How they got here: Finished first in Serie A (Scudetto winners), automatic berth into group stage of CL
Previous Best Showing: Knocked out at the semi-final stage in 2002-03 by AC Milan, who went on to win the competition
Strengths: When at full strength, Inter have an enviable pool of defenders to choose from
Weaknesses: Inconsistent strikers – the grouping of Zlatan Ibrahimovi?, Julio Cruz, Adriano and Hernán Crespo spearheaded a dynamic offense in Serie A as the team racked up 80 goals – tops in the league. However, they struggled in the CL, only scoring 7 goals in 8 matches. The hope is that new signing David Suazo, who broke the single season scoring record for Serie A club Cagliari with 23 goals, will add a new dimension to the offense.
X-Factor: Júlio César or Toldo. Who’ll be in goal? The two have been trading the #1 spot back and forth over the last couple of seasons through loss of form or injuries. It’ll be interesting to see if coach Roberto Mancini can get one of them to have a season-long run of form.
How they’ll fare: This is a group where I think an upset will occur and one of the less-fashionable sides will advance. Inter could be the club to take the fall in this group.
Big summer signing: Cristian Chivu (signed from Roma for 16-18m euros). Chivu was at the center of one of the more controversial transfers in Serie A this summer. Previous club Roma were reluctant to sell one of the top defenders in Italy, especially to a rival such as Inter. However, after a protracted negotiation a deal was struck and Chivu moved to the San Siro. He is comfortable at either centre-back or left-back. If used in central defence, he is at his best when operating with a more rugged, physical centre back. Chivu has good passing and offensive skills and has been known to score the odd goal from a free-kick. Unfortunately for Inter, Chivu has picked up a shoulder injury and will miss the first Matchday for certain. Coach Roberto Mancini is now deprived of five defenders for their first fixture against Fenerbahçe as Marco Materazzi is out with a long-term injury and Nicolás Burdisso, Maicon and Iván Córdoba are all suspended.
Star Performer: Zlatan Ibrahimovi?. When he is motivated and hungry to score goals, he can be unstoppable with his combination of size and dribbling ability. However, he has been known to, shall we say, sulk from time to time. He has had a good start this season and scored twice in Inter’s last league match against Empoli.
Keep an eye on: Luis Figo. The Portuguese veteran had originally been set to join Arabian side Al Ittihad in the summer, but he said they “broke promises” so the deal fell through and he signed on for one last season with Inter. Can he help deliver a CL trophy to the club? He’s experienced the thrill of winning it all before with Real Madrid in 2001-02 and though 34, I think he still has a few moments of brilliance left.
How they got here: Finished first in the Eredivisie (Dutch for “Honorary Division”)
Previous Best Showing: A fixture in the group stages the last few seasons, PSV reached the semi-finals in 2004-05 but have yet to take that next step. (They did win the old European Cup competition back in 1988.)
Strengths: Experience – though the squad continues to be a springboard for players moving to “bigger” clubs, many of the current squad have a couple of seasons of CL football under their belt. In addition, coach Ronald Koeman has been through it all before both as a player and manager. Koeman took Benfica to the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2005-06 before losing to FC Barcelona, who ended up winning the trophy.
X-Factor: Edison Méndez. With Phillip Cocu moving on to play for Al-Jazira Club, Méndez will need to make the most of his passing and skill from dead-ball situations to fill the void. Though he is not a central player as Cocu often was, he can play on either wing and will be looked upon to create chances and score a few goals of his own. Mendez was among 50 players nominated for the 2006 Ballon d’Or (Golden Ball) award for the best players in Europe.
How they’ll fare: PSV are expected top progress but this will be a tough group for them. I do think they will move on but they will have a couple of tough games, especially the away matches to Fenerbahce and CSKA.
Star Performer: Jefferson Farfán. He has torn up the Dutch league the past two seasons scoring 24 and 25 goals in 31 games but has yet to recreate that form in the Champions League where he only has 2 goals from 16 appearances. PSV will need him to come through now that strike-partner Arouna Koné has moved to Sevilla.
How they got here: Finished first in the Russian Premier League (As of 2006, the Russian champions qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage, and the runners-up for the Champions League qualification.)
Strengths: A handful of Brazilian flair
Weaknesses: The club are struggling for form and their domestic league will end before the Champions League hits full stride. CSKA currently sit fourth in the Russian league and only have a slim chance of retaining their league title with just seven games left in the season.
X-Factor: Despite the talent of Brazilians Vagner Love, Jo and Daniel Carvalho, Igor Akinfeev is the rock solid foundation of the squad. He broke into the CSKA starting lineup when he was only 17 and he has been the first-choice goalkeeper at the club ever since. Akinfeev has also become the first-choice goalkeper for the Russian national team. You may have seen him come off the bench and save a penalty in a recent Euro qualifier versus Macedonia. He is currently still trying to regain full fitness after damaging cruciate ligaments and his status is uncertain. Without him, there chances are not as strong.
How they’ll fare: It’s not looking good for CSKA but they will not make it easy for teams travelling to Moscow. They will hope to get back into the UEFA Cup and if they can that will have to be considered a success based on their current form.
Big summer signing: Eduardo Ratinho (on loand from Corinthians). The 20-year-old Brazilian can play at right-back or as a wide player on the right side of midfield. His pace, skill on the ball and crossing ability will certainly have people drawing comparisons to Daniel Alves though he is closer in stature to another well-known Brazilian wingback — Cafu.
Star Performer: CSKA will be hoping that Daniel Carvalho can repeat the brilliant play he exhibited (7 goals in 14 appearances) during the 2005 UEFA Cup tournament. His vision and passing were one of the keys to the success of that team and he elevated his game in the final. Carvalho turned in a Man of the Match performance against Sporting Lison in the final as he created all three of CSKA’s goals.
Keep an eye on: Yuri Zhirkov. The 24-year-old left winger has earned himself the nickname ‘the Russian Ronaldinho’ for his dribbling skills. This was most evident in the goal he scored against Hamburg in the Champions League 2006-07 group stages.
How they got here: Finished first in the Turkish Super League; defeated Anderlecht in the third qualifying round
Previous Best Showing: Their best group stage campaign to date was a third-placed finish in the 2004/05 season.
Strengths: Zico as manager – demands discipline from the players and is a good tactician
Intimidating environment at home – Istanbul is a notoriously tough place to go and try to win a match
Weaknesses: Will there be enough goal production? The team has struggled for goals in the early part of the season, partially due to the loss of
X-Factor:Mateja Kežman’s career has been marred by inconsistency. He was brilliant in his three seasons with PSV but has since failed to have the same impact in stays at Chelsea, Atletico Madrid and now Fenerbahçe. He has had some good games since moving to Fenerbahçe from Madrid but needs to start producing on a more regular basis if his club is to progress in the competition.
How they’ll fare: I think if they can get some consistent production from their forwards and offensive-minded midfielders, they could surprise the other teams in this group.
Big summer signing: Roberto Carlos. The former Real Madrid standout decided to move on at the end of last season, signing a two year deal with Fenerbahçe. At 34, can he still provide the offensive impact that he used to? I think he can. He’s always been a tremendously fit player with very few injuries. Having retired from international duty with Brazil will also help him to avoid breaking down as the season wears on.
Star Performer: Alexsandro de Souza (Alex) was named captain of the club this year after several other players moved on. He has been named the Most Valuable Player in the Turkish League three seasons in a row and is always a danger jumping into the play from midfield or taking free-kicks. He creates as many goals as he scores and will be at the heart of any success that Fenerbahçe enjoy this season.
Keep an eye on: Colin Kazim-Richards. After Sheffield United were relegated from the English Premier League, Kazim-Richards left England to get in touch with his Turkish heritage (He was born in London but his parents have Turkish roots). From the few times I have watched him play with Sheffield United and he impressed me as a pacy forward with a penchant for scoring some spectacular goals. If he gets a role, look for him to pressure defenders with his speed and try to create chances for his teammates.