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Sunday, September 16, 2012
ESPNsoccernet: September 18, 7:53 PM UK
Champions League 2012-13, Group B

Kevin Palmer

Group B: Arsenal |  Schalke |  Olympiakos |  Montpellier
Group A |   Group C |   Group D |   Group E |   Group F |   Group G |   Group H


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  • ARSENAL

    Status: Third in Premier League
    Nickname: The Gunners THE LEGEND: Arsenal's dream of becoming the first London club to win the Champions League ended as Chelsea pulled off their improbable triumph last season, leaving the Gunners to ponder what might have been as they have fallen off the pace of Europe's finest in recent years. Their near-miss in the 2006 Champions League final seems a long time ago as they have suffered some harrowing European humblings of late, much to the chagrin of an increasingly concerned clutch of supporters. Arsenal's European successes have come in the lesser competitions: the Fairs Cup in 1970 and the Cup Winners' Cup in 1994. CALLING THE SHOTS: Arsene Wenger Arsenal's greatest ever manager has fallen on troubled times as he has failed to lift a trophy in the last seven seasons and overseen a steady decline in the club's ambitions to win their first Champions League crown. This is the only competition Wenger has failed to win in his hugely profitable stint as Arsenal boss, and their 4-0 thrashing at the hands of AC Milan in the last 16 of last season's competition suggested they are further away than ever from ending that drought, even if they did come close to making amends in the return leg. The criticism flowing in the direction of this articulate and brilliant manager has intensified over the last couple of seasons, and he needs to get back on a winning path this season to avoid that scrutiny reaching breaking point. THE GAME PLAN: Wenger has long promoted a setup that requires his side to pass their opponents into submission, with the fluid 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 set-up encouraging attacking intent at all times. It can be thrilling to watch, but critics argue there is no Plan B when they come up against rivals intent on stifling their ambition. Even more alarmingly, they have been exposed as a second-rate passing side against the very best in Europe, and that problem may be hard to solve given the budget Wenger works with. Summer buys Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud were recruited to give the Arsenal attacking unit a fresh dimension, and that trio hold the key to the Gunners' hopes this season. BIG HITTER: Santi Cazorla "The Arsenal supporters have seen some great players down the years and need to see something pretty special to be impressed, but I suspect Cazorla will become their new hero," Wenger said of the Spaniard he signed for 16 million from Malaga in August. It represents quite a billing for a Premier League newcomer who will need to fire Arsenal's attacking hopes following the departure of Robin van Persie, but this 27-year-old has the ability to lift this team to unexpected heights. Whether he can make the kind of instant impact that is expected of him remains to be seen, but Cazorla will get a chance to establish his credentials as the next Arsenal talisman in the Champions League. CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Thomas Vermaelen Another summer, another captain leaves Arsenal. After Cesc Fabregas departed for Barcelona in 2011, this time it was Robin van Persie handing down a hammer blow to the Gunners faithful. Vermaelen's appointment as the Dutch striker's successor as Arsenal captain was "an easy choice" in the view of Wenger, as he cites this Belgian's presence and leadership qualities as his best assets. Arsenal fans have to hope the injuries that have so often affected him in recent years can be avoided this time. NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Lukas Podolski With a century of international caps to his credit for Germany and experience in abundance, Podolski arrived at Arsenal in the summer with a big reputation, yet many suspect he is a player with much to prove. His unsuccessful stint at Bayern Munich raised questions over whether he could handle life at a big club, and the pressure on his shoulders as he looks to score the goals Van Persie took with him to Manchester United will hardly help his acclimatisation at Arsenal. Wenger has to hope this investment pays handsome dividends. SHOOTING STAR: Jack Wilshere Arsene Wenger's decision to allow Alex Song to join Barcelona in the final days of the transfer window was partly due to the faith he has in young Wilshere, yet relying on this hugely promising 20-year-old has to be seen as a risky ploy. Wilshere looked like a star in the making when he burst into the Arsenal first team a couple of seasons ago, but he has spent the last year in the treatment room and will struggle to avoid niggling injuries that so often affect players when they have been out for so long. This talented young man deserves a break and it can only be hoped he can start to fulfil his potential this season. SECRET WEAPON: Steve Bould He will not set foot on the pitch for Arsenal this season, but the club's legendary central defender is a key addition to Wenger's backroom staff for this season and his impact could be crucial to their ambitions. Arsenal's inability to defend against set plays has undermined their ambitions for many a year and Bould has been charged with organising a defensive line that has lacked cohesion and tends to panic when put under pressure. An unsung hero in his playing days, he could just repeat that trick as a coach. THE WEAK SPOT: Years of near-misses in big competitions and the succession of star names who have walked away from Arsenal have altered the mindset of a club that got used to winning trophies during the first half of Wenger's reign. Now it seems as if a top-three finish in the Premier League and a decent cup run is acceptable to many supporters and, if that mentality filters down to Wenger's players, they will be doomed to another season of false promise. Injuries are another annual problem for Arsenal, with Wenger often blaming his crowded treatment room for their failure. If the Frenchman finds himself repeating those words again come May, the excuse may have become a little stale. Finally, can Arsenal's defense hold firm against the very best in Europe? They need to develop a backbone if they are to beat the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. VERDICT: A place in the knockout stages should be assured, but progress beyond that is far from certain.


  • SCHALKE

    Status: Third in the Bundesliga
    Nicknames: Die Konigsblauen (Royal Blues), Die Knappen (The Miners) THE LEGEND: Supporters of the Gelsenkirchen outfit will never forget the May evening in 1997 when their footballing heroes -- a team featuring Jens Lehmann in goal, sweeper Olaf Thon and striker Marc Wilmots -- ripped up the formbook to beat Inter Milan on penalties in the final of the UEFA Cup. It was the first and last time they have gone all the way in Europe. Schalke were to make equally impressive progress in the 2010-11 Champions League, beating Lyon, Benfica, Valencia and Inter before falling 6-1 on aggregate in the semis to Manchester United. Their heaviest ever Euro reverse was a 4-0 thrashing by Atletico Madrid in a Champions League eliminator in August 2008. CALLING THE SHOTS: Huub Stevens A Schalke legend after masterminding the club's 1997 UEFA Cup victory, the straight-talking Dutch coach was rather surprisingly recalled to the Royal Blue bench in the autumn of last year, stepping into the breach following the resignation on health grounds of Ralf Rangnick. In the eyes of many, it was a risky move to go back to the future, but thanks to the new boss's tactical expertise, natural authority and calmness under pressure, the Schalke ship was quickly steadied and a largely inexperienced side went on to seriously overachieve with a third-place Bundesliga finish. In his playing days an excellent stopper, he was part of the PSV Eindhoven team that beat Corsican club Bastia in the final of the 1978 UEFA Cup and also represented the Netherlands at senior level. Coaching posts include Roda, Hertha Berlin, Hamburg, PSV and Salzburg. THE GAME PLAN: For most of Huub Stevens' coaching career he has tended to be pigeonholed as a defensive, safety-first boss, someone more interested in industry, tactical discipline and physical strength than flair. However, since returning to Schalke a year ago, he has proved able to mix it up much more, combining the iron fist with a hefty dollop of attacking intent. His default system is a 4-2-3-1 featuring Dutchman Klaas-Jan Huntelaar as the lone frontman, Lewis Holtby replacing Spanish icon Raul (now plying his trade at Al Sadd) in the No. 10 slot, and plenty of penetration down the flanks, with full backs Atsuto Ochida and Christian Fuchs doing a fine job of supporting wide midfielders Jefferson Farfan and Julian Draxler. Another option is a 4-4-2, either with a flat midfield four or diamond. BIG HITTER: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar This brilliant Dutch marksman was not only the Bundesliga's top scorer last term with 29 goals, but he also revealed a previously well-hidden unselfish side to his game, responsible for no fewer than 13 assists. A perfectionist and always keen to improve, the 28-year-old finally seems to have shot down the notion that he is "only" a penalty-area predator. Following off-colour spells with Real Madrid and AC Milan, Huntelaar has been able to rebuild his confidence and form at Schalke, yet it remains to be seen whether he has a long-term future at the club. His contract runs out next year and no agreement has been reached on a renewal. CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Benedikt Howedes A home grown young central defender or right back, who has been with the club since the age of 13. Howedes is a full German international and was a non-playing member of Germany's Euro 2012 squad last summer. Although Huub Stevens revealed in the offseason that he was thinking of appointing a new skipper -- going as far as to suggest that the captaincy had adversely affected Howedes' form -- the Schalke boss ultimately opted to stick with "Benni." NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Tranquillo Barnetta This Swiss left-sided midfielder arrives on a free transfer from Bayer Leverkusen, and his extreme pace, mobility and creativity will offer Schalke a fresh dimension this season. He should push Julian Draxler all the way for a spot in the starting lineup, but does have to take it gently after missing most of last term with a serious knee injury. During seven years at Leverkusen, Barnetta regularly played in European competition and can also bring extensive international experience to the table, having appeared in 60-plus games for his country since his full debut in 2004. SHOOTING STAR: Lewis Holtby Skilful and energetic youngster tipped to take up the slack in the "hole" following the departure of Raul. Extremely versatile, the 22-year-old can cut the mustard in any number of positions; including winger, defensive midfielder and playmaker. Born in the Rhineland to a German mother and English father, he has inherited his dad's love of Premier League side Everton. Capped twice for the full German XI. SECRET WEAPON: Teemu Pukki An up-and-coming Finnish striker or left winger who has very much looked the part since arriving in Gelsenkirchen from HJK Helsinki a year ago. Lively, confident and a most composed finisher. German football obviously suits him better than La Liga, where he once had an unhappy spell with Sevilla. Pukki came to Schalke's attention after scoring all three of HJK's goals in a Europa League tie against them last year, and he will be eager to confirm he has what it takes to mix it with the Champions League elite. THE WEAK SPOT: Raul's departure for Qatar has hit Schalke hard. On the shoulder of lone frontman Huntelaar, his goals, imagination and know-how were crucial to Schalke's success last term, and it will be asking a lot for would-be replacements such as Holtby, Draxler or Farfan to fill the void. Huub Stevens has spent much of preseason weighing up who to play in goal: ex-German international Timo Hildebrand or promising youngster Lars Unnerstall. Who is his No. 1? It seems that not even the coach is entirely convinced. Also watch out for explosive U.S. midfield holder Jermaine Jones, who needs to find some self-control if he is not to shatter Schalke's Champions League dreams with one of his infamous "red mist" moments. Not for nothing has he been hailed by his critics as "the nastiest player in German football," so he will need to control his anger. VERDICT: The Royal Blues' class of 2012-13 will not lack in enthusiasm or vigour, but it's doubtful they have sufficient experience to succeed against the big boys in Europe. Unfortunately Schalke's financial cupboard is bare, and they have not been in a position to reinforce their ranks sufficiently this summer to compete at this level.


  • OLYMPIAKOS

    Status: Greek champions
    Nickname: Thrylos (The Legend) THE LEGEND: With 47 European campaigns under their belt, the famous Piraeus club certainly know exactly what to expect when they go into battle beyond the Greek borders. As far as the Champions League is concerned, their best performance was in the 1998-99 season when, after topping an opening phase group -- which also contained Ajax, FC Porto and Dinamo Zagreb -- they were eliminated at the quarterfinal stage by Juventus. They did equally well in the 1992-93 Cup Winners' Cup, making it to the last eight, where they went down to Atletico Madrid. Their worst night in Europe? A 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Juventus in 2003. Ouch. CALLING THE SHOTS: Leonardo Jardim Regarded as one of the European game's most impressive young coaches, the 38-year-old was appointed by Olympiakos this summer in the wake of the decision of highly successful previous incumbent Ernesto Valverde to seek pastures new. After steering Braga to an excellent third-place finish in the Portuguese league last term, he was expected to stay on, but fell out with club president Antonio Salvador and opted to leave. Born in Venezuela to Portuguese migrant parents, he did not make the grade as a professional player, but has proved himself a coaching natural, tactically very adaptable and a fine motivator. He first began to make waves at Portuguese side Beira-Mar, guiding the side to promotion to the top flight and comfortably establishing them there. At one point he was linked with the FC Porto job but instead said yes to an offer from Braga in the 2011 offseason. THE GAME PLAN: Jardim shares much common ground with his predecessor Valverde, with both men keen to preach the virtues of solid defence, the retention of possession for long periods and fast-paced counterattacks. There are differences, though. Jardim's teams do not press quite so high up the pitch, and unlike Valverde's wide men, who were forever cutting inside, the new boss insists on his wingers staying close to the touchline. The new coach is keen for his side to be able to operate in any number of formations: 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1. One of his guiding principles is to always match the opposition system-for-system, playing a neutralising game before later increasing the number of unleashed attackers BIG HITTER: Kostas Mitroglou A Greece international striker recently brought back to Piraeus following a productive loan spell at Atromitos, where he bagged 16 domestic goals in the 2011-12 campaign. He causes no end of headaches to defenders with his forceful, raging-bull style and strength in the air, and even though he is not the most technical, he is a real handful when firing on all cylinders. Now 24, he spent most of his formative years in western Germany, where his family had moved for better job prospects. As a youth, he was on the books of MSV Duisburg and Borussia Monchengladbach. CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Vassilis Torosidis Renowned for his dynamic forward runs, accurate delivery from the flanks and powerful shooting from distance, the 27-year-old truly is Mr. Olympiakos. A pivotal figure for the red-and-white stripes ever since arriving from Skoda Xanthi in 2007. Another of his assets is his versatility, as he is able to fit in as a full back, defensive midfielder or right winger, which makes him an invaluable asset for any coach he has worked under. For a number of years he has been linked with a move abroad, but rumour has never been backed up by a move for this talented performer. NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Paulo Machado Intelligent and technically polished right-sided Portuguese midfielder freshly recruited in a 2.3 million deal from French outfit Toulouse. He had his first taste of first-team football at FC Porto, blooded in the autumn of 2003 by then-club head honcho Jose Mourinho. However, a regular spot with the "Special One" proved an impossible dream, and he would have to rebuild his career at Estrela Amadora, Uniao Leiria, Leixoes and Saint-Etienne in France. Watch out for his brilliant curling free kicks, which could be vital to Olympiakos' Champions League hopes. SHOOTING STAR: Panagiotis Vlachodimos An exceptional, young creative midfielder signed this summer from fellow Greek Super League side Skoda Xanthi, his forte is mazy dribbling and an ability to wriggle out of the tightest of spots. This youngster, who turns 21 in October, was born and brought up in Germany, learning his trade at Stuttgart before being snapped by Xanthi at the start of last season. SECRET WEAPON: Ioannis Fetfatzidis One of the most naturally talented youngsters to emerge from Greece in many a long year, this winger or playmaker is brimming over with silky skills, dynamism and bright ideas. Despite him being a full international, Olympiakos have made a point of mainly using him in short, sharp bursts. With the Piraeus club from the age of 13, he made his first-team debut during Zico's ill-fated spell in charge in the 2009-10 season. 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: They might have problems in the centre of defence following the departure of experienced Swedish stopper Olof Mellberg and the long-term sidelining of his partner Avraam Papadopoulos, who suffered a serious knee injury at Euro 2012. Meanwhile, for all the industry of midfield enforcer Giannis Maniatis, they look somewhat short in the ball-winning department. The sale of top scorer Kevin Mirallas to Everton has left them much weaker up front, and it remains to be seen whether his departure will cripple them. VERDICT: They have reached the knockout round twice in the past five seasons but a repeat is unlikely in a competitive Group B lineup.


  • MONTPELLIER

    Status: Ligue 1 champions
    Nickname: La Paillade (the former name of the club) THE LEGEND: About to embark on their inaugural Champions League expedition, this southern French club are very much Euro novices, having played in only 32 games at this level since first qualifying in 1988. They reserved their best performance for the 1990-91 Cup Winners' Cup, a campaign in which they beat PSV Eindhoven and Steaua Bucharest prior to falling to Manchester United in the quarterfinals (1-1 in the first leg at Old Trafford, a 2-0 home defeat in the return). Their very first taste of European action brought them straight back down to earth, suffering a 6-1 aggregate thumping by Benfica in the first round of the 1988-89 UEFA Cup. CALLING THE SHOTS: Rene Girard Unfortunate to be sacked in 2008 as France's Under-21 boss -- it was said that he did not see eye-to-eye with then-senior team head coach Raymond Domenech -- the pugnacious yet charismatic 58-year-old has since had the last laugh, crowning three years of excellent work at Montpellier by leading them to an against-the-odds 2011-12 Ligue 1 title, the first in the club's history. In his heyday, Girard was tough-tackling defensive midfielder who appeared seven times for the French national team. He was a member of the squad that came fourth at the 1982 World Cup and won three French league titles with Bordeaux in the 1980s. That team also enjoyed much success with them in Europe, notably reaching the semifinals of the 1985 European Cup and the same stage of the 1987 Cup Winners' Cup. THE GAME PLAN: Last season, Rene Girard's Montpellier were not only the best-organised side in France, but also the most attractive to watch. Both home and away, their initial instinct is to get on the front foot and take the initiative, looking to dominate possession, have the creative juices flowing and generally keep things as fluid as possible. Montpellier are capable of striking from a variety of areas. From the middle of the park, where the likes of Younes Belhanda, Marco Estrada and Jamel Saihi offer a distribution network second to none. Or on the flanks, the domain of two fine wingers (Souleymane Camara and John Utaka) aided and abetted by attacking full backs (Henri Bedimo and Gary Bocaly). Little wonder they put in more crosses than any other team in the French top flight last season. BIG HITTER: Younes Belhanda Usually found in close proximity of the lone striker, this artist of an attacking midfielder was at the very heart of Montpellier's championship conquest, lighting up the team's approach play with his mazy dribbling and eye for an incisive pass. Rene Girard's decision last year to switch him from a wide-man role to a central position has worked wonders. A product of Montpellier's prolific youth academy, he was born in the southern French city of Avignon but has opted to play his representative football for the land of his parents, Morocco. CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa Quick over the ground, powerful in the tackle and in the air, capable of predicting trouble long before it transpires and very mature for someone of only 23 years, this central defender is a rear-guard rock and did more than enough to warrant selection for France's Euro 2012 squad. It was a shame that then-national team coach Laurent Blanc did not see it that way, as he omitted Yanga-Mbiwa from his final squad, though his successor, Didier Deschamps, has other ideas, and MYM will be a part of Les Bleus' 2014 World Cup qualifying push. Born in the Central African Republic but brought up in the Marseille region, Yanga-Mbiwa was reported to be keen on a move this summer to AC Milan, only for larger-than-life Montpellier owner Louis Nicollin to put his foot down and insist he remains on his payroll. NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Emanuel Herrera This Argentine striker was bought this summer from Chilean side Union Espanola to fill the massive void left by the sale to Arsenal of star frontman Olivier Giroud. A hard act to follow, certainly, but the Montpellier management are convinced they have found the ideal successor in Herrera, a 25-year-old who can both finish and serve as a target man. Dubbed "The Tank" or "The White Panther," Herrera was especially productive for Union Espanola in the 2012 Copa Libertadores, the South American Champions League. Like a certain Lionel Messi, he was born in the Argentine city of Rosario. SHOOTING STAR: Benjamin Stambouli A fast-improving French Under-21 international defensive midfielder or centre back, Stambouli graduated from the club's youth ranks and already has two full seasons as a professional behind him. He comes from one of France's premier footballing families. His father Henri is the director of the Marseille academy, his grandfather Gerard Banide once coached Marseille and Monaco, and his uncle Laurent Banide also had a spell in charge of Monaco. SECRET WEAPON: Geoffrey Jourdren Only close observers of the Ligue 1 scene realise just how good Montpellier's shotstopper really is. The longest-serving player at the club with eleven years on the clock, he has been La Paillade's undisputed last line of defence for three seasons now, regularly on hand to pull out vital saves and keep the back four on its toes. From the town of Meaux in greater Paris, he learned his trade at the French national academy at Clairefontaine, joining Montpellier as a 16-year-old in the summer of 2001. He is a former French Under-21 international. THE WEAK SPOT: Do they have sufficient firepower now that Olivier Giroud has exited stage left for Premier League side Arsenal? The pressure on Herrera to take up the slack will be immense, and as a newcomer to the European game, too much should not be expected. Naturally for such a young side, they are a little rough around the edges. For the vast majority of the team, this will be their first taste of the Champions League and they will not come to terms with its demands overnight. After operating under the radar last term, they now have to deal with more scrutiny and pressure. VERDICT: If they can keep their best players fit and settled, Montpellier could spring a surprise and make the knockout phase. As good a coach as Rene Girard is, he must know that the Champions League tends to chew up and spit out clubs with limited financial resources.





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