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Champions League Group H Preview

Just to be different, we start with Group H on Day 1 of our countdown to the kickoff for the Champions League proper. Each day we will examine one of the groups and explain our picks to emerge from thegroups into the knockout rounds.

Arsenal
How they got here:
Finshed 4th in the English Premier League; DefeatedSparta Prague in Round 3 of qualifying

Previous Best Showing: Runners-up to Barcelona in the 2005-06 season

Strengths:
Smart, possession football
One of the top managers in the game
Youth and energy

Weaknesses: Wasteful in possession and often find it tough to score
Not an overly experienced side

X-Factor: The Lehmann/Almunia situation. Which keeper will establish themselves as number 1? Lehmann has had a rough start to the season both in form and from an injury standpoint. However, if he can regain his form of two seasons ago, he could lead Arsenal deep into the tournament. Almunia has been solid in his starts for Arsenal but has not proven to be the difference maker that Lehmann is capable of being.

How they’ll fare: They should finish in one of the top two spots andqualifying comfortably for the next round

Big summer signing: Eduardo da Silva. The Gunners, having sold ThierryHenry to Barcelona, splashed out on the Croatian striker. Though thefee was not disclosed, some sources report it was as high as £10m. daSilva was not one of the “sexier” names being thrown around thissummer but he has scored goals at every level including 11 in 16appearances for his country.

Star Performer: Midfield maestro Cesc Fabregas has become critical tothe Arsenal squad at only 20. His passing and reading of the game areexceptional and he’s even added a bit of bite to his game asdemonstrated in the qualifying matches against Sparta Prague. Spartaattempted to boss the Gunners around but Cesc was having none of itand for good measure stung Tomas Repka with a hard tackle of his own.

Keep an eye on: Bacary Sagna. The French full-back is predominantly aright-back, and despite his recent move to the Premier League hasdisplaced Emmanuel Eboue as the first choice right-back. His status iccurrently unknown as he injured his lower back in a 1-0 win overManchester City but if he is back to 100%, he will have an impact forthe Gunners.

Sevilla
How they got here:
Finished 4th in La Liga; Defeated AEK Athens inRound 3 of qualifying

Previous Best Showing: Two-time defending UEFA Cup Champions, 2006 UEFA Super Cup winners, first time in Champions League

Strengths: Multiple weapons in offense
Depth on the bench

Weaknesses: Defending leads? One source I found indicated that Sevilla lost the most games from a half-time lead in La Liga last season – they led at the break in 16 (second only to Barcelona) but lost four of those matches. That does not seem like a lot but it will be an area of concern

X-Factor: Daniel Alves. After being so desperate for a move to a “bigger” club, will his heart be elsewhere? He was instrumental in the 4-1 win over AEK Athens to get the club to the group stage so the signs are positive. If he is performing at his best, he is capable of changing matches with his pace and crossing ability from the right side.

How they’ll fare: They should finish in one of the top two spots andqualifying comfortably for the next round

Big summer signing: Arouna Koné (signed for 12m euros from PSV Eindhoven) The 23-year-old Côte d’Ivoire international give Sevilla yet another weapon up front. Koné has a decent amount of CL experience from his time at PSV. He also gives them depth as the target man should the lose Kanoute to injury or suspension.

Star Performer: Fredric Kanoute. After mixed success at West Ham and Tottenham, the Mali international has found the right environment at Sevilla. He has bagged 50 goals in 97 appearance for the club and is the razor point of the spear in Sevilla’s attacking style.

Keep an eye on: Jesus Navas. The 21-year-old Spaniard has become known for his pace and dribbling skills but has also suffered from severe homesickness, to the extent that he has, at times, had anxiety attacks when travelling. This condition has stopped his progress into the national team but his recent performance away to AEK Athens shows he can overcome this problem and be a force for the club.

Slavia Prague
How they got here:
After finishing second in the Gambrinus liga (the official name of the Czech football premier league), Slavia needed a dramatic penalty shoot-out win against MŠK Žilina in the second qualifying round and then scored a major upset against four-time European champions AFC Ajax in the third qualifying round.

Previous Best Showing: This is the first time that Slavia have qualified for the group stage.

Strengths: Karel Jarolím – possibly the top manager in the Czech league?
Good defending and experienced goalkeeping

Weaknesses: Lack of a proven gamebreaking goal-scorer
Inexperience at this level

X-Factor: Vladimír Smicer. How much will his Champions League experience (He was part of the Liverpool side that won the competition in 2004-2005 and also played in the CL with RC Lens.) boost the club’s chances? He’ll want to take the club as far as he can and if healthy he gives them a wealth of leadership and the ability to score the occasional goal.

How they’ll fare: They will battle it out with Steaua Bucharest for the UEFA Cup berth and because of Smicer are my sentimental favourite to progress into that competition.

Big summer signing: Erich Brabec (signed from FC Aarau). He’s stepped right into the first XI and helped to shore up the defense.

Star Performer: Stanislav Vl?ek. An experienced striker who’s been part of the Czech Republic national team, his two goals in the second leg against Ajax sparked the side to victory. He’ll need to do that on a more consistent basis to push Slavia forward.

Keep an eye on: Marek Suchý. At just 19, he has been named to the Czech League’s All Stars (a top XI of each gameweek) 3 out of 5 Gameweeks this season. He was awarded the Czech Republic young player of the year at their Gold Ball awards in 2006.

Steaua Bucharest
How they got here:
They finished second in the Romanian League and after defeating Polish club Zaglebie Lubin in the second round and Belarussian club FC BATE Borisov in the third qualifying round, they have now qualified for the group stage in successive seasons.

Previous Best Showing: They have never finished higher than third in the group stage

Strengths: Solid defending
Tendency to cash in on set pieces

Weaknesses: Inconsistent offense
Managerial instability (6 different managers since 2002)

X-Factor: Will they score enough goals? Even in their domestic league, the club has scored only 4 goals in 6 matches. They’ll need to find some offensive spark if they hope to do well.

How they’ll fare: In 24 group matches over four campaigns the Bucharest club have only amassed four wins so I don’t see them progressing but they will battle it out with Slavia Prague for the UEFA Cup berth. If their historical form holds, they will edge Slavia for that berth.

Big summer signing: Ifeanyi Emeghara (1.2m Euros from Politehnica ?tiin?a Timi?oara). A defender that can be deployed on either side of the pitch, he is just 23 and has been considered for the Nigerian national team though he has yet to make his debut.

Star Performer: Nicolae Marius Dic?. An attack-minded midfielder who has a knack of scoring goals from free kicks. He’s not one to blow by defenders but rather to split them with his precision passing.

Keep an eye on: Dorin Goian. This tall centre-back is a consistent threat from set-pieces and corners. In the 2005-2006 season, he achieved a rare performance for a defender, by scoring 5 goals in Steaua’s UEFA Cup campaign.

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