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Manchester United players celebrate with the trophy after winning the Champions League final last May in Moscow. ((Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press))

All roads lead to Rome.

Champions League History

The European Cup, the forerunner to the Champions League, was the brainchild of French sports journalist Gabriel Hanot.

English league champions Wolverhampton Wanderers defeated Hungarian side Honved in a 1953 exhibition match, leading Wolves' manager to rather arrogantly dub his team the "champions of the world" in the next day's newspapers.

Hanot, editor of influential French sports newspaper L'Equipe, used this as the impetus to pitch his idea for a continental-wide tournament featuring the best European clubs. UEFA, European soccer's governing body, approved Hanot's idea in April 1955 and the European Cup began in 1955-56 featuring league champions across Europe

In 1993, the European Cup was re-christened the Champions League, and in 1997-98 the tournament was expanded to include more teams, not just league champions.

Tournament Format

The 32-team field is divided into eight round-robin groups. Teams play three games at home and on the road with three points for a win and one for a tie. The top two teams in each group at the end of the group stage advance to the next round.

After the first round, the tournament takes on a single-elimination format. The remaining 16 teams are paired off and play a home-and-away playoff. If the teams each win a game, the overall score over the course of the two games acts as the tiebreaker, followed by goals scored on the road. If the teams are still tied, a penalty shootout solves the issue.

This two-game playoff format carries over into the quarter-finals and semifinals before the last two teams standing meet in the final on May 27 in Rome.

Previous European Cup/Champions League winners

  • 2008 - Manchester United
  • 2007 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 2006 - FC Barcelona (Spain)
  • 2005 - Liverpool (England)
  • 2004 - FC Porto (Portugal)
  • 2003 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 2002 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 2001 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
  • 2000  - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1999 - Manchester United (England)
  • 1998 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1997 - Borussia Dortmund (Germany)
  • 1996 - Juventus (Italy)
  • 1995  - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 1994 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1993 - Olympique Marseille (France)
  • European Cup becomes Champions League in 1993
  • 1992 - FC Barcelona (Spain)
  • 1991 - Red Star Belgrade (Yugoslavia)
  • 1990 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1989 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1988 - PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)
  • 1987 - FC Porto (Portugal)
  • 1986 - Steaua Bucharest (Romania)
  • 1985 - Juventus (Italy)
  • 1984 - Liverpool (England)
  • 1983 - Hamburger SV (Germany)
  • 1982 - Aston Villa (England)
  • 1981 - Liverpool (England)
  • 1980 - Nottingham Forrest (England)
  • 1979 - Nottingham Forrest (England)
  • 1978 - Liverpool (England)
  • 1977 - Liverpool (England)
  • 1976 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
  • 1975 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
  • 1974 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
  • 1973 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 1972 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 1971 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 1970 - Feyenoord (Netherlands)
  • 1969 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1968 - Manchester United (England)
  • 1967 - Celtic (Scotland)
  • 1966 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1965 - Inter Milan (Italy)
  • 1964 - Inter Milan (Italy)
  • 1963 - AC Milan (Italy)
  • 1962 - Benfica (Portugal)
  • 1961 - Benfica (Portugal)
  • 1960 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1959 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1958 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1957 - Real Madrid (Spain)
  • 1956 - Real Madrid (Spain)

Thirty-two of the best soccer teams from across Europe begin their quest to be crowned continental kings when the group stage of 2008-09 Champions League kicks off this week.

Defending champions Manchester United, reigning Italian champions Inter Milan, nine-time Champions League winners Real Madrid and the host of usual suspects will all be trying to survive the opening round and progress through the knockout stage in order to earn a spot in the final next May at Rome's Stadio Olimpico.

This year's tournament is also buoyed by the return of two great teams with a rich history in European competition — Juventus of Italy and Germany's Bayern Munich — and newcomers such as Romanian outfit CFR Cluj, Cyprus's Anorthosis Famagusta and FC BATE Borisov of Belarus

Last year, Manchester United won its third crown, defeating Chelsea in a penalty shootout in Moscow in the first all-England final in tournament history.

Who will it be this year?

CBCSports.ca offers this comprehensive breakdown of the teams and players to watch in Groups E, F, G and H. To read about Groups A, B, C and D, click here.

GROUP E

Manchester United (England)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Champions
  • Best result: Champions (1968, 1999, 2008)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Van der Sar - (D) Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra - (M) Hargreaves, Tevez, Scholes, Ronaldo - (F) Rooney, Berbatov
  • Player to watch: Cristiano Ronaldo – The best player in the world was pursued by Real Madrid, put the Portuguese prince ended up staying at Old Trafford.
  • The lowdown: No team has successfully defended its title since the Champions League replaced the old European Cup in 1993, but United could break that trend this year. The Red Devils, with Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm, still have the same key members of last year's Champions League winning side, and added another big name just before the transfer window closed when it signed Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov. Expect veterans Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs to have reduced roles this year, with Ferguson giving more playing time to youngsters Nani, Anderson, and Rodrigo Possebon. With Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic patrolling the centre of defence, United have little to worry about at the back. The midfield is just as strong (it says something when a player of Park Ji-Sung's calibre struggles to hold down a starting spot) and Berbatov is a goal-scoring machine who will fit in nicely up front alongside Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney. What will be interesting to see is what the team chemistry will be like after the Ronaldo-Real Madrid Soap opera.

Villarreal (Spain)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Did not qualify
  • Best result: Semifinals (2006)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Lopez - (D) Venta, Rodriguez, Godin, Capdevila - (M) Pires, Senna, Cani, Cazorla - (F) Ibagaza, Kahveci
  • Player to watch: Marcos Senna – The midfield dynamo is coming off a sensational performance for Span at Euro 2008.
  • The lowdown: The Yellow Submarine reached the semifinals of the 2006 tournament, but then fell on tough times before finishing second in la liga last year and earning a Champions League berth. Juan Ramon Riquelme, the star of the team three seasons ago, is long gone but the team did sign fellow Argentine playmaker Ariel Ibagaza in the summer. The hope is that Ibagaza, a standout at Mallorca last season, can fill the shoes of Riquelme and help orchestrate a potent Villarreall attack that relies on the talents of wingers Robert Pires and Santi Cazorla. Ibagaza will play in the centre of midfield, just behind striker Nihat Kahveci. Senna provides the steel and grit in midfield, creating the space for the team's more creative midfielders to operate. Another big summer addition was Brazilian midfielder Edmilson (from Barcelona). Villarreal doesn't have a great deal of depth, but if they stay healthy, they can easily make their way through to the next round, and maybe even the quarter-finals.

Celtic FC (Scotland)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Round of 16
  • Best result: Champions (1967)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-3-3 (GK) Boruc - (D) Wilson, Caldwell, McManus, O'Dea - (M) Nakamura, Robson, Hartley - (F) Samaras, Vennegoor of Hesselink, McGeady
  • Player to watch: Shunsuke Nakamura – The Japanese star is one of the best dead-ball specialists in the world.
  • The lowdown: What to make of the Scottish champions? Manager Gordon Strachan has the Hoops playing some breathtaking soccer since taking over in 2005, but success at home hasn't translated into success in Europe. The Glasgow outfit was lucky to advance to the second round last year, but when they did, they were smacked around by a powerful Barcelona team, lending further proof that Celtic are a big fish in a small pond and can't compete against the game's top clubs. The only significant summer move made by Celtic was locking up Greek forward Georgios Samaras on a permanent deal from Manchester City. That won't be enough to see Celtic, who struggle to earn points on the road, through to the second round.

Aalborg Boldspilklub (Denmark)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Did not qualify
  • Best result: Group stage (1996)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-3-1-2 (GK) Zaza - (D) Bogelund, Olfers, Jakobssen, Pedersen - (M) Caca, Augustinussen, Due - (M) Johansson - (F) Curth, Braemer
  • Player to watch: Forward Jeppe Curth was the top scorer in the Danish league last season with 17 goals.
  • The lowdown: Danish champions Aalborg make their return to the Champions League after a 12-year absence and are looking to make up for lost time. The Danes looked impressive in winning their domestic league championship last year and made some moves in the off-season to bolster their chances in Europe. Defender Kasper Bogelund was drafted in to give the team more stability at the back, while Brazilian Caca gives the Danes a touch of creativity in midfield. Moroccan goalkeeper Karim Zaza is a talented shot-stopper, and he'll have to be at his best because chances are he's going to be peppered with shots from some of the best forwards in Europe. Aalborg will also struggle to score goals, as Curth is the team's only legitimate threat up front. A third-place finish is the best they can hope for.

GROUP F

Bayern Munich (Germany)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Did not qualify
  • Best result: Champion (1974, 1975, 1976, 2001)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Rensing - (D) Lell, Lucio, Demichelis, Lahm - (M) Altintop, Schweinsteiger, Van Bommel, Ribery - (F) Toni, Klose
  • Player to watch: Franck Ribery – The German champions are praying the Frenchman will be able to recover from ankle surgery and be as good as new.
  • The lowdown: Bayern head back onto European soccer's biggest stage after a one-year absence led by former German international Jurgen Klinsmann. Bayern are four-time winners of this tournament but it only managed to reach the quarter-finals twice (in 2002 and 2005) since winning it all in 2001. A lot has changed since then. Goalkeeper Oliver Kahn has retired (and been replaced by the capable Michael Rensing), and the team has more foreign stars, including Ribery, Italian striker Luca Toni and Dutch midfielder Mark van Bommel. Bayern spent big last year to win the Bundesliga title and fight their way back into the Champions League fold. Now that they're here, nothing less than a semifinal appearance will do. The Germans could be up for the challenge, especially if Robery returns from injury, and Toni and Miroslav Klose and score goals with the same regularity that they do in the German league. Also key to Bayern's chances for success will be attacking midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and defensive linchpin Lucio of Brazil.

Olympique Lyon (France)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Round of 16
  • Best result: Quarter-finals (2004, 2005, 2006)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Lloris - (D) Reveillere, Cris, Mensah, Grosso - (M) Toulalan, Ederson, Kim Kallstrom, Juninho - (F) Benzema, Govou
  • Player to watch: Karim Benzema - The young Frenchman was the top scorer in Ligue 1 last season with 20 goals and has been linked to Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United.
  • The lowdown: There's do doubting Lyon's success on the home-front. Seven consecutive French league titles speaks volumes. But Lyon has never progressed beyond the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and last year they were knocked out in the round of 16. The French champions are tired of getting kicked around in Europe, and made a slew of important moves in the summer, most notably bringing in a new manager, Claude Puel, who is one of the finest tacticians in French soccer. Lyon also signed Ghanaian defender John Mensah (to replace the departed Sebastien Squillaci), goalkeeper Hugo Llores (replacing Gregory Coupet) and Brazilian midfielder Ederson. Even with the exit of Hatem Ben Afra (to Marseille), Lyon are spoilt for attacking options in midfield, and can still rely on the exquisite talents of veterans Juninho and Kim Kallstrom. Still, the teams lacks defensive depth and while a spot in the second round is well within their capabilities, a spot in the quarter-finals is probably just out of reach.

Fiorentina (Italy)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Did not qualify
  • Best result: Finalist (1957)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Frey - (D) Zauri, Gamberini, Kroldrup, Vargas - (M) Kuzmanovic, Felipe, Montolivo, Jovetic - (F) Mutu, Gilardino
  • Player to watch: Alberto Gilardino – The Italian forward has a point to prove after a less-than successful tenure with AC Milan.
  • The lowdown: The Viola are back in the Champions League for the first time since 1999 – an amazing feat for a club that only emerged from bankruptcy in 2002. Cesare Prandelli is one of the best managers on the continent. The players respond to him and he is an astute tactician who reads the game better than most of his contemporaries. In Sebastien Frey, the Italians have an accomplished goalkeeper who serves as the last line defence by a solid back four that includes Danish international Per Kroldrup. Montenegrin teenager Stevan Jovetic joined the team in the off-season, bolstering a midfield led by talented Italian youngster Ricardo Montolivo. All eyes, though, will be on the forwards, and whether Gilardino can recapture the form he showed while playing under Prandelli at Parma 2005 and establish a relationship with Adrian Mutu. Fiorentina will battle with Lyon for second place in the group and could even beat out the French champions and move onto the round of 16.

FC Steaua Bucharest (Romania)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Group stage
  • Best result: Champions (1986)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-1-3-2 (GK) Zapata - (D) Golanski, Radoi, Goian, Emeghara - (M) Petre - (M) Tiago, Moreno, Szekely - (F) Nicolita, Arthuro
  • Player to watch: Dorin Goian – A ruthless man-marker, the Romanian is one of the best central defenders in the game.
  • The lowdown: Steau failed to win the Romanian league or domestic cup competition last season, which prompted owner Gigi Becali to clean house. A slew of regular starters were off-loaded, making way for new players to come in, most notably attacking midfielder Janos Szekely (from Otelul Galati). Manager Marius Lacatus has a reputation for producing teams that work hard and put in maximum effort, but with so many new faces, it's hard to see how Steau will be able to forge any cohesion.
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Spanish striker Daniel Guiza Gonzales, right, was Fenerbahce's biggest off-season transfer purchase. ((Srdjan Ilic/Associated Press)

GROUP G

Fenerbahce (Turkey)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Quarter-finals
  • Best result: Quarter-finals (2008)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-3-1-2 (GK) Demirel - (D) Gonul, Edu, Lugano, Carlos - (M) Kazim, Selcuk, Emre - (M) Alex - (F) Guiza, Senturk
  • Player to watch: Daniel Guiza - The top scorer in la liga last season with 27 goals, the Spaniard was one of coach Luis Aragones' first signings.
  • The lowdown: After reaching the quarter-finals last year for the first time, the Turks haven't rested on their laurels. Instead, new coach Luis Aragones, fresh from leading Spain to victory at Euro 2008, signed Guiza, one of the top players in the Spanish league last season. The Spaniard will play alongside Semih Senturk and Aragones is hopeful the pair can form a lethal partnership up front. Fener also have attacking depth in midfield, as it can call upon the likes of wingers Kazim Kazim and Ugor Boral, as well as creative playmakers Alex and Emre Belozoglu. Defence is a trouble area for the Turks, though. Goalkeeper Volkan Demirel is error prone and fullbacks Roberto Carlos and Gokham Gonul can be too adventurous in their play at times. Fener is also missing defensive midfielder Mehmet Aurrelio, who joined Spanish club Real Betis. Still, this is a talented team, and they should challenge for first place in this group.

Arsenal (England)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Semifinals
  • Best result: Finalist (2006)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Almunia - (D) Sagna, Gallas, Toure, Clichy - (M) Nasri, Denilson, Fabregas, Walcott - (F) Van Persie, Adebayor
  • Player to watch: Cesc Fabregas - The Spaniard is one of the best central midfielders in the world.
  • The lowdown: Manager Arsene Wenger has had to deal with players leaving before, but rarely when they were at the height of their careers. This past summer, midfielders Mathieu Flamini (AC Milan), Alexander Hleb (Barcelona) and Gilberto Silva (Panathinaikos) all left town, leaving Wenger short of midfield depth. As a result, more will be expected of Fabregas, but as he demonstrated this past summer at Euro 2008, he is capable of handling just about anything. Arsenal's big off-season acquisition was playmaking Frenchman Samir Nasri from Marseille, touted as the next Franck Ribery. Mexican teenaged striker Carlos Vela also returned (from a loan spell in Spain), giving the Gunners another option up front. And speaking of which, look for Theo Walcott to play a more prominent role for the Londoners. Wenger will also be hoping to see more consistency from strikers Robin Van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor. A spot in the second-round seems assured, but don't expect to see the Gunners get past the quarter-finals.

FC Porto (Portugal)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Round of 16
  • Best result: Champions (1987, 2004)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-2-3-1 (GK) Helton - (D) Spaunaru, Alves, Emanuel, Fucile - (M) Meireles, Guarin - (M) Costa, Gonzalez, Rodriguez - (F) Lopez
  • Player to watch: Lucho Gonzalez - The Argentine midfielder pulls the creative strings for the Portuguese outfit.
  • The lowdown: Porto was originally barred from the tournament after being found guilty of match-fixing but then received a reprieve from UEFA, who ruled the Portuguese authorities mishandled the case. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out on the field, and whether or not it will negativley influence the players. On the field, coach Jesualdo Ferreira relies on a strong contingent of South American players, especially Argentines Gonzalez (in midfield) and Lisandro Lopez (the team's lone strating striker). Ferreira also likes his fullbacks to get forward by attacking down the wings. Porto is a club in transition — only Pedro Emanuel remains from the side that won the 2004 Champions League under Jose Mourinho — and the club sold winger Ricardo Quaresma, its best player, to Inter Milan just before the transfer window closed. Porto simply doesn't have the depth of talent to compete against the big boys and will have to settle for third place in the group.

Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Group stage
  • Best result: Semifinals (1977, 1987, 1999)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Shovkovskyi - (D) Betao, Diakhate, Mikhalik, Nesmachnyi - (M) Ghioane, Yussuf, Vukojevic, Ninkovic - (F) Bangoura, Milevskyi
  • Player to watch: Ognjen Vukojevic - The Croatian holding midfielder acts as the on-field general for Kyiv.
  • The lowdown: The Ukrainians will be looking to make amends after losing all six of their group stage games in last year's Champions League, but don't expect to see a major improvement. What the team needed was a injection of attacking inspiration and creativity. Instead, the team brought in Vukojevic, defender Goran Sablic, and Brazilian fullback Betao. On top of that, the club is mired in financial problems, it plays before sparse home crowds, and the foreign and Ukrainian players are often at odds with each other. Kyiv might be able to win a game this time, but that'll be it.

GROUP H

Real Madrid (Spain)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Round of 16
  • Best result: Champions (1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1966, 1998, 2000, 2002)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-1-3-2 (GK) Casillas - (D) Ramos, Cannavaro, Pepe, Heinze - (M) Diarra - (M) Van der Vaart, Guti, Robben - (F) Raul, Van Nistelrooy
  • Player to watch: Rafael Van der Vaart - Real spent big money to bring the Dutch creator to Spain.
  • The lowdown: Los Merengues spent most of the summer pursuing Cristiano Ronaldo but settled for Van der Vaart. And then just before the transfer window closed they sold want-away Brazilian Robinho to Manchester City. So, are the galacticos in disarray? Not quite. The Spanish champions have bowed out in the first round of this tournament for the past four years and are eager to put their recent record of under-achievement behind them and claim a tenth Champions League crown. Raul has been written off in the past, but his 18 league goals last season confirmed he still has plenty to give, as does strike partner Ruud van Nistelrooy. With Wesley Sneijder out for a long stretch of time with a knee injury, fellow Dutchmen Van der Vaart and Arjen Robben will have to pick up the slack. Argentine midfielder Fernando Gago, still only 22, will also have to assume a bigger role. Can Real win a tenth title? Probably not. But a spot in the semifinals is a definite possibility.

Juventus FC (Italy)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Did not qualify
  • Best result: Champions (1985, 1996)
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Buffon - (D) Grygera, Chiellini, Mellberg, Molinaro - (M) Camoranesi, Sissoko, Nedved, Marchisio - (F) Del Piero, Amauri
  • Player to watch: Amauri - The Brazilian striker made the move from Palermo in the summer because he wanted to play in the Champions League. He got his wish, and now he has to deliver.
  • The lowdown: The Old Lady of Italian soccer is back in the Champions League after the calciopoli match-fixing scandal relegated them to Serie B in 2006. Some of the old guard players are still at the top of their game (Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon ) while the club has an exciting crop of youngsters (Giorgio Chiellini and Mohamed Sissoko). The Bianconeri added some steel in the off-season by signing veteran Swedish defender Olaf Mellberg and Danish midfielder Christian Poulsen, but it also bolstered its attack by luring Brazilian forward Amauri from Palermo and bringing back Italian youngster Sebastian Giovinco back from his loan spell at Empoli. What will be interesting to see is how manager Claudio Ranieri will employ forwards David Trezeguet and Vincenzo Iaquinta, and whether or not he will use them in reduced roles. It would be too much to ask of Juve to win the title in their return to the big stage? But a quarter-final berth — and even a semifinal spot — shouldn't be beyond them.

Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Did not qualify
  • Best result: This is their first time in the tournament
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-3-3 (GK) Malafeev - (D) Anyukov, Shirokov, Krizanac, Siri - (M) Denisov, Tymoshchuk, Zyryanov - (F) Fayzulin, Dominguez, Arshavin
  • Player to watch: Andrei Arshavin - The Russian forward was the breakout star of Euro 2008 this past summer.
  • The lowdown: Zenit make their Champions League debut as the UEFA Cup holders and the reigning Russian champions. Dutch coach Dick Advocaat, who uses a stylish 4-3-3 formation, has built Zenit into an attacking force that relies on play down the wings to press their opponents. Anatoliy Tymoshchuk does all the heavy lifting in midfield, playing in a sweeper role in front of the defence and busting up the opposition's forward movement. With a series of quick and fluid passes and a flair for Dutch-inspired Total Football, Zenit are an entertaining team to watch, but they are also weak at the back and goalkeeper Viacheslav Malafeev is error prone. The club also lacks depth and is off to a rough start this season in the Russian league, which could be a sign of things to come in the Champions League. Look for the Russians to finish third and slide back into the UEFA Cup.

FC BATE Borisov (Belarus)

  • 2007-08 Champions League: Did not qualify
  • Best result: This is their first time in the Champions League
  • Typical startling line-up: 4-4-2 (GK) Veremko - (D) Khagush, Rzhevsky, Sosnovsky, Yurevich - (M) Likhtarovich, Krivets, Zhavnerchik, Nekhaichik - (F) Bliznyuk, Rodionov
  • Player to watch: Gennadiy Bliznyuk - The veteran striker notched 18 goals in 24 games in the Belarussian league.
  • The lowdown: Bate defeated Valur of Iceland, Belgian giants Anderlecht and Bulgari's Levski Sofia in the qualifiers to become the first Belarussian team to reach the Champions League group stage. But if they thought that was hard, they ain't seen nothin' yet. Bate has been grouped together with Real Madrid (the most successful team in the history of the competition), Juventus (two-time winners) and Zenit St. Petersburg (the reigning UEFA Cup champions).  Renowned for their physical style of play and fitness, Bate lack depth and overall quality. The defence has been revamped after the team brought in three new defenders, as well as a new goalkeeper. And aside from Bliznyuk, the team doesn't have a legitimate scoring threat. They'll be lucky to win a game.