Champions League 2006/7, Group H

September 5, 2006
By Kevin Palmer and Nick Bidwell

Group H: AC Milan | Lille | AEK Athens | Anderlecht
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G |

AC Milan

Domestic finish last season: 2nd *Demoted due to match fixing scandal

GettyImagesKaka: Milan's Brazilian magician

Champions League form guide: Champions in 2003, they should have added to that with victory two years later, but Liverpool denied them in the most dramatic final of them all. Semi-finalists last season, Milan were only beaten by the magic of Barcelona.

The coach: Carlo Ancelotti

A Champions League winner with Milan in 2003, you suspect Ancelotti is still hurting from the extraordinary defeat against Liverpool in the Final two years later. Indeed, that never-to-be-forgotten night in Istanbul may mean he will not rest until he adds a second European crown to his list of honours.

A former Italian international with 26 caps to his credit, Ancelotti played for the Azzurri in the 1990 World Cup and he won the European Cup in his time as a player with Milan. He has proved himself to be a class act on the touchline and is determined to focus his attentions on this competition after Milan's slightly fortunate inclusion in the Champions League.

'We didn't expect to have any involvement in Europe this season, so the qualifying round came a little too soon for us, but we have come through with some good luck and can now aim for something more,' states Ancelotti. 'Maybe the team that wasn't in the competition at the start can be involved at the end, who knows.'

Star turn: Kaka

It's impossible to underestimate the loss of prolific hitman Andriy Shevchenko to Milan and it may be that a replacement is not forthcoming in the near future, especially after their failed attempt to land Brazil's Ronaldo from Real Madrid.

With this in mind, it falls to the likes of Kaka to sparkle and the Brazilian playmaker certainly has the ability to emerge as a leader in this season. Bristling with talent and guile, he believes his each and every step on the football field has been granted by a greater power after a swimming pool accident so nearly left him paralysed in his youth.

At home just behind the main striker, he will be expected to chip in with a few more goals this season and may just be ready to accept the level of responsibility set to come his way.

The new face: Ricardo Oliveira

Signed from Real Betis as the transfer window was preparing to close, Oliveira was not the top-level superstar name many expected Milan to sign as they attempted to fill the goal-laden boots of Andriy Shevchenko.

His move was not without controversy as Betis claim he underwent a medical with Milan without their permission, while the Spanish club were also furious that he returned to the club late after his loan spell at Sao Paulo last season. Overall, it's fair to assume Betis were glad to see the back of this Brazilian, even though he is a player of fine quality.

Capable of scoring brilliant individual goals, his slightly suspect temperament must make him something of a risky signing for Ancelotti, but after failing to land the experienced Ronaldo, he needed to move quickly to bolster his weakened forward line. 'We have signed a player who gives us something different and that is what I was looking for,' says the Milan boss.

The weak spot: Shevchenko's big-money move to Chelsea leaves a gaping hole at the spearhead of the Milan line-up and time will tell whether Oliveira is a safe bet to do the job.

The serious knee injury he suffered playing in the Champions League back in November 2005 makes Milan's big summer signing something of a risk and it may be that Filippo Inzaghi and Kaka are required to carry a bulk of the scoring burden in the months ahead.

Still, Ancelotti's side are always likely to be well organised and tough to break down so it may be that they don't need too many goals to make their way through to the knock-out phase of the competition.

Verdict: The novelty of the side that were thrown out of the Champions League actually going on to win the trophy will be too much for Milan to live up to this season. A last eight place may be the limit of their ambitions.


Lille

Domestic finish last season: Third in the French League.

GettyImagesLille boss Claude Puel

Champions League form guide: Lille have reached the continent's showpiece competition twice before. Both times - 2001/02 and last season - they came third in their opening round group, winning only one game in each campaign.

The coach: Claude Puel

With Lille since the summer of 2002, he was almost fired after two sub-standard campaigns in midtable, but the board stuck by him and he paid them back for their loyalty by steering the team to back-to-back Champions League qualifications.

Puel is not exactly a gung-ho type of tactician and usually employs a safety-first 4-5-1 system. He sets great store by discipline, organisation and the never-say-die character of his players, while relentlessly mixing and matches his first-eleven. Indeed, many have suggested his obsession with squad rotation has worked against the team at times.

There can be little doubt that whatever Puel achieves at Lille, he will forever be associated with AS Monaco. He spent his entire playing career there as a full-back and on becoming their coach, guided the Monegasques to the French title in 2000. He had a star-studded squad at his disposal in Monaco, while in Lille he has been just as effective working on a tight budget. Proof, if it were needed, that Puel knows his way around the coaching game.

Star turn: Mathieu Bodmer

This underrated 23-year-old midfield all-rounder is often dubbed the 'White Vieira'. Such a lavish tag may be exaggerating a little but he certainly plays an invaluable role for Lille with driving forward runs, crisp passing, high energy and ball-winning ability.

The heartbeat of the side, he hails from the Norman town of Evreux and began his career at nearby Caen before being snapped up by Lille in 2003. Late last season, he chalked up his 100th Ligue 1 game. A number of big name Italian teams are on his case at the moment and if he does shine in this Champions League campaign, the big money offers are bound to flow his way.

A French under-21 international, Bodmer has regularly been tipped to break into the full side in the past couple years, only for boss Raymond Domenech to ignore his claims. Still, time is on the Lille dynamo's side.

The new face: Michel Bastos

This 23 year-old left-back was one of the revelations of last season's Brazilian championship, catching the eye at Atletico Paranense with his scintillating overlaps and flair for goals.

Lille, however, intend to use him further forward as a left-sided attacking midfielder. 'With his dribbling ability, speed and creativity, he should be a major asset,' said coach Claude Puel. 'He is someone we have been looking at for a long time and I have no doubts that he will be a big success here.'

The wiry Bastos has also played for Figueirense and Gremio, as well as Feyenoord in Holland, where he had a short, largely unsuccessful spell three years ago.

The weak spot: They will not have the benefit of home advantage. With plans for a new 55,000 stadium still on the drawing board and their temporary ground - an athletics arena in the city's suburbs is too small for the Champions League - so they will be forced play host at the ground of local rivals Lens.

In addition, they have a certain lack of ambition in their play. Too often they keep the hand-brake in games, playing an ultra-cautious style and only going for broke when they go a goal behind. For all the good intentions of Bodmer and the Ivory Coast attacking midfielder Abdul Keita, who acts as the lone front-man, the Nigerian Peter Odemwingie is frequently left to his own devices.

Such flaws are bound to be exposed against Europe's best and for that reason, Lille's best hope of reaching the latter stages will be to pick up the odd fortunate victory in this opening group.

Verdict: Lille could grind their way towards the second-round but it will not be pretty. A UEFA Cup spot may be a decent consolation prize.


AEK Athens

Domestic finish last season: Runners-up in Greek league.

GettyImagesAEK's Lorenzo Serra Ferreraek

Champions League form guide: AEK have only qualified for the competition on two previous occasions (1994/95 and 2002/03). Each time they failed to get past the first group phase. Not that they disgraced themselves four years ago, drawing all six of their games against Real Madrid, Roma and Belgian side Genk.

The coach: Lorenzo Serra Ferrer

This ex-Mallorca, Barcelona and Real Betis boss took over the AEK helm this summer, succeeding the Benfica-bound Fernando Santos. Calm and professorial in his demeanour, he is renowned for being an advocate of spectacular attacking football and for his use of genuine wide men. He argues they have done the hard part in qualifying for the Champions League and that there will be no pressure on them this autumn and winter.

Ferrer spent four years (1997-2001) at Barcelona, first as technical director, then as first-team coach. Unfortunately, he was sacked in April 2001 with Barca trailing in fifth place in La Liga, 17 points adrift of leaders Real Madrid.

Undoubtedly his greatest achievements came in two spells in charge at Betis (1994-97 and 2004-06), notably steering them to a third-place finish in the Spanish championship in 1994 and qualifying them for the Champions League for the first time in their history in 2004-05, a season when they also won the domestic Cup.

The star turn: Nikos Liberopoulos

An outstanding 31-year-old attacking midfielder who underlined his value to the Athenians with a goal in each leg of their 5-1 aggregate thrashing of Scotland's Hearts in the third qualifying round of the Champions League.

Always elegant and strong on the ball, he is at his most effective when given total licence to roam just behind the main strikers. He has quick feet, lots of creativity and is an expert at drifting unnoticed into goalscoring positions, where he can finish consistently with either head or foot.

He caused a sensation in the summer of 2003 when he quit the Panathinaikos club for capital city rivals AEK. Nikos first came to prominence as the skipper of the Greek Under 21 side that reached the final of the 1998 European championships.

The new face: Panagiotis Lagos

A brilliant young winger or wide midfielder recently signed from Salonika outfit Iraklis. Perfectly two-footed, speedy, industrious and a clever dribbler, he loves to cut inside and strike at goal. Last season he scored seven goals in 28 Greek League games for Iraklis.

A product of the Iraklis academy, he has represented Greece at every level from Under 16 to seniors. He made his full national team debut early this year in a friendly with Saudi Arabia in Riyadh and came on as a substitute in the recent 4-0 loss to England at Old Trafford.

AEK certainly got themselves in bargain as Lagos only cost £570,000 and both Serra Ferrer and Greece boss Otto Rehhagel are full of praise of his ability on the ball, desire and application.

'Lagos is one of those players who makes things happen,' says Rehhagel. 'We did well to get him here and I'm sure he will do well for AEK.'

The weak spot: Defensively they may be found wanting. Full-backs Nikos Georgeas and the Argentine Martin Pautasso like to bomb forward but can leave their rearguard dangerously exposed. While centre-backs Traianos Dellas and Bruno Cirillo form a physically imposing duo, they are not the most mobile.

AEK can be somewhat predictable in their build-up, overdoing the long, hopeful cross into the middle in the direction of target man Pantelis Kapetanos. AEK have the technical ability for a neat, one-touch passing game, but too often go for an overly direct approach.

The sale of Greek international defensive midfielder Kostas Katsouranis to Benfica has left a large void. The much-travelled Brazilian veteran Emerson - ex-Middlesbrough, Deportivo La Coruna and FC Porto among others - is not the answer.

Verdict: Although AEK have their limitations, a place in the last 16 is not at all out of the question. The draw has been reasonably kind to them and they have the spirit, organisation and two excellent goal getters in the shape of Liberopoulos and irrepressible Brazilian Julio Cesar.


Anderlecht

Domestic finish last season: Belgian champions

GettyImagesTransfer coup: Lucas Biglia

Champions League form guide: In the old Champions' Cup, the Brussels club were once a force to be reckoned with, twice reaching the semis in 1982 and 1986, but in the modern version of the competition, they have invariably flopped. The last time they progressed beyond the group stage was in 2000/01 when they finished ahead of Manchester United, PSV Eindhoven and Kyiv Dynamo.

The coach: Frankie Vercauteren

The former Belgian international midfielder served on Anderlecht's backroom staff for seven years before being handed the first team reins in February 2005 following the departure of Hugo Broos. As bullish and enthusiastic as he used to be on the field of play, he claimed the first title of his coaching in May when Les Mauves clinched the domestic league.

After a defeat by Liverpool in last season's Champions League, he was brutally honest about the gulf separating his club from the continental elite. 'Top teams, always keep their shape and discipline and we have to work on that,' says the coach who can only hope his charges have learnt their lesson.

He is one of the legendary names in Belgian football history, capped 63 times for his country and appearing in 368 matches for Anderlecht over twelve seasons. Europe used to be a particularly happy hunting ground for him, winning the Cup Winners' Cup in 1976 and 1978 and the UEFA Cup in 1983.

The star turn: Mbark Boussoufa

A highly exciting attacking midfielder or frontrunner bought from Gent in a £2.5m deal in the close season. No other player in the Belgian league made more goals than him last term and he was deservedly voted the Players' Player of the Year and Young Professional of the Year, as well as receiving the 'Ebony Shoe' as the best player of African descent.

Born in Amsterdam to Moroccan parents, he had the possibility of playing his representative football with the Dutch, only to choose to nail his colours to the North African state's mast. He made his full international debut for Morocco against the USA in May of this year.

Slender and short of stature but a giant in terms of skill and vision, he began his career with hometown club Ajax, then spent three years with the Chelsea youth team before moving on to Gent in 2001.

The new face: Lucas Biglia

Anderlecht pulled off a major transfer coup by beating a host of leading European sides to the signature of this talented defensive midfielder from Independiente. To those who claimed Biglia was not showing enough ambition by moving to Belgium, Biglia replied that 'the best way to develop was to play, not by sitting on the bench at an overstaffed club.'

Many in his homeland compare him to the ex-Argentina and Real Madrid midfielder Fernando Redondo and the parallels are there for all to see: the same bite in the tackle, drive, tactical awareness and crisp distribution.

The 20-year-old is also a born leader, having skippered Argentina to the World Under-20 title in 2005. 'This move gives me my chance to show what I can do in the Champions League and I can't wait to play against the giants of Europe,' says the Argentinos Juniors graduate.

The weak spot: Above all, Anderlecht have to shake off the depressing sequence of defeats that have plagued them of late in the Champions League. In the last two seasons, they have twice finished bottom of their opening phase group, losing eleven matches out of twelve. Given such a record, confidence is bound to be lacking.

They are to sure to miss their brilliant young central defender Vincent Kompany, who moved on to Hamburg during the summer. To make matters worse, experienced Finnish stopper Hannu Tihinen also quit the club, agreeing a deal with FC Zurich. Would-be replacements such as Jelle van Damme, the Argentine Nicolas Pareja and Hungary's Roland Juhasz are sadly not of the same calibre.

Yves Vanderhaeghe and Bart Goor have proved excellent servants to the club over the years, but this pair of thirty-something's have little left in the locker. In the middle of the park, Anderlecht need much more flair, a player to produce the unexpected as the untested Biglia cannot do it all in.

Verdict: It's probably asking too much for Anderlecht to suddenly become competitive again in Europe. They are only playing for pride.


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