Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Champions League Round-Up, Week 1

After much anticipation, Europe's premier club competition is finally underway - and the first round of group fixtures did not disappoint. With great goals, costly gaffes and officiating controversy, there are already no shortage of talking points. I will be covering the key results and stories that emerge as the tournament develops, starting, rather inevitably, with my take on week one. Have a read and let me know your views. 

Group A

Quite a start to Tottenham's European adventure. Two goals to the good inside 20 minutes, against a resilient German side with a formidable home record, many observers fancied Harry Redknapp's men to close the deal. Indeed, victory in Bremen would have seen Spurs put themselves in with a great chance of reaching the knockout stages at the first attempt, even at this early stage. It says a lot for the North Londoners' first half performance that they were anything less than delighted at the final whistle with an away point on their Champions League debut, but this must be considered an encouraging opening. Tottenham's prospects are good, but regardless of whether or not they get through, if Tuesday's game is anything to go by, they'll be fun to watch.

Elsewhere, in Holland, there was yet more evidence to suggest that Inter Milan are not currently the efficient winning machine they became last season under Jose Mourinho. Rafa Benitez still seems to be getting to know his new players, and this was consequently a patchy and unconvincing display from the European Champions. FC Twente, for their part, must be given credit for showing that there is life after Steve McClaren (who'd have thought it?) by producing a spirited display. Despite the result, I still see the Dutch side as the weakest team in the group, and there is no cause for concern for the Nerazzurri just yet. They still possess quality throughout the side, and I seem to remember them not looking so hot this time last year...

Group B

One of the biggest surprise packages of the Champions League last year, Lyon got their campaign off to a winning start at home, with a lacklustre Schalke side never forcing the French giants to hit top gear. Michel Bastos may have shown good predatory instincts and persistence to steal the only goal of the game, but Schalke right-back Christoph Moritz must have had to face a few stern questions at half time, after his attempted back header played keeper Manuel Neuer into all kinds of trouble. Any hopes of a German comeback were dashed before the break, with centre-back Benedikt Howedes given his marching orders for a clumsy challenge/karate kick on Jimmy Briand. A disappointing start then for Schalke, who must have fancied themselves this term after signing the likes of Raul, Huntelaar and Jurado, but they may yet improve. As for Lyon, a repeat of last year's semi-final remains unlikely, but they have the creativity and pace to threaten the big boys.    

In Lisbon, Benfica didn't seem to miss Angel Di Maria or Ramires as they broke down a stubborn Hapoel Tel Aviv side. Not that they found it easy to break down the self-appointed one man wall, Vincent Enyeama, mind. The Nigerian stopper made a hatful of top saves to keep out the home side, but couldn't prevent either a thunderbolt from Luisao or a nonchalant rebound finish from Oscar Cardozo. At the other end, Tel Aviv striker Etey Shechter must be wondering what he had done to offend Russian referee Aleksei Nikolaev and his team. Having been blatantly pulled down with the scores at 0-0 as he raced past Luisao in the Benfica box, the Israeli forward's pleas were ignored by everyone who mattered, provoking indignation in most viewers and causing Michel Platini to shift uncomfortably in his seat at the futility of his new 'additional assistants' - one of whom was so close to the incident that he could have pulled down Shechter himself.

Group C

It was a night of frustration for Sir Alex Ferguson. Having made 10 changes to the side which capitulated against Everton three days previously, the Manchester United boss could only look on as his patchy side huffed and puffed without any real quality, and in the end were pretty comfortably frustrated by a disciplined Rangers side. Walter Smith has been criticised in some quarters for his unashamedly defensive approach to the match, but with his team so obviously out-gunned in every area of the pitch, it was surely the only sensible option. Wayne Rooney was, once again, a pale shadow of the player who set the Premier League and Champions League alight for large parts of last season, and Manchester United will need him to re-find his form if Alex Ferguson is to add to his tally of two Champions League triumphs.

Elsewhere in Group C, it seems that rumours of Valencia's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Even having lost the class and guile of David Silva, the clinical finishing of David Villa and the leadership of Carlos Marchena, Los Che still had far too much for Turkish champions Bursaspor. Moreover, they appear to have found a new magician: Alberto Facundo 'Tino' Costa. For his first trick, the Argentine unleashed a swerving screamer into the top corner from a distance which was, quite frankly, insulting to opposition keeper Yavuz Ozkan. Then he thundered a long range free-kick against the post, cleverly committing Ozkan and allowing Aritz Aduriz an easy close-range tap-in on the rebound. One game is clearly not a solid basis for heralding the arrival of a new star, and it is clear that both Costa and Valencia will face tougher tests than a Turkish side making their Champion's League debut. But if the Argentine can replicate this form on a regular basis, then the sale of David Silva may begin to look a good piece of business.

Group D

Most neutrals who tuned in to the Barcelona v Panathinaikos match on Tuesday night did so because they expected the entertainers of European football to put on a show. Their desire to be entertained was more than sated, but not before Sidney Govou threatened to ruin the show with a superbly taken breakaway goal for the visitors. The strike, however, proved no more than the catalyst for this exceptional Barcelona team to run riot, with the greatest of them all, Lionel Messi, once again taking centre stage. Having latched onto a wonderfully incisive Xavi pass to level the match, the diminutive Argentine superstar then followed David Villa's first Champion's League goal for his new team by proceeding to set the Camp Nou alight with his talent. His second goal was a characteristic blend of exceptional speed, technique, precision and composure which left a seemingly-organised Greek defence in tatters. But the best was yet to come. After nearly finding the net from an impossible angle to inadvertently set up Pedro for Barca's fourth, Messi then scampered through the Panathinaikos backline once more and, just when it seemed as though he had run out of options, lifted a superb pass over the last defender for Dani Alves to head home the fifth. With the Catalans and their maestro in this kind of form, it will take a positively Mourinho-esque team to beat them...

Meanwhile, in the less glamorous (or at least warm) surroundings of Denmark, FC Copenhagen caused a significant shock by defeating much-fancied Rubin Kazan, with a towering header from Senegalese striker Dame N'Doye. On this evidence, however, it is unlikely that either of these sides will threaten the knockout stages, so Panathinaikos fans shouldn't give up hope just yet.

Group E

Last year's beaten finalists Bayern Munich signalled their intent to repeat last season's Champion's League feats with an impressive win over a decent but limited Roma side. The result looks even better when it is considered that neither of their star wingers - the talented-but-sulky Frank Ribery and the sulky-but-talented Arjen Robben - were available. Toni Kroos, the young German midfielder highlighted in a certain Rising Stars blog a few weeks ago, looks particularly promising, if a little trigger happy in front of goal. Thomas Muller also continues to establish himself as European football's brightest young talents, scoring an absolute peach with the outside of his right foot to break the deadlock. Bayern boss Louis Van Gaal will also hope that Miroslav Klose's goal will help him to rediscover his scoring touch at club level, for his predatory instincts will be needed at home and in Europe. Roma, for their part, will probably make it out of the group in second place, but that's about it.

In Transylvania, CFR Cluj marked themselves out as Roma's main competitors for second place in Group E with a hard-fought win over Swiss champions FC Basel. A fast start proved to be the key, with goals from Lanut Rada and Lacina Traore putting the Romanians in charge inside 12 minutes. Despite Basel dominating much of what followed, a stubborn and organised defensive display proved enough to give Cluj what could be a precious three points in their quest to reach the knockout stage for the first time.

Group F

Premier League champions Chelsea quite simply couldn't have had it any easier away against MSK Zilina as they brushed aside the Slovakian champions, with a brace from Nicolas Anelka sandwiched between goals from Michael Essien and Daniel Sturridge. Frenchman Anelka led the line with a discipline too rarely seen in the absence of Didier Drogba, and the Blues attacked with an intensity which their hosts could not match. Michael Essien once again proved why his return to fitness should be considered the most important addition to the Chelsea ranks over the summer, and young striker Daniel Sturridge further underlined his considerable promise with a well-taken second half goal. Petr Cech's decision-making is still a worry at times, with his ill-judged attempt to come for a cross leading to Zilina's only goal. Overall, however, Chelsea are bursting with confidence, quality and goals, and if they are allowed to build up momentum in the knockout stages, it will take a very good team to stop them.

In France, Marseille must still be wondering how they lost their opening game at home to Spartak Moscow. Eastern European teams, and particularly Russian teams, traditionally do not travel well in Europe, and Spartak's performance in the south of France was no exception. But visiting keeper Andriy Dykan was in inspired form as the Russians withstood large spells of Marseille pressure, and his side were awarded a huge slice of good fortune with Cesar Azpilicueta's own goal nine minutes from time. Of course, nothing is settled on matchday one, but Marseille now face an extremely difficult trip to Russia, and may also potentially have to get something from one of their meetings with Chelsea. Advantage Spartak, I think.

Group G

The group which had been awarded the fabled title of 'Group of Death' instead got off to a rather predictable start, with wins for both Real Madrid and AC Milan. Jose Mourinho's men served notice of their European credentials with an impressive performance against Dutch giants Ajax. The score may only have been 2-0, but when you consider that Real had over 30 attempts at goal, then it is clear that Martin Jol's men did well just to keep the score down. Mourinho defended his side's profligacy in front of goal, stating with justification that an eye-catching goal difference in the group stage is not what wins you the Champions League. He will fancy his wealth of top attacking talents to hit top form when it truly matters, and so if Madrid can keep the defence tight, they may well be the team to beat.

In Milan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced his arrival for his new team with a match-winning brace against Auxerre. But perhaps the most amazing aspect of the encounter was that, with the likes of Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Ronaldinho on the pitch, the 'Most Frustrating Decision' award goes to Auxerre midfielder Steeven Langil who, at 0-0, decided to try and break the Milan net from a tight angle rather than trying to find either one of the two teammates who were screaming at him for the ball and perfectly positioned for a tap-in. Had he decided upon a different course of action, Silvio Berlusconi's temperamental gems may not have had such an easy night.

Group H

Braga once again showed that you cannot expect to survive at the Emirates by trying to play football. Unless your name is Barcelona, of course. The Arsenal captain with 'Barcelona DNA' was the star of the show, scoring twice and having a hand in almost everything else the Gunners did well on Wednesday night. As always, the style with which Arsenal ripped Braga apart was just as impressive as the result itself, and the form of Jack Wilshere and Carlos Vela must also be giving Arsene Wenger reason to smile.With performances like this, the North Londoners should cruise through the group, but I'm yet to see anything which suggests that they can produce this kind of display against an elite side.

In the Ukraine, Shakhtar Donetsk solidified their status as favourites for second place in Group H with a functional, if uninspiring, win over Partizan Belgrade. A powerful free-kick from talismanic captain Darijo Srna gave Shakhtar the lead, but the hosts' inability to kill off their opponents made for a nervy last 10 minutes. The Ukrainian champions usually boast a good home record in Europe, and therefore a few points on their travels should see Shakhtar into the knockout stages. Partizan will surely be setting their sights on the more realistic target of beating Braga to third place and a Europa League spot.

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