning Ligue 1 into a more entertaining competition. Cutting his teeth in management as Saint-Etienne's fitness guru, he polished his reputation as a bright young head coach at Dijon and Le Mans before heading to Lille in the summer of 2008. His success in guiding the team to their first league and cup double since 1946 last term has secured him a place in Lille folklore. THE GAMEPLAN: Coach Garcia swears by a fluid 4-3-3 system, one in which his side always look to hold onto the ball, attack at all opportunities and play with imagination and verve. Lille are superb at finding the right moment to inject pace into their play. Key to their success is the mobility, versatility and quick-thinking of their front three, with pride of place going to the dribbling virtuosity and inventiveness of Eden Hazard on the left. Their other main asset is a well-balanced midfield, a unit comprising all the flavours: technical ability, muscle, endurance and tactical awareness. MAIN MAN: Eden Hazard
The little Belgian boy wonder was a class apart in Ligue 1 last season, scoring seven times, making ten and generally tormenting opposition defenders with his vast array of feints and tricks. It was no surprise that the 20-year-old was voted France's Player of the Year at the end of the campaign. Heavily linked with Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan during the summer, Hazard insists it is premature to talk of a move away. Although he is a leading star in France, he has a love-hate relationship with Belgium coach Georges Leekens. BIG SIGNING: Marko Basa
With France centre-back Adel Rami leaving for Valencia in the close season, it was vital that Lille quickly plugged the gap and this they have done with the acquisition of Montenegro international Basa from Lokomotiv Moscow. Strong in the air, an intimidating tackler, comfortable on the ball and a natural leader, the 28-year-old is no stranger to French football, having spent three years from 2005 fortifying the back-line of Le Mans, where he worked under Rudi Garcia. RISING STAR: Dimitri Payet
Recruited from Saint-Etienne this summer, this turbo-charged and highly-skilful right-winger has the tough task of stepping into the shoes of Gervinho following the latter's switch to Arsenal. So impressive was Payet in the first three months of last season that France boss Laurent Blanc had no hesitation drafting him into the national squad. However, the 24-year-old can be inconsistent at times and he is a confidence player who can either be unstoppable or anonymous, depending on his mood. THE X FACTOR: Moussa Sow and Joe Cole
No professional in France offered more value last season than Senegalese frontrunner Sow, who after arriving from Rennes on a Bosman finished the campaign as Ligue 1 top scorer with 25 goals. As for Liverpool loanee Cole, the one-time England regular has lost his way in the last couple of seasons and has a point to prove as he dips his toe into French waters. At his best, the former West Ham and Chelsea man is a magician on the ball, but are those glory days gone for good? FLAW IN THE MAKE UP: One of Lille's great strengths in recent seasons has been the stability of their personnel, their enviable understanding and togetherness, but that was disrupted this summer as three of their most influential players - Rami, Gervinho and midfielder Yohan Cabaye - flew the nest and such an exodus of talent may well have a destabilising effect. Gervinho's departure will be felt the most. It means Lille's squad is paper-thin, with the lack of good quality youngsters coming through from their academy meaning they may struggle to cope with the demands of regular Champions League games. WHAT THEY SAY: "It's true they have lost a lot of quality players in the summer, but Hazard and Sow are still there to light the attacking flame and the arrival of Joe Cole may turn out to be a key moment," Nancy coach Jean Fernandez says. "Cole is clever, technically-gifted and can play in many positions in midfield and further forward. Lille are on a high after winning the double and can push on in the Champions League. They can succeed despite their departures." VERDICT: Lille's enterprising style will be a breath of fresh air in the Champions League and a spot in the second round is by no means beyond them.
Nickname: Black Sea Storm
The 59-year-old Gunes is very much an institution at the Black Sea club, starring there as a goalkeeper in the 1970s and 80s and later coaching them in four separate spells, steering them to four second-place finishes in the Turkish League, as well as two domestic Cups. He talks a good game and plans a better one. Gunes can be sure of a place in the Turkish football pantheon for his work as the national team coach, taking them to a third place finish at the 2002 World Cup finals. It's incredible to recall that on being appointed national team boss back in 2000, many members of the Turkish sporting media questioned whether Gunes had what it took to handle big-name players. THE GAMEPLAN: While the claret and blues can do attacking swagger when it suits them, they are far happier in counter-attacking mode. They have turned the narrow win into an art form and the phrase 'one Trabzonspor goal equals three points' tells you all you need to know. Rather than the 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 he has employed in the past couple of seasons, Senol Gunes now favours a 4-2-1-3, with new Polish signing Adrian Mierzejewski as the 'hole' and Gustavo Colman and another recent arrival Didier Zokora anchoring the midfield. A crisp short-passing game and plenty of fight is the order of the day. MAIN MAN: Burak Yilmaz
This opportunistic striker was the Storm's top scorer last term with 19 goals. Pacy and powerfully-built, the 26-year-old is never more dangerous than when running beyond the defensive line. Yilmaz was viewed as a rising star when he got his chance to star for the big Istanbul clubs, Besiktas and Fenerbahce, but flopped at both. It was only when he switched to Trabzonspor in January 2010 that he finally began to fulfil his promise. The classic late-developer, he made his full debut for Turkey as long ago as 2006 and opened his scoring account for them in June of this year in a Euro 2012 tie against Belgium. BIG SIGNING: Didier Zokora
The most-capped Ivory Coast international of all-time, this tireless defensive midfielder moved to Turkey this summer in a €5m deal from Sevilla. Now aged 30, he has played in the Champions League for Genk and Sevilla, helping the latter reach the second round in 2009/10 campaign. Renowned for his crunching tackles and high work-rate, he started out at the prolific Mimosas academy in his homeland and went on to wear the colours of St Etienne in France and Premier League side Tottenham, where he stayed for three years. However, Zokora did not quite live up to expectations raised by the €8.2 million Spurs paid St Etienne in 2006. RISING STAR: Adrian Mierzejewski
This cultured 24-year-old attacking midfielder will carry the hopes of a nation as he leads the Polish charge on home soil in the Euro 2012 finals next summer. This is his first season at Trabzonspor, joining them for a Polish record €5.25 million from Polonia Warsaw. Poland's Player of the Year last season, he made his full international debut in May 2010 in a friendly against Finland. Even though he is still a relative novice at the highest level, Mierzejewski has sported the captain's armband of his national team. THE X FACTOR: Paulo Henrique
A €4 million purchase in the off-season from Belgian side Westerlo, the Brazilian striker has been likened to the FC Porto star and compatriot Hulk as he has the same tank-like build, a similar shoot on sight mindset and the ability to produce dead-eye finishing. Brought up in the youth system of leading Brazilian club Atletico Mineiro, Henrique first made an impact on the European scene at Dutch outfit Heerenveen, spending three years in their blue-and-white stripes. Last year he had a short spell on loan at Palmeiras in Sao Paulo. FLAW IN THE MAKE UP: Defensively they appear vulnerable. Trabzonspor's outstanding young first-choice keeper Onur Kivrak is still some way from full fitness after damaging knee ligaments last spring and their best centre-back Egemen Korkmaz recently left for Besiktas. Another concern in the rapid turnover in personnel. With 14 new arrivals and ten heading for the out door, coach Senol Gunes faces a mammoth task to gel a group of unfamiliar players into a cohesive unit. WHAT THEY SAY: "We all know what a smart coach Senol Gunes is and we can trust him to have some fine strategies to put into action for the Champions League," believes ex-Trabzonspor midfielder, Tolunay Kafkas. "The trouble is that he has so many new faces to blend together and time is against him to get everything in place in time. He has produced miracles before and more are needed now." VERDICT: Anything other than a last-place finish in Group B group will be a success.