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.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Champions League Round-Up, Week 2

Week 2 of the Champions League admittedly delivered little in the way of shocks, with most of the big guns passing the tests put in front of them and putting themselves in control of their respective groups. There was, however, plenty of excitement, individual skill and, most importantly, goals. Here is my take on the action.

Group A

Tottenham Hotspur 4 - 1 FC Twente

Tottenham built on their solid draw in Bremen in Week 1 with a convincing win at home against FC Twente. The game itself had a bit of everything - goals, exciting attacking football, bad defending, physical flash-points and penalties by the bucketload. To their credit, the Dutch champions never tried to 'do a Rangers' (as it's now known) and play for the draw with 11 men behind the ball, and their ambition helped make the first Champions League game at White Hart Lane an enthralling encounter. Moreover, having missed several good chances and given away three penalties, Twente boss Michel Preud'homme can be forgiven for thinking that the 4-1 scoreline was a little harsh on his side. On the pitch, it was quite a night for Spurs new boy Rafael Van der Vaart, who had a virtuoso performance both capped with a superbly taken goal and tainted by a missed penalty and late dismissal for two wayward and needless challenges. Nevertheless, Harry Redknapp will have been delighted with both a performance and a result which puts his team firmly in control of their own destiny in Group A. The atmosphere at White Hart Lane appeared to be electric, and having been treated to a fantastic spectacle, Spurs fans can only hope for more of the same in European nights to come.

Inter Milan 4 - 0 Werder Bremen

Last season, Samuel Eto'o effectively took a year out from being a world-class striker, willingly accepting a position on the right wing as Jose Mourinho's Inter cleaned up at home and abroad - effectively performing the role of a rich man's Dirk Kuyt. But restored to his preferred position against Werder Bremen on Wednesday in the absence of the injured Diego Milito, the Cameroonian once again showed the footballing world exactly what he is all about - pace, power, and clinical finishing. In addition to notching an extremely impressive hat-trick, Eto'o also turned provider for Wesley Sneijder to get on the scoresheet, with the 4-0 scoreline fully justified in light of the Italian side's dominance. As for Bremen,  much emphasis has been placed on the loss of World Cup star Mesut Ozil during the summer, but it is in defence that their current problems lie. Their backline was ruthlessly exposed as completely lacking in pace, and their attempts to play the offside trap were both tactically naive and poorly executed. The Germans now face a fight to make it out of Group A, but the Champions League holders won't have too many problems on this form.

Group B 

Schalke 2 - 0 Benfica

Benfica must have headed to Germany for Wednesday's game with high hopes of a result. After all, their hosts have endured a nightmare start to the Bundesliga season, languishing in the relegation zone after 7 games and failing to record a single home victory. Defeat in Lyon two weeks ago had also put Schalke on the back foot in Europe, but Felix Magath's side may just have kick-started their season with this hard-earned victory, thanks to goals from Jefferson Farfan and new boy Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The result means that qualification from Group B is now very much a three way battle, and it should be interesting to see exactly how it pans out.

Hapoel Tel Aviv 1 - 3 Lyon

Lyon cemented their place at the top of Group B with a solid win in Israel. The French side are still yet to reproduce the sort of form which guided them to the semi-finals of last year's tournament, but the poor quality of their opposition thus far has made it easy for them. Michel Bastos, who appears to be growing in stature at Stade Gerland, notched a well-taken brace to establish himself as one of the more surprising early names at the top of the tournament's scoring charts. Young playmaker Miralem Pjanic once again highlighted his potential with a well-taken third, and whilst tougher tests undoubtedly lie ahead for Lyon, maximum points from their first two games has given Claude Puel's side a great chance of progressing to the knockout stage as group winners.

Group C

Valencia 0 - 1 Manchester United

Javier Hernandez's predatory instincts snatched victory from the jaws of an uneventful stalemate for Sir Alex Ferguson's side. Valencia, who have surprised many with an impressive start to life after Davids Villa and Silva, bossed the possession against a wasteful United midfield, but a lack of cutting edge in front of goal meant the hosts were unable to break down a resolute opposition defence which boasted both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic for the first time this season. It was a safety-first performance from United, who appeared content to sit back and attempt to steal a goal on the counter-attack. Dimitar Berbatov, employed as a lone striker, exhibited flashes of brilliance but, on the whole, cut a lonely and isolated figure up front. The result, however, is all that matters, and victory at the Mestalla has more than compensated for the frustration felt by United fans against Rangers two weeks ago. Defeat at home is a blow for Valencia, but it is the head-to-head fixtures against the Scottish champions which will determine their fate in Group C.

Rangers 1 - 0 Bursaspor

Walter Smith's side edged a dreadful encounter at Ibrox thanks to a poacher's finish from Steven Naismith, despite Turkish champions Bursaspor having slightly the better of the game. Defeat marks the continuation of a tough initiation to the Champions League for the Turkish debutants, and makes the prospect of a third place finish and place in the Europa League look increasingly unlikely. For Rangers, victory keeps alive their hopes of qualification for the knockout stages, although tough trips to Spain and Turkey await.

Group D

Rubin Kazan 1 - 1 Barcelona

It was a tale of two penalties in Russia on Wednesday, as Rubin Kazan continued their excellent recent form against Barcelona in Europe's premier cup competition. Despite predictably dominating possession, the Spaniards failed to create enough chances against stubborn and disciplined opposition, and were made to pay when slack defending from Gerard Pique and a clumsy challenge by Dani Alves allowed Christian Noboa to beat Victor Valdes from the penalty spot. The pressure exerted by Pep Guardiola's side eventually afforded an opportunity for David Villa to equalise from 12 yards, but Barcelona had to be content with the point which their lacklustre display had merited. A decent result, then, for Rubin Kazan, but having lost to Copenhagen in Week 1, the Russian champions face a an uphill battle to make it through to the knockout stages.

Panathinaikos 0 - 2 Copenhagen

The Danish champions have perhaps been the surprise package of the Champions' League group stage thus far, and victory in Greece is perhaps an even more impressive result than the opening day win over Rubin Kazan. Dame N' Doye had scored the winner for Copenhagen in that game, and he gave his side the lead after breaking the Panathinaikos offside trap and avoiding a desperate charge from keeper Alexandros Tzorvas. Martin Vimgaard doubled the visitors' advantage with a powerful free-kick, leaving Copenhagen top of Group D with maximum points from their first two games. However, with home and away fixtures against Barcelona still to come, Stale Solbakken's side's passage into the knockout stages is far from assured.

Group E

Basel 1 - 2 Bayern Munich

Last year's Champions' League finalists kept up their solid start to this season's campaign with a comeback victory in Switzerland. It fell to Bastian Schweinsteiger, one of the stars of the World Cup in South Africa and possibly the most German-looking German in history, to inspire the second-half show after Alex Frei had given the hosts the lead with a clinical finish. Bayern's defence is still a cause for concern, with Wednesday's stand-in centre-back Holger Badstuber failing to convince, and regular incumbents Van Buyten and Demichelis looking vulnerable to pace. But these flaws should not hinder the progression of Louis Van Gaal's side to the knockout stages in a relatively weak group. As for Basel, well, after two defeats in as many games, the Swiss champions have little more than pride to play for.

Roma 2 - 1 Cluj

Claudio Ranieri has been under enormous pressure so far this season, with his side suffering a poor start to the Serie A season and defeat to Bayern in Week 1 of the group stage. But recent results have gone a long way towards turning the situation around, with a last gasp victory over Rafa Benitez's Inter Milan followed by a crucial triumph over Cluj on Tuesday night. It took time for the hosts to break down the Romanian champions, but Philippe Mexes' strike, closely followed by a David Platt-esque volley by Marco Borriello, put the hosts in an unassailable position. The Italians still looked far too vulnerable for a side which harbours serious aspirations of both domestic and European success, but the confidence gained through this run of positive results could herald a turnaround in fortunes.

Group F

Chelsea 2 - 0 Marseille

The Blues barely had to break sweat as they eased aside French champions Marseille. A near post flick from John Terry and a nonchalant penalty from Nicolas Anelka sowed up the points inside half an hour, and despite the fact that the Blues' inclination to sit back on their lead allowed the visitors considerable possession after the interval, their lead never looked in serious danger. Towards the end Carlo Ancelotti's men pressed the action once more, with Michael Essien and Alex both testing the woodwork, but the game was already won. Chelsea look nailed on as winners of Group F, but Marseille could be in serious trouble, with no points on the board and with two trips to Eastern Europe to come.

Spartak Moscow 3 - 0 MSK Zilina

The Russians followed up their smash-and-grab win in the south of France by outclassing Slovakian champions MSK Zilina on Tuesday night. The victory had a strong Brazilian flavour to it, with Ari and Ibson scoring the goals which made sure of the points. Spartak now find themselves in an extremely strong position to progress from Group F, and will fancy their chances against both Chelsea and Marseille on their plastic pitch. As for Zilina, one can only hope that they're enjoying the experience.

Group G

Auxerre 0 - 1 Real Madrid

Europe be warned: Jose Mourinho's new team has already perfected the art of 'winning ugly'. Real were far from inspired against a mediocre Auxerre side, but a disciplined defensive display meant that substitute Angel Di Maria's well-executed volley was enough to secure the points. Obtaining maximum points from their first two games has also completely taken the pressure off the group clashes with AC Milan as far as Madrid are concerned, and once they find a way to ally finesse to their fighting spirit, the Spaniards will take some beating.

Ajax 1 - 1 Milan

A clash between two of European football's historical giants somewhat predictably ended in a respectable draw. A fantastic piece of skill from Mario Suarez, which left defensive legend Alessandro Nesta doing a passable impression of a startled deer, set up El Hamdoui's opener, but the script wouldn't have been complete without a Zlatan Ibrahimovic goal against the club where he made his name, and the gangly Swede duly obliged. Ajax will now look towards their clashes with Auxerre in order to secure a Europa League spot, whilst Milan's aging stars can begin to get ready for their glamour matches against Real Madrid.

Group H

Partizan Belgrade 1 - 3 Arsenal

Arsenal claimed an impressive victory in the intimidating surroundings of the Stadion FK Partizan on Tuesday night. Fears were initially raised as to whether the match would go ahead after a floodlight failure, and Partizan may well have been wishing it hadn't when Jack Wilshere brilliantly danced through the hosts' defence to set up Andriy Arshavin for the Gunners' opener. Hopes of an upset were raised when Cleo levelled from the penalty spot, but Arsenal's relatively unheralded aerial threat made sure of the points, with both Marouane Chamakh and Sebastien Squillaci heading home. Lukasz Fabianski also had quite a good game, which means that talk of Arsenal needing a new goalkeeper will stop for about a week.

Braga 0 - 3 Shakhtar Donetsk

It was the Ukrainian champions' clinical streak which earned them the points in a deceptively even clash with Braga. Once again with an Eastern European side, it was the Brazilians who made the difference, with Luiz Adriano and Douglas Costa bagging the goals. The result flies in the face of the perception that Shakhtar don't travel well in Europe, and they must now be the favourites to join Arsenal in the knockout stages. I don't have much to say about Braga's chances, but don't you think that their manager looks a little bit like Owen Hargreaves?

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