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, 31 December 2010

End of year awards - 2010

First of all, let me just say, I don't like end of year awards.

I find the idea of judging teams and players on their performances in calendar years to be a clumsy and inadequate system for rewarding continued good form in football, for the simple reason that the football season does not begin in January and end in December.

Consequently, voting panels for these awards are invariably forced to judge players and teams on their performances in two halves of different seasons with an unhelpful summer-long gap in between. Or in the case of 2010, a World Cup.

The 'Greatest Show on Earth' rightly takes centre-stage every four years, but the rigid calendar year system for awards means that it takes on an unjustified level of importance in the minds of voting panelists. Hence we have Uruguay's inspirational talisman Diego Forlan on the 23-man Ballon d'Or shortlist ahead of Diego Milito, who fired Inter Milan to an historic treble.

And as much as Sunderland fans may wax lyrical about the virtues of Asamoah Gyan, even the most ardent Mackem would be hard pressed to convince me that Ghana's World Cup hero was one of the 23 best footballers in the world in 2010.

That said, the end of the calendar year is the time when we look back and evaluate in all walks of life, and it can come as no surprise that football is not excluded from this. Also, seeing as I have absolutely no power to change Fifa, there seems no sense in letting football's governing body have all the fun.

Here then, are my end of year awards. The World Cup has played a significant role in my choices, but I have been careful not to let it completely overshadow my judgment. I have looked to reward the individuals and teams who have shone on all fronts in 2010, as well as a couple who, well, didn't.

So here goes. Have a read and let me know what you think, regardless of whether you agree or not.

Player of the Year - Wesley Sneijder, Inter Milan and Holland

This decision may surprise many who favour the Ballon d'Or shortlist nominees Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, but there are several reasons why I believe the Dutch midfield maestro is the most deserving. 

First, while most observers (myself included) consider Barcelona's dream trio to be better footballers, they also have the benefit of playing with each other every week. The genius of each makes it easier for the other two to shine all the more brightly. 

Sneijder, by contrast, shouldered almost the entire creative burden of Jose Mourinho's defensive-minded Inter Milan side, crafting the devastating counter-attacks which contributed just as much to the Italian giants' success as defensive steel.

He then went to South Africa and almost repeated the trick with his country, leading another side built on solidity and work-rate to Holland's first World Cup final in over 30 years.

As well as creating opportunities for team-mates, Sneijder also rose to the challenge of taking them himself, finishing tied at the top of the tournament's scoring charts with five goals.

Messi, Xavi and Iniesta are great players who play in great teams. Sneijder's greatness this year stems from the fact that he inspired good teams on to great things. 2010 was his year.

Honorary mentions:

Cristiano Ronaldo - Blistering scoring form undermined by lack of trophies/World Cup exploits
Arjen Robben - Best season of his career, but finished on losing side in his two biggest matches of 2010
Bastian Schweinsteiger - Star for Germany and Bayern, but his less glamorous style works against him in awards like these 

Breakthrough of the Year - Pedro Rodriguez, Barcelona and Spain

2010 has seen the blossoming of numerous exciting new talents in the world of football, but there can be no breakthrough story quite so astonishing as that of Pedro Rodriguez Ledesma.

In July of 2009, Pedro was a 22-year-old still plying his trade in Barcelona's B team. By the age of 22, most prodigious young talents have already begun to make their mark on world football. Those who haven't broken through by then will most likely never do so, becoming consigned instead to a less distinguished career lower down the unforgiving football pyramid.

But far from being condemned to obscurity, Pedro took his first-team chances and has, in the last twelve months, achieved as much as many would be content with in an entire career.

With an indefatigable work-rate, impressive tactical versatility and keen eye for goal, this Tenerife-born youngster has established himself in what is widely regarded as the greatest football team in the world, with his tally of 24 goals including strikes in every single competition last term.

Such eye-catching form ensured a place on the plane to South Africa with World Cup favourites Spain, where Pedro quickly became Vicente Del Bosque's go-to man when a misfiring Fernando Torres failed to find his form, ahead of Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas and Man City's £25million summer recruit David Silva.

By last July, only six weeks after his first international cap, Pedro could add a World Cup winners medal to his already-formidable collection, and the footballing world could herald the arrival of a genuine world-class talent.

Honorary mentions:

Thomas Müller - The German Pedro. Brilliant breakthrough season for Bayern, and shone in South Africa, scoring five goals
Mesut Özil - Great form for Werder Bremen & a fantastic World Cup with Germany put him on the radar, moving to Real Madrid has given him the opportunity to establish himself
Nani - Has moved out of the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford. Just a little more consistency separates him from being truly world-class
Angel Di Maria - Great form for club & country secured a big money move to Real Madrid. Has impressed, but exploits not quite high-profile enough yet
Gareth Bale - Excellent form & consistency for Tottenham, but his resume doesn't compare with the other challengers - yet

Team of the Year - Spain

Now, it may seem I'm going back on my promise not to let the World Cup-inspired heart rule the head, but rest assured this was a very difficult decision. Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan deserve all of the credit they received for becoming the first Italian club ever to win the treble and reclaiming European Glory after more than forty years.

But it was Spain's first ever World Cup triumph and, in particular, the style with which they won, which caught the imagination of the footballing world.

2010 was the year of tiki-taka.

The achievement of this Spain side cannot possibly be overstated. They flew to South Africa shouldering the dreaded burden of the 'favourites' tag despite having no World Cup pedigree.

Confidence in their approach was tested in the very first group game, when they inexplicably lost to what was possibly Switzerland's only shot of the tournament. The hopes of key striker Fernando Torres were shattered by lack of form and fitness, with the Liverpool frontman failing to find the net in South Africa.

But Spain recovered, and passed their way to glory. It was an approach which no one, not even a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal or a dynamic young Germany, had an answer for. For any awe-struck spectator, the lesson on offer was plain to see: it doesn't matter how good your players are if they never have the ball.

Seeing that defensive organisation and counter-attacking endeavour were not enough, Holland resorted to rough-house tactics in the final. It almost worked, and Joris Mathijsen and Arjen Robben may be haunted for years by guilt-edged misses. 

But in spite of a game with a startling number of clear chances, there seemed to be a strange sense of destiny taking hold. When Andres Iniesta lashed home with penalties beckoning, the story was complete. It was not quite a tale of good triumphing over evil, but pure football was certainly the victor.

Honorary mentions:

Inter Milan - Historic treble-winning exploits made it a close run race. A truly great side, if not quite so pleasing on the eye
Barcelona - Likely the greatest football team of our generation, and provided the backbone of Spain's world-beaters. However, defeat to Inter in the Champions League means they are not the dominant story of the year
Bayern Munich - One final defeat away from a treble, Louis Van Gaal's side deserve their place in this list. But defeat to Inter and Germany's defeat to Spain means it was never going to be any higher.

Manager of the Year - Jose Mourinho, Inter Milan and Real Madrid

Despite recent setbacks at the Santiago Bernebeu, 2010 has a decent shout to be considered the greatest of Jose Mourinho's career. And with for a man who had already amassed one of the most impressive managerial CVs in world football, that is saying something.

In only his second season in Italian football, the Special One managed to forge a team equipped to take on all comers both domestically and in Europe.

In doing so, he gave the lie to the perceived superiority of England and Spain by defeating the best that La Liga and the Premier League had to offer, and brought European glory back to the blue half of Milan for the first time in more than forty years.

The zenith of Mourinho's glory undoubtedly came in the Nou Camp, where a 'beautiful' 1-0 defeat was nevertheless to see off a truly exceptional Barcelona side and ensure Inter's passage to the Champions League final.

It was a personal vindication for the brash Portuguese, who never felt appropriately valued in his own time at Barca. Now he had avenged himself on Catalans who contemptuously label him 'the translator'.

But not content to deny his former employers European glory at the Bernebeu, Mourinho then decided to take on the biggest challenge of his career: to revitalise Barca's arch-rivals Real Madrid and aim to usurp the greatest club side of their generation.

There have, somewhat predictably, been set-backs in Mourinho's latest quest - the 5-0 Clasico drubbing was the heaviest of the Special One's career - but with his side only two points behind Barca at the halfway stage, it would be a brave man who writes off Mourinho's chances of stunning Catalonia once more.

Honorary mentions:

Vicente Del Bosque - Becoming Spain's first World Cup-winning manager certainly puts him in the debate, but the sheer wealth of talent at his disposal, together with a couple of dodgy results since the summer, rule him out
Carlo Ancelotti - Winning a League and Cup double in your first season in England is nothing to be sniffed at, but he was out-witted by Mourinho in the Champions League, and Chelsea's recent collapse means his very future is uncertain
Pep Guardiola - Another title-winning season with Barcelona has established Guardiola as one of Barca's all-time great managers, but this wasn't primarily his year
Louis Van Gaal - Added another feather to his already bird-like cap with a League and Cup double, but lost his Champions League final duel with Mourinho

Performance of the Year - Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid

It was never going to be anything else, was it?

With the match hyped as a meeting between the two best teams in world football, and with the subplots of Jose Mourinho's first Clasico and the ongoing duel between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the title of world's greatest footballer, the scene was well and truly set for an epic contest.

What was eventually broadcast to millions around the world was everything the neutrals hoped for: an absorbing, historic, beautiful advert for the beautiful game. It just wasn't competitive.

Barcelona destroyed their closest rivals with suffocating pressure, lethally incisive passing and movement, and clinical finishing. In doing so, the likes of Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and co. proved that, together, they are not simply the best team on the planet - they are among the greatest teams ever assembled.

Honorary mentions:

Barcelona 4-1 Arsenal - More of a solo show from Messi as he ripped through the Gunners defence with four goals
Germany 4-1 England - Not likely to be a popular choice among England fans, but this dynamic and devastating performance provided the first clue as to the true potential of this youthful German side
Germany 4-0 Argentina - Possibly the best performance of the World Cup. Germany stepped it up to defeat a more talented team than England by a similarly emphatic scoreline, after a clinical counter-attacking display
Spain 1-0 Germany - No game offered greater vindication of Spain's footballing philosophy, as Vicente Del Bosque's side prevented an impressive Germany from counter-attacking by never allowing them the ball

Now that the major awards are out of the way, here are some others who I believe deserve recognition for their exploits in the last year:

Goalkeeper of the Year

Julio Cesar - The Brazilian stopper was a formidable last line in Inter Milan's nigh-on impregnable defence last season, and continued to impress in Dunga's pragmatic Brazil side in South Africa. The best keeper in the world right now.

Defender of the Year

Carles Puyol - The Barcelona captain has been used to inspiring his team-mates at club level with his assured and uncompromising displays, but this was the year that Puyol made a decisive difference for his country. Marshalling a defence which conceded just two goals, the fuzzy-haired centre-back responded to his side's struggles to break down a solid Germany backline in the semi-final with the most emphatic header you are ever likely to see. A truly great defender.

Comeback of the Year

Arjen Robben - The flying Dutchman overcame rejection from the Bernebeu and persistent injury problems to put together the best season of his career. Unlucky to find himself on the losing side in both the Champions League and World Cup finals, but just being there is testament to his achievement.

Goal of the Year

Matty Burrows - There are never any shortage of top-quality contenders for any goal of the year awards, but the Northern Irishman's astonishing flying spinning back-heel thingy into the top-corner which gave his side a last-gasp victory over Portadown stands out as an example of pure instinctive inspiration. He will NEVER do that again.

Fail of the Year

Fahad Khalfan - The name might be unfamiliar to you, but if you've caught Sky Sports News at any point in the last three months, you probably know what I'm talking about. Khalfan's amazing open goal miss for Qatar in an Asian Games clash with Uzbekistan (which his team went on to lose) was, needless to say, not the high point of his country's footballing year. It never had any serious rivals for this award, except maybe the Uzbekistani keeper's incompehensible decision to dummy the ball which kicks off the video. If you haven't seen it yet, the link is here.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Dortmund's youthful revival

In recent times, Germany's Bundesliga has established a reputation as the most open and competitive of Europe's major leagues.

With three different champions in the last four seasons, and an average of just 12 points separating the top four teams over the same period, it is a refreshing counterweight to Chelsea and Manchester United's prolonged domination of the Premier League, or Barcelona and Real Madrid's perpetual superiority in La Liga.

But in this most unique of seasons, the landscape of European football appears to be shifting slightly.

Ok, so Spain's Clasico rivals continue to outclass their domestic opposition with an almost comical level of ease, but the title race in England's top tier promises to be the most unpredictable in recent memory, with the top six sides separated by only eight points. 

And as long as Rafa Benitez struggles to fill Jose Mourinho's considerable shoes at Inter Milan, Serie A can boast a competitive edge as well.

While England and Italy may be following the traditional Bundesliga example, however, the Germans are not practising what they preach at home. In fact, with barely half the season gone, their championship already appears to be a one-horse-race.

But more surprising still is that the team responsible for this deviation from the established Bundesliga dynamic is not any of the usual suspects - Germany's most famous team, Bayern Munich, or recent winners Wolfsburg or Stuttgart. It's Borussia Dortmund.

Jürgen Klopp's young side have become one of the biggest talking points in European football after making a blistering start to the domestic campaign. In doing so, they have managed to shatter not only pre-season expectations, but also all-time Bundesliga records.

16 games into the season, both Dortmund's record of 14 wins and tally of 43 points are unmatched in German top-flight history, and victory over Frankfurt this Saturday will set a new points record at the league's halfway stage.

The Ruhr-based club lead the Bundesliga by an incredible 11 points and, what's more, appear to be doing it in style. They have scored 39 goals whilst conceding just nine, and have secured 12 of their 14 league victories this season by a minimum of a two-goal margin.

This Dortmund side's phenomenal start to the season has given it's loyal fans reason to hope that a club which had begun to run the risk of being lumbered with the dreaded moniker of 'a sleeping giant' may finally be rousing from it's slumber.

In the rich tapestry of German club football history, Borussia Dortmund have unquestionably been one of the bigger players. Six-time winners of the top flight (three in the Bundesliga era), Dortmund also became the first German club to win a European honour with victory in the now-defunct Cup Winners' Cup in 1966.

The club's finest hour came in 1997, with a 3-1 triumph over Juventus in the Champions League final, in a match remembered primarily for super-sub Lars Ricken's first-touch lob over legendary Juventus keeper Angelo Peruzzi which made the game safe. 

The victory placed Dortmund in the elite company of Bayern Munich and Hamburg as the only German sides to have won Europe's premier club competition.

Since the turn of the milennium, Dortmund fans have had little to shout about. A 2002 Bundesliga title aside, the last decade has been predominantly characterised by underachievement on the pitch and poor financial management off it. The club almost went bankrupt in 2005, and briefly flirted with relegation in 2007.

But while this season's success is astonishing, it is not completely unexpected. Since the appointment of Jürgen Klopp in the summer of 2008, Dortmund have been steadily improving.

They defeated Bayern Munich to win the DFB-Supercup in Klopp's first season in charge, as well as finishing a respectable sixth in the Bundesliga. Last year, they finished one place higher to secure Europa League football.

Off the field, the misguided policy of buying established stars and paying them exorbitant wages has been ditched in favour of securing talented youngsters from other clubs, as well as investing in the club's own youth system. The eventual aim is what every club craves - sustainable success.

That this shift in philosophy has paid swift dividends is there for all to see.

Dortmund's commanding position in this season's Bundesliga has been achieved with a squad which has an average age of just under 25, and Jürgen Klopp's regular first team line-up is a combination of highly-rated academy products such as Mario Götze and Nuri Şahin, and recently acquired young talents such as Neven Subotić, Sven Bender and Shinji Kagawa.

Could the good times be on the way back for Dortmund?
With such a young squad, inexperience of pressure may represent the biggest obstacle to Dortmund building on their lightning start to maintain a serious title challenge.

TSG Hoffenheim might be the most appropriate cautionary tale in this respect - the minnows were in the title hunt for the majority of their first season in the Bundesliga in 2008/9, only to fade back into sixth in the final stages.

But Dortmund's young squad have already hinted that they possess resilience beyond their years. Six of the nine goals they have conceded this season have come in the first half of matches, but Jürgen Klopp's side have scored 26 of their 39 goals after the interval. Even when tested, this young team has the belief and the ability to fight for a win.

Off the field, the Dortmund management have done their best to keep expectations to a minimum, with Klopp refusing to even contemplate a title challenge just yet.

"I can read the table - just like I could on Matchday one," he said. "The team is playing exceptionally, but I don't care about the words of others. We will not let it get to our heads if they say how fantastic we are supposed to be or that we have now got to win the league."

General Manager Hans-Joachim Watzke echoed his coach's sentiments, saying: "We're ambitious, obviously, but we won't be drawn. We don't want to weigh the team down with great expectations, the only plan is to keep focusing on the same objective - winning the next game!"

But there remains another problem which, to a large extent, is out of the hands of either Klopp or Watzke: it is that Dortmund may become a victim of their own success in the January transfer window.

With so many talented youngsters and in-form players currently plying their trade at Signal Iduna Park, it is almost inevitable that bigger clubs will come calling. Götze has already been linked with Barcelona and Real Madrid, Şahin with Bayern and Subotić with a move to the Premier League.

But the good news so far is that Dortmund's prized assets appear to want to see what they can achieve together before seeking out pastures new.

Both Götze and Sven Bender have recently signed contract extensions, while Şahin and Subotić have both gone public to rubbish stories predicting their imminent departure.

Klopp himself has also committed his future to the club, signing a new contract which runs until 2014. "I'm incredibly happy about the trust that the club has shown me and my training team and I'm very proud to be a part of the whole thing," he said.

The stability afforded by this move may serve to convince some of Dortmund's highly-rated youngsters that their immediate ambitions can be achieved without the aid of a transfer.

In the end, however, the death blow to Dortmund's Bundesliga dream may come from the unlikely figure of Gonzalo Higuain.

The Argentine striker's lengthy predicted absence courtesy of a back injury means that Real Madrid are in the market for a new frontman.

And with reasonably-priced options few and far between, reports suggest Jose Mourinho has put Dortmund goal-getter Lucas Barrios at the top of his wish-list.

The loss of Barrios would be a significant blow to Dortmund's title chances - after all, any club would miss their joint-top scorer.

Having said that, no one in Jürgen Klopp's side has a league scoring tally in double figures, despite the fact that the team as a whole has averaged well over two goals per game.

This suggests that, even were the Argentine-born Paraguayan to leave, Dortmund carry enough of a goal threat all over the pitch to compensate.

So, provided Dortmund manage to keep this team together beyond January, are they legitimate title contenders? There are certainly those elsewhere in the Bundesliga who are in no doubt as to their credentials.

After seeing his side defeated by Jürgen Klopp's youngsters, Hannover coach Mirko Slomka described Dortmund as "worthy of a top team in every department." 

And Nürnberg keeper Rafael Schaefer would go even further. "Dortmund have an unbelievable team at the moment, which is very united. I would go as far as saying they will be champions."

They may be young, but if Dortmund's kids keep winning, their fans may soon have more than past triumphs to celebrate.     

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Champions League Round-Up, Week 6

Week 6 was never going to be the most exciting round of fixtures in this season's Champions League, given that the fate of most teams had already been decided.

There were no late qualification surprises but, with many teams playing with a new-found freedom, there were some cracking goals, as well as some refereeing controversy. Here's my take on the action.

Group A: Spurs top group, Inter stumble through

IT'S OFFICIAL: Tottenham are the most exciting team to watch in Europe.

Harry Redknapp's side have become the first in the Champions League era to score at least two goals in every group game. It's just as well, because nine of the teams eliminated from the group stage this season conceded less goals than the North Londoners.

All in all, Spurs' six European matches have yielded a ridiculous 29 goals, at an average of just under five per game. Their carefree attacking football has made them compulsive viewing, and they did not disappoint in Holland against FC Twente.

The visitors needed to match Inter Milan's result in order to top the group, and began with an urgency befitting their mission. The early pressure told in the most unexpected of ways when 41-year-old Twente goalkeeper Sander Boschker unleashed a complete air shot when presented with a bobbling back-pass. It was his first ever Champions League game - and almost certain to be his last.

Tottenham had been gifted the lead, but defending is just not in their nature, and more goals were always likely. When Benoit Assou-Ekotto handled in a way reminiscent of Cesc Fabregas in the North London derby a few weeks ago, the Dutch champions had their chance to level. Denny Landzaat was forced to beat Gomes twice, but beat him he did.

Jermaine Defoe's clinical finish after a clever reverse pass from Aaron Lennon briefly restored Spurs' advantage, before Roberto Rosales' flying header pegged them back once more. Defoe gave his side the lead again on the hour mark, but Twente would not be beaten, and a superb free-kick from Nacer Chadli earned them a share of the spoils.

Despite only drawing, Tottenham advance as group winners courtesy of Inter Milan's humiliation in Bremen.  Moreover, with the likes of Bale, Modric, Van der Vaart and Defoe in their ranks, the North Londoners will fancy their chances of out-scoring any of their potential opponents in the next round. Sooner or later though, they will have to learn how to defend.

IN GERMANY, Werder Bremen went a long way towards lifting the gloom around a disappointing Champions League campaign with a superb victory over crisis-hit Inter Milan.

A deflected header from Sebastien Prodl, an excellent volley from Marko Arnautovic and a low drive from Claudio Pizarro sealed a 3-0 win for the home side, whose only regret will be that they couldn't have mustered this sort of performance in either match against FC Twente.

For Inter, the result piles more pressure on beleaguered manager Rafa Benitez. It was always an unenviable task to try and follow Jose Mourinho's treble-winning exploits last season, and Benitez's Inter are - almost inevitably - not the same side.

But having fallen ten points behind Serie A leaders AC Milan and with the promise of a tough knockout draw in Europe to come, Benitez is now right up against it.

It is unclear how much time he will get to turn the situation around, but whoever is in charge come February, Inter should not be written out of the Champions League reckoning just yet. They remain one of the strongest sides in Europe, and I seem to remember no one being overly worried about them this time last year...

Group B: Schalke top dogs, Lyon lacklustre

SCHALKE continue to save their best performances for Europe as they recorded an impressive away victory over Benfica to cement their place as winners of Group B.

The German side are hovering just above the relegation zone after 15 games in the Bundesliga, but you wouldn't know it from the way they have seized control of this group after opening day defeat to Lyon. They have improved their chances of a favourable draw in the next round, and will certainly be no pushovers.

Benfica made all the early running but it was the visitors who opened the scoring with their first attack, thanks in no small part to the vision and unselfishness of Raul. Realising that he couldn't go for goal, the wily Spanish poacher instead chested the ball back down to compatriot Jurado, who smashed home.

The Portuguese giants poured forward in search of an equaliser, but it was shoddy defending which extinguished their hopes of a comeback. A corner was inadequately cleared, and the ball was lofted back in to find Benedikt Howedes completely unmarked eight yards from goal. The defender made no mistake. Luisao's header briefly threatened a comeback, but Schalke deservedly held on. 

After a promising start, Benfica have been a massive disappointment in this group stage. Their disastrous humiliation in Israel in Week 5 ended all hopes of knockout qualification, and they have only just secured a Europa League place. Major improvements are needed if they are to make the most of their second chance in Europe.

ELSEWHERE IN FRANCE, Lyon and Hapoel Tel Aviv played out an entertaining 2-2 draw, which saw the French side through as runners-up and the Israelis narrowly miss out on depriving Benfica of a Europa League place.

The pick of the action was undoubtedly Hapoel frontman Eran Zahavi scoring one of the goals of this season's tournament - a fantastic bicycle kick which gave Lyon keeper Hugo Lloris no chance and briefly had the Israeli champions dreaming of a famous victory. But French rising star Alexandre Lacazette broke the visitors' hearts with a cool finish two minutes from time after a clever flick from Lisandro Lopez.

Lyon may be safely through to the next round, but Claude Puel will no doubt be frustrated that his team have condemned themselves to a tougher knockout draw after winning each of their first three games. The French giants are yet to hit the heights of last season's European campaign, but now have until February to find their best form.

Group C: United improve, Rangers attack (at last)

MANCHESTER UNITED are still struggling to convert chances into goals in Europe - they've scored just seven goals in six games in the group stage - but showed enough in Tuesday's draw with Valencia to suggest they remain genuine Champions League contenders.

Sir Alex Ferguson's desire to claim the point needed to top Group C was evident in the strong United line-up which he fielded, but the hosts still struggled to capitalise on their dominance over a Valencia side devoid of Juan Mata and Roberto Soldado. Despite producing several clear-cut chances in the first half, United could not find a way past the impressive Vicente Guaita in the Valencia goal. 

They were made to pay for their profligacy on the half-hour mark: Michael Carrick, a resurgent figure of late, exposed his back four with a terrible pass, Alejandro Dominguez showed great vision to find Pablo Hernandez, and the winger slammed the ball through the legs of stand-in United keeper Ben Amos.

The Spaniards may have seized the advantage, but United's fluid attacking link-up play was causing them problems. Dimitar Berbatov missed a host of presentable chances, and Wayne Rooney - looking sharper with every passing game - rattled the crossbar with a sensational 25-yard curler.

It seemed almost inevitable that the hosts would draw level, but when the equaliser finally came, it did so from an unlikely source. Guaita forgot the first rule of goalkeeping when he parried a fierce Park Ji-Sung effort straight back into danger, and the lively Anderson slotted home only his second United goal.

The result means that United finish as group winners, and thus will avoid the much-feared duo of Barcelona and Real Madrid in the next round. Valencia may face harder opposition, but their attacking threat ensures they will be a handful for anyone.

IN TURKEY, Rangers adopted a more attacking mentality against Group C whipping boys Bursaspor - I counted as many as three blue shirts in the opposition half at one stage - but were unable to end a respectable Champions League campaign with a win.

Kenny Miller gave the Scots the lead with a fierce left-footed strike twenty minutes in, and Walter Smith's side then predictably camped on the edge of their own penalty area and challenged the hosts to break them down. 

Surprisingly, they did. With ten minutes left, Ozan Ipek's cross from the left-hand side evaded everyone except Sercan Yildirim, whose deft first touch afforded him all the time in the world to slot the ball past Allan McGregor in the Rangers goal.

Yildirim's goal gave Bursaspor their first ever Champions League point at the sixth attempt, but it almost got even better. Yildirim appeared to be possessed by the spirit of Samir Nasri as he brilliantly jinked his way through the visiting defence late on, but then the spirit of Ade Akinbiyi took over as he completely fluffed his finish.

Rangers will be pleased to secure their place in the Europa League despite only scoring three goals in six games, but it's difficult to see them making any sort of an impact in the competition unless they find the net more regularly. Bursaspor, I think, will just be pleased it's all over.

Group D: Barca's kids deliver, Copenhagen blaze trail

IN BARCELONA, it was La Masia - 2, Rubin Kazan - 0, as the Catalan giants' youngsters took full advantage of their opportunity to wreck the Russians' outside hopes of qualification for the knockout stages.

It may have been an unfamiliar line-up which took to the field at the Nou Camp on Tuesday evening, but the Barca faithful were treated to a similarly virtuoso display by their young guns. 

Spurred on by the hugely impressive Thiago Alcantara, the Catalans predictably dominated possession and relentlessly probed for an opening. When it finally came in the second half, there was a slice of fortune involved - Andreu Fontas' toe poke took a heavy deflection as it wrong-footed Rubin keeper Vitali Kaleshin, after good work from Thiago on the right.

Lionel Messi was greeted with a rapturous reception when he was introduced in the second half, but once the night did not belong to the little Argentine, or indeed to any of Barca's established stars. Victory was finally assured when Victor Vasquez latched onto an Adriano (not that one) through pass and curled the ball beyond Kaleshin.

That Barcelona could field so many youngsters and still beat the Russian champions so comfortably is yet another ominous signal to the footballing world that this is the team to beat - or rather, to avoid. 

Rubin, having failed to achieve their target of a place in the knockout stages, will now look for better times in the Europa League.

IN DENMARK, FC Copenhagen comfortably brushed aside a poor Panathinaikos to deservedly become the first Danish side ever to reach the Champions League knockout stages.

The hosts knew that a home win would be good enough no matter how Rubin fared in Spain, and Martin Vimgaard got the party started midway through the first half with a well struck half-volley from just outside the area.

Chelsea's former flying winger Jesper Gronkjaer may not 'fly' quite so much any more, at the grand old age of 33, but the wily operator used all of his experience five minutes after the interval to tempt Nikolos Spyropoulos into a clumsy challenge in the penalty area. He then got up, dusted himself down, and doubled the Danes' advantage.

Panathinaikos have offered almost nothing to this season's Champions League, and their humiliation was complete when captain Djibril Cisse (yes, that one) flicked a Vimgaard corner into his own net. If the former Liverpool man had shown those kind of predatory instincts at the right end over the last six games, the Greeks might have managed more than a pitiful two goals.

Cedric Kante's injury-time header gave the visitors a consolation they didn't deserve, but it was all academic. Copenhagen are into the knockout stages, and will proudly embrace the tag of the big guns' favoured draw.

Group E: Bayern ruthless, Roma progress

WHAT IS IT about German sides struggling in the Bundesliga but raising their game for the Champions League? 

Bayern Munich's domestic form may not be quite as horrendous as Schalke's, but last season's European finalists have made light work of Group E despite rarely finding their best form this term. Louis Van Gaal's men swept aside FC Basel to end the Swiss side's admittedly optimistic hopes of pipping Roma to the runner-up spot.

If Bayern are indeed using Europe to exorcise their domestic demons, then the return to scoring form of Franck Ribery will surely come as an added bonus. 

The winger scored two goals - the first after good work from rising star Diego Contento, the second from Thomas Muller's low cross - to trouble the scoresheet for the first time since August. In between the two, Anatoliy Tymoschuk had tapped home from all of two yards after Mario Gomez had flicked on a Toni Kroos corner.

Bayern can now devote all their attentions towards trying to make up a titanic 17 point deficit to runaway Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund until continental battle resumes in February. When it does, Bayern will have to be seen as legitimate contenders for the tournament which they lost in the final back in May.

FC Basel have given a good account of themselves in Group E, and can take comfort in the fact that their Europa League fate was sealed whatever the result in Munich, by Roma gaining a point from their clash with CFR Cluj.

CLAUDIO RANIERI'S SIDE forced a typically turbulent passage into the knockout stages in Romania, spurning a number of clear-cut chances to extend their lead beyond Marco Borriello's well taken opener before being pegged back by Lacina Traore's powerful header two minutes from time.

Roma, with the likes of Borriello, Menez, Taddei and Totti, have the attacking talent to upset any of Europe's big guns on their day. But they have suffered as a result of their worrying generosity in defence, and this is the problem which Ranieri must fix before February, lest the first knockout round become the limit of their progress.

Group F: Chelsea struggle, Spartak kick off

WITH A CRUCIAL PERIOD of the Premier League season approaching, Chelsea appear to have collectively forgotten how to play football.

The Blues travelled to Marseille having recorded only two wins in seven games, and another lifeless and nervy display was punished on Wednesday night.

Before the match, the big story was Didier Drogba's return to the club where he is still considered a legend. But judging by his listless performance, it seemed that the Ivorian was either distracted by his hero's welcome or unwilling to hurt his former side by affecting the game. He was removed just after the hour mark, probably with one eye on Sunday's crucial London derby with Tottenham.

Carlo Ancelotti's aim in fielding close to his strongest side for an ostensibly meaningless match was clearly to try and allow his best players to play their way into form in time for the big games to come. It didn't work.

Chelsea showed little or no improvement from recent setbacks against Sunderland, Newcastle and Everton. Their ponderous and predictable movement caused the Marseille defence few problems, save for a couple of inexplicably rash challenges by Souleymane Diawara which should have merited penalties.

That 17-year-old Josh McEachran was the Blues' stand-out performer says just as much about the English champions' current struggles as it does about the young midfielder's considerable potential. 

The only other silver lining is that, with top spot already assured, Brandao's deserved late winner for Marseille has done nothing to hurt Chelsea's chances of success in Europe's premier club competition. 

They can now turn their attention to arresting their current domestic slump, and should be a thoroughly different proposition come February.

IN SLOVAKIA, a match which was as pointless as MSK Zilina are in Group F was disrupted by crowd trouble before Spartak Moscow did enough to bow out of the Champions League with a win.

Zilina, to put it mildly, have found it extremely tough going in Europe this season, and once again found themselves under pressure against their Russian visitors. But Spartak failed to make the most of their dominance, and were punished when Tomas Majtan rose unchallenged to head past a stranded Andriy Dykan.

The Russians soon composed themselves, however, and Alex broke the Zilina offside trap far too easily to slot home the equaliser. Then, on the hour mark, the Spartak captain turned provider, his pinpoint low cross giving Ibson an easy finish.

The rest of the match passed largely without incident, save for the moment when Ibson wildly lunged in at Emil Rilke and attempted to deprive him of any future children by plunging his studs into the Zilina substitute's manhood. He was rightly dismissed.

Spartak will rue their collapse at home to Marseille, but have a chance to redeem themselves in the Europa League.

Group G: Benzema runs riot, AC Milan stunned

REAL MADRID unsurprisingly didn't miss any of their suspended players as they destroyed Auxerre in another of Wednesday evening's more pointless matches.

In the absence of the injured Gonzalo Higuain, it was Karim Benzema who stole the show for the hosts with a lethal hat-trick. 

The Frenchman opened the scoring twelve minutes in with a close-range diving header after Cristiano Ronaldo earned himself a yard of space with a trademark step-over and clipped in an inviting cross. 

Ronaldo himself doubled the hosts' advantage just after the interval with a powerful finish after a great driving run and an even better pass by Marcelo. He's a really good player - just not at left-back.

As the visitors began to tire, Benzema's night got even better. He doubled his own tally with just under twenty minutes to go, a clinical left-footed finish beating Olivier Sorin after Lassana Diarra had found him with a well-timed ball over the top.

And two minutes from time, Real's irrepressible frontman sealed his first hat-trick for nearly three years, at the expense of Sorin's pride. Benzema pounced on a wayward pass from the Auxerre stopper but still had a tight angle to negotiate. He did it with style - sending a beautiful lob over the stranded keeper and into the far corner.

The convincing nature of Madrid's win, coupled with the fact that they will have the likes of Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos and Gonzalo Higuain available for selection in the knockout stages, reasserts the fact that, despite their El Clasico humiliation, no one will want to draw Jose Mourinho's star-studded team in the next round.

IN ITALY, Ajax managed their first ever win over AC Milan at the San Siro just 24 hours after losing manager Martin Jol, but it all came too late to steal a place in the knockout stages.

Caretaker coach Franck De Boer had said he wanted Ajax to "rediscover the joy of playing" prior to the match, and Ajax rose spectacularly to this challenge. 

They dominated their more glamorous hosts throughout, and deservedly took the lead just before the hour mark when Demy De Zeeuw pounced upon Siem De Jong's blocked shot to fire low into the corner from the edge of the area.

If the first goal was an impressive strike, even better was to come. Luis Suarez's fine jinking run on the left flank beat three Milan players and his pass found Toby Alderweireld on the edge of the area. The big centre-half unleashed a first-time rocket which bulged the top corner and left keeper Marco Amelia open-mouthed in shock.

Any assessment of Milan's lazy display must be tempered by the fact that their passage to the knockout stages was already assured. But the fact remains that they are an aged team with an expensively-assembled attack which consists of temperamental players (i.e. prima donnas). 

Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea are potential opponents in the next round. Based on the Serie A leaders' performances so far in the Champions League, any of these English sides would fancy their chances.

Group H: Arsenal ease through, Shakhtar make history

ARSENAL'S situation coming into Week 6 was never as dangerous as it seemed on paper. Sure, they needed a win to guarantee qualification, but with their final match against Group H minnows Partizan Belgrade at the Eimrates, it was always more than likely.

So it proved. It wasn't the most fluent Arsenal performance of the season, but Arsene Wenger's side got the job done against very limited opposition.

After an uncertain start, stand-in captain Robin Van Persie went down, shall we say, a little easily in the box after being clipped by Marko Jovanovic. Once the penalty was awarded, the Dutchman buried it with aplomb to ease the nerves of the home crowd.

At the promptings of the sublime Samir Nasri, who appears to have emerged from the shadow of Cesc Fabregas to establish himself as a world-class talent in his own right, Arsenal produced several chances to finish the game at 1-0. 

They did not, and were made to pay in the 52 minute when Cleo's tame effort was deflected over Lukasz Fabianski by Sebastien Squillaci. For a brief moment, with Braga drawing with Shakhtar, the unthinkable appeared possible.

But with just under twenty minutes remaining, such fears were put to rest. Theo Walcott controlled a wayward defensive clearance in the Partizan area and half-volleyed the ball into the far corner. Four minutes later, Nasri himself made the game safe with some sublime footwork and a low left-footed drive.

Arsenal are into the next round, but have been far from convincing in what appeared a relatively straightforward group. Their runner-up finish means they can draw either Real Madrid or last season's tormentors Barcelona. Arsene Wenger has said he doesn't fear the Catalan giants. I fear he should.

IN THE UKRAINE, Shakhtar ensured that their first ever progression to the Champions League knockout stages has come as group winners, with a solid win over a spirited Braga side.

The visitors' stubborn defence frustrated the Ukrainian champions for long periods, but their resistance was finally broken by an excellent strike from rampaging left-back Razvan Rat with twelve minutes to go. Suitably buoyed by going ahead, Shakhtar made the game safe five minutes later when Luiz Adriano tapped home Rat's cross.

Shakhtar have made lightning progress since winning the UEFA Cup two years ago, and fully deserve to top Group H. And with their formidable home record, it is unlikely that any of Europe's elite will view them as an easy option.