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Sunday, September 16, 2012
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Champions League 2012-13, Group A

Kevin Palmer

Group A: Porto |  Dynamo Kiev |  PSG |  Dinamo Zagreb
Group B |   Group C |   Group D |   Group E |   Group F |   Group G |   Group H

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    Status: Portuguese champions
    Nickname: The Dragons THE LEGEND: Veterans of 50 European campaigns, the Dragons have enjoyed plenty of success in the last two decades. Coach Artur Jorge giving the northerners their first taste of gold with the conquest of the European Cup in 1987, before the great Jose Mourinho oversaw triumphs in the 2003 UEFA Cup and Champions League the following year, and Andre Villas-Boas leading the charge to the 2011 Europa League. An early sign of Porto developing into a continental force to be reckoned with was their march to the 1984 Cup Winners' Cup final, where they lost 2-1 to Juventus in Basel. CALLING THE SHOTS: Vitor Pereira Formerly Andre Villas-Boas' No. 2 at Porto, he was promoted to fill the vacancy when AVB was head-hunted by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich a year ago. Many in the Portuguese media thought it a poor appointment, citing the fact that Pereira that had no experience as a top-flight boss, having only coached in Portugal's second and third tiers prior to becoming AVB's right-hand man in 2010. Yet Pereira stayed calm amid all the negative vibes and answered his critics in the best possible way -- by steering the blue-and-white stripes to the sixth domestic league title in seven seasons. As a player, Pereira only played in regional Portuguese football, retiring at the age of 29. His first head-coaching position was at third division Sanjoanense, and during his two years in charge of second-tier Santa Clara (2008-10), he twice came close to taking them into the national elite, the Primeira Liga. THE GAME PLAN: Adopting an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitude, Vitor Pereira continues to stick with the attacking 4-3-3 system that brought Andre Villa-Boas so much success at Porto. The maintaining of a high defensive line, lots of harrying and closing down when not in possession and the use of wingers who frequently arrow inside, leaving gaps for attacking full backs to plunge into. The setup may not have worked for AVB at Chelsea last season, but it is still doing the job at Porto. Vital to the coach's plans is the midfield triangle comprising Fernando as the security guard and Joao Moutinho and Lucho Gonzalez as part offensive supply line, part controllers, snapping at the heels of opposition counterparts. The great strength of this trio is their flexibility. Fernando sometimes powers forward, Moutinho can end up as the deepest of the three, while Lucho loves to drift into goal-scoring territory. Pereira is a coach who is eager to make brave decisions, such as when replacing a centre back (Rolando) with a wide man (James Rodriguez) in the 3-2 win at Benfica last season. BIG HITTER: Joao Moutinho Every Porto fan must have breathed a huge sigh of relief recently when the 22 million deal to take this most intelligent of midfield generals to Tottenham fell through at the eleventh hour on transfer deadline day. A brilliant relay station between defence and attack, his positional work, ability to pickpocket possession and clever distribution make Moutinho simply irreplaceable, and his retention fuels believe that Porto can thrive in this season's Champions League. A product of the prolific Sporting of Lisbon academy, he became the captain of their first team at the age of 20 before FC Porto bought him for 10 million in 2010. He has been a full Portuguese international since 2005. CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Lucho Gonzalez This superb Argentine midfield all-rounder retraced his steps back to Porto earlier this year following a decidedly mixed 2½ seasons in France with Marseille. A world-beater in his opening season in Provence, but not nearly so effective thereafter, his recapture was great business by Porto as they sold him for 16m in 2009 and resigned him for a mere 1.8m. Worshipped by Porto supporters during his first spell at the club (2005-09), the 31-year-old combines industry, incisive passing and fierce shooting. He started out on his journey to stardom at River Plate and is known as "El Comandante." NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Jackson Martinez A highly rated Colombian striker acquired in a 7 million deal from Mexican side Jaguares. He certainly faces a lot of pressure in his first season in Europe, forced to try to emulate the goal-scoring exploits at Porto of fellow Colombian Radamel Falcao who left a year ago for Atletico Madrid. The 25-year-old ex-Independiente Medellin front man goes by the alias of "Cha Cha Cha," "The Thriller" or "The Panther." His goal-scoring celebration is a Usain Bolt-like stance. SHOOTING STAR: Christian Atsu On loan to fellow Portuguese club Rio Ave last season, the young Ghanaian left winger was one of the revelations of the campaign and, now that he is back at FC Porto, looks a good bet to start regularly for the Dragons. With his speed off the mark, quick feet and low centre of gravity, he represents a nightmare for even the most capable of full backs. He won his first senior cap for Ghana this summer against Lesotho. SECRET WEAPON: Juan Manuel Iturbe Brought in from Paraguayan club Cerro Porteno at the start of last season, the little Argentine hit man was not able to hold down a regular spot in the Porto lineup in the 2011-12 campaign. However, there is still time for the 20-year-old to come good in Europe, and there is no question about his ability, flair, elusiveness and capacity to surprise. Some would argue he needs to be a little more selfish in front of goal, and he has been encouraged by his boss to work on that aspect of his game. Often compared to Leo Messi, he was born in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires to Paraguayan parents. He has dual nationality, but is only interested in representing Argentina. THE WEAK SPOT: The sale of Brazilian goal machine Hulk to Zenit St Petersburg inevitably leaves Porto much weaker in the finishing department, with replacement Jackson Martinez hardly a certainty to fill the gap left behind. Meanwhile, centre backs Rolando and Nicolas Otamendi are not the most reliable, with the former prone to lapses in concentration, the latter to moments of hesitation. VERDICT: The Dragons should have enough individual and collective quality to still be alive post-Christmas, but it may be a close-run thing in a Group A battle that is hard to predict.


    Status: Ukraine runners-up
    Nickname: Bilo-Syni (White-Blues) THE LEGEND: One of the truly magical names in eastern European football, Dynamo's greatness stems from the trio of great sides they constructed in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, each of them coached by that most visionary of coaches: the late, great Valery Lobanovskiy. Under his tutelage, they twice claimed the Cup Winners' Cup (1975 and 1986), beat Bayern Munich for the continental Super Cup in 1975 and reached the last four of the European Cup/Champions League on three occasions (1976-77, 1986-87 and 1998-99). CALLING THE SHOTS: Yuri Semin This veteran ex-Lokomotiv Moscow, Dynamo Moscow and Russia coach returned for a second stint on the Kiev bridge in December 2010 and he has targeted Champions League success in a bid to make his mark. "We need to perform against the best and put this club back in a good light on the biggest stages," he states. "That means we need to make an impact in European competitions." Besides leading Dynamo to the Ukraine championship in 2008-09 and the semifinals of the UEFA Cup the same season, this 65-year-old Russian is best known for his outstanding work at Lokomotiv Moscow, whom he guided to domestic league titles in 2002 and 2004 and a pair of European Cup Winners' Cup semis in 1998 and 1999. Semin has his critics in Kiev, who lambast him for preferring overseas signings to products of the club's renowned academy. THE GAME PLAN: Coach Semin has a number of tactical variants -- a straight 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-2-2-1 or even 4-5-1. However, whatever the formation, what shines through is his preference for sitting back, soaking up pressure and hitting on the counterattack. Seven or eight men in defensive mode is a common sight. Dynamo will not venture forward unless they are well and truly covered in the defensive positions. When they do mount a foray into an attacking position, they rely extensively on the speed and power of lone Nigerian frontman Brown Ideye, the craft of new attacking midfield recruit Niko Kranjcar and the incisiveness on the wings of Oleg Husyev and Andriy Yarmolenko. The house free-kick expert is Oleksandr Aliyev. BIG HITTER: Andriy Yarmolenko The great hope of the Ukraine game, this 22-year-old winger's pace, skill, strength and bright ideas make him a permanent threat to opposing defences, a more than worthy heir to national icon Andriy Shevchenko. Yarmolenko is comfortable on either flank and also has experience as a central striker. A graduate of the Dynamo youth ranks, he was born in St Petersburg, Russia, but moved with his Ukrainian parents to their native land in the early 1990s. He first broke into the Dynamo first team late in the 2007-08 season. CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Taras Mykhalyk With long-serving keeper and skipper Oleksandr Shovkovskyi on the sidelines due to a shoulder injury, Dynamo are now led by this most versatile of players, capable of operating anywhere in the back four or as a holding midfielder. Combative and cool under pressure, Mykhalyk is probably at his best as a stopper, though an obvious downside to him is an apparent subscription to the treatment room. He has come on in leaps and bounds since joining Dynamo from CSKA Kiev in 2005. He was on the scoresheet in Dynamo's victory over Borussia Monchengladbach in a Champions League eliminator in August. NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Niko Kranjcar Nine years after trying and failing to sign Kranjcar from Dinamo Zagreb, Kiev finally got this Croatian attacking midfielder under contract, paying Tottenham of the Premier League a fee in the region of 6 million to secure his services. Unlike in his three seasons at Spurs, he will be a regular starter at the Ukraine giants. Although not the quickest of players, he makes up for it with his technical brilliance, ability to improvise and power-packed left-footed shooting. His father, Zlatko, won a runners-up medal with Rapid Vienna in the 1984-85 Cup Winners' Cup. SHOOTING STAR: Denys Harmash A very aggressive young Ukraine international holding midfielder who is just the sort of hard-working individual Yurin Semin loves in the engine room. Harmash is a terrier in the tackle and no slouch either in pass and move mode. He was a European champion with the Under-19s in 2009 and has grown from that platform over the last three years. Although Harmash can be a hothead, he was desperately unlucky to be sent off in a defeat to archrivals Shakhtar last season as the referee wrongly handed him a second yellow card for leaving the pitch without permission. SECRET WEAPON: Brown Ideye Bought from French club Sochaux at the start of last season, this 23-year-old Nigerian target man has quickly established himself as a Dynamo fan favourite, not only for his goals in large quantities but also his burning desire, his willingness to run till he drops. Lagos-born, Ideye was a last-minute inclusion in his country's World Cup 2010 squad. He began his European club career with Neuchatel Xamax in the Swiss League. "What we have with Ideye is a boy who can do anything," said Dynamo coach Semin. "Maybe the Champions League teams will be surprised by what they see from him." THE WEAK SPOT: Dynamo rely on a conservative approach at times, sitting too deep in defence and simply handing the initiative over to the opposition and against top-class teams that can be tantamount to suicide in the Champions League. A certain number of their players have a habit of giving the ball away cheaply. The tactic of firing long, hopeful "Hail Mary" passes in the direction of Brown Ideye has no future against the best in the game, and their lack of success on their travels is always a factor that has the potential to undermine their ambitions in this competition. VERDICT: The substantial funds bequeathed by club owner Ihor Surkis have been well spent (Kranjcar, Portuguese defensive midfielder Miguel Veloso and Nigerian left back Taye Taiwo), and they may be a surprise package in this season's Champions League.


    Status: Ligue 1 runners-up
    Nickname: PSG THE RECORD: One of only two French sides to have lifted a continental trophy, PSG were at their strongest on the European stage in the 1990s, reaching the semifinals of the Champions League in 1994-95, where they lost 3-0 on aggregate to AC Milan and beating Rapid Vienna in the final of the Cup Winners' Cup in 1996. A low-water-mark came in the 1986-87 European Cup, when a strong team coached by Gerard Houllier inexplicably were dumped out in the first round by Czech minnows Vitkovice. PSG dare not replicate a similarly premature exit this season as their oil-rich owners would never accept it. CALLING THE SHOTS: Carlo Ancelotti Brought in midway through last season by the club's new billionaire backers from Qatar, this highly successful Italian boss might hail from a rural background, but for the most part he has held the reins of coaching power with prestigious big-city teams: Juventus, AC Milan, Chelsea and now with PSG. Calm under pressure and used to dealing with star players and pushy club owners, the 53-year-old looks the ideal man to make PSG a force to be reckoned with in Europe. Ancelotti knows all about conquering Europe's top footballing prizes. As a thoughtful midfield general with AC Milan, he twice played in European Cup-winning sides (1989 and 1990), and during an eight-year spell at the Rossoneri helm, he led them to the Champions League in 2003 and 2007. THE GAME PLAN: After employing a 4-2-3-1 system in the second half of last season, Ancelotti seems to have undergone a conversion and has experimented with a 4-3-3 for this campaign, with his front line composed of Zlatan Ibrahimovic through the middle, Ezequiel Lavezzi on the left and Jeremy Menez on the right flank. The midfield three remains a work in progress. One option is to have a deep-lying playmaker (Marco Verratti) bookended by two holding players, while another has one central enforcer (Blaise Matuidi) and a pair of box-to-box guys in the form of Clement Chantome and Javier Pastore. Tactically, PSG will be very much Ibrahimovic-dependent. Expect him to regularly drop deep to link the play while the wide men such as Lavezzi or Nene (left) or Menez (right) flood forward. Ancelotti could also go with a two-man strike force with a playmaker operating behind. BIG HITTER: Zlatan Ibrahimovic Qatar Sports Investments, PSG's free-spending owners, certainly made a statement of intent when they paid AC Milan 20 million this summer to sign this Swedish front-running superstar, who in the past nine seasons with Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona and AC Milan has been a domestic league champion on no fewer than eight occasions. The flip side of the coin, though, is that he has never won the Champions League. Taking into account combined transfer fees of some 163 million, Ibrahimovic is the most expensive player of all time. He has a reputation for not always delivering when it matters the most, yet 31 goals in Europe tends to suggest otherwise. CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Christophe Jallet Carlo Ancelotti has shrewdly decided to give the armband to one of the few French players in the first team, making the 28-year-old right back his skipper. Very much an unsung hero, Jallet is in his fourth season with the Parisians, joining them in 2009 from Lorient. Interesting that with a monthly salary of €100,000, he is one of the lowest-paid players at the club, as the PSG revolution leaves relics of the "old" club like Jallet trailing in the financial stakes. He recently clocked up his 200th game in Ligue 1 and remains a key man in the new-look lineup. NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Thiago Silva Widely considered the best defender in the world at the moment, the Brazilian centre back took some dislodging from the clutches of AC Milan, but PSG director of sport Leonardo was nothing if not persistent and finally got his man, sealing the deal with a whopping payment of 41 million. As elegant and poised as he is uncompromising, the 27-year-old has come a long way indeed since contracting tuberculosis during a stint in the Russian League with Dynamo Moscow in 2005. SHOOTING STAR: Clement Chantome This 24-year-old right-sided midfielder is something of a collector's item at cash-rich PSG -- a graduate of the club's youth system. From Burgundy, he joined the Parisians at the age of just 13 and five seasons later found himself in the pro squad. Chantome is a big favourite of the Parc des Princes faithful, primarily because he always has stayed loyal to the cause, turning down lucrative offers from elsewhere. Not surprising for a player who cites Steven Gerrard as a model, he combines high work rate, drive, sound distribution and tactical appreciation. Under contract with PSG until 2015. SECRET WEAPON: Marco Verratti Proof that PSG are not solely interested in acquiring established star names, this incredibly gifted young Italian midfield "quarterback" found it impossible to say no when the Parisians made both him and his club Pescara an offer they could not refuse. Brought to the French capital for a cool 10 million, the 19-year-old was one of the main reasons Pescara gained promotion to Serie A last season, and he has often been hailed as the "new Pirlo." It is quite a reputation he is trying to live up to. Diminutive but brilliant, Verratti was included in Italy's preliminary squad for Euro 2012, though he did not make the final cut. THE WEAK SPOT: PSG may be awash with exceptional individual talents, but splashing the cash is no guarantee of producing a competitive team unit and it's likely they will take time to jell and develop the proper understanding. In the first few matches of the new campaign, their buildup play has been far too slow. They look somewhat vulnerable in the full back areas, and it remains to be seen whether subtle playmaker Pastore can be transformed into an all-action midfielder. Dealing with the lofty weight of expectations created by the owners' determination to change the face of French football for good puts additional pressure on all involved. VERDICT: The nouveaux riche Parisians could go far, but if they do, it will be based on flashes of singular class rather than their coherence as a team.


    Status: Croatia champions
    Nickname: Modri (The Blues) THE LEGEND: Dinamo supporters will not want to be reminded of their team's woes in the Champions League group phase last season as they lost all six games, conceding 22 and scoring just three times. In truth, the campaign was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish, the worst record any club has recorded in the history of the competition. Contrast those woeful statistics with their victories over Ajax and FC Porto in their very first Champions League adventure in the 1998-99 season and it seems even worse. Dinamo also have one European trophy in their cabinet -- the 1966-67 Fairs Cup, the forerunner of the UEFA Cup/Europa League. CALLING THE SHOTS: Ante Cacic One of the first coaches in Croatia to be awarded a UEFA Pro Licence, this 58-year-old was appointed to the Dinamo hot seat in December of last year, brought in to replace Krunoslav Jurcic, who inevitably had been shown the door after the team's Champions League debacle. The Zagreb-born Cacic had previously taken charge of Croat sides Lokomotiva, Kamen Ingrad, Slaven Belupo, Osijek, Zadar, Inter Zapresic and Dubrava and performed especially impressively with the last two mentioned, whom he guided to top-flight promotion. He also has served as assistant coach to the Libyan national team but will need to prove himself at a very different level in the Champions League. THE GAME PLAN: A coach with an attention to detail and who appreciates versatile players with a high degree of comfort on the ball -- which certainly is the case at Dinamo -- Cacic normally goes with a 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 or 4-1-4-1 system. As the dominant force in Croat football, his Dinamo side are used to adopting a cavalier, all-guns-blazing approach, but self-preservation will very much be the order of the day this time around after the mauling they suffered in last season's campaign. Expect them to be set up with the intention of hitting their opponents on the break. One key to how confident Cacic is will be the positioning of midfield starlet Mateo Kovacic. If he lines up deep, Dinamo are in conservative mode, but if pushed further forward, Cacic fancies his chances. Much will depend on the brilliance of Brazilian playmaker Sammir and the excellent left-sided combination play of wide midfielder Luis Ibanez and full back Josip Pivaric, while brilliant young right back Sime Vrsaljko attacks with style too. Dinamo are dangerous at set pieces as well, with central defender Domagoj Vida a real threat in the air. BIG HITTER: Fatos Beciraj This wholehearted and single-minded Montenegrin striker with Kosovan roots was the top scorer in the Croat League with 15 goals last term, the first foreigner ever to finish first in the marksmanship standings. He joined Dinamo from Buducnost Podgorica in the summer of 2010. A regular in the senior Montenegro side for the past three years, Beciraj has said that if Kosovo were granted full international status by FIFA, he would seriously consider representing them, and his ambition to make his mark in the Champions League cannot be underestimated. "We all know that Dinamo had a bad time in the Champions League last year, so there is some room to make up," Beciraj says. "This time will be different. We will not allow ourselves to be opened up like before." CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Ivan Kelava With erstwhile skipper Milan Badelj moving to Hamburg and his successor Jerko Leko being sacked for a lack of motivation, the armband has passed to the 24-year-old Croat national team keeper, who, despite conceding so many in last term's Champions League, was on hand to save them from even greater humiliation. On Dinamo's books from the age of 9, Kelava has made huge strides since returning from a loan spell at Lokomotiva Zagreb (2009-10), very much looking the part with razor-sharp reflexes and composure in the hottest of situations. He has a fine record of stopping penalties. NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Duje Cop A mobile and technically sound front-runner who signed in the offseason on a Bosman free from RNK Split, Cop can operate either as a lone striker or out wide in an attacking midfield three. Previously with Hajduk Split and Portuguese outfit Nacional, he has played for Croatia at every level from Under-16 to Under-21, and he joins Dinamo seeking to make an impression in the Champions League. Cop was linked with moves to Premier League sides Liverpool and Everton in recent months, but he insists he is content with his new employers Dinamo. "It is nice to see the big clubs next to my name, but this is all just speculation," he says. "Dinamo are the club who have proved they want me, and the idea of playing in the Champions League is amazing for me." SHOOTING STAR: Mateo Kovacic A richly gifted 18-year-old creative midfielder earmarked for greatness because of his extraordinary touch, vision and ability to slalom his way through a defence. Kovacic made his pro debut for Dinamo in 2010-11, thus becoming, at the age of 16 years and 198 days, the youngest debutant and goal scorer in the history of the Croat League. Born in Austria to Croat parents, he was attracting attention from European big guns while in his early teens, but rather than moving to Bayern Munich, Juventus or Ajax, he chose to set up home in the Dinamo Zagreb academy. SECRET WEAPON: Sammir This flamboyant Brazilian attacking midfielder can be a law unto himself, ignoring team orders, playing to the gallery and not always conducting himself professionally off the field. However, when he is on song, Dinamo are in business, and they have to hope the Champions League challenge will encourage him to behave on and off the pitch. The 25-year-old has been with Dinamo since 2007, joining them from Brazilian side Sao Caetano, and while he has played for his native land at various youth categories, he has yet to be picked for the full Selecao. That has sparked rumours that he could end up in the red and white of Croatia. THE WEAK SPOT: For all Ante Cacic's rhetoric about making up for last year's poor displays in Europe, the truth is that Dinamo's mental scars could easily reopen. They are naturally adventurous, but fear of another flop may force them to play a game which, in truth, is alien to them. Sammir is a hit-or-miss performer and no one knows which version will turn up. They are not quick enough switching from defence into attack, a weakness that has become even more acute since Badelj jumped ship. In the centre of defence, they could be described as lumbering. VERDICT: The bar has not been set high at all, so some solid home performances and no six- or seven-goal hammerings would be seen as progress.

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