Who's who in the Champions' League

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The Independent Online
Group A

Rangers

THE Scots' draw this year looks less demanding than last when Juventus, who showed up their paucity of quality, and Borussia Dortmund barred the way. Also, where there is Brian Laudrup and Paul Gascoigne there is always hope. The swift Swede Joachim Bjorklund looks a useful addition to the defence which also has a solid goalkeeper in Andy Goram behind it. The passion of Ibrox is valuable, but calm heads away from home will be crucial.

Player to watch: Brian Laudrup - class is permanent.

Auxerre

TWO important players, Laurent Blanc and Correntin Martins, have been sold, but under the guidance of the canny Guy Le Roux, Auxerre remain a threat. Character is in doubt, though, and Rangers' main hope will be their apprehension in facing British opposition, having lost to Arsenal and Nottingham Forest in recent seasons.

Player to watch: Sabri Lamouchi, a clever midfield player.

Ajax

LOUIS van Gaal has a difficult job in steadying the ship after the loss of Michael Reiziger, Edgar Davids and Finidi George, as well as a sticky start to the domestic season. Patrick Kluivert is still struggling and the club is facing a real test of its fabled youth production line. In their favour, flying winger Marc Overmars should be back to full fitness.

Player to watch: Dave Van den Bergh, 20-year-old winger.

Grasshopper Zurich

HOPES are higher than last season thanks to a stronger forward line - the Romanian Dinu Moldovan has been signed from Neuchatel to partner the threatening Kubilay Turkyilmaz. May still be fragile, however, with much depending on the fitness in midfield of the prodigy Murrart Jakin, injured for most of last season, and the 19-year-old Johann Vogel, so impressive at Euro 96.

Player to watch: Johann Vogel, whose progress Liverpool are following.

Group B

Widzew Lodz

AN away match in Lodz, described by one Uefa official as "the most primitive place I have ever seen", is the short straw. They could also be a handful away, having overcome Brondby in qualifying. Although three players have been signed from Legia Warsaw, Polish football, rife with corruption and in the doldrums, is unlikely to get the lift it needs.

Player to watch: Actually the coach, Franciszek Smuda, who played with George Best for Los Angeles Aztecs.

Atletico Madrid

TAKING a place in the Champions' League for the first time and well fancied - and well organised - under Raddy Antic, the former Luton midfield player. Caminero is suspended for three matches, but they have made some astute signings, among them the Czech Radek Bejbl and the Argentine Juan Esnaider.

Player to watch: Esnaider, volatile and unpredictable striker.

Steaua Bucharest

Champions - albeit dull ones - 10 years ago, but as with all eastern Europe, sellers of players rather than purchasers - Ion Vladiou, who scored 26 goals last season as they took the title by 11 points, has left. The goalkeeper Bogdan Stelea, unable to get a contract in the Premiership, defender Daniel Prodan and striker Marius Lacatus have huge experience. 5-2 aggregate victory over Bruges suggests quarter-finals may not be beyond them.

Player to watch: Adrian Ilie, who scored four goals against Bruges.

Borussia Dortmund

Injuries, which hit them hard last year, remain a concern. The Portuguese midfield player Paulo Sousa was injured straight after moving from Juventus and joins a list of doubts that include Matthias Sammer, Karl-Heinz Riedle and Heiko Herrlich. They look potent on paper, but then they did a year ago and medical bulletins could determine their chances.

Player to watch: Andy Moller, Germany's inspiration at Euro 96.

Group C

Manchester United

IT should be all in United's favour this time. They play Juventus in Turin on Wednesday with the holders barely having begun their season, Eric Cantona available and the restrictions on overseas players now erased. Questions still remain. Is the defence up to such a campaign? Do they yet have the quality of overseas player, Peter Schmeichel apart? Is Cantona quick enough? Can they overcome the early absence of Roy Keane and will he keep his head when he does appear?

Player to watch: The now mature Ryan Giggs.

Rapid Vienna

DARK horses, but so were Gothenburg two years ago and they ousted United. Rapid - surpassed in national titles only by Rangers - reached the final of last season's Cup-Winners' Cup, but have lost their totem striker Carsten Jancker. Props are the national goalkeeper Konsel and sweeper Schottel. Beat Dynamo Kiev 6-2 in qualifying.

Player to watch: Trifon Ivanov, fearsome Bulgarian defender.

Fenerbahce

THE good news for United is that they don't have to face Gala-tasary; the bad that they have to return to Istanbul. Coached by Sebastaio Lazaroni, who led Brazil's stilted team of Italia 90, and expected to be functional. Dalian Atkinson is loosely connected; more likely to be seen is Bulgarian Emil Kostadinov.

Player to watch: Austin Okocha, silky Nigerian midfield ball-player.

Juventus

OUT have gone Vialli, Ravanelli, Marocchi, Vierchowod and Paulo Sousa but Marcello Lippi's rebuilding work should see the holders again contesting the latter stages - though a need to improve Serie A form may intrude. Croat Alen Boksic, signed from Lazio for pounds 6m, and Christian Vieri, from Atalanta, will play up front and Alessandro del Piero is expected to deliver more frequently.

Player to watch: Zinedine Zidane; can surely not be as ineffective as he was at Euro 96.

Group D

Porto

MUCH-CHANGED since Bobby Robson's departure. Goalkeeper Victor Baia has gone with Robson, defender Secretario has moved to Real Madrid and Emerson is with Middlesbrough. New coach, Antonio Oliveira, in charge of Portugal at Euro 96, has signed replacements but no big names and Porto's domination of domestic scene may be about to end. Striker Domingos is a threat.

Player to watch: Jardel, raw but rangy Brazilian striker.

IFK Gothenburg

NO longer under-rated after beating United two seasons ago but may not be quite the force they were. Lost Pontus Kamark to Leicester and Hakan Mild to Real Sociedad but, with new signings Andreas Andersson and Niclas Alexandersson, have maintained domination of their domestic league, now in second half. Could challenge Porto for second spot.

Player to watch: Blomqvist, swift scourge of United.

Rosenborg Trondheim

MATCH-SHARP with the Norwegian season three parts completed. But this also counts against them later - as last season - when they beat Blackburn at home but were thrashed away. Strength is in attack with lively "Mini" Jacobsen playing off the tall Harald Brattbakk. Will do well to survive the group.

Player to watch: Steffen Iversen, breaks quickly from midfield.

Milan

PERM any 11 from 22 and Milan look fearsome; clearly the side to beat. Clear-out saw Paolo Futre go to West Ham, Patrick Vieira to Arsenal and Paolo di Canio to Celtic. Arrivals of Edgar Davids, Michael Reiziger and Christophe Dugarry add more strength. To go with the best domestic talents in Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Demetrio Albertini, there remain Zvonimir Boban, Marcel Desailly, Dejan Savicevic and George Weah. Reservations about the new coach, the Uruguayan Oscar Washington Tabarez, but do they need one?

Player to watch: Take your pick.

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