As the Champions League group stage draws to a close, here are a few things we can take home from the mid-week round of matches.
1. Bayern Munich odds on favorites to defend their crown
The Bavarians changed manager this season but that’s just about all that has changed from their all-dominating and peerless campaign last time out. New manager Pep Guardiola inherited a side that broke all sorts of records under Heynckes and, as much as Pep modestly persists with the rhetoric that this is still very much his predecessor’s side, it is becoming clearer every time they take to pitch that the Guardiola stamp is all over Bayern.
Bayern went to a notoriously difficult CSKA Moscow, were scarcely troubled and left with three points. Their 10th consecutive win in the competition broke Barcelona’s record in the 2002 season. No team has beaten Bayern in the competition since their surprising slip-up against Arsenal in March and fewer still have even managed to score a goal. Pep’s Bayern are now playing the total, tiki taka-esque football that the manager is well renowned for and teams are finding themselves starved of possession and constantly pressed on the rare occasion they do have the ball. It will take an almost perfect performance for anybody to beat Bayern this season and a whole lot to go wrong for the Bavarians as well.
2. Manchester City’s home form the best in England and a Mata-less Chelsea lacks spark
Manchester City struck four more times against Plzen to add onto the 6 goals scored over the weekend against Tottenham, seven against Norwich and 5 last time out in the competition. Manager Manuel Pellegrini has set his team a target of surpassing Chelsea’s Premier League record of 100 goals and at the current pace of net-busting gong on by the ‘noisy neighbours’,
City are well on course to do that and more.
Chelsea slumped to a Mohammed Salah inspired defeat at Basel on Tuesday and Jose Mourinho blamed the defeat on fatigue. As much as he may have a valid point here, one other factor has to be considered. Chelsea looked pale, insipid and lacking in imagination, especially in the middle of the park, as Lampard looked every day of his 35 years, Ramires toiled while Oscar drifted in and out of the game. One player who would have changed all this is Juan
Mata, but he was again left out. The Spaniard has gradually been eased out of the first eleven by the Portuguese and Chelsea are starting to feel the effects of not having the 25 year-old, two-time Chelsea player of the year on the pitch.
Granted, he does not do as much running as Oscar nor does he track back as much as Hazard or Ramires but he is much more creative and imaginative than all those players. Against an adventurous Basel side, Mata would have been afforded the space he thrives in to orchestrate attacks and link the midfield to the forwards. Oscar put in a shift but there is only one Mata and at the moment, he is the matter.
3. Salah will not be playing at FC Basel for much longer
Mohammed Salah has become synonymous with heartache for Chelsea in this season’s champion’s league. The Egyptian has been building an enticing profile quietly at the Swiss side and his individual display against Chelsea is sure to have raised a few eye- brows and put more than a few scouts on red alert. The 21 year old was superb against the Europa League holders, scoring twice in two games as the Swiss side did the double over Mourinho’s men.
His enormous potential is evident as he was a constant thorn in Chelsea’s side throughout both encounters. His combination of pace, skill and an understated eye for goal are deadly and he already looks like the long-term successor to Mohammed Aboutrika for his nation. With 9 goals and 7 assists in 27 games this season, Mohammed Salah is every inch primed for greater heights.
4. Moyes needs to keep making the same bold decisions in the Premier League that he is making in Europe
A trip to the Bay Arena to face a Bayer Leverkusen side unbeaten at home in 8 matches and who sit second in the Bundesliga would be a daunting prospect for any manager, let alone David Moyes. Add to that a scary landing experience and the jitters were sure to be felt right across the United contingent. With a must win fixture to guarantee progress to the knockout
round, this was sure to be Moyes’ biggest test yet. And didn’t he pass it, with 5 goals, a clean sheet and a new record to boot.
Moyes shook things up a bit after the late capitulation in Wales and introduced Kagawa, Nani and Jones to the fold. It immediately looked like he was going for the jugular, with Rooney operating furthest forward and Kagawa playing right behind him in the absence of van Persie. Jones moved into midfield, sitting next to evergreen Giggs at the base with Nani on the left.
The result? 5 goals in a 5 star performance that ensured United became the first English side to score 5 goals in Germany.
Jones and Giggs dovetailed perfectly in midfield, the former breaking up attacks while providing a shield to the back-four while the latter supplied the passes from deep to Kagawa and was a calming, experienced influence. Nani provided incision on the left while Valencia industry on the right. Kagawa however, once again as he had done against Socieded, linked the midfield to attack seamlessly and provided the smoothest of transitions on the counter
attack. Simply put, he was brilliant in his preferred position and together with Rooney, were central to all of United’s attack play before the latter was taken off.
Rooney seems like he is taking on the extra responsibility for the team’s performances this season as he was involved in four of the 5 goals United scored. The Englishman turned in another monumental performance and registered his first ever 4 assists in one game for the Red Devils. Pure class.
Ryan Giggs, two days short of his 40th birthday, played like he was 18 again. This man keeps defying bio-physics and once again led from the middle as he was involved in two goals. His pass released Rooney for him to square to Valencia for the opener after a lightning quick
counter-attack that he started. He saved the best for last however, when his sublime chip freed Nani for the fifth. The Portuguese also had a good game, making 6 interceptions for United, more than any other United player while creating 3 goal-scoring opportunities. Evans had a solid game at the back despite his defensive partner, Rio Ferdinand looking shaky and unsure at times. Smalling and Evra were also brilliant on the night in what turned out to be
United’s best team display this season.
Moyes now needs to have the guts to be making the bold decisions in the league. Kagawa, Nani and Jones need to play more often in the positions they occupied in Germany. I personally think that rotating RVP and Rooney would be beneficial to both players and the team in general, while affording Kagawa more opportunities to play n his best position. Vidic and Smalling should be preferred ahead of Rio once Rafael returns and it will be interesting to see what team he puts out in the crunch game at Tottenham.
5. Isco will be better than Ozil for Madrid
The 21-year-old was the reason why the German left the Bernabeu amid discontent and to some extent, disbelief amid players and fans alike when Ozil moved to Arsenal. However, after last night’s thrashing of Galatasaray, Ozil is slowly becoming a distant memory at the White House.
Isco has taken to life at Madrid like the proverbial duck to water. The mercurial Spaniard has caught fire immediately, scoring 5 goals and assisting 2 in the league and scoring a further 2 in the Champions League. His performances have already led to Isco being touted as the long term replacement to Xavi and/or Iniesta for La Furia Roja.
His brilliant display at the heart of 10-man Madrid’s midfield capped by his sublime, well taken goal that smirked of calmness much beyond his years, goes some way towards drawing parallels with one Zidane, all at 21.
Ozil was good, great even, but there were moments that he tended to drift out of games during his time at Madrid. He was occasionally accused of not working hard enough for the team and to some extent, of a lack of professionalism by Madrid’s president. A closer look at his current spell at Arsenal and it’s conceivable that there is some truth in those statements. Ozil has been okay in North London so far, but not spectacular.
Granted it is still early days but there is a trend to be seen between his current and former spells. It always seems like Ozil is operating on half-tank but still comes up with the goods from time to time but in Isco, Madrid have a player with so much potential that it is frankly frightening. Ozil scored 6 times and assisted 17 in his first season at Madrid, Isco is already on track to better that statistic and Madrid fans will be hoping for that in the long term as well.
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