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Life President
May 29, 2005
It's that time of year again. The time when the Giants of European football clamour together for one big orgy of tactical football and self-congratulation. yes, it's the Champions League group stages, and here is my run down of the groups and who to look out for.

Group A
On the face of it, Group A seems a foregone conclusion. Juventus and Bayern Munich should, in theory, have little problem in despatching Bordeaux and Maccabi Haifa as they look to exercise their football authority. Juventus have undergone something of a revolution following their various punishments in the wake of the Italian match-fixing scandal. Buffon remains, as does tiny OAP Alessandro Del Piero, and they've bolstered their midfield with the signing of Werder Bremen's Brazilian playmaker Diego, who is my Player of the Group. Also one to look out for is Sebastian Giovinco, the tiny left winger who has carved himself a reputation as the next big thing of Italian football.

The summers longest transfer saga ended with a whimper as Franck Ribery decided against forming a facial disfigurement XI at Manchester City and stayed in Germany. Bayern defied the recession to spend just shy of £50m to bring in striker Mario Gomez and the perennially injured Arjen Robben from Real Madrid, they'll be the archetypal German outfit in being big and strong with the added pace and skill of their wingers, they really should qualify.

Don't be too quick in writing off Bordeaux, however. The defending French Champions boast a considerable amount of talent going forward, with Cavenaghi and Gouffran joined by the Brazilian Jussie in attack and, just behind them, is the mercurial midfielder Yoann Gourcuff. Signed from AC Milan after a successful loan spell, the young French midfielder will go down as a fatal error in judgement on the Azzuri's behalf. Should this group hold an upset, it'll be at the hands of Bordeaux.

Maccabi Haifa face a daunting task in even winning a game in this group, although the other teams won't be looking forward to a midweek trip to Israel. The Israeli Champions don't boast any recognisable talent, and are equally hindered by their inability to sign more than five foreign nationals.

Prediction: Juventus, Bayern Munich, Bordeaux, Maccabi Haifa.

Group B
Another group that should be just a formality, as Manchester United will look to walk this group despite arduous midweek excursions to Russia and Turkey. The real fight will be for that second qualification spot. Wolfsburg come into the tournament as Champions League virgins after winning their first ever Bundesliga title and have kept the bulk of that successful squad. The Bosnian hotshot Edin Dzeko, who half of Europe chased this summer, has stayed and his partnership with Grafite is one not to be ignored. Fully fledged Brazilian international Josue adds some steel, while Obafemi Martins will look to come onto the pitch at some point, get the ball, run around, and lash it violently at anything that moves.
Juande Ramos of Spurs infamy will hope to guide the Russian outfit to qualification, and will have the usual quasi-Russian South Americans to help him. Chilean Mark Gonzales and the Brazilian duo of Daniel Carvalho and Guilherme hold the key to any hopes of a knock-out round.
Besiktas won the Turkish Super Lig last season and the hostile atmosphere in Turkey will no doubt help against those that haven't seen it all before... The only thing is most European footballers have. The interestingly named Bobo is their player to look out for, but the lack of depth will definitely go against them.

Prediction: Manchester United, Wolfsburg, CSKA Moscow, Besiktas.

Group C
The first battle of the behemoths here as AC Milan and Real Madrid entertain eachother. Real Madrid have been the talk of the footballing world this summer, signing a vast array of attacking talent that will be a daunting figure for most teams. In La Liga while they've looked impressive going forward, the usual defensive problems have haunted the team and this will have to be addressed to succeed at this level... The funny thing is, you have to be a complete outfit to win the Champions League. AC Milan last year were like a Museum of past greats, still clinging on to their profession despite their bodies convincing them otherwise. They haven't made any great, eye catching additions and, if they were in a tougher group, they could really have struggled. Huntelaar and Pato have the potential to form a lethal partnership and Ronaldinho is Ronaldinho, if he can be bothered, he'll perform.
Marseille pose something of a threat and could really push AC all the way to qualification. Gabriel Heinze, Taye Taiwo, Hatem Ben Arfa, Brandao and the captain Mamadou Niang are all capable of great performances, while Morientes continues to roll back the years.
FC Zurich, on the other hand, could be on the wrong side of an embarassment. Cast into a devastatingly tough group with true giants of the game and a tricky encounter with Marseille, the Swiss Champions have next to no chance of qualifying for the lucrative knock-out stages.

Prediction: Real Madrid, AC Milan, Marseille, FC Zurich.

Group D
Chelsea will have to keep their wits about them in this group, as this really could be a banana skin. Didier Drogba, still incensed from last year, will have to perform to his best to keep Chelsea on course for this and it's a good job Ancelotti, who has previous in this competition, is in charge. Porto haven't quite succeeded after Jose Mourinho went on to better things, but the Portuguese Champions have the Columbian contingent of Freddy Guarin and Falcao to rely on, not to mention Lou Ferigno lookalike Hulk up front.
Then we come to Atletico Madrid, who are my shock tip to win this group. Offensively, Sergio Aguero poses a great threat... The Argentinian is the talk of the town and the side have turned down offers from Barcelona and AC Milan this Summer. Diego Forlan is prolific in the red and white, while Maxi Rodriguez is threatening on the wing.
APOEL FC break their Champions League cherry this season, and will more than likely find themselves way out of their depth, especially in a group that could be so tightly contested.

Prediction: Atheltico Madrid, Chelsea, Porto, APOEL.

Group E
A tough group here for Liverpool... Lyon may have fallen a bit by the way side in recent years, losing out to Bordeaux for the French title but they still possess a threat. Sidney Govou, Jeremy Toulalan, Bafetimbi Gomis and Kim Kallstrom are definitely not getting younger, but in Miralem Pjanic they have a fantastic prospect. Fiorentina pose an equal risk, as the Viola are hot on the heels of the Italian Big Clubs in Serie A. Adrian Mutu would love to succeed at this level to prove his doubters wrong, and in Stevan Jovetic and Lorenzo De Silvestri they have two of highly rated prospects in European football. Riccardo Montolivo will provide the spark they need in midfield. Debreceni are another club new to the whole Champions League format and the Hungarian club will look to their Brazilian contingent for inspiration... They'll need more than that to qualify though.

Prediction: Liverpool, Fiorentina, Lyon, Debreceni

Group F
Predictable wordplay aside, this really is the Group of Death for the other two sides in this, as reigning Champions Barcelona go head to head with Internazionale. Barcelona lost their heads this summer... Deciding that the vastly overrated Ibrahimovic was worth the predatory Samuel Eto'o, so crucial in their final win over United, and an extra £30m. Both strikers will look to be on top of their game going into these dogfights, and I can't see either side having too much trouble in qualifying.
Rubin Kazan, winners of the Russian Premier League last time out and largely anonymous to the rest of European Football, will struggle to cope with the might of these giants and their Ukrainian counterparts Kiev who have resigned the enigma that is Andriy Shevchenko. Artem Milevskiy will also prove to be a big player for them.

Prediction: Barcelona, Internazionale, Dynamo Kiev, Rubin Kazan

Group G

In probably the most evenly balanced group of the competition, there could be a free for all on the cards. Rangers represent Scotland in Group G and will need to make Ibrox a fortress, which is more than plausible, as well as picking up vital away points if they're to make the knock-out stages. They certainly have the class to succeed in this group, Jerome Rothen will prove to be an astute signing by Walter Smith and DaMarcus Beasley has the pace to unlock teams at this level.
Sevilla are the favourites, however, and should have no real problem in qualifying. They boast the ability of being able to field proven stars such as Fredi Kanoute and Luis Fabiano up front, with Jesus Navas and Diego Capel providing the creativity in midfield.
Stuttgart finished third in the Bundesliga last season and actually have some supremely talented players. Pavel Pogrebnyak is the archetypal centre-forward from yesteryear, strong, dominant and good in the air, he'll pose a threat to most teams. Sami Khedira was the mastermind behind Germany's success in the European U21 Championships this Summer and Aliaksandr Hleb is an excellent loan addition to the squad. Should they perform to the best of their abilities, they should qualify.
Urziceni represent Romania and are the champions of their respective league, but they'll have to be at their best to avoid being swept aside in this group and could face the humiliating prospect of finishing below a Scottish club in a European competition. Not good.

Prediction: Sevilla, Stuttgart, Rangers, Urziceni

Group H

Arsenal may not have cheated themselves here as Celtic would have you believe, but should they keep up their recent Champions League performances then they should have little trouble here. Standard Liege pose the greatest threat to Arsenal's supremacy here... Everton took them lightly in the UEFA Cup and were despatched with surprising ease. Steven Defour in midfield was chased by Arsenal in fact and is every bit as good as the interest would suggest, and Alex Witsel dazzled Phillip Neville so much that he's still in a twist.
AZ Alkmaar have benefitted greatly from the decline in Dutch league football and are actually the reigning champions, casting shadows over the former greats of Ajax and PSV. They're a well drilled unit with few stars and will find themselves in a whole new league of talent in the Champions League and they really could struggle. Olympiacos are the Greek Champions courtesy of the goals from the former Blackburn striker Matt Derbyshire, who liked it in Greece so much he made his move permanent. He's likely to partner Brazilian striker Diogo up front who has a growing reputation in the continent. Olof Mellberg shores up their defence and it won't be an easy travel for other teams in the group, although they do ultimately lack the quality to see them through.

Prediction: Arsenal, Standard Liege, Olympiacos, AZ Alkmaar.