Soccer - Champion League Guide

Champions League 2005/6, Group A

<!-- end pagetitle --><!-- begin bylinebox -->Kevin Palmer and Nick Bidwell

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<CENTER>Group A: Bayern Munich | Juventus | Club Bruges | Rapid Vienna
Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H</CENTER>Bayern Munich

Domestic finish last season - German champions
European pedigree: - European Champions 1973, 1974, 1975, 2001

The coach - Felix Magath

Close encounters: Bayern Munich's Michael Ballack and Juve's Emerson will be renewing friendly hostilities.

Brought in a year ago with the brief of producing a more attack-minded style of play and greater levels of fitness and discipline, Magath succeeded on all counts in his first season in the Bayern hot-seat, proving a very safe pair of hands as the Bavarians captured the League and Cup double, as well as reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League. As Magath often points out, his job at Bayern is the first time in his coaching career that he has had to contend with massive expectations. At previous clubs, Hamburg, Bremen, Nurnberg, Eintracht Frankfurt and Stuttgart, he was what the Germans call 'a fireman', a manager appointed at a time of crisis, but now he is in the big time. 'I'd been waiting all my life to come to a club like Bayern,' he states. 'It's great to start a season and be confident your team is going to win the championship. Normally Bayern's first priority is first place in the Bundesliga, but the Champions League is a title I'd love to bring home. I'd gladly live with second place in the German League, if we could go all the way in Europe this season. 'I'm pleased we've drawn Juventus in the group stages. We lost to them twice last season and now have a point to prove. We must and will qualify for the last 16. Bayern as European Champions is in no way a fantasy.' Player to watch - Michael Ballack Recently voted Germany's Footballer of the Year - the third time he has received the award in the last four seasons - the midfielder can do everything; tackle and chase, set the tempo with his crisp passing and score goals galore with either head or foot. Such versatility has in the past led to him being played too deep but coach Magath wisely plays him in an advanced position these days. Ballack's Bayern contract runs out next summer and with no new deal in sight, he could be on his way abroad (according to his agent he would be interested in a move to a select band of European clubs including Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona), yet he has business to finish before any move. 'I think we showed in our Champions League quarter-final defeat to Chelsea last season that we can live with the very best in Europe,' says Ballack. 'We've just moved to a new stadium and we hope the fantastic atmosphere there will help us become even stronger.'

The new face
- Ali Karimi

Eastern promise: Asia's current player of the year makes his Champions League bow with Bayern.

Asia's Current Player of the Year, the Iranian midfielder or forward joined Bayern on a free transfer from Dubai club Al-Ahly and already seems to be settling in well in the Bundesliga. Two-footed, creative, a consummate dribbler and with an eye for goal, the 26-year-old can play on either wing, in the hole behind the strikers or as an out-and-out frontrunner. 'I came to Bayern for only one thing - to win titles. A club like Bayern are always contenders for the Champions League. There's no reason at all why we cannot win it.'

Tactics board:
Magath's preferred formation is a fluid 4-4-2, in which the key compartment is its midfield diamond. England's Owen Hargreaves is likely to sit in front of the back-four, while Michael Ballack is nominally the furthest forward. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ze Roberto will push forward on the left, with Sebastian Deisler, Ali Karimi or Mehmet Scholl doing likewise on the right. Ballack and the wide-men swap positions continuously. Defenders play an important role in Bayern's attacking play. French full-backs Willy Sagnol and Bixente Lizarazu supply a large proportion of crosses into the box, while Brazilan centre-half Lucio needs no prompting to gallop forward with the ball.

The German champions do not have quite enough quality for a seat at the European top table, so a quarter-finals spot is their best hope. <HR>Juventus

Domestic finish last season - Italian champions
European pedigree - European Champions 1984, 2000

The coach - Fabio Capello Crossing the steely Capello has never been a good plan for any player and at the age of 59, his determination to get things done his way shows no signs of waning. This highly successful tactician has brought success to every club he has worked with and now he is targeting the ultimate glory with Juve. 'We want the Champions League,' he confirms. 'The challenge last season was the Italian championship and we managed to achieve that. Now we can look at Europe with real hope. 'This draw is bound to create a lot of interest because our games with Bayern will be the main attraction in European football when they are played. We know each other so well and they should be classic matches.'

Player to watch - Pavel Nedved

Final frontier: Nedved missed the 2003 final through suspension and is looking to put that right this time around.

He may be entering the final chapter of his glorious career, but this brilliant Czech midfielder still has a burning ambition to add Champions League honours to his resume. And after missing a chunk of last season due to injury, his motivation could not be higher. 'This competition is special to me and after what happened in the 2003 final, it is the one I would like to win more than anything,' he says. 'Back then, I was playing well in a good Juve side that went all the way to the final, but my suspension denied me the chance to play against Milan at Old Trafford. 'My time is running out to put that right and maybe this can be Juve's year again. We certainly have the players to construct a victory.'

The new face - Patrick Vieira It was hardly a gamble when Capello added the great Vieira to his squad in the summer and his influence could give the Italian champions the extra bite they need in the midfield. 'When you come to a club like this, the expectation is to be challenging in the Champions League every season,' states the talismanic Frenchman. 'Arsenal have not managed to do that so often in my time at the club, but Juve have always been in the mix. 'That was one of the main reasons I decided to come here. You look at the dressing room and it is packed full of winners, players who have achieved so much in the game. We are all hungry for more success.'

Tactics board: Edgar Davids was the engine room in the Juve midfield for so many years and now Vieira has been charged with the task of stepping into his boots and establishing what should be a dynamic midfield partnership with the Brazilian Emerson, who was in outstanding form for much of last season. Employing a 4-4-2 system, Capello's side got the job done at home last season, but their lack of adventure cost them in Europe and it may be that they need to shed their tag of grinders rather than risk takers. The return to fitness of Nedved will doubtless be a boost and they can always rely on a solid defensive line and quality goalkeeper in Gigi Buffon to keep them tight at the back.

Verdict: The last eight may be a stumbling block for Juventus again unless they find attacking intent to go with their defensive steel. <HR>Club Bruges

Domestic finish last season - Belgian champions
European pedigree - Champions Cup runners-up: 1978, UEFA Cup runners-up: 1976

The coach - Jan Ceulemans

Cool customer: Belgian legend Jan Ceulemans believes Club Bruges need not be afraid.

A Bruges attacking star for 14 years (1978-1992), Ceulemans returned to his spiritual home in the close season, succeeding the Olympiakos-bound Trond Sollied. Previously in charge of Eendracht Aalst, Ingelmunster and Westerlo, he is Belgium's most-capped player, having appeared in 96 internationals (23 goals), the most important being the final of the 1980 European Championships that his country lost to West Germany. Three times Belgium's Footballer of the Year. The playing legend turned boss said after the draw: 'Of course, it's a very tough group. Everyone will say that Bayern and Juventus are sure to qualify and that Rapid Vienna and ourselves will battle for the right to go into the UEFA Cup. However, if we thought like that, we might as well pull out now. No, football will always throw up shocks and we must look to produce a few. We will not go into the competition as victims.'

Player to watch - Bosko Balaban The Croat striker may have flopped completely during two miserable seasons at Aston Villa (2002-04), featuring in only a handful of games and failing to manage a single goal in the Premiership. But since joining Bruges on a free transfer 18 months ago, he has regained all the sharpness he displayed early in his career at NK Rijeka and Dinamo Zagreb. Looks to have lost several pounds and is making a lot of chances too. Set a Croat record by scoring six goals in his first seven games for his country. His view on Group A: 'Personally I'm really happy with the draw. Big name opponents like Juve and Bayern are what the Champions League is all about. They will not find us easy meat. We're very organised and there's much individual ability here. 'I'm especially looking forward to playing Juve. My team-mate in the Croat side, Robert Kovac plays at centre-back for them and we've a bet going on the outcome.'

The new face - Joos Valgaeren The experienced Belgian international stopper was brought in from Celtic this summer to replace the young Czech David Rozehnal, who had left for Paris Saint-Germain. Typical old-fashioned centre-back: teak-tough, uncomplicated and strong in the air and the tackle, he was one of the unsung heroes of the Celtic side which finished runners-up in the 2003 UEFA Cup final. Before the Bhoys, he played for Belgian outfits Geel and Mechelen as well as Roda in Holland. He said: 'Even the biggest teams have their weak points. The most important thing is for us not to fear them and make life as difficult for them as possible. We'll do ourselves justice. I've good memories of Juventus. I scored for Celtic against them in our 4-3 win at Celtic Park four years ago.'

Tactics board: Jan Ceulemans' pre-season experiments with a 4-4-2 formation did not bear fruit. So he had to swallow his pride and revert to the 4-3-3 system which his predecessor Trond Sollied had employed for the previous five years. Not exactly the way to stamp your authority on a new team. Bruges rely heavily on their three-pronged attack. The evergreen Belgian international Gert Verheyen is a rampaging presence on the right-flank; Bosko Balaban plays through the middle; while up-and coming Nigerian Mannaseh Ishiaku should work the centre-left channels. Another option up front is young Spaniard Javier Portillo, on loan from Real Madrid.

Verdict: Simply not enough quality to go beyond the first phase. <HR>Rapid Vienna

Domestic finish last season - Austrian champions
European pedigree Cup-winners' Cup runners-up: 1985, 1996

The coach - Josef Hickersberger The mastermind of Rapid's first Austrian league title in nine long years, 'Hick' has been in charge since 2002, taking over after Lothar Matthaus resigned. A former midfielder, captain and manager of Austria - he was at the helm at Italia '90 - he has also coached Austria Vienna and in the United Arab Emirates. Played for Austria and Rapid Vienna and Wacker Innsbruck, as well as Offenbach Kickers and Fortuna Dusseldorf in Germany. Capped 39 times and appeared at the 1978 World Cup finals. He has been realistic about his team's prospects: 'We are all tremendously excited by the prospect of facing clubs of the prestige of Juventus and Bayern Munich. It's a new and exciting challenge for Champions League newcomers like us. We can only improve in such company. But personally I'm under no illusion. The Champions League is for the super rich. Not us. Only with luck can we compete.'

Player to watch - Steffen Hofmann

Friends reunited: Steffen Hofmann will face the club that released him in Bayern Munich.

An archetypal midfield general, whose stock-in-trade is his poise, vision, passing ability and imagination. The 24-year-old German is the conduit through which most of Rapid's attacks flow and if his creative work was not enough, he also finds the time to skipper the side and scores his share of goals, especially from free-kicks. Austria's Player of the Year in 2004, he joined Rapid from Bayern Munich's amateur ranks three years ago. Meeting up with his old club has especially excited him: 'It's a dream to draw Bayern in the Champions League. I had a premonition Rapid and Bayern would end up in the same group. I won't be going back to Germany with thoughts of revenge. Bayern and I went our separate ways. That's all there is to it.'

The new face - Radek Bejbl Brought in on a Bosman free from Slavia Prague, the veteran Czech international made his name as a tireless midfield workhorse but at Rapid he is being played in central defence, a positional switch which is working out extremely well. Now 33, he first came to prominence in the 1995-96 season, helping Slavia reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup and starring as the Czech Republic unexpectedly finished runners-up at Euro '96. Fifty-eight full caps and counts Atletico Madrid and Lens in France amongst his former clubs. 'This is my last stab at the big-time,' confesses the veteran. 'Rapid are a strong side with many exciting youngsters. Realistically our aim is to come third in our group and then play in the UEFA Cup.'

Tactics board: Josef Hickersberger has a reputation for being a canny strategist, someone who spend hours in front of a TV screen looking for opposition weaknesses to exploit. His base formation is usually a 4-4-2 but for difficult away-days at Bayern Munich and Juventus, a safety-first 4-5-1 could be the order of the day. Rapid's chief asset is their technically gifted midfield, a sector featuring the 'Magic Triangle' of captain Steffen Hofmann, Sebastian Martinez and Andreas Ivanschitz. Up front, Rapid's hopes will rest on the Czech Marek Kincl and the Austro-Turk Muhammet Akagunduz.

Verdict: Hickersberger is right to say Rapid cannot compete with the European big boys. Third place at best. </TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>