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Sunday, September 14, 2003
Team-by-team guide

Nick Bidwell

Group G: Ajax Amsterdam - Club Brugge - Celta Vigo - AC Milan
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group H


Ajax Amsterdam

Star Turn: Wesley Sneijder

The teenage midfielder was the revelation of the second-half of 2002-03. One moment, he was in Ajax's reserves, the next, he was a first team regular, playing with style and verve in the Dutch First Division and the Champions League.

Born in Marco Van Basten's hometown of Utrecht, the 19-year-old is a quite brilliant midfielder, quick, hard to knock off the ball, a sublime passer and with a firece shot in either foot. Like all Ajax youth team products, he is a confident individual, demanding to take the set-pieces as soon as he broke into the Ajax first eleven.

A call-up to the Dutch national team was inevitable and he duly made his debut last April in a friendly against Portugal.

New Face: Zdenek Grygera

A top quality and versatile Czech defender signed from Sparta Prague for 2.7 million, he can play in central defence or in either full-back position.

Solid defensively, highly competitive and excellent going forward when used as a full-back, he has come on by leaps and bounds since signing for Sparta from the Drnovice club back in 2000.

A member of the Czech Under 21 side which won the European title in 2002, he has been a regular for the seniors for the past year and was in magnficent form as the Czechs saw off the Dutch challenge to qualify directly for Euro 2004.

One to Watch: Steven Pienaar

Last season was certainly one to remember for the young South African midfielder. Not only did he earn a regular place in the Ajax line-up; he was also a star in the Champions League, particularly impressive in games against Arsenal, Roma and Milan.

Steven Pienaar (AlexLivesey/GettyImages)

Equally comfortable in a central position or on the left, his strengths are his mobility, clever use of the ball, energy and battling qualities. But Ajax coach Ronald Koeman insists he has not even begun to fulfill all his potential.

Born and raised in Johannesburg, Pienaar arrived at Ajax in 2000 from their satelite club Ajax Cape Town.

Tactics

Coach Ronald Koeman often uses the traditional Ajax system of 4-3-3 with genuine wingers but it is not written in stone. Sometimes, one of the wide-men is sacrificed for an extra midfielder and he has also been known to employ a three-man back-line.

In the 4-3-3, the back-four should consist of new signings Julien Escude - who joined from French club Rennes - and Zdenek Grygera in central defence, Hatem Trabelsi at right-back and the Brazilian Maxwell at left-back. With Nigel De Jong, John O'Brien, Steven Pienaar, Rafael Van der Vaart, Tomas Galasek, Jari Litmanen and Wesley Sneijder at his disposal, Koeman is spoilt for choice in midfield. Wingers Victor Sikora and Tom Soetaers and strikers Wesley Sonck - the Belgian international who recently arrived from Genk - and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will compete for places in attack.

Verdict: Quarter-finalists last season, they have the abiity to repeat.


  • Club Brugge

    Star Turn: Timmy Simons

    The Belgian Footballer of the Year for 2002 is Mr Consistency. Whether used in central defence or in a midfield holding role, the 26-year-old never seems to have an off-day.

    He might not be one for the spectacular. But he is the sort of dependable profesional every team needs, a player of great spirit, tactical nous and unflappable temperament.

    Joined Club Brigge from Lommel in the summer of 2000 and has amssed 27 caps for Belgium since making his international debut against the Czech Republic in April 2001.

    New Face: Tomislav Butina

    Brought in to replace the veteran keeper Danny Verlinden for the second-leg of the third qualifying round against Borussia Dortmund, the ex-Dimano Zagreb custodian had a nightmare start to the game, mis-controlling a back-pass and gifting a goal to the Dortmunder.

    But with the pressure well and truly on, he showed great character to put the gaffe behind him, going on to produce several fine reflex stops and then save two penalties as Club Brugge went through in the shoot-out.

    The back-up to Stipe Pletikosa in the Croatia goal, the 29-year-old was a non-playing menber of their World Cup 2002 squad.

    One to Watch: Alin Stoica

    After joining Club Brugge on a Bosman free from Anderlecht at the start of last season, the skilful Romanian playmaker has been working hard to dispel his image as a footballing bad-boy.

    At Anderlecht, he was often at loggerheads with management and it was even claimed by bosses of the Brussels club that Stoica had an habit of feigning injury when he did not feel like playing. Stoica, however, angrily denied it.

    Fortunately for the left-footer, there has been no such controversy at Brugge. Nimble and inventive, he has been hitting all the right notes over the past year and has brought more discipline to his game.

    Tactics

    Their Norwegian coach Trond Sollied is a true believer in 4-3-3, a high pressing game and fast-paced attacking moves. Brugge's great strength lies in its midfield, where Belgian international Timmy Simons screens the back-line and Alin Stoica and either Gaetan Englebert or the Slovenian Nastja Ceh provide the creativity and forward thrusts.

    In attack, the highly-experienced Gert Verheyen sticks to the right-flank, while the two other front-men, the Peruvian Andres Mendoza and Sandy Martens constantly switch between the centre and the left-wing. Watch out for the overlapping of left-back Peter Van der Heyden.

    Verdict: The Flemish outfit performed superbly to dispose of Dortmund in the qualifiers. But the first round phase is likely to be the end of the road.


  • Celta Vigo

    Star Turn: Alexander Mostovoi

    The cultured Russian midfield general may be 35 but he remains a class act, a player who can still turn a game with his finesse, killer through balls and shooting from open play or set-pieces.

    Alexander Mostovoi (MatthewAshton/Empics)

    A native of St Petersburg, he first made a name for himself at Moscow Spartak, helping them reach the semis of the 1990-91 European Cup. However, subsequent spells with Benfica, and French clubs Caen and Strasbourg did not work out and it was only after moving to Celta in 1996 that he began to shine again.

    Always argumentative, he has been dropped by Russia on a number of occasions following bitter rows with the coach or federation.

    New Face: Savo Milosevic

    Tall, powerful Serb international striker who arrived at Celta from Espanyol this summer and will be expected to spearhead his new team's Champions League campaign.

    A lost soul during rather unhappy spells at Aston Villaa and Parma, he has always found Spanish football much more to his liking, proving especially potent in a two-year stint at Zaragoza (1998-00).

    Has an enviable strike-rate at international level, with 33 goals in 80 games for Yugoslavia/Serbia, including a half-dozen at Euro 2000 to make him the tournament's the joint-top scorer.

    One to Watch: Peter Luccin

    It says much about French strength in the midfield department that their national coaches can afford to continually ignore the claims of this outstanding 24-year-old enforcer.

    Although slight of build, he can tackle with the best, he has a great engine and has much skill and vision to boot. All in all, he is a fine midfield all-rounder.

    Has played for all of France's Big Three clubs: Bordeaux, Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain.

    Tactics

    Coach Miguel Angel Lotina prefers a 4-2-3-1 system and is often criticised for being too negative. But there can be little doubt that he knows how to set up a team defensively, building a watertight back-four around the uncompromising South American duo of the Argentine Fernando Caceres and the Chilean Pablo Contreras and further protecting the rearguard with excellent midfield holders Giovanella and Peter Luccin.

    Savo Milosevic is likely to be the lone striker, supported by a deep-lying trio of Alexander Mostovoi, Gustavo Lopez and the Brazilian Edu.

    Verdict: They will be a tough nut to crack, especially at home. But the second round is utopia.


  • AC Milan

    Star Turn: Filippo Inzaghi

    As he he proved with a quick-fire hat-trick in Italy's recent 4-0 demolition of Wales in a Euro 2004 qualifier, the 30-year-old is a penalty area predator of the highest order, a man you leave unmarked at your peril.

    Filippo Inzaghi (MatthewAshton/Empics)

    Critics have justifiably slammed him for running offside too often and for a penchant to tumble under the slightest challenge in the box. But no one can say that he is not one of the sharpest strikers in circulation in Europe.

    Bought from Juventus for 26 million three years ago, he contributed 12 goals to Milan's Champions League triumph last season.

    New Face: Kaka

    The latest in a long line of Brazilian superstars, the brilliant young attacking midfielder was recently signed from Sao Paulo in a 6 million deal.

    Milan look to have secured a bargain. The 21-year-old is the total package, a player of incredible touch, imagination and devastating finishing skills.

    'He is the best young player we have produced for a long time,' declared ex-Brazil boss Carlos Alberto Parreia earlier this year. That says it all.

    One to Watch: Gennaro Gattuso

    No wonder he is a cult hero at the San Siro. The combative Italian international midfielder plays every game as though it was his last, tackling, chasing and covering with a vengeance.

    His gritty, lung-busting performance in Milan's Champions League Final victory over Juventus last season was no one-off. He always plays that way.

    In his fourth season with Milan, he once played for Glasgow Rangers, helping them to a Scottish League and Cup double in 1998.

    Tactics

    Despite a reputation as a cautious, defence-minded coach, Carlo Ancelotti's Milan produced some of the most attractive football in Europe last season and he will be hoping to achieve the same balance between sound organisation and forward flair in the months ahead.

    Understandably, Ancelotti is likely to keep faith with the 4-2-2-2 which made Milan European Champions. New Brazilian signing Cafu comes in at right-back; Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta form a solid barrier in central defence; while Kakha Kaladaze remains at left back.

    Gennaro Gattuso does the midfield donkey work; Andrea Pirlo is the deep-lying playmaker; while two from Rui Costa, Clarence Seedorf, Serginho and Kaka will work the flanks further forward. Alternatively Kaka may be pushed into the hole behind Filippo Inzaghi and Andrii Shevchenko.

    Verdict: Should advance deep into the knock-out stages.


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