Champions League 2006/7, Group D

September 6, 2006
By Kevin Palmer and Nick Bidwell

Group D: Valencia | AS Roma | Olympiakos | Shakhtar Donetsk
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Valencia

GettyImagesTotti: AS Roma's gifted star

Domestic finish last season: 3rd in La Liga

Champions League form guide: Having established themselves as one of the more consistent dark horses in this competition, the 2001 Finalists need to get back to winning ways if they are to retain their position among UEFA's top seeds.

The coach: Quique Sanchez Flores

Handed a hefty transfer kitty during the summer, Flores has been left in little doubt that he is expected to put up a strong challenge to the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona this season.

A former star player with Valencia, this former Spanish international also lists Real Madrid among his former employers during his successful playing career and he has proved himself to be a shrewd tactician in the dug-out.

After an impressive season as Getafe boss, the club he has been associated with more than any other came calling following Claudio Ranieri's disappointing spell in charge at the Mestalla. A nephew of Spanish singer Lola Flores, he may view the Champions League as his best hope of trophy glory this season. 'I know the pressure is on this season, but I relish this expectation,' he claims.

The star turn: Joaquin

Real Betis have long been fighting off interest in this Spanish international winger and they finally gave up their fight as they sold him to Valencia in a €25m deal in August.

'I look back on my time at Betis with great memories and I just hope the fans understand that the time had come for me to try something different and this gives me the chance to play for a side who will be challenging for all the top trophies this season.'

Supremely gifted, Joaquin offers Valencia the sort of attacking options they were lacking in the last couple of seasons. Boasting pace and skill in equal measure, he is a proven performer who hardly represents a risky purchase. Much will be expected of him in the Champions League.

The new face: Fernando Morientes

There is little doubting Morientes' ability to sparkle in the Champions League as he was Monaco's trump card when they made a surprise push through to the Final of the 2004 competition, yet he returned to Spain in the summer with plenty to prove.

After a curiously unsuccessful spell in England with Liverpool cost him a place in Spain's World Cup squad, the former Real Madrid marksman is determined to make up for lost time back on familiar ground. 'I put my disappointments at Liverpool down to a few factors and some of them were out of my control,' he suggests.

'I wasn't always fully fit and maybe the adjustment to the English game was harder than I expected. Still, I look back on my time with Liverpool as a great experience and feel fortunate that a club as ambitious and important as Valencia have decided to give me this chance. It feels like a new chapter for me and one I have to make the most of.'

The weak spot: With a host of new faces looking to integrate into the team, Valencia are unlikely to be at their very best during the Champions League group stages.

Los Che now look to have the raw materials to mount a sustained push for honours, but it may be that coach Flores needs some time to find the right balance in his side. Also, Ruben Baraja's pre-season injury means the side will be losing a classy performer for the opening stages of their European bid.

Much will depend on whether Morientes can rediscover the sort of form that made him one of Europe's most feared hit-men just a couple of years ago. If he begins to fire alongside the exciting Joaquin, look out for this ambitious Valencia outfit making another appearance the latter stages.

Verdict: Being seeded among the game's elite eight gives Los Che a real advantage in the Champions League draw and they look to be in a group that will allow them to make progress. If their star names are in top form when it matters most, a last four place is not out of the question.


AS Roma

Domestic finish last season: 5th *Promoted to 4th after match fixing scandal

GettyImagesRivaldo: Olympiakos' playmaker and sometime swan-diver

Champions League form guide: Fortunate to be in the competition this time, they have never managed to win the ultimate prize in European football, coming closest back in 1984 when Liverpool beat them in the Final.

The coach: Luciano Spalletti

Following the modern trend of coaches who do not come from a celebrated playing background, Spalletti lists Empoli and Spezia among his former employers, yet he has earned his shot at a top Serie A club after some sterling work with some of Italian football's lesser lights.

After guiding little Empoli into Seire A, he followed that up by producing some minor miracles at Udinese, whom he guided into the Champions League in the 2004/05 season. When Roma came calling, he could hardly resist the lure of the capital city giant, but many a more famous name has failed to strike gold with the Giallorossi.

'There may be some teams ahead of us on paper this season, but we have to rise above that,' states the ever-optimistic Spalletti. 'What I have here is the chance to show that this club can be successful and play with some spirit. It's a target worth fighting for.'

Star turn: Francesco Totti

He has long been the king of Rome, yet Totti's devotion to the club may have cost him the chance to land the ultimate prize in club football. Now he gets another shot at the Champions League and the glamour boy who is a pin-up for the girls and an idol for his army of male supporters is doing his best to play down any inflated expectations.

'We have to be realistic about what we can achieve this season,' states the superstar who was arguably the least effective player in Italy's World Cup winning side during the summer. 'We are back in the Champions League and have to make sure we take the opportunity that has come our way, but it's hard to know how we will adapt to the challenge.'

Totti's admits his primary goal this season is to regain full match fitness after breaking his leg back in February. 'I have decided to take some time away from the national team to focus on getting fully fit for Roma,' he stated. 'To carry on playing when I'm not at my best is no good to anyone.'

The new face: David Pizarro

A lack of finances meant Spalletti has made just a couple of major signings this summer and it was the arrival of Chilean Pizzaro that captured the imagination.

A complicated transfer saga finally came an end as a co-ownership deal was agreed for the player with Inter and while some reports have suggested he is less than pleased to swap the San Siro for the Stadio Olympico, he insists he is fully committed to the Roma cause.

'Inter may have a stronger squad, but the trouble was I was not playing regular football,' he says. 'This is a good move for me and playing in the Champions League was obviously a factor in my decision to sign for Roma.'

The weak spot: Getting the best out of Totti will, as ever, be the key to Roma's hopes and if he plays as badly as he did in Germany this summer, Spalletti will have a problem as he tries to incorporate a player whom he simply cannot drop.

A quiet summer in the transfer market has not raised hopes for the Giallorossi, while there is suggestion that they may start some games with a three-man defensive wall for Champions League games. Time will tell whether that will be a success.

Giving the new coach time to get his feet under the table would be a good plan, but you wonder whether anyone can bring sense to the Roma madhouse that is famed for seeing managerial changes on a frequent basis.

Verdict: Roma lack the natural talent to shine against Europe's best and will not be among Italy's leading contenders for the Champions League crown this time.


Olympiakos

Domestic finish last season: Greek champions

GettyImagesShakhtar coach Mircea Lucescu

Champions League form guide: Only once in nine campaigns has the Piraeus club succeeded in making the knock-out phase. That was in 1998/99 when they went past Croatia Zagreb, FC Porto and Ajax before losing in the quarter-finals to Juventus. They came close to qualifying for the last 16 the season before last, edged out on goal difference by eventual champions Liverpool.

The coach: Trond Sollied

This Norwegian coach who arrived from Club Brugge a year ago and maintained Olympiakos' domestic dominance, taking them to the League and Cup double in his first season in charge. Come rain, come shine, he goes with a 4-3-3 system based on a high pressing game and speedy attacks.

Sollied says the key to breaking the club's under-achievement in Europe is greater defensive concentration. He was most unhappy last term with his team's tendency to concede late Champions League goals. 'We need to make sure we remain focused throughout because at this level, you cannot have a moment to relax at the back,' he states.

He first made a name for himself in charge of unfashionable Belgian side Genk, whom he steered to a third-place league finish in the 1999/00 season. He was widely criticised at the time for picking a team almost entirely made up of foreigners, yet thus is the norm at so many of Europe's top clubs these days.

Star turn: Rivaldo

Now 33, the legendary Brazilian attacker or creative midfielder is on the down slope of a glittering career and very much rations his efforts. However, on his day, that wonderful left foot of his can still be a match-winner, either with a killer through ball, blistering shot or crafty free-kick.

Olympiakos are hugely reliant on Rivaldo's inspiration. Trond Sollied runs a very tactical ship with every player having a well-defined role, but the Brazilian maestro is the exception, free to roam where his instincts tell him. 'When you have a player like this in your team, you have to allow him to work his magic,' says the Olympiakos coach.

Rivaldo won a Champions League winners medal with AC Milan in 2003, though he was only an unused substitute in the Italian club's penalty shoot-out victory over Juventus in the Final at Old Trafford. 'Olympiakos has not shown what is can do in the Champions League and this is our chance to put that right,' is the Brazilian's hope.

The new face: Felix Borja

Bought from El Nacional of Quito this summer, the young Ecuadorian striker was on the pitch for just 45 minutes at the 2006 World Cup. Despite that, he remains a highly exciting prospect, fleet of foot, able to shoot powerfully with either foot and dominant in the air. Indeed his aerial ability is the reason why he is nicknamed 'The Kangaroo'.

Another asset is his versatility as he can play as the main striker, in the hole or on either flank. 'The most important thing is to be on the pitch,' he says. 'I'll line up wherever to have the chance to play in the Champions League. This is the competition any player needs to be involved with if he is to show what is capable of.'

Like so many South American players, his registration is owned by a group of entrepreneurs. They tried to sell to him to a Brazilian club last year, only for the proposed deal to fall through.

The weak spot: They may be in for a tough time defensively. Olympiakos might be rugged and uncompromising at the back, but pace is not in plentiful supply, so nippy opposition forwards should have a field day. Goalkeeper, Greece's number one, Antonis Nikoplidis, is erratic.

They have not compensated for the departure of key midfielder Yaya Toure - the brother of Arsenal's Kolo - for Monaco. There is no doubt that the young Ivorian's physical presence and dynamism in the middle of the park will be badly missed.

Coach Sollied is struggling to build an effective unit after the cash was splashed in the close season on no fewer than seven new faces, with French defender Didier Domi (ex-Espanyol), Moroccan centre-back Abdelsalem Ouaddou (Rennes) and Polish left-back Marcin Zewlakow (Anderlecht) arriving at the club.

Verdict: Olympiakos lack the class to make it through the first round and it will need some Rivaldo magic to give them any chance of being in the draw for the last 16.


Shakhtar Donetsk

Domestic finish last season: Ukraine champions

Champions League form guide: Shakhtar have played twice previously in the competition. In their inaugural campaign (2000/01) they came third in their first round section behind Arsenal and Lazio. Two years ago, they achieved the same position in an ultra-tough group containing AC Milan, Barcelona and Celtic.

The coach: Mircea Lucescu

A canny perfectionist, this Romanian tactician renowned for producing teams worth far more than the sum of their parts. His preferred formation is a flexible 4-4-2, but he occasionally goes with an extra attacker for home games. He puts a lot of emphasis on width and likes attacks to be built up at a very high tempo.

The 61-year-old has enjoyed plenty of success in Europe, notably steering Galatasaray to Super Cup victory over Real Madrid in 2000 and taking Istanbul club to the quarter-finals of that season's Champions League.

A Romanian football legend, he starred on the left wing for his country at the 1970 World Cup finals and later coached the national team for four years (1981-85). He counts Inter Milan, Besiktas and Brescia among his many managerial assignments.

Star turn: Elano

An extremely gifted Brazilian right-sided midfielder who shone recently when scoring twice in Brazil's 3-0 friendly win over Argentina in London. Anybody marvelling at his elusive dribbling, clever movement off the ball, ability to improvise and dead-eye finishing would never have guessed it was only his second appearance for the Selecao.

New Brazil boss Dunga surprised many in the local press corps when he called up the little wide-man to his first squad. Dunga explained that Elano had been selected for his intelligence and ability to quickly turn defence into attack. 'He gives us some additional options and I like the way he goes directly at his opponent,' states the Brazil boss. 'He has the confidence and ability to make an impact in my Brazil side.'

Elano started his career in 1998 with the Guarani club, before playing for Internacional and Santos prior to joining Shakhtar in February 2005. He was twice a Brazilian champion with Santos (2002 and 2004) and helped Shakhtar to the back to back titles in 2005 and 2006.

The new face: Emmanuel Okoduwa

This lively, powerfully-built former Nigerian under-21 striker signed this summer from fellow Ukraine league side Arsenal Kiev. 'I didn't need to think long about moving to Shakhtar. They are so ambitious and I can't wait to test myself against the best in the Champions League. I'm especially looking forward to playing against some of Italy's World Champions.'

After starting out with the First Bank club in his homeland, he transferred to Ukraine outfit Vorskla Poltava in 2001. He stayed there for four seasons before Shakhtar came knocking.

Okoduwa is yet to win any full caps for Nigeria, but those in the know claim he is not far off a call-up to the Super Eagles squad. Some have suggested that he is similar in style to the ex-Club Brugge and Everton frontrunner Daniel Amokachi.

The weak spot: There can be little doubt that Brazilian playmaker Matuzalem oozes class and can, on his day be a genuine match winner. However, the ex-Napoli and Brescia man tends to drift out of games a little too easily.

Also, their backline can panic when put under pressure. They are guilty of ballwatching at times and because full-backs Razvan Rat and Vyacheslav Sviderskyi do like to get forward, they can leave themselves open to a quick counter.

A huge gulf separates the Ukraine and the Champions League. Apart from matches against Dynamo Kiev, Shakhtar do not have to sweat unduly to come out on top, so meeting the elite of Europe is a culture shock.

Verdict: Shakhtar form a solid unit and have much talent in Matuzalem, Elano, midfield warrior Anatoly Tymoshchuk and Romanian striker Ciprian Marica. However, Group D rivals Valencia and Roma are a cut above.


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