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.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Champions League Round-Up, Week 4

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: Bale dazzles, Twente surprise

Poor old Maicon - its almost unheard of for a visitor to London to have to wait over an hour and a half for a taxi. Rafa Benitez and Inter had been given a stark reminder of the danger posed by Gareth Bale two weeks ago in Milan, and on Tuesday the flying Welshman made the world's best right-back look every day of his thirty years.

Bale was simply magnificent, on several occasions tearing apart the Inter defence on his own, and the quality of the opposition only served to further highlight his brilliance. His cause was no doubt helped by the European champions' inexplicable propensity to leave him one-on-one with a labouring and out-of-sorts Maicon, but this should not detract from the greatest individual performance of Bale's career. If a hat-trick in Milan put him on the map, Tuesday's devastating display surely confirms the 21-year-old as one of the world's most in-form players.

A star-making performance this may have been, but it was by no means a one man show as far as Tottenham were concerned. Harry Redknapp can point to a string of outstanding contributors to what must be seen as the most impressive result of Spurs recent history. Luka Modric, in particular, hardly put a foot wrong throughout, and it was clever play from the Croatian schemer which enabled Rafael Van der Vaart to fire the home side ahead. 

Bale's unchallenged command of the left flank should have led to a second long before Peter Crouch finally tapped home, and it looked possible that Spurs would be made to pay for their profligacy when Samuel Eto'o expertly curled home with ten minutes left. But another fantastic driving run and pinpoint cross from Bale allowed Roman Pavlyuchenko to wrap up the points, and put the gloss on a truly special night for Tottenham and their prodigious winger.

The result leaves Spurs almost certain to qualify for the knockout stage at the first time of asking, and in with a genuine chance of topping the group if they can out-score Benitez's Inter over the final two rounds of fixtures. Harry Redknapp's young side have been a credit to the Premier League on their Champions League debut, with their expansive and dynamic brand of attacking football making them one of the most entertaining teams to watch in Europe. Luka Modric says he would love Barcelona in the next round. So would I.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Werder Bremen's stuttering European campaign died a feeble death with surprise defeat at home to FC Twente. An even game for much of its duration, the turning point came with Bremen captain Torsten Frings' silly sending off for a cynical foul with 15 minutes left. The Dutch champions then scored two late goals to earn their first ever Champions League victory and maintain an outside chance of knockout football. With Tottenham full of confidence and a wounded Inter having a point to prove, this remains unlikely, but Europa League football would be a just reward for a successful campaign for Michel Preud'Homme's side.

Group B: Lyon come unstuck, Schalke miss chance

Gareth Bale may have stolen the headlines, but he wasn't the only outstanding left-sided player on Tuesday evening. Fabio Coentrao was perhaps the brightest spark in Portugal's otherwise disappointing World Cup, and the 22-year-old was instrumental as Benfica ended Lyon's 100% start to Group B.

After an even start, Alan Kardec slammed home an emphatic header from Carlos Martins' cross to open the scoring, and 10 minutes later Coentrao volleyed home another Martins cross to extend the lead. Javi Garcia ensured a pleasant half-time team talk by netting the third just before the interval, and when Coentrao notched his second with just over 20 minutes left, Lyon could have been forgiven for sitting back for the remainder of the game on the edge of their own penalty area and waiting to go home.

But instead Claude Puel's side showed an impressive, if a little belated, sense of character, as they launched a Gareth Bale-style comeback. Goals from Yoann Gourcuff and Bafetimbi Gomis halved the lead, and had Dejan Lovren's header come any earlier than the final minute of injury time, Benfica may have been in serious danger of undoing all of their good work. But the Portuguese giants held on to get themselves right back into qualification contention, and to deny Lyon the opportunity to make certain of their passage to the next round. 

Meanwhile in Israel, Schalke missed a big opportunity to put themselves in a commanding position in Group B, with a lacklustre performance drawing a blank away to spirited minnows Hapoel Tel Aviv. Felix Magath's side are still in second place, but with a trip to Lisbon to come, they would surely have preferred a bigger lead over their rivals. Lyon remain top despite defeat, and will look to secure qualification in Germany in three weeks time.

Group C: United find their range, reality bites for Rangers

Manchester United have struggled for goals in the Champions League thus far, but those problems were forgotten as they brushed aside Turkish whipping-boys Bursaspor to consolidate their position at the top of Group C.

Despite having the better of the first half, Paul Scholes' disallowed strike just before the interval was the closest Sir Alex Ferguson's side came to breaking the deadlock. United, however, started the second half as they had hoped to begin the first, with some quick-thinking and good vision from Michael Carrick finding Darren Fletcher unmarked in the box, and the Scot duly slotted home. 

The home side rarely troubled Edwin Van der Sar, and United's superiority was further underlined when Gabriel Obertan found the top corner with just over 15 minutes left. Rags-to-riches story Bebe added a deflected third four minutes later, securing a result which gives United's points tally and goal difference a timely boost. Sir Alex Ferguson's side still haven't conceded in the competition, and their place in the knockout stage is now almost assured.

A gutsy draw with Valencia at Ibrox a fortnight ago had given Rangers fans reason to hope that they could pull off the unthinkable at the Mestalla, but a confident display from the Spaniards brought Walter Smith's side crashing back to Earth. 

A lack of composure in front of goal has become a recurring European theme for the Scottish champions. The draw two weeks ago could, and probably should, have been a win, and on Tuesday they were made to pay for their wastefulness by a vastly more clinical Valencia side.

Steven Naismith, supporting lone striker Kenny Miller from midfield, was cruelly denied by a combination of Cesar Sanchez and the post before Roberto Soldado bundled home the opener from a corner. It was Soldado again who did the damage in the second half, slotting past Allan McGregor after some neat play, and Tino Costa wrapped up the win with a late third.

The result leaves Rangers needing a big, big performance against United at Ibrox in three weeks time to keep their hopes of progression alive. In short, welcome to the Europa League.

Group D: A victory for Communism

The only winner in Group D on Tuesday night was Marxist philosophy, as all four sides shared the spoils. Danish champions Copenhagen continue to add up to more than simply a sum of their rather obscure parts, gaining a creditable draw against Barcelona's dream team.

After a bright opening, in which both Claudenir and David Villa had seen efforts rattle the woodwork, it was, almost inevitably, Lionel Messi who gave Barca the lead, cleverly poking the ball home off the post. But Copenhagen remained unintimidated, and levelled within a minute through Brazilian Claudenir. 

The Spanish champions continued to have the better of the play, but couldn't break down the hosts' stubborn resistance, and were occasionally troubled themselves by the lively Dame N'Doye. In the end, the Danes were well worth a point which puts them in with a fantastic chance of qualifying for knockout stage for the first time.

In Russia, spectators were treated to another frustrating stalemate, as Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos undermined each other's chances of progression by refusing to lose and lacking the quality to win. The hosts just about had the better of it, but visiting keeper Alexandros Tsorvas made a number of good saves to keep the scores level. There's little point in saying much more, as neither of these sides will challenge Copenhagen on this form.

Group E: Bayern motor on, Roma get revenge

Bayern Munich continue to give the lie to their inconsistent Bundesliga form in Europe - Louis Van Gaal's side are now one of only two who can still boast a 100% record in the group stage, and they booked their place in the knockout rounds ahead of time with a Mario Gomez-inspired destruction of CFR Cluj.

Gomez opened his 2010/11 Champions League account a fortnight ago against Basel in somewhat fortuitous circumstances, but there can be no doubt over the big German's contribution on Wednesday, as he punished some slack defending with a clinical hat-trick. 

The 25-year-old got the ball rolling - quite literally - in the 12th minute, scuffing one in off the underside of the bar after a poor parry from Eduard Stancioiu, and added another 12 minutes later after a great header across by Bastian Schweinsteiger. Gomez cemented his claim to the match ball in the second half, slotting home after more great vision from Schweinsteiger, and substitute Thomas Muller bundled home a fourth in the final minute.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, Roma avenged their shock defeat in Week 3 and regained second place in Group E with a good win over FC Basel.

The Italians did not overwhelm the Swiss champions with possession or chances - rather, it was their clinical edge which ensured that only 3 shots on target led to 3 ultimately match-winning goals. Jeremy Menez gave the visitors the lead 15 minutes in with a low drive into the bottom corner, and Francesco Totti just about managed to extend it 10 minutes later from the penalty spot after a foul by Valentin Stocker on Jon Arne Riise.

The Swiss champions refused to wilt, however, and Alexander Frei's predatory instincts gave them a way back into the match 20 minutes from time. Leandro Greco looked to have nipped any sort of comeback in the bud by adding Roma's third a minute after his introduction, but Xherdan Shaqiri forced the ball home with seven minutes left to ensure a tense finale. Claudio Ranieri's side held on, and the home side's frustration was highlighted when Stocker was sent off for persistent fouling in the last few minutes.

With only one place left up for grabs in Group E, Roma will view victory in Switzerland as a big result. But judging by the displays of Cluj and, particularly, Basel thus far, the Italians are far from certainties for the knockout stage.

Group F: Chelsea stroll, Marseille run riot

Sooner or later, Chelsea will have to break sweat. Wednesday night's comfortable win over a game Spartak Moscow side, however, emphasised that the time has not yet come.

The Blues seemed barely interested in a turgid opening 45 minutes, which had only a curling Nicolas Anelka effort and an inexplicable Alex miss to recommend it. The hosts stepped up a gear after the interval though, and it was immediately evident that Spartak couldn't keep pace. Nicolas Anelka latched onto a clever Salomon Kalou pass to beat Andriy Dykan with a strike that, as Henry Winter of the Telegraph so aptly put it, 'seemed to defy geometry'.

The goal appeared to rock the visitors and, 10 minutes later, Didier Drogba punctuated his late arrival to the Champions League party by winning and then scoring a penalty, after a rash challenge by Evgeni Makeev. The big Ivorian then crossed for Branislav Ivanovic to power a header past Dykan and confirm Chelsea's place in the knockout stages.

A rare Ivanovic mistake allowed substitute Nikita Bazhenov to net a consolation for the Russians, but the Serbian, evidently annoyed by his error, atoned for it in injury time with a poacher's finish to reward all those spectators who had elected not to beat the rush. The Blues still boast a 100% record in the group stage and, with qualification assured, can now focus their attentions on domestic affairs.

In Lithuania there was more to depress the Muscovite, as Marseille racked up a cricket score against MSK Zilina. The star of the show was undoubtedly Andre-Pierre Gignac, who netted a memorable Champions League hat-trick for his new club, but Gabriel Heinze, Lucho Gonzalez and fellow summer arrival Loic Remy also got on the scoresheet to ensure that Marseille are firmly back in the hunt for second place. The Luzhniki Stadium will be a very interesting place to be in three weeks time.

Group G: Inzaghi foils Mourinho, Ajax slip up

Two weeks ago, when Jose Mourinho was asked in his post-match press conference which AC Milan player he feared the most, the Special One's choice of Filippo Inzaghi baffled even the most seasoned observers. 

But  the 37-year-old predator proved himself worthy of the praise on Wednesday, coming off the bench to bag a brace which not only took him one goal ahead of Raul as the most prolific scorer of all time in European club competitions, but also looked for all the world to have given Milan all three points against Real Madrid. Only Pedro Leon's 94th minute strike preserved Jose Mourinho's unbeaten record as Real manager, after Inzaghi had capitalised on errors from Pepe, Casillas and the linesman to wipe out the lead Higuain had given the visitors in the first half.

Despite failing to find the scoresheet, Cristiano Ronaldo nevertheless seized the headlines with a pitiful piece of play-acting after a coming together with Ignazio Abate. The calmness of Howard Webb ensured that no rash decisions were taken, but Ronaldo's actions were unbecoming of any footballer, or indeed any man, and much less one of his stature. They detract from his outstanding achievements on the pitch, and make it so that, even though you have to respect the man's ability, it's almost impossible to like him.

And so, with the soapbox once again firmly stowed away, its on to Mark Clattenburg's latest controversy. After an astonishing example of non-refereeing at Old Trafford on Saturday, Clattenburg was always going to be under particular scrutiny when taking charge of Auxerre v Ajax. 

And, sure enough, after Frederic Sammaritano's deflected opener had been cancelled out by Toby Alderweireld's towering header, the Englishman took centre stage. Kamel Chafni was allowed to take an extremely quick free-kick after being fouled, and Steeven Langil calmly slotted home what proved to be the winner. Ajax protested furiously, but it seems Clattenburg was within his rights on this one - at the very least, he made a decision.

The result gives the French side an outside chance of pipping Milan and Ajax to the knockout stages, but the Europa League is a more realistic target. Madrid are not qualified just yet, but are surely nailed on to win the group, and 'SuperPippo' and co. are likely to join them.

Group H: Arsenal self-destruct, Owen Hargreaves gets a boost

Arsenal were the architects of their own downfall in the Ukraine, with Shakhtar's comeback denying the North Londoner's the chance to secure their place in the knockout stages. 

With the knowledge of the Ukrainian champions' formidable home record fixed firmly in his mind, Arsene Wenger had set up his Arsenal side to use Theo Walcott's lightning pace on the counter-attack. The strategy paid immediate dividends, in the kind of move which breeds optimism over the future of the England national team, with an excellent pass from Jack Wilshere allowing Walcott to race away from the Shakhtar defence and finish with the kind of composure reminiscent of Thierry Henry.

But unlike the encounter at the Emirates, where an early Gunners goal became the catalyst for a rout, it was instead the hosts who came on strong, with both Jadson and Chygrynskiy going close. The latter then put Shakhtar back on level terms, albeit with more than a little help from the unfortunate Craig Eastmond. Lukas Fabianski made a couple of fine saves to deny the Ukrainians, but he was powerless when a terrible error from Gael Clichy allowed Darijo Srna to cross for Arsenal old boy Eduardo, who coolly took the opportunity to become the bane of his former employers.

In Belgrade there was a rare piece of good news for Braga manager Owen Hargreaves (ahem), who witnessed his side complete a double over Partizan and maintain an outside challenge for qualification. A fantastic header from Moises proved the only flash of brilliance in an otherwise uninspired encounter, but it was enough for the Portuguese side to all but guarantee at least Europa League football, and leave Partizan with the distinct possibility that they could end this group stage as they began it: pointless.

What are your thoughts on some of the big stories in the Champions League this week? And who do you think will win it? Comments are provided for in the space below.  

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