Shock of the World, Ma

Shock of the World, Ma

Scott Plagenhoef

Even in a surprising group of Champions League contenders, Alexander Zickler and Bayern Munich are our pick to take the title

PARITY IS THE WORD IN THE 2000 Champions League as the little leagues that didn’t seem as if they could–or ever would again after the Bosman ruling–suddenly did, advancing at the expense of Italian and German squads. Stand up Anderlecht (Belgium), Sturm Graz (Austria), and Panathinaikos (Greece) and take a bow for breaking the Italy-Germany-Spain-England stranglehold on the Champions League–and its riches.

The real losers so far are the second-tier leagues–France, Holland, and Portugal–which managed collectively to advance only two teams and the Scandinavian countries, which didn’t advance even one.

Still, come May it will likely be a nation from the Big Four that lifts the Cup. But which one? Here’s are look at the most likely, as well as those playing for moral victories and television dollars.

GROUP A

Manchester United

Country: England

Couch: Alex Ferguson

European titles: Champions League (1999), Champions Cup (1968), Cup-Winners’ Cup (1991)

Predicted finish: Semifinals

Cruising along in the Premiership with a refocused David Beckham, a recharged defense, and a reborn Teddy Sheringham leading the way, United faltered a bit in the first phase of the Champions League. Possibly taking opponents lightly, Ferguson mixed and matched his lineup and benched some top players in games against lesser teams, and ended up barely edging PSV Eindhoven to advance to phase two. This time, Ferguson has the advantage of a suddenly comfortable lead in the Premiership and can concentrate more on capturing European honors.

Despite a goaltending shuffle and troubles with a slumping Dwight Yorke, this team is loaded. Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Jaap Stam, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, and Gary Neville have all been champions before and could be again. Along with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, United must be considered the favorite.

Panathinaikos

Country: Greece

Coach: Angelos Anastasiadis

European titles: None

Predicted finish: Will not advance

The past two years have seen Pana in flux–with solid results. Longtime club president George Vardinoyiannis left after 21 largely conservative years and his replacement, Angelos Filippidis, wasted no time in shaking up the club, shattering the team’s transfer record to attract Portuguese midfielder Paulo Sousa. The skilled star immediately went to work in the center of Pana’s squad, providing an engine to, alongside right-sided midfielder Giorgios Karagounis, run an improved attack and complement the team’s already solid defense.

It likely won’t be enough though, as Pana seems set to finish at the bottom of its group. Plus, further interruptions in the Greek domestic league–there was a two-week suspension of play at one point this year–could be a distraction.

Sturm Graz

Country: Austria

Coach: Ivica Osim

European titles: None

Predicted finish: Will not advance

Sturm Graz has fielded a side since 1909, but failed to win even a domestic Cup until 1996, so this year’s surprise Champions League success is already the club’s watershed moment. Anything rise from here on out would be a bonus.

Sturm aren’t favored to advance, but the club looked as if it would be the weaklings of its phase one group against Galatasaray, Monaco, and Rangers, and wound up on top. Still, despite thinking defense first, Sturm is prone to making mistakes and not taking care of the ball. This team could be on the wrong end of some high-scoring matches against powerhouses Manchester United and Valencia.

A road draw or two against the two powerhouses and a clean sweep of Panathinaikos are musts if Sturm is to advance. It likely won’t happen, but with the money earned in the competition thus far and increased skill in the domestic league, much like Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man their stadium is named for, this team will be back.

Valencia

Country: Spain

Coach: Hector Cupor

European titles: Cup-Winner’s Cup (1980), Fairs’ Cup (1962, 1963)

Predicted finish: Quarterfinals

Last year’s runner-up, Valencia lost Claudio Lopez in the offseason, but added Slovenian star Zlatko Zahovic and former France captain Didier Deschamps. Zahovic plays as a link between the midfield and a lone striker, and is able to drop back into the middle of the field when Valencia chooses to attack from the wing–something it is especially prone to do from the right side, where Gaizaka Mendieta, one of Europe’s most underrated players, has emerged as a star.

Up front, targetman John Carew has been effective in Champions League play and Juan Sanchez has been a revelation in La Liga, offering few clues to opponents as to what to expect from this team’s attack–or how to defend against it.

The loss of Gerard upset the team’s midfield early in the season, but it has bounced back better than expected and again has a shot at advancing far into the knock-out rounds of the Champions League.

GROUP B

AC Milan

Country: Italy

Coach: Alberto Zaccheroni

European titles: Champions Cup (1963, 1969, 1989-90, 1994), Cup-Winner’s Cup (1968, 1973)

Predicted finish: Quarterfinals

It was once nothing but smiles and titles around Giuseppe Meazza, but these days aren’t as bright. A shock Serie A title two years ago in what was to be a rebuilding year ironically slowed the push for youth and may have set the team back further. It’s the curse of a club that will settle for very little other than championships.

Having to qualify for this year’s tournament was a setback, as was dealing with a tough phase one group with Leeds and Barcelona, but neither fazed the Italians. Now Milan has the advantage of any easy draw and should come out on top of this group. Fernando Redondo has been outstanding in midfield and the defense is as strong as ever. Up front, Andrii Shevchenko has been one of the world’s best players over the past year, and the powerful Oliver Bierhoff is a perfect foil for the slick Ukrainian.

The team’s only weakness may be depth. Those younger players who never got the chance to develop still aren’t ready for top-flight competition. Injuries would be more of a detriment for Milan than the other title contenders, and with 14 games still left to play to claim a title, this team may not have the necessary legs.

Deportivo la Coruna

Country: Spain

Coach: Javier Irureta

European titles: None

Predicted finish: Semifinals

To say that Deportivo was the most surprising domestic champion in Europe last year is a gross understatement. With only a 1995 domestic cup in its trophy case prior to 2000, Deportivo quietly put together one of the best midfields in Spain–and improved that group this year with the addition of Cesar Sampaio.

Deportivo’s early road win in Paris was a big boost for the hard-working, defense-first team. Their punishing, collapsing, five-man midfield makes it difficult to create a sustained attack, and Dutchman Roy Makaay, finally healthy after missing the first two months of the season, is a decent finisher.

There are no real stars here but Deportivo is battle-tested in the tough Spanish League. Deportivo could be a real surprise–potentially the Valencia of this year’s tournament.

Galatasaray

Country: Turkey

Coach: Mircea Lucescu

European titles: UEFA Cup (2000)

European finish: Will not advance

Galatasaray returns to the Champions League a year after winning the UEFA Cup title as a more prepared and experienced club. Unfortunately, Gala now no longer has luxury of sneaking up on its opponents.

Ali Sami Yen is arguably the toughest road date in the Champions League–and one of the toughest in the entire world. Teams will need to protect their points at home against Gala, because a win in Turkey is a near-impossibility.

Gala doesn’t seem to be the team it was last year, however, struggling early under new coach Lucescu in the domestic league and needing a 4-3 aggregate victory over St. Gallen just to advance to the Champions League phase one–and then needing the self-destruction of both Monaco and Rangers to advance out of a tight group.

Key to Gala’s advancement hopes will be whether it can hold on to Brazilian striker Mario Jardel, whose name has been tossed around in transfer talks. Jardel replaced longtime Turkish hero Hakan Suker with little problem, but replacing the pacy Brazilian would be difficult.

Paris Saint-Germain

Country: France

Coach: Philippe Bergeroo

European titles: Cup-Winner’s Cup (1996)

Predicted finish: Will not advance

PSG is much improved, but much too young and inexperienced to mount a serious charge. Instead, PSG will focus its attention on capturing the French First Division title. Even the club doesn’t advance into the knockout rounds, there is some solace in that it outlasted rival Monaco in the event and is outpacing longtime rival Marseille at home–especially with central midfielder Peter Luccin, formerly of OM, leading the charge.

Unlike the well-used cash given to Luccin, the money spent in the offseason to bring Nicolas Anelka back to France has been met with mixed results, and former OM star Stephane Dalmat has yet to make an impact. If he does–and Christian, Laurent Robert, and Anelka can blend up front–PSG could outgun some opponents. If that doesn’t happen, PSG’s suspect defense will be even more exposed than it already is.

GROUP C

Arsenal

Country: England

Coach: Arsene Wenger

European titles: Cup-Winner’s Cup (1994), Fairs’ Cup (1970)

Predicted finish: Will not advance

After a quick start both at home and in Europe, Arsenal struggled through November. The North London side dug an early hole with a 4-1 loss to Spartak Moscow and had a number of poor results at home. The past couple of years, Arsenal’s aged defense has worn down as the season wore on. The emergence of Silvinho at left back and the increased development of Matthew Upson may arrest that trend. If not, Arsenal aren’t going to go far in the Champions League.

The much-discussed departures of Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars have proven to be non-factors for the club (as well as for Barcelona, who have struggled since their arrivals) as Lauren has been an adequate replacement in defensive midfield and Robert Pires has been a revelation on the wing.

Up front, flight-phobic Dennis Bergkamp won’t travel to away games as usual, but with Thierry Henry dominating play on top, that isn’t as big a factor these days.

Bayern Munich

Country: Germany

Coach: Ottmar Hitzfeld

European titles: Champions Cup (1974-76), Cup-Winner’s Cup (1967), UEFA Cup (1996)

Predicted finish: Champions

After shrugging off a series of early-season injuries and still positioning themselves to take titles in both Germany and Europe, the deep, intelligent Bayern must be considered the Champions League favorites. Now accustomed to playing without Lothar Matthaus, Bayern has no apparent weakness. The direct Carsten Jancker teams well with wings Mehmot Scholl, Roque Santa Cruz, and Alex Zickler up front; Jens Jeremies and Steffen Effenburg are a pair of nasty, disruptive ballwinners in the midfield; and Oliver Kahn is the world’s best goaltender.

A close Bundesliga race should keep Bayern sharp and its stars happy with their playing time. The improvements the team showed as it reached a full-strength roster in November were almost frightening, and its players got better on the national side as well, shrugging off that potential distraction. Bayern is a team to be feared.

Lyon

Country: France

Coach: Jacques Santini

European titles: None

Predicted finish: Will not advance

Lucky just to be alive, Lyon is one of the weakest teams remaining in the Champions League. The French club needed a final-day victory in phase one and two tie-breakers just to advance from the last stage’s weakest group. This time, with Bayern Munich, Arsenal, and Spartak Moscow to play, it won’t be so lucky.

This team makes few mistakes, but has little flair. Steve Marlat came from Auxerre in the offseason and has been a surprise, but outside of the speedy winger there are few players here who can consistently threaten opposing nets.

Lyon did sew up its defense over the offseason with the addition of veterans Marc-Vivien Foe and Eric Deflende, but it won’t be enough. There are leadership problems as well, with the slowing of veterans such as midfielder Vitush Dhorasoo and striker Tony Varielles apparent to everyone around the club except those players themselves.

Spartak Moscow

Country: Russia

Coach: Oleg Romantsev

European titles: None

Predicted finish: Quarterfinals

With Spartak dominating play in its post-Soviet domestic league, the board turned its attention to the Champions League–so far with surprising success. Being drawn with Bayern Munich and Arsenal does Spartak no favors however, although few would have guessed it would have outlasted Bayer Leverkusen in the last round, either.

Spartak has opened its game, working most of the action through offensive midfielder Yegor Titov and the flair of Brazilian striker Marcao. In defense, Cameroon’s Jerry Christian Tchusse has been a surprise.

Led by Russian national team coach Oleg Romantsev, Spartak is solid at home and make few mistakes in the back, so opponents will have to earn whatever points it can get against them. Spartak served notice early with a 4-1 thrashing of Arsenal. The Russians could be one of the surprises of the Champions League.

GROUP D

Anderlecht

Country: Belgium

Coach: Aime Anthuenis

European titles: Cup-Winner’s Cup (1976, 1978), UEFA Cup (1983)

Predicted finish: Will not advance

After a relatively disappointing stretch at home, Anderlecht returns to the Champions League for the first time in five years. Anthuenis, in only his second year as coach, shocked most observers by leading his team to first place in its phase one group, albeit over a struggling Dynamo Kiev and an imploding PSV Eindhoven.

The 6’7″ Czech striker Jan Koller is the focus of the team’s attack, but opponents in this group are much stronger on the wings than Anderlecht and the Belgians could find it difficult getting Koller in position to take advantage of his height and strength.

Anderlecht is strong in the back, but can’t afford to leave itself vulnerable to counterattacks against the speedy Lazio, Leeds, and Real. A return to the continental spotlight will have to be the team’s concession.

Lazio

Country: Italy

Coach: Sven-Goran Eriksson

European tiltles: None

Predicted finish: Will not advance

The newest addition to the list of Italian heavyweights, Lazio has outlasted most of its countrymen. Maintaining a consistent roster from year to year and signing players of similar ethnic backgrounds has helped to produce one of the most balanced, fluid teams in the world.

Lazio’s Argentinian flavor got even stronger this offseason with the addition of striker Claudio Lopez to a roster that already featured defender Nestor Sensini, midfielders Juan Veron and Diego Simeone, and striker and Hernan Crespo.

Czech Pavel Nedved remains one of the world’s most underrated performers and Veron one of the best two-way midfielders. There are problems in the back, however, as Sinisa Mihajlovic and others are slowing down and there are few obvious replacements. Alessandro Nesta remains one of the world’s top defenders, but he can’t keep opponents out of dangerous goal-scoring positions single-handedly.

This team is a tricky bunch to figure, as capable of winning it all as bowing out early. We’re pegging the latter. Look for Lazio to compensate with a Serie A title. Lazio was hardly challenged in a weak phase one group and, in the toughest phase two table and with a tougher domestic schedule than its opponents, may not be prepared to consistently play at the level necessary to advance in the group.

Leeds United

Country: England

Coach: David O’Leary

European titles: Fairs’ Cup (1968, 1971)

Predicted finish: Quarterfinals

So young but so talented, the Leeds core has been together for a few seasons and has experience well beyond its collective years. Leeds toughed out the “Group of Death” in phase one only to be drawn into the most difficult table in phase two as well. Still, Leeds should survive. This team is beginning to acquire a confidence to match its talent and has tirepower to spare in Mark Viduka, Alan Smith, and Michael Bridges–which is fortunate considering the the long-term injury to Australian star Harry Kewell.

Lee Bowyer and Johnathan Woodgate have bounced back from off-field assault charges to play well, and recent transfer Rio Ferdinand is now on hand to help secure things in the back.

Despite all this, Leeds will be undervalued as opponents by Real and Lazio and could easily sting one of the two en route to advancing to the knockout stages–most likely the Italians.

Real Madrid

Country: Spain

Coach: Vincente Del Bosque European tiltles: Champions League (1998, 2000), Champions Cup (1956-60, 1966), UEFA Cup (1985-86)

Predicted finish: Finalist

The current Cup holders captured the title last year with a team that had been largely restructured following its 1998 Champions League win. That’s one of the benefits of being one the world’s richest and most free-spending teams. Real stuck to those ways this offseason by luring Luis Figo from rival Barcelona for a record transfer fee.

A strong opening to the La Liga season gave no indication that Real is slowing down. After a lengthy drought of European success, Real has regained its hunger and, with Spanish soccer far improved in the past few years, the Madrid club is more prepared to succeed in continental competition than ever before.

Deep and fluid, especially in the midfield, Real attacks from the wings better than any team in the world. Eighteen-year-old goaltender Iker Casillas is proving that last year’s success was no fluke, and converted midfielder Guti was the toast of Spain this fall as a replacement striker for the injured Fernando Morientes. Provided Del Bosque can keep everyone happy, this team could easily defend its title.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group