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Friday, 26 November 2010

Champions League Round-Up, Week 5

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: Spurs comfortable, Inter not

Tottenham are growing into the Champions League with every passing win, and offered up perhaps their most mature performance to date against Werder Bremen. 

If the triumph over Inter Milan three weeks ago was impressive for exhibiting the kind of sheer daring characteristic of underdogs, the controlled nature of victory over Bremen impressed in equal measure as proof that Spurs are just as comfortable shouldering the weight of expectation.

Incisive wingplay has been the recurring theme of Tottenham's European campaign thus far, and both Bale and Lennon were excellent again.  

From the moment Younes Kaboul steered home the latter's inviting comeback with only six minutes on the clock, the hosts never looked in danger. And in spite of a rare moment of generosity from Gareth Bale twelve yards from goal, their superiority was underlined by Luka Modric and Peter Crouch either side of the interval.

Harry Redknapp's side cannot, however, claim all the credit for the ease of their victory; their visitors were truly awful. 

Ever since suffering a thrashing at the hands of Inter on matchday two, Bremen have been a massive disappointment. A series of lacklustre displays from the Germans have ensured that what should have been a close group has been decided with a round to spare. They will not be missed.

But Spurs will not complain. They have secured qualification, and are now in pole position to secure a favourable draw in the knockout stages by topping Group A. Bale and co. have thus far been fantastic ambassadors for English football, and deserve all the credit likely to come their way.

Things are not quite so rosy for the 'Kings of Europe', however. Currently sixth in Serie A, Rafa Benitez is struggling to hang on to his job. Qualification from the Champions League group stage was surely a minimum requirement in the Spaniard's job spec and it has been achieved, albeit thanks to a laboured win over FC Twente at the San Siro. 

As ever, it was Wesley Sneijder who carried the main threat going forward, and it was the Dutchman's free kick which deflected into the path of a grateful Esteban Cambiasso to sweep home. 

But an otherwise unconvincing performance, coupled with Denny Landzaat's late strike against the bar for the visitors, meant that the overriding emotion at the final whistle was relief rather than euphoria. It shouldn't be this difficult for the European champions.

Nevertheless, Inter will feature in the knockout stages of this year's tournament, even if it must be as runners up in Group A. Whether Benitez will is another matter.

Group B: Schalke take control, Benfica implode

Opening day defeat in Lyon meant that Schalke had been playing catch-up until now, but an emphatic victory over the French giants in the return game has enabled Felix Magath's side to take control of Group B and book their place in the next round.

The Germans pressed their opponents high up the pitch from the start, and were quickly rewarded when Jefferson Farfan slotted home inside the first 15 minutes. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar doubled the advantage soon after, providing a clinical finish to a neat counter attack, and added a deflected third late on. 

The Dutchman has now scored 19 goals in 22 games for club and country this season, and a continuation of this form will surely be crucial in correcting Schalke's poor start to the Bundesliga season. They have, however, been the epitome of German efficiency in Europe and, with their place in the next round assured, can now focus their attentions on domestic affairs.

Lyon, for their part, were poor, and manager Claude Puel will rightly be angered that successive European defeats have all but consigned his team to Group B's runner-up slot after a faultless start. Perhaps the most stark evidence of Lyon's decline can be found in the fact that their qualification was ultimately assured not through their own efforts, but thanks to a Portuguese capitulation in Israel.

Benfica needed victory over whipping-boys Hapoel Tel Aviv in order to keep their knockout hopes alive. They failed spectacularly.

The Portuguese champions can rightly highlight their domination of both possession and chances as proof that they were unfortunate. They can also point to a bizarre episode in which Hapeol defender Bevan Fransman was booked for a foul in the box and yet no penalty was awarded and claim that the footballing fates just didn't favour them.

But to concede three goals to the group minnows is unforgivable in any circumstances, and Benfica deserve their Europa League fate.

Group C: Rooney returns and Bursaspor do something

Another much-hyped 'Battle of Britain' rather predictably turned out to be a damp squib, contested by a game but chronically-limited Rangers side and a Manchester United whose attacking instincts were somewhat tempered by the knowledge that they only needed a point to qualify.

The Ibrox atmosphere, tipped to be a significant factor before kick-off, was muted by the pragmatic approach of the home side in the face of vastly superior opposition. Rangers got the crowd going with a couple of half-chances, but are maddeningly short of ideas and quality going forward.

Wayne Rooney worked hard on his first start after his ankle injury/soul-searching/contract ploy-motivated absence, but he needn't have bothered - ultimately a twelve yard tap-in was all that was required for the 25-year-old to steal all the headlines, after Steven Naismith had executed a perfect flying kick to the face of Fabio/Rafael (honestly,I don't think even Ferguson knows).

In an otherwise tepid encounter, the best bit of movement all night came courtesy of the delirious United fan whose perfectly timed dash between the Ibrox stewards earned him a euphoric embrace with Wazza himself. Unbelievable tekkers.

In Spain, Valencia supplied the final blow to Rangers' hopes of qualification for the knockout stage by destroying   Bursaspor even more convincingly than they did in Turkey on matchday one. 

The hapless visitors did however manage to notch their first ever Champions League goal - the thinnest of silver linings in what has been a frankly terrible campaign. It was borderline offside, but you'd have to be positively Tory to want to take that away from them.

Group D: Barca thrill (again), Rubin keep the faith

Barcelona are so good at times it's unfair. Having bagged eight away at Almeria on the weekend, the Catalans barely broke sweat as they swatted aside Panathinaikos to confirm their status as group winners.

A brace from Pedro and yet another goal from Lionel Messi were sufficient for the Spanish champions to wrap up the points in Greece. The little Argentine maestro now has 70 goals in his last 71 games for Barcelona, and along with Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, is re-defining what is considered possible in the modern game.

Pep Guardiola's side have won Group D at a canter, and can now turn all of their attentions to Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid - starting with Monday's Clasico.

In Russia, a solitary penalty on the stroke of half-time from captain Christian Noboa was enough to earn Rubin Kazan their victory over rivals FC Copenhagen and keep their hopes of progression to the knockout stages just about alive.

Despite the victory, the Danes remain in pole position to secure second spot with Rubin facing a trip to the Nou Camp in the final round of fixtures. But the Russians have won in Spain before, and with Barca already through, Copenhagen cannot afford to be complacent.

Group E: Roma resurrect and Cartu gets mad

It's a little known fact that ever since Claudio Ranieri gave up eating houmous around ten years ago, his teams have been unable to do things the easy way. 

Okay, so that may have been a flagrant lie, but it is true that for some reason drama, if not necessarily quality, appears to follow Roma around in the Champions League. 

Sensationally beaten at home by FC Basel on matchday three, the Italians were then forced to come from behind to win the return game in Switzerland. And on Tuesday night, only the mother of all fightbacks ensured that Ranieri's team now stand within touching distance of the knockout stages.

Louis Van Gaal's Bayern had little to play for in Rome, having already secured qualification three weeks ago. But their first half performance belied this fact, with Mario Gomez netting twice to take his tally to 14 goals in his last 10 games and give the hosts a mountain to climb.

But climb they did. Spurred on by the power and pace of Jeremy Menez down the flanks, goals from Borriello and Rossi levelled the scores, before Francesco Totti's late penalty just crept under stand-in keeper Thomas Kraft to win it. Almost in spite of themselves, Roma are now only a point away from booking their place in the next round.

In Switzerland, plucky FC Basel kept up the pressure on Ranieri's side with a hard-fought win over CFR Cluj, but all of the post-match talk centered around Sorin Cartu, manager of the Romanian champions. 

Watching his side's European campaign fall apart proved too much for the 55-year-old to bear, and the former Romanian international striker showed that he has lost none of his predatory instincts with a fierce assault on the perspex dugout wall. Cartu will no doubt claim that the wall provoked him in some way, but UEFA will investigate nevertheless.

Group F: Chelsea kids come good (sort of), Spartak ambushed

Carlo Ancelotti's decision to give youth a chance against minnows Zilina had mixed results as Chelsea did just enough to secure top spot in Group F.

The first half proved a frustrating experience for the Stamford Bridge faithful, as they watched a bunch of talented youngsters play, well, like a bunch of talented youngsters, with flashes of promise interspersed with silly mistakes. 

The Slovakians capitalised on the uncertainty with a well-worked goal, and for a short while it looked as though an almighty shock was on the cards. But after a half-time telling off, Chelsea exhibited a vast improvement in the second half, and goals from Daniel Sturridge and Florent Malouda were fully deserved.

For the Blues manager, the youth experiment produced decidedly mixed results. Josh McEachran showed poise and quality beyond his years in the midfield, while Sturridge and Van Aanholt also impressed. Jeffrey Bruma, however, justified Ancelotti's decision not to use him against Sunderland with a nervy display in defence, whilst Gael Kakuta had almost no impact on the game before being hauled off at half time.

An ostensibly meaningless game has produced much cause for thought for Ancelotti. For while Chelsea's first eleven is a match for anyone, the lack of a plan B on the bench could yet undermine their quest for a maiden Champions League triumph against top opposition.

Meanwhile in Moscow, Marseille avenged an opening day home defeat by giving Spartak a damn good thrashing on their own patch. 

The diminutive Mathieu Valbuena opened the scoring in the first half with a superb finish on the turn, and the hosts never regained their composure. Second half strikes from Loic Remy and Brandao added gloss to a scoreline which didn't flatter the French side in the slightest, and Spartak's misery was compounded by the petulant dismissal of Welliton.

The Europa League now beckons for Spartak, while Marseille can look forward to a glamour tie in the knockout stages.

Group G: Real give Ajax send off (x2), Milan job done

Real Madrid gave Ajax a controversial send off in Amsterdam - two, in fact - as they confirmed themselves as worthy group winners.

Both Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos received their marching orders for time-wasting late on, meaning they will be suspended for a glorified friendly against Auxerre but conveniently return with a clean slate for the knockout stages. 

And of course, it was purely coincidental that Jose Mourinho was filmed passing a message to the duo via his coaching staff, Jerzy Dudek and Iker Casillas moments before the incident, and that neither player looked too put out at the prospect of an early bath.

UEFA have charged all five of them with improper conduct, which means that the Special One will probably be on the receiving end of an extremely angry letter from Michel Platini very soon. Whether Ramos and Alonso have their punishments extended remains to be seen.

Beneath all the controversy, there is actually an extremely impressive Real Madrid win to talk about. A clinical finish from Karim Benzema and a deflected swerving strike from Alvaro Arbeloa had already put Real into a commanding position, before Cristiano Ronaldo took his season's tally to 19 goals in as many games. He may be a prancing show pony, but he's without doubt the best prancing show pony on the planet.

In France, a measured performance from AC Milan was enough to see off a lacklustre Auxerre side and book the Italian giants' place in the knockout stages.

After a first half lacking in inspiration, Zlatan Ibrahimovic woke the crowd from their slumber by slamming the ball past a helpless Olivier Sorin from the edge of the area. Aside from the occasional dangerous set-piece, the hosts carried no real threat, and it was left to Ronaldinho to seal the points in injury time, rolling back the years with a jinking run and curling finish.

Milan may have done enough to qualify for the knockout stages, but their encounters with Real have proved that the trophy is far beyond them this year.

Group H: Gunners misfire, Shakhtar take advantage

Arsenal snatched defeat from the jaws of a draw in Portugal, as Owen Hargreaves' (pictured) Braga kept their own qualification hopes alive.

Against opponents who needed to win in order to maintain their hopes of second spot, it might have proved a wiser strategy for Arsene Wenger's side to sit back and attempt to hit their hosts on the counter attack. But Arsenal only know one way to play, and it usually involves discarding caution to the elements.

The Gunners' relentlessly attacking philosophy proved to be their downfall in the last ten minutes, as Brazilian striker Matheus twice capitalised on a lack of numbers in the Arsenal defence to race away on the counter and slot the ball past Fabianski.

Braga manager Owen Hargreaves (weren't you wondering why he hadn't played for United in a while?) deserves a great deal of credit for overseeing a run of three consecutive wins in Europe after opening their campaign with two heavy defeats, but their opportunity to qualify for the knockout stages remains small with a trip to the Ukraine lying ahead. The Europa League remains a more likely reward.

Arsenal now go into matchday six needing to win in order to qualify, but the situation is not as desperate as it sounds - Arsene Wenger's team would really have to go some, even by their own recent standards, in order to slip up against Partizan Belgrade, who are yet to claim a point in the group stage.

The real downside is that Arsenal will now most likely face a tougher draw in the knockout stages, having been all but condemned to the runner up spot in Group H by Shakhtar's victory over Partizan.

The Ukrainian champions took full advantage of the North Londoners' slip-up to put themselves in prime position to top Group H with a comfortable win over Partizan. 

Goals from Stepanenko, Jadson and Eduardo were enough to see off Partizan, who have offered literally nothing in the Champions League this year. And with Shakhtar's immense home record in Europe, it's hard to fancy either Braga or Arsenal to get what they want on the last day.

Alan Williamson once sang, 'There may be trouble ahead'. I don't know who he is, but Gunners fans may be inclined to believe him.  

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