Who's who of Europe

Champions League 2011-12, Group G

September 11, 2011
By Kevin Palmer and Nick Bidwell
(Archive)

Group G: FC Porto | Shakhtar Donetsk | Zenit St Petersburg | APOEL

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group H


  • FC PORTO

    Status: Portuguese champions, Europa League winners
    Nickname: Dragoes

    Porto striker Hulk
    GettyImagesPorto striker Hulk

    THE RECORD: Champions of Europe in 1987 and 2004, Porto consistently defy the odds to unsettle bigger spending rivals in the Champions League.

    Porto's European credentials were enhanced by their victory in last season's Europa League final, with their position in the top pot of teams for this season's Champions League draw confirming they are worthy of respect.

    TACTICIAN: Vitor Pereira
    Porto supporters were left shocked and angry as their latest youthful managerial master walked out on them in the summer, with Andre Villas-Boas following in Jose Mourinho's footsteps by making an exit from Portuguese football at the first opportunity.

    Vitor Pereira is charged with maintaining the impressive momentum Villas-Boas created and the challenge of performing in the Champions League is setting his pulse racing. "The club is used to winning big titles and we will go into the European adventure remembering what Porto have done in the past," he says. "We deserve to be considered as one of Europe's top teams."

    THE GAMEPLAN: The progressive, attacking tactics employed by the departed Villas-Boas made Porto one of the more attractive sides to watch in Europe last season and Pereira will be keen to retain that tag as he looks to make his mark on the touchline.

    Porto fans spent the summer wondering whether some of their star names will follow their departed coach out of the club, with the exit of striker Falcao being compensated by a host of summer additions who should give the side fresh energy.

    MAIN MAN: Givanildo Vieira de Souza aka Hulk
    Hulk has proved to be a handful in the Champions League before and the hope will be that he can lead the club's European charge this season following the exit of Falcao. "There was talk of me joining a new club this summer, but I am happy at Porto and that situation will not change any time soon," are the reassuring words of this Brazilian.

    Stocky, barrel-chested and capable of getting himself into dangerous positions consistently, he is a creator of goals as much as a taker of chances. His experience will be useful as new arrivals Djalma and Kleber look to acclimatise to the demands of playing for Porto.

    BIG SIGNINGS: Djalma and Kleber
    The double swoop for rising stars Djalma and Kleber was typical of the kind of transfer Porto have specialised in down the years, with their power to snatch the finest talent in Portuguese football giving them an untouchable advantage over their domestic rivals.

    This duo proved their worth with some fine performances at Portuguese side CS Maritimo last season and Brazilian Kleber, in particular, is tipped to make a big splash at Porto. "The Champions League is the biggest challenge of my career and this club has proved that it can be victorious against the very best in Europe," says Kleber. "My task is to help them return to those levels and I cannot wait to make it happen."

    THE RISING STAR: Juan Manuel Iturbe
    Argentine protégé Juan Manuel Iturbe arrived from Paraguayan club Cerro Porteno with comparisons being thrust upon him that can only hinder his progress as he looks to make his mark in Europe.

    "It can only be seen as flatting that people have compared me to Lionel Messi, but I know it's not realistic to put me in his class," begins the speedy and gifted attacking star who opted to play for Argentina even though he also had an option to represent Paraguay. "My first task is to prove I can play for Porto and maybe play against Messi in the Champions League. Comparisons are a long way in the distance.

    THE X FACTOR: Joao Moutinho
    Joao Moutinho was the rock upon which Porto built their success last season and he represents a stable pillar for new boss Vitor Pereira to construct his team around as the club return to the Champions League.

    There is little doubt that the brilliantly consistent Moutinho could do a job at a higher profile European club, but the offer to lure him away from Porto has yet to be received, meaning this experienced Portuguese international can focus his attentions on confirming his class against Europe's best.

    FLAW IN THE MAKE-UP: Every summer tends to represent a change of direction for Porto, with the exit of talented managers and top players destabilising the club and the plotline was no different this year.

    New boys Alex Sandro (Brazilian), Steven Defour (Belgian), Eliaquim Mangala (French), along with Djalma and Kleber may all take time to find their feet, while star Brazilian signing Danilo is not due to arrive in December. Could a Porto side in transition be vulnerable to early upsets in the Champions League?

    WHAT THEY SAY: "I know that Porto will continue to thrive and succeed even though I have left the club," states Andre Villas-Boas, who left Porto for Chelsea this summer. "This club will always be my club and will remain in my heart forever.

    "The club is built on fantastic foundations, is financially stable and is not focused on individuals. Instead, this is a club with a team ethic from top to bottom and this is why they succeed so often. They are in the top pot for the Champions League on merit and have a chance to do anything they want in the competition."

    VERDICT: Quarter-finals at best for Porto.


  • SHAKHTAR DONETSK

    Status: Ukrainian champions
    Nicknames: The Moles

    Shakhtar's Darijo Srna
    GettyImagesShakhtar's Darijo Srna

    THE RECORD: First qualifying for the group phase of the Champions League in the 2000-01 campaign, Shakhtar initially found the going tough in the competition as they went a decade without making progress.

    However, they finally got their act together last season by reaching the uncharted territory of the quarter-finals, where they lost 6-1 on aggregate to eventual champions Barcelona. They served notice of their European rise by winning the UEFA Cup in 2009, beating Werder Bremen 2-1 in the final.

    TACTICIAN: Mircea Lucescu
    This highly-experienced, wily and always pragmatic Romanian coach has certainly worked wonders for Shakhtar in his eight years in charge, masterminding a substantial haul of silverware, including five Ukraine league titles, three domestic cups and the UEFA Cup.

    A brilliant linguist and one of the game's great philosophers, 65-year-old Lucescu knows how to construct championship-winning teams, having done so in his homeland with Dinamo and Rapid Bucharest, plus Galatasaray and Besiktas in Turkey and now with Shakhtar. He has also coached Inter Milan, Pisa, Reggiana, Brescia and the Romanian national team.

    THE GAMEPLAN: The central facets of Lucescu's approach are the meticulous way he organises his side and his thorough dissection of the opposition's strengths and weaknesses. His default formation is a 4-2-3-1, though at times Shakhtar can line up in a 4-5-1 or 4-4-2.

    Their most potent weapon is their attacking width. Both full backs - Darijo Srna on the right and the left-sided Razvan Rat - are encouraged to push on, while wingers Willian and Douglas Costa switch flanks at will. With the full-backs in a permanently advanced position, there is no room for error from central defenders Dmytro Chygrynskyi and Yaroslav Rakitskiy. Ex-Arsenal front-man Eduardo is their super-sub.

    MAIN MAN: Darijo Srna
    Right-backs don't tend to emerge as the talisman in a side, but Shakhtar's inspirational captain is the exception to prove the rule. A constant threat with his overlapping bursts, this Croatia international makes many goals with calibrated service from out wide and has energy and desire in abundance.

    A graduate of the Hajduk Split youth system, he joined Shakhtar in 2003 and, despite several lucrative offers, Srna has remained loyal to the Moles. He dedicates all his goals, many coming from free-kicks, to his brother Igor, who suffers with Down's syndrome.

    BIG SIGNING: Dentinho
    This 22-year-old Brazilian striker was recruited for €7.5 million this summer from Sao Paulo club Corinthians and arrives as an alternative to lone striker Luiz Adriano, whose lack of goals in past Champions League campaigns has been a major concern for Mircea Lucescu.

    A Brazil Under-20 international, he made his debut for Corinthians when just 17 and for a while teamed up with the great Ronaldo, who was particularly keen to predict a glorious future for the youngster.

    RISING STAR: Yaroslav Rakitskiy
    Mircea Lucescu certainly got it right early in 2009 when he decided to promote this uncompromising centre-back from the Shakhtar youth ranks rather than venture into the transfer market for reinforcements.

    Rakitskiy, who is also capable of filling in at full back, looked the part in last term's Champions League and caught the eye with his tenacious marking, determination and comfort on the ball at last summer's European Under-21 championships.

    THE X FACTOR: Willian
    This little Brazilian dribbling machine can tear even the most resolute of defences to shreds on his day with his pace and quick feet. Outstanding on the counter-attack, a good passer of the ball and boasting a powerful swerving shot from distance, he does, however, lack a degree of consistency.

    A graduate of the Corinthians academy, Willian first appeared on the international radar in 2007 as a member of the Brazil Under-20 side that won the South American championships in Paraguay. Just a few months later, Shakhtar splashed out €19 million to snare him and it has been a sound investment.

    FLAW IN THE MAKE-UP: Shakhtar tend to be much stronger at their Donbass Arena and tend to lack a degree of belief on the road. They also have to deal with inactivity during the winter months, which can be a huge disadvantage if they make it through to the knockout stages in the New Year.

    Doubts linger over the reliability of their two goalkeepers, Andriy Pyatov or Oleksandr Rybka, while Shakhtar have a curious tendency to be profligate in front of goal against Europe's best. They must take their scoring chances if a top-two finish in Group G is to be secured.

    WHAT THEY SAY: "The Shakhtar project is boiling up very nicely," Dnipro coach Juande Ramos says. "They have built gradually and wisely and, after reaching the Champions League quarter-finals last season, they will have the confidence to go for the next level. Belief is important at the top level and Shakhtar should have that now."

    VERDICT: Much will depend on how they fare in the old Soviet match-up with Zenit St Petersburg. They can reach the second round but no further.


  • ZENIT ST PETERSBURG

    Status: Russian champions
    Nicknames: Blue and Whites

    Zenit's Danny
    GettyImagesZenit's Danny

    THE RECORD: UEFA Cup and European Super Cup winners in 2008, now Zenit are eager to make their mark on the biggest competition of them all and their favourable group stage draw gives them a great chance to do just that.

    Their flirtations with the Champions League have been less than triumphant to date, with a third-place finish in a group featuring Real Madrid and Juventus three seasons ago an achievement they are eager to usurp this time.

    TACTICIAN: Luciano Spalletti
    The methodical Italian has brought untold domestic success to Zenit since his arrival at the club in December 2009, yet his ambitious paymasters are now demanding success in the Champions League.

    Previously in charge at Sampdoria, Udinese and Roma, his success in winning the Russian league and cup last season has to be used a platform for European triumphs that could cement this club's status as a rising force. "The Champions League has a habit of shredding your nerves because every team involved is used to winning," Spalletti says. "It's the ultimate test for any coach and any team."

    THE GAMEPLAN: Respected tactician Spalletti has long favoured a 4-3-2-1 formation and, at Zenit, that system requires Danny and Vladimir Bystrov to support the free-scoring Serbian Danko Lazovic and lead striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov.

    With so many attack-minded players in his line-up, ambitious full backs Aleksandr Anyukov and new-arrival Domenico Criscito may struggle to bomb forward into threatening positions, with their primary job needing to be as support to Portugal's Bruno Alves, who provides impressive strength at the heart of Zenit's generally reliable defensive line-up.

    MAIN MAN: Danny
    Russian transfer records were shattered when Zenit splashed out €30 million to sign this gifted Portugal international in 2008, with Danny's successful stint with Dinamo Moscow convincing his prospective employers that he could be the talisman to help fulfil their ambitions.

    Danny certainly marked his Zenit debut in style, scoring a winner against Manchester United in the 2008 Super Cup final and, since then, he has been the heartbeat of their gameplan. He was rumoured to be close to joining Chelsea and Juventus in the last couple of years, but a serious knee injury halted those moves.

    BIG SIGNING: Domenico Criscito
    Zenit fans may have been hoping for a mega-name signing in a summer when Anzhi Makhachkala changed the landscape of Russian football with their lavish spending, yet this talented 24-year-old Italy full back was to be their most intriguing capture.

    Youthful, talented and oozing ambition, this former Juventus star signed from Genoa and the challenge of top-level action is setting his pulse racing. "It was the presence of Spalletti at Zenit that convinced me to come here," Criscito says. "He will find a way to help this team succeed in the Champions League."

    RISING STAR: Aleksei Ionov
    Zenit enter the Champions League with a collection of battled-hardened seasoned professionals, so the injection of youthful exuberance provided by Russia winger Ionov gives coach Spalletti some welcome verve.

    This 22-year-old made his full Russia debut against Qatar earlier this year and, while his impact may be reserved for fleeting substitute appearances in this European campaign, he has the class to make an impact with his speedy bursts and trickery on the ball.

    THE X FACTOR: Danko Lazovic
    This experienced Serbia international lists FK Partizan, Feyenoord, Vitesse and PSV Eindhoven among his former clubs and he seems to have found the ideal stage for his talents at Zenit.

    His relationship with Zenit star man Danny has reaped dividends under Spalletti's guidance, with his switch from a midfield role to assume more direct goal-scoring duties proving a success as he has been a consistent scorer in the Russian championship. A maker and taker of chances, Lazovic needs to shine in the Champions League if Zenit are to thrive.

    FLAW IN THE MAKE-UP: Expectations have soared among Zenit supporters and their ambitious owners since the draw for the group stages of the Champions League and Spalletti will have to manage that additional weight as his side aim to secure their place in the knockout stages.

    As is the case for any Russian side, the leap from domestic competition to Champions League football is tough to make, while there are also doubts about the back-up options available if injuries strike down the likes of Danny, Lazovic or Bruno Alves.

    WHAT THEY SAY: "I can understand why there is excitement that we have avoided a draw against one of the major sides in the first round of this competition, but the teams we are up against will all feel they have a big chance to progress and that's why I see this as the most competitive group in the competition," Zenit boss Spalletti says.

    VERDICT: A top-two finish is within reach if Zenit turn their Petrovsky Stadium into a Champions League fortress.


  • APOEL

    Status: Cypriot champions
    Nicknames: Thrylos (Legend)

    APOEL's Dionisis Chiotis
    GettyImagesAPOEL's Dionisis Chiotis

    THE RECORD: This is the Nicosia club's second stab at the Champions League, with their first adventure a couple of years ago notable for brilliant victories over Partizan Belgrade and FC Copenhagen that fired them into the lucrative group stages.

    A group featuring Atletico Madrid, Chelsea and FC Porto did not work out so well for APOEL, as they failed to win a single game and finished last. However, the overall assessment was they did not embarrass themselves on their Champions League debut after conceding just seven goals.

    TACTICIAN: Ivan Jovanovic
    In two stints as APOEL boss, Jovanovic has had untold success with a pair of Champions League group phase passes and a hat-trick of Cypriot League titles in 2003-04, 2008-09 and 2010-11.

    A former player with FK Rad in the old Yugoslav top-flight and Greek side Iraklis of Salonika, the Serb is very much a product of the Hellenic coaching school, taking charge at Iraklis, Niki Volou and Panachaiki. He is renowned for his ability as a motivator and endlessly studies DVDs of opponents, trying to find the weaknesses he intends to exploit.

    THE GAMEPLAN: Jovanovic prefers to go with the fashionable 4-2-3-1 and his side tend to hit their opponents on the counter. They are extremely well-organised at the back, forming a six-man block that is hard to break down. Holding midfielders Marinos Satsias, the captain, and the Portuguese Nuno Morais do a fine job of screening the back four.

    The coach has plenty of options in the attacking third and does not hesitate to heavily rotate his personnel in this area. For instance, Argentina's Esteban Solari, the Brazilian Ailton and Macedonian Ivan Trickovski are all in contention to be the lone striker. When chasing a game, Jovanovic wastes no time, switching to a three-pronged attack and they are also a threat from well-rehearsed set pieces.

    MAIN MAN: Dionisis Chiotis
    A star turn with Greek side AEK Athens for over a decade, this goalkeeper's career appeared to be on the slide when he lost his place to the Italian Stefano Sorrentino and was eventually was shown the door.

    Yet since moving on to Corfu club Kerkyra FC and then to APOEL in the summer of 2008, he has bounced back with a vengeance, proving himself to be absolutely indispensable. Now 35, Chiotis is prone to making saves look a little more spectacular than needed, but in terms of goalkeeping fundamentals, he has all the bases covered.

    BIG SIGNING: Kaka
    If only it was the Real Madrid attacking midfielder. While this Kaka is also Brazilian, he earns his corn as a central defender and, now that APOEL have him on a season-long loan from Hertha Berlin, his controlled aggression, excellent reading of the game and good distribution will be just what the doctor ordered.

    In Europe for the past five years, Kaka has played for Academica Coimbra in Portugal and Hertha, as well as taking up temporary assignments at Omonia Nicosia and Sporting Braga, helping the latter reach the final of last season's Europa League.

    RISING STAR: Ivan Trickovski
    Tricky by name, tricky by nature. Ever since joining APOEL from Red Star Belgrade in the summer of 2010, the young Macedonian left-winger or striker has had fans of the club in raptures at his ability on the ball, elusive running and finishing skills. He has proved to be a real bargain at a cut price €270,000, with Belgian club Lokeren having a €1.2 million offer for him turned down a few months ago.

    APOEL had come across Trickovski several times prior to his acquisition. He once played against them in the UEFA Cup for Red Star and in the 2009-10 season was on loan at Cypriot side Enosis Nea Paralimni. He is a full Macedonia international.

    THE X FACTOR: Esteban Solari
    In two spells with APOEL - 2005-07 and the summer of 2010 to the present day - this intensely-competitive Argentine frontrunner has not stopped scoring and, more often than not, he is the man who sets their attacking tone.

    The brother of ex-Argentina and Real Madrid midfielder Santaigo Solari - who was a Champions League winner in 2002 - Esteban has also worn the colours of Velez Sarsfield, Estudiantes and Argentinos Juniors in his homeland, plus Lierse in Belgium, Mexican team Pumas UNAM and Almeria in Spain. He scored four times in six Europa League appearances last season. More of the same please.

    FLAW IN THE MAKE-UP: APOEL lack a balanced approach. Defensive solidity is the be all and end all, yet caution stunts their attacking ambitions. Coach Jovanovic's biggest failing is to have his team defending too deep and top European opponents will not need to be asked to tear them apart.

    At the age of 35, right-back Savvas Poursaitidis is not the quickest and may prove a liability, while it does not seem as if APOEL have reinforced their squad sufficiently to have any chance in the Champions League.

    WHAT THEY SAY: "Top Cypriot sides are no longer in awe of the leading football countries in Europe," ex-APOEL striker Sinisa Gogic says. "Teams like APOEL have the confidence and the belief that they can match up against anyone in a one-off game and they are always a tough nut to crack. Don't underestimate them."

    VERDICT: As long as FC Porto, Shakhtar and Zenit are not complacent, APOEL will prop up Group G.