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Thursday, 21 October 2010

Champions League Round-Up, Week 3

It was another eventful round of fixtures in the Champions League this week, with mistakes, brilliance, controversy, and of course, goals aplenty. Here's my take on the action.

Group A

Inter Milan 4-3 Tottenham Hotspur

Harry Redknapp's side continue to be compulsive viewing on their debut season in Europe's premier club competition. Despite the North Londoners' vows to attack from the off, it was Inter who seized the initiative in a big way, starting the match like a team possessed. The holders' fluid passing and movement was too much for a surprisingly passive Spurs side in the first half, with Zanetti, Stankovic and Eto'o providing the clinical finishes to some excellent prolonged periods of possession. 4-0 down at half time, and with keeper Heurelho Gomes correctly sent off for taking out speed merchant Jonathan Biabiany, it looked like a little damage limitation could be in order. But Gareth Bale's astonishing second-half hat-trick went a long way towards compensating for the humiliation felt by traveling Spurs fans in the first half, and ensured that they will welcome the Italian giants to White Hart Lane in two weeks time with genuine hope of a result. The flying Welshman exhibited pace, power and unerring accuracy as he ripped Rafa Benitez's side to shreds, and it was to his credit that the European champions were the ones relieved to hear the final whistle.

FC Twente 1-1 Werder Bremen

An even game yielded a result which will go down much better in North London than it will in Enschede or Bremen, as neither of these sides were able to capitalise on Tottenham's defeat in Milan. Twente midfielder Theo Janssen made the most of errors by two Sebastiens - centre back Prodl and substitute keeper Meilitz - to give the home side the lead with 15 minutes left, with former fans favourite Marko Arnautovic, now at Bremen after last season's unsuccessful stint at Inter, bagging a scrappy equaliser 5 minutes later. Claudio Pizarro almost stole it for the visitors at the death, but his glancing header was just about correctly ruled out for offside. Both sides can still hope of qualifying for the knockout stage, but will have to show more in their final three fixtures than they did here in order to usurp Spurs.

Group B

Lyon 2-0 Benfica

The French giants have thus far made a potentially awkward group look easy, and extended their 100% record in Group B with a solid win over ten-man Benfica. Star man Michel Bastos took a back seat this time around, with strikers Jimmy Briand and Lisandro Lopez instead doing the damage either side of Nicolas Gaitan's foolish dismissal for persistent fouling. Lyon had the game sown up before the hour mark, and now look nailed on as group winners. Benfica look a decidedly weaker outfit this term without tricky winger Angel Di Maria and midfield engine Ramires, and now face a real battle with a resurgent Schalke for second spot. With the Germans scheduled to go to Lisbon on matchday six, it is one that will likely go down to the wire.

Schalke 3-1 Hapoel Tel Aviv

The league form of Felix Magath's side may be cause for concern, with only 1 win in their first 8 games, but Schalke are getting the job done in Europe. Raul, in particular, has taken his time to settle in to life in the Bundesliga, but there is something about the Champions League which brings out the best in the Real Madrid legend. Two clinical finishes on Wednesday have taken his career tally in UEFA competitions to 86, one ahead of fellow poacher Pippo Inzaghi at the top of the all-time scoring lists. Fellow Spaniard and summer arrival Jurado also got in on the act, curling a superb shot past a helpless Vincent Enyeama to put the result beyond doubt. Etey Shechter bundled in a consolation in injury time for the Israeli champions, but it seems now that their efforts will be in vain. For Schalke, the recovery is far from complete, but they hold a potentially decisive lead over Benfica in the race for Group B's second spot, provided they can avoid defeat in Portugal.

Group C

Manchester United 1-0 Bursaspor

After all the pre-match talk of Wayne Rooney, Sir Alex Ferguson will have considered a convincing victory over Group C minnows Bursaspor to be an important first step in highlighting that, even without last season's talisman, the future at Old Trafford remains as bright as ever. Whilst they failed to build on Nani's brilliant opener on the scoresheet, United were comfortable and always in control. And with assured performances from the likes of Smalling, Rafael and Macheda, Ferguson will believe he has more than enough ammunition to pour scorn on Rooney's doubts over United's ambition going forward.

Rangers 1-1 Valencia

A creditable point for Rangers, but it could have been so much more. The star of the show was undoubtedly Gers' American midfielder Maurice Edu, who gave the home side the lead with a brave header, taking a mean right hook from Valencia keeper Cesar Sanchez in the process. But immediately after the interval, Edu then undid all of his good work with an even better header at the wrong end to give the Spanish visitors a way back into the match. Valencia predictably dominated possession, but found it difficult to break down Rangers'  stubborn five man defence, and it was Walter Smith's side who had the better opportunities. Edu hit the post, and Miller, Naismith, Foster and Davis all missed extremely presentable chances to give the home side all of the points. Rangers may yet live to regret their profligacy in front of goal, but for now, they lie second in Group C with a real chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.

Group D

Barcelona 2-0 Copenhagen

The self-styled entertainers of world football once again turned on the style at the Nou Camp, with Leo Messi predictably the star of the show. Even without pass-master Xavi, Barca had few difficulties in navigating a way through and around the deep-lying Copenhagen defence, and their superiority was underlined when Messi smashed the ball into the top corner on 19 minutes. Despite numerous chances, however, the Spanish champions failed to put the game to bed. The visitors carried little threat, but Dame N'Doye's thundering half-volley against the bar and Cesar Santin's pathetic rebound attempt, combined with his inexplicable failure to play to the whistle when played clean through on goal, were infrequent reminders of the frailty of the lead. The knockout blow wasn't delivered until injury time, when Messi slotted home to take his overall goal tally in this season's tournament to 4. Barcelona are cruising into the knockout stages, and both of Spain's 'Big two' will be among the front-runners for this year's trophy.

Panathinaikos 0-0 Rubin

A dull encounter in Athens between two teams lacking in ideas ended, almost inevitably, in a stalemate. Only towards the end did either side show the kind of urgency befitting their situations in Group D, and Djibril Cisse thought he'd won it for the hosts with 13 minutes left, but the officials correctly ruled that the Frenchman was offside when he 'backed' the ball over Rubin keeper Sergei Ryzhikov. The result leaves Copenhagen in with a great chance of continuing their surprise run into the knockout stage.

Group E

Bayern Munich 3-2 Cluj

The Romanian champions will be wondering what might have been had their clinical finishing been limited to the opposition net. Minutes after Cluj captain Cadu had given the visitors a surprise lead in Germany, the Romanian centre-back then deflected Toni Kroos' tame effort past his own keeper to restore parity. Bayern were swiftly gifted the lead when Holger Badstuber's curling corner deflected in off Christian Panin, and even when the hosts finally got on the scoresheet as a result of their own efforts, a large slice of luck was involved. For Felice Piccolo can certainly claim an assist for Mario Gomez' opportunistic strike, after his attempted clearance ricocheted off the boot of the German frontman and into the Cluj net. Juan Culio netted four minutes from time to set up a tense finish, but Bayern held on to a lead which they never really had to work too hard for, and have now more or less qualified from Group E.

Roma 1-3 Basel

The shock of the round undoubtedly came in Rome, where Swiss champions Basel stunned Claudio Ranieri's Roma to blow the race for second spot in Group E wide open. The predatory instincts of Alexander Frei gave the visitors the lead, the frontman supplying an excellent finish to a flowing team move. Marco Borriello levelled things up, latching onto a superb pass from Francesco Totti before deftly chipping the ball over the on-rushing Costanzo. Totti himself then went close, but Basel were not to be denied. Ghanaian defender Samuel Inkoom did a remarkable impression of a Brazilian full-back, using his pace to latch onto a clever pass from Xherdan Shaqiri before smashing the ball into the bottom corner. And after weathering the Roma storm which followed, substitute Cabral danced through the opposition backline to seal the victory.

Group F

Spartak Moscow 0-2 Chelsea

The Chelsea juggernaut rolls on. The Blues produced another professional performance to see off a lively Spartak side, and have now established themselves at the top of Group F. Not visibly affected by playing on a plastic pitch, nor by the absence of Didier Drogba or Frank Lampard, Carlo Ancelotti's side limited Spartak's chances in an otherwise encouraging opening for the home side, and Yury Zhirkov's thunderbolt from 25 yards provided the most emphatic sucker-punch imaginable. The hosts remained unperturbed and continued to pour forward in search of an equaliser, but as they did, left plenty of spaces for the pacey Chelsea attack to exploit. The killer goal arrived just before half time: Michael Essien's driving run and pass found Nicolas Anelka, who atoned for an earlier miss by slotting past keeper Andriy Dykan. Spartak will know that the fate of their campaign will not be dependent on their results against the English champions, and will hope to welcome back captain Alex for the crunch clash with Marseille in a month's time.

Marseille 1-0 MSK Zilina

A hardly vintage performance from the French champions, but nevertheless a crucial victory which keeps Marseille in the hunt for the knockout stages. Souleymane Diawara got the eventual winner for the hosts with a good header from Lucho Gonzalez's corner, but the fact that Zilina forced Marseille keeper Steve Mandanda into making several excellent saves in order to preserve the lead suggests that much improvement is necessary if the hosts are to pass the sterner tests which lie ahead. The trip to Russia will be crucial for Didier Deschamps' side, and they will also hope to get something from Stamford Bridge on matchday six, when they are likely to face a weakened side who are already qualified.

Group G

Real Madrid 2-0 AC Milan

Tuesday's encounter at the Santiago Bernebeu was billed as a mouthwatering clash between two of European football's giants, but the mismatch on show illustrated the vastly different circumstances in which the two are currently operating. Despite the eye-catching signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho in the summer, AC Milan remain a tired old side, desperately lacking in pace and urgency in attacking areas. There was also a sad sense of irony about the particularly ineffectual display of Ronaldinho at the Bernebeu - the place where the former best player in the world was afforded a standing ovation five years ago for a thoroughly majestic performance. Mourinho's Real, however, looked ominously good. They scored 2, but it could quite easily have been 7 or 8. The attacking talents of Ronaldo, Higuain, Di Maria and Ozil have now been allied with a mean defence, and such a combination will be extremely difficult for anyone to beat.

Ajax 2-1 Auxerre

Martin Jol's men did their bit to keep themselves in Group G's qualification mix, whilst at the same time putting Auxerre very much out of it. Demy De Zeeuw's cracking strike after 7 minutes gave the hosts the perfect start, and Luis Suarez provided further evidence of his talent to potential suitors by slotting past Olivier Sorin after a flowing move. A clumsy foul from Blackburn's finest, Andre Ooijer, on Dennis Oliech as the Auxerre man ran clear, resulted in the defender's dismissal and put the hosts' lead into question. The uncertainty increased moments later, as Slovenia's World Cup talisman Valter Birsa curled in from the resulting free-kick. Auxerre piled on the pressure, but grew desperate as the clock ticked down, and Oliech himself was sent off late on for punching the ball into the net. Its between Milan and Ajax for second spot now, but with the Dutch side still to face a trip to Italy, the Rossoneri must remain the favourites.

Group H

Arsenal 5-1 Shakhtar Donetsk

Arsenal destroyed their biggest opponents in Group H as captain Cesc Fabregas made a triumphant return to first-team action. Arsene Wenger had fielded an attacking line-up, with Fabregas, Nasri, Wilshere and Rosicky all starting, and the visitors were unable to cope with the Gunners' fluid movement and pinpoint passing. Despite all the attacking talent on offer, however, it was the unlikely figure of Alex Song who gave the hosts the lead, capitalising on an awful mistake by Shakhtar keeper Andriy Pyatov with a cheeky flick. Samir Nasri continued his excellent recent scoring form to double the advantage, before Luiz Adriano's rugby tackle on Johan Djourou allowed Cesc Fabregas to have his moment from the penalty spot. Jack Wilshere rounded off an excellent passing move with a lovely dinked finish to underline his promise, but only after the youngster had once again highlighted the darker side of his game with a rash challenge earlier on. Marouane Chamakh added a fifth, but only just, taking a long hard look at the linesman before slotting home. Gunners old boy Eduardo seized his moment with a tidy finish late on and, true to his word, didn't celebrate. The Emirates faithful, however, did, awarding their former player a standing ovation. Everyone's a winner then. Well, except Shakhtar. Who were soundly thrashed.

Braga 2-0 Partizan Belgrade

The Portuguese side finally did manager Owen Hargreaves proud, notching their first ever win in the Champions League, and just about keeping themselves in the frame for second spot. Brazilian Lima got the ball rolling, curling home a fantastic free-kick from a distance that was, quite frankly, cheeky. The home side's failure to make the game safe, however, meant that they had to weather a series of determined Partizan attacks, before Matheus finally secured the points with a tap-in in the last minute. Progression to the knockout stage remains unlikely for Braga, but if they beat Partizan and Shakhtar, Hargreaves might have to further delay his return to the United first team.

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