The UEFA Champions League resumed this week, serving up goals, drama and comfortable wins.
It also set the stage for a number of debutant coaches to take a bow with their new teams- David Moyes with United, Manuel Pellegrini with City, Carlo Ancelotti with Madrid, Tata Martino with Barcelona, Laurent Blanc for PSG and Pep Guardiola for defending champions Bayern Munich.
As much as it is too soon to read too much into it, here are some of the things we learned from week one;
1. Wayne Rooney remains United’s main man
Wayne Rooney had a somewhat topsy-turvy summer what with the never-ending speculation surrounding his future amid real interest from Chelsea and Arsenal and questions surrounding his loyalty and status at Old Trafford after the arrival of Dutchman Robin van Persie.
However, Rooney has reminded fans, observers, pundits and everyone else that he still rules the roost in the red half of Manchester. From the moment he stepped on the pitch in his first match this season for the club in, Wales against Swansea, Rooney played like a man on a mission.
It was almost like he had a newfound point to prove as he quickly set up two goals via Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck. It was an emphatic cameo from the Englishman at a time when Chelsea had reportedly had a bid for him rejected by United and if nothing else showed his immense professionalism.
But it was against his potential suitors that the number 10 really shone. With the spotlight already on him after Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho admitted that a bid had been rejected but plans were underway for a second one after the match, the stage could not have been better set for Rooney to show his worth to his current and potentially new employers. He did exactly that.
The 90 minutes that followed were full of verve, energy, drive, passion and sharpness as Rooney looked the most purposeful man on the pitch. Simply put, Rooney played like a man possessed with a burning desire within him and although he did not score- which was down to Chelsea’s tactics rather than and failings on his part- he sure came closest to breaking the deadlock.
He eventually stayed at United after the club resisted their London rivals efforts to prise him away, and missed the Liverpool game after sustaining a nasty gash on his head in training but came back to put in another fantastic man-of-the-match performance against Crystal Palace.
It was against Bayer Leverkusen that Rooney’s road to redemption was achieved though, after he completely tore apart the German outfit. He could have had a hat-trick but his brace was enough to set a personal milestone of scoring 200 goals for the club and he also set up Valencia after a trademark United counter-attack.
On a night where his strike partner and pretender to the throne Robin van Persie had a rather disappointing outing despite scoring an audacious goal, it was Rooney who restored his status as the Red Devil’s main man.
2. Iker Casillas’ woes at Madrid could spell World Cup trouble
Iker Casillas played his first competitive match in 238 days when he started against Galatasary, but lasted only 12 minutes after colliding with Sergio Ramos and sustaining a rib injury. The injury itself may not be as bad as initially feared but its implications may very well be.
Diego Lopez replaced the club captain and unsurprisingly maintained his fantastic form since he switched to Madrid. He has been outstanding since previous coach Mourinho bought him last January, compelling the Portuguese politico to claim he should have bought him earlier.
This latest setback may prove to be mat that is pulled under his feet as it may leave Casillas’s chances of reclaiming his starting spot in Real, let alone for Spain in view of the looming World Cup up in the air. His national team coach however does seem to back the iconic goalkeeper after picking him to face Finland despite many tipping Barcelona’s Victor Valdes to start.
Casillas will have recovered by the time Madrid meet FC Copenhagen in match day two but at the turn of the year, Carlo Ancelotti will have to make a decision on just who his first-choice keeper will be. For now, Iker’s injury will give the Italian the luxury on not having to make a choice.
3. Messi and Ronaldo rule Europe
Yes neither of the two won the Champions League last season and only one won a title- Messi and Barcelona won La Liga- but despite the re-emergence of Franck Ribery as a genuine challenger to the duopoly after the brilliant season he had with Bayern culminating in him being crowned Europe’s best player, Messi and Ronaldo started their Champions League campaigns in a way only they can.
Both players hit fantastic hat-tricks, Ronaldo first on Tuesday against Galatasaray in Turkey then his Argentine rival followed suit at home against Ajax. Messi’s tally in Europe now stands at an astonishing 62 goals in 80 games, just nine shy of the all-time record held by Raul which took 144 games to amass.
Ronaldo after his exploits on Tuesday now has 54 in 97, remarkable as well. Six goals from two individuals without anyone raising a glass because these two have made the extraordinary seem normal.
Ribery is a fantastic player, but these two are just in their own footballing galaxy. The Frenchman is in for the Ballon d’Or this year but even if he wins it, which would be deservedly, Ro-Messi are the undoubted and undisputed Kings of Europe.
4. Mohammed Salah and FC Basel could be the surprise package this season
FC Basel are not new on English shores, having knocked United out of the Champions League group stage two seasons ago, but their shock comeback win against the Special one’s Chelsea at the bridge has to be the result of the round.
One player in particular stood out amongst the great performers for Basel on the night; Egyptian starlet Mohammed Salah. The 21-year-old was the driving force behind Basel’s title success and run to the Europa League semi-final last season and at the Bridge he gave Ashley Cole a torrid time.
FC Basel were brilliant against Chelsea. They were organised, fluid and fearless, taking the game to the Blues and silencing the usually vociferous Stamford Bridge faithful. Marco Streller was outstanding as well upfront but it was Salah who, as is the case whenever they play, caught they eye.
His display will definitely have captured the attention of some bigger clubs and it will be interesting to see how Basel and Salah in particular fare in this season’s edition.
5. Rafel Benitez is the man for Europe
Rafael Benitez is an individual who divides opinion among football fans and observers alike.
For some he is heralded as a brilliant tactical mind, a manager with fantastic nous and understanding of the game. To others he is a figure of fun, a laughing stock from his time at Liverpool, falling in Sir Alex’s mind-games trap to his six month spell at Chelsea punctuated by unacceptance and fan derision and a failed attempt to follow Jose Mourinho’s footsteps at Inter.
However, on thing is undisputed about the Spaniard; he is the man for the European occasion.
Napoli lost their best player in Edinson Cavani to PSG and many wondered how exactly they would cope without the magnificent forward but in the face of uncertainty is when Benitez revels.
Rafa moved fast raiding Madrid to secure Gonzalo Higuain right under Arsenal’s noses together with his former teammates Jose Callejon and Raul Albiol. However what stands out the most is the confidence and new-found self-belief with which Napoli are playing under their
Benitez discarded former coach Walter Mazzari’s 3-5-2 formation and has introduced a more fluid 4-2-3-1 transitioning into a 4-3-3.
Marek Hamsik has reveled in his new role as the chief creator and captain and he has become the Azzurri’s talisman after El Matador’s departure to PSG.
Napoli have become more imposing and less counter-attacking as a result and it showed against last season’s beaten finalists Dortmund. Lorenzo Insigne, Marek Hamsik and Gonzalo Higuain combined to great effect in Naples and were it not for wayward finishing; Real Madrid’s cricket score against Galatasaray would have looked a closely contested result.
The reason for the season is Benitez, who, with UEFA Cup, Champions League and Europa League medals under his belt, has proven to have immense continental pedigree and it would not be ludicrous to suggest that with him in the dugout, Napoli may just go all the way this year.
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