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Thursday, September 9, 2004
ESPNsoccernet: October 4, 9:28 PM UK
UEFA Champions League Group A

Nick Bidwell and Kevin Palmer

Group A: Deportivo La Coruna | Monaco | Liverpool | Olympiakos
Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Deportivo La Coruna

  • Third in Spanish league
  • Champions League pedigree: Semi-finalists 2004

    Deportivo's Juan Carlos Valeron

    The Star Turn - Juan Carlos Valeron

    'The Spanish Zidane' has been at the heart of Deportivo's considerable achievements in the last few seasons and he will be the main man for coach Javier Irureta once again this time.

    An attacking threat if employed in a role behind the front two, this 29-year-old has the experience to go with his undoubted class and while Deportivo may lack the strength in depth of some of their rivals, you can be sure that most managers in Europe would like to have Valeron in their ranks.

    Something of an enigma as he can have periods when he contributes little to the team, but he should be highly motivated for another crack at the Champions League.

    The Weak Link - An ageing squad

    Deportivo have been the surprise guys of Spanish football for the last few seasons, but questions over their staying power will be answered over the course of this season.

    Long term skipper Fran has made his exit, while Mauro Silva has his best football behind him. They are not alone in a Deportivo squad that may only have a couple of seasons left in it before a major rebuilding programme needs to be undertaken.

    The benefit of having a settled squad who have got used to playing with each other over the last few years cannot be underestimated, but after a quiet summer in the transfer market, Deportivo will have to defy the critics again if they are to pull off a few more shocks in the Champions League.

    The New Faces - Las Palmas duo

    Deportivo were relatively happy with their lot after a run to the semi-finals of the Champions League was complimented by a third place finish in La Liga, so team changes were never likely to be plentiful for coach Javier Irureta.

    However, he did spend a few euros in signing up Ruben Castro and Momo from Las Palmas and the duo will be keen to force their way into a side that has been established for some time.

    Castro finished last season as the top scorer in the Spanish Second Division and he signed a bumper seven year contract at the Riazor. As for midfielder Momo, he put pen to paper on a five year contract and both should add some youthful vigour to what is a squad packed full of experienced professionals.

    The Coach - Javier Irueta

    The master tactician behind the most surprising result in last season's Champions League, Deportivo's experienced coach deserved the credit that came his way after the stunning 4-0 rout of AC Milan in the quarter-finals.

    Like Valencia boss Claudio Ranieri, Irureta is convinced the best way forward is to employ a constant squad rotation policy that can infuriate players, yet he seems to have fostered an impressive squad spirit among his settled squad in the last few years.

    Irureta threatened to complete an 80km pilgrims walk between La Coruna and Santiago de Compostela on his knees if his side won the Champions League last season and as they got to the last four, he was not far away from needing some knee pads. Maybe this time?

    Verdict - A tough opening group may trip them up.

    Monaco

  • Third in the French League
  • Champions League Pedigree: Runners-up 2003-04.

    Monaco's Patrice Evra.

    The Star Man - Patrice Evra

    Outstanding young left-back who recently won his first full cap for France and should prove the long-term successor to Bixente Lizarazu. Excels in all aspects of full-back play, tenacious in the tackle, a good coverer and speedy and purposeful on the overlap. His attacking ability should come as no surprise; he was once a winger.

    The 23-year-old has crammed a lot of experience into a short space of time, beginning his career with the Paris Saint Germain youth team, playing in Italy with Marsala and Monza and then returning to France in 2000 to play for Nice. Joined Monaco two years later.

    Born in Senegal but brought up in France, he was offered the chance to nail his colours to the Senegalese mast before the last World Cup, only to declare that he was only interested in representing Les Bleus.

    The Weak Link - The Midfield

    Some might say the Monegasque midfield no longer has the same variety it had when going all the way to the Champions League Final last season. Key wide midfielders Ludovic Giuly and Jerome Rothen were the springboards of most Monaco attacks but now they have left for Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain respectively and the truth is that they have not been replaced.

    In the 4-3-3 system which coach Didier Deschamps has been using in the early part of this term, the midfield trio of Lucas Bernardi, Akis Zikos and new Uruguayan signing Diego Perez are all essentially destroyers, high on blood and sweat but low on inspiration.

    To provide more creativity to this one-dimensional sector, Deschamps might decide to bring in young Czech schemer Jaroslav Plasil, who is certainly a thoughtful user of the ball.

    The New Face - Javier Saviola

    Declared surplus to requirements at Barcelona after the Catalans recruited Swedish goal machine Henrik Larsson and Cameroon hit-man Samuel Eto'o, the baby-faced Argentine international front-runner was snapped up on loan by Monaco just hours before the transfer window slammed shut.

    He might be small in stature. But that is his only drawback. His pace and dribbling skills can take him past the most sternest defensive barriers and he is a consummate finisher. What is more, he can play in a number of positions: as the main central striker, in the hole behind the front-men or wide on the right.

    First came to prominence at top Buenos Aires side River Plate, earning himself a move to Barca in 2001. Earlier that year he had helped Argentina win the World Youth Cup.

    The Coach - Didier Deschamps

    Leadership has always comes naturally to the Basque-born former midfield dynamo, skippering Nantes as a teenager, captaining Marseille to victory in the 1993 European Cup and serving as the on-field director of operations when France claimed the 1998 World Cup and the European title in 2000.

    A flop in his first season as Monaco coach - they finished in a highly-disappointing 15th place in the 2001-02 French First Division - he subsequently proved himself a quick learner, steering the Monte Carlo club to the runners-up spot in Ligue 1 in 2002-03 and to the Final of the Champions League Final the following season.

    Disparagingly dubbed a 'water carrier ' by Eric Cantona, he was much more than a grafter as a player. Indeed, former French manager Aime Jacquet described him as 'the best reader of a game I've worked with'.

    Verdict: Don't expect a repeat of last year's heroics. The most they can expect is a place in the last-eight.

    Liverpool

  • English League fourth place
  • Champions League pedigree: Winners 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984

    Liverpool's Steven Gerrard

    The Star Man - Steven Gerrard

    New Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez spent plenty of cash in giving a Spanish flavour to the side he inherited from Gerard Houllier during the summer, but his good fortune in hanging on to Gerrard was the coup of the summer.

    It seemed that the England midfielder was on the verge of joining Chelsea after Euro 2004, but he opted to stay on at Anfield for another year at least and his importance to this side cannot be underestimated.

    With drive and passion to spare, he is a consistent scorer from the midfield and it was two Gerrard goals in the qualifying round against AK Graz in August that booked their return to the Champions League.

    The Weak Link - Jerzy Dudek

    The big keeper lost his place in the Liverpool side last season after a series of glaring errors and he was fortunate to get a second chance after an injury to young English stopper Chris Kirkland.

    A decent shot stopper, but Dudek can be caught out when dealing with crosses at times and the fact that Benitez has been linked with a couple keepers since he arrived at the club suggests he may be unsure about his current No.1.

    The New Face - Djibril Cisse

    Michael Owen's departure has opened the door for Cisse to become an Anfield legend and he has all the raw materials to scores goal aplenty for Liverpool.

    Cisse seems to have been heading to Merseyside for the last couple of years and it was ironic that he finally sealed his 14m move after Gerard Houllier's departure as manager was not lost on this gifted Frenchman. After all, it was his compatriot who chased after his services for so long during his time as Liverpool boss.

    With an impressive turn of pace and a fine scoring record during his time at Auxerre, he should prove to be a fine acquisition for a club as they look to rebuild under a new manager.

    The Coach - Rafael Benitez

    After a stunning run of success at Valencia, Benitez was a coach in demand during the summer, so Liverpool did well to lure him to Anfield.

    A shrewd tactician, the Spaniard will need time to rebuild a Liverpool side who have fallen well behind the top three of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United in the English Premiership. As for winning in Europe again, that is nothing more than a pipe dream for one of the most famous names in the game just now.

    He knows the Spanish transfer market better than any other and that explains why he opted to sign a host of La Liga talent this summer. Xabi Alonso, Josemi and Luis Garcia will take time to settle in England and this will be a year of building for Liverpool.

    Verdict: The may get through to the knock-out stages, but that will be it.

    Olympiakos Piraeus

  • Greek League runners-up
  • Champions League pedigree: Their best-ever performance came in the 1998-99 season when they reached the quarter-finals, beaten 3-2 on aggregate by Juventus.

    Olympiakos Piraeus' Giovanni.

    The Star Man - Giovanni

    Bought as an attacking midfielder from Barcelona in the summer of 1999, the Brazilian international has generally played as an out-and-out striker for Olympiakos, catching the eye with his silky technique, intelligent running off the ball and cool finishing.

    There is, however, a flip-side to the high skill-levels of the slender attacker. He has a tendency to be injury-prone, a regular in the treatment room with muscular problems and somewhat surprisingly, he lacks self-belief at times.

    First came to prominence as a star turn at Pele's old club Santos, earning a move to Barca in 1996. A close friend of Rivaldo and played an influential role in the latter's move to Olympiakos.

    The Weak Link - Backline and keeper

    Recently-arrived from arch Athens rivals Panathinaikos George Clooney lookalike Antonios Nikopolidis may have played his part in Greece's surprise Euro 2004 success. But it has to be said his job was made considerably easier by the hermetically-sealed defensive in front of him. As he proved in Panathinaikos' 5-0 Champions League thumping at Manchester United last season, he can flap at high balls.

    The heart of the Olympiakos defence is not exactly over-endowed with pace.

    New Argentine centre-backs Gabriel Schurrer - bought from Real Sociedad - and Giorgios Anatolakis will win their share of aerial duels and tackle fiercely but they are a little sluggish. Christos Patsatzoglu may be the answer, though he is still rusty after more than a year out through injury.

    While full-backs Anastasios Pantos and Greek international Stelios Venetidis are resolute enough defensively, neither makes much of a contribution going forward.

    The New Face - Rivaldo

    After reported moves to Bolton and Celtic fell through, it seemed as though the Brazilian attacking midfield maestro would end up plying his trade for a bundle of petro-dollars in the Gulf, only for Olympiakos president Socrates Kokkalis to persuade him to sign a two-year deal with his club.

    Ever since starring in Brazil's 2002 World Cup win, his career has gone into free-fall, unable to secure a first team spot during an unhappy 18-month spell at AC Milan and then spending just 50 days at the Cruzeiro club in Sao Paulo, angrily walking out in solidarity when boss Wanderley Luxemburgo was fired.

    At his best when given a free role in the attacking-third, he started his career in Brazil with Corinthians and Palmeiras before taking his artistry and left-footed shooting power to Spain in 1996, headlining first at Deportivo La Coruna and then Barcelona. Olympiakos have taken a gamble with the 30-year-old. Will it pay off ?

    The Coach - Dusan Basevic

    Former Yugoslav international striker who recently began his second spell at Olympiakos, the club whom he steered to a hat-trick of League titles in the late 1990s.

    He is not one to take a softly softly approach to management. Players do as they are told or are moved out. When Olympiakos lost a pre-season friendly 6-1 to Roma in 1999, he heavily fined each and every one of his squad. Has also coached top Greek sides AEK Athens and PAOK Salonika.

    Noted for his heading ability, he enjoyed his finest hour as a player when netting a hat-trick in Yugoslavia's 9-0 trouncing of Zaire at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany.

    Verdict: - Finished bottom of their first round Champions League group last season and should find it equally tough this time around in a pool featuring Liverpool, Monaco and Deportivo.

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