Champions League Matchday 3: Talking points

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Matchday three of Europe’s favourite soap opera aired this week as another round of matches were played across Europe.

Although most of the results were straightforward and expected there was some controversy at the Bernabeu after a dubious sending off that followed Ronaldo’s simulation robbed the fixture of any real competitiveness, while a certain Swede made headlines after becoming only the 10th player to score four times in a single Champions League fixture.

Here are some of the things we learnt from the latest round of the Champions League.

1. Arsenal do not yet bear title credentials

Buoyed by the signing of one Mesut Ozil, the Gunners marched to the top of the Premier League in quite sensational style. Their displays since the devastating opening day loss to Aston Villa have been nothing short of scintillating, marrying free flowing tiki-taka esque football with sheer ruthlessness infront of goal.

Too many times Arsenal has been criticised for overplaying and trying to score the ultra-perfect goal, until they did so against Norwich on Saturday.

However, despite all the much-deserved plaudits that have come their way since, well, since beating current holders Bayern Munich earlier in the year, one gets a sense, after a forensic analysis of the opposition that they have faced so far this season that, their league position may be painting a somewhat practically untrue picture.

Arsenal have only faced one ‘top’ side so far, rivals Tottenham, a team most in a state of transition after massive activity in the summer and the obvious time needed for the players to gel.

The Gunners have not really been tested in the league so far and their first test was supposed to be in the form of a resurgent Napoli two weeks ago at the Emirates. For one reason
or another, the Partenopei that everybody expected did not turn up and Arsene
Wenger’s men ended up having more of a training session than a cut-throat competitive match.

Then Borussia Dortmund rolled into town and the Gunners, for the first time this season, found themselves up against a straight-faced adversary. These two had met before two years ago where the Londoners came out on top, albeit narrowly, but this time, they were up against a more experienced, more deadly and more confident Dortmund side. 90 minutes later, Arsenal had been brought crashing back down to earth.

You see, Arsenal have faced few teams prepared to sit deep and dig in because most of the time, they take the lead early - in six of their eight games this season - thereby making the opposition teams abandon their plans of containment, attack, and open up spaces for the Gunners.

When they don’t score first, they drop points, against both West Brom and Dortmund. Against the former, only profligate charitable finishing from a former player, Nicolas Anelka, prevented them from a certain defeat. Against Dortmund, however, lightning did not strike twice.

The Germans’ pressing high up the pitch caused Arsenal a myriad of problems. It resulted in mistakes, one of which resulted in the opener for Mikhtaryan after Ramsey was caught in possession on the edge of his own box and it made their playmakers like Ozil drop deep to find space.

Giroud’s equaliser was fortuitous in that it resulted in a miscommunication in Dortmund’s
backline. However, it proved not enough as Robert Lewandowski finished off a flowing move, eight minutes from time to hand his team all three points.

Arsenal did have opportunities – Rosicky having his effort cleared off the line and Cazorla
striking the woodwork - but on the balance of play, they deserved to be beaten.

Dortmund were the better side with and without possession and had more goal attempts. Arsenal failed their first real test and with a difficult run of matches in the coming weeks against Dortmund, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, Arsenal’s title credentials will be examined even more rigorously.

2. Manuel Pellegrini is the Rafael Benitez of Manchester City

Prior to his appointment, Manchester City had flattered to deceive in Europe. They had failed to get out of the group stage twice under Roberto Mancini and suffered some embarrassing defeats along the way, to Dortmund, Ajax and Madrid.

Something was missing in Europe, clearly the players were there - they had won the FA Cup and the Premier League – then it had to be the manager. And so it has proved. The Italian, although adept in domestic football, has never really been good enough in continental competition.

His replacement, however, has quite the CV in European competition. He took little known Villareal to the semi-final stage in the Champions League in 2005. He almost repeated the trick with another debutant, Malaga last season after coming agonisingly close to bundling out eventual finalists Dortmund in the quarter-finals.

He became the only manager to take two debutant teams to the quarter-finals. At City, he already looks set to end the European heart-break.

City’s away win at a difficult CSKA Moscow was a major sign of the improvement they have had. City went behind to a Zoran Tosic strike and under Mancini, they would have caved and cowed. This is Pellegrini’s City though and they took the game to their visibly surprised hosts.

Sergio Aguero’s brace proved enough for the precious three points and City are surely on their
way towards the knock-out phase for the first time.

3. Moyes getting it right in Europe

Everybody expected David Moyes to have a tougher time in Europe than in the domestic league and it was easy to see why. This is a manager who had no prior experience in continental competition besides the playoffs and this was set to be a case of a manager being thrown into the deep end with only two options, sink or swim. As things stand currently, David Moyes is swimming just fine.

United sit top of their group with seven points from three games and no defeats. Moyes’ side still face tricky ties away at Leverkusen who thrashed Shakhtar four goals to nil and at Sociedad and finally at home to Donetsk. United have reserved their best football for Europe this season and the Champions League has become some sort of a solace for the Red Devils after their stuttering start to the Premier League defence.

It is almost like the Scot has been willing to experiment more in Europe than in the league, having fielded more adventurous sides in both home games, playing both Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernandez who have found minutes hard to come by and it is this chopping and changing that has resulted in United having fresher players in the Champions League than in the domestic league.

They have played at a faster tempo, defended slightly better and have had more attempts on goal in both their European home matches than in their last three in the league. Playing Shinji Kagawa has coincided with thie attacking improvement and against Sociedad last night the Japanese playmaker showed once more why he needs to play more often.

His link up play with Wayne Rooney was fantastic at times, his close control, ability to wriggle out of tight spots and accurate, forward passes were absolutely delightful to watch and he arguably should have had a goal and an assist after Phil Jones saw his point blank header saved after a pinpoint delivery form Kagawa. The Japanese really should have scored after Valencia found him in the box but he somehow elected to take a fatal touch rather than strike the ball first time.

He may still be finding his feet in at home but David Moyes is, at the moment, strutting confidently in Europe.

4. Real Madrid lack a tactical plan in Europe

Real Madrid still lack a coherent tactical plan in Europe and shocking refereeing already casting dark cloud over the competition.

The Old Lady rolled into the White House to rekindle old rivalry as Juventus were welcomed into the Santiago Bernabeu for a fixture that was supposed to be the highlight of the round. What transpired however, was a gutless no-show after a disgraceful red card ruined the fixture.

Both teams needed to win, although after having two straight draws, Juventus needed the win more than their hosts. It did not look like that when the referee blew the whistle though, as Real Madrid were ahead within a matter of minutes.

Angel Di Maria was the architect, cutting in from the right, he feigned to shoot before he slid a
perfect through ball to Ronaldo who rounded Buffon and calmly slotted home for his seventh goal already in the competition.

It looked like Juventus would be in for a long night but they got themselves back in the game when under-performing striker Llorente reacted fastest to Pogba’s rebound to bundle home the equaliser. Game on I thought…until the referee’s intervention.

Giorgio Chiellini was rightfully booked after pulling down Sergio Ramos in the box and conceding a penalty that man-of-all-occasions,  Ronaldo,  dispatched with aplomb. His second booking, however, was as outrageous as it was disgraceful.

In a tussle with the Portuguese late in the half, Chiellini stretched out his forearm to gain leverage making contact with Ronaldo’s chest and chin. What followed however was something straight out of the despicable play-acting collection.

Ronaldo tumbled too the turf, clutching a face and nose that had not been touched. The correct decision would have been a free-kick to Madrid at most but, with the centre referee unsighted, it was up to the assistant who signalled for a needless booking.

Chiellini was sent off and the match was ended as a contest. This incident coupled with another more shocking decision by the match officials in the Benfica vs Olympiacos match, allowing the game to be played in horribly ridiculous conditions, casts another light on the dropping standards of officiating in Europe. Mr. Platini…the ball is in your court.

One would expect Madrid to come out and make the most of their numerical advantage in front of their passionate and demanding fans but they just could not. A man up for the entire second half, Real failed to capitalise. They looked short of ideas, lethargic and clueless against a spirited ten-man Old Lady.

Juve took the game to their hosts and will feel hard done by after 90 minutes. The introduction of Bale and Isco did not do much to liven up their attack and if it were not for the hesitation and profligacy of the Italians, the final score would have been very different. A slightly better side would have surely punished Madrid for their lack of initiative and absence of a coherent
plan of attack.

The Whites were all over the place going forward and in defence. There was no clear strategy and game plan and it is safe to say that on this evidence, La Decima may be further away than those at the iconic cauldron think.

5. Bayern Munich still rule the European roost

European defending champions, Bundesliga defending champions, treble winners and record breakers Bayern Munich look even more daunting than the all-conquering juggernaut of last season. That does not make good reading for everyone else.

The German giants coasted over Viktoria Plzen at the Allianz Arena, hitting them for five in a classy and dominant performance. It is not so much the weight of the defeat but the manner in which it was handed. Bayern, while never really have to get out of second gear, tore apart their opponents with guile and a sense of ruthlessness that has of late been associated with
the Germans.

Ribery and Robben took turns tormenting the Plzen backline, Schweinsteiger and Lahm totally took control of the midfield and Alaba and Rafinha spent more time overlapping than running back to close down. Granted the opposition was not what one would regard as a continental big-hitter but that alone should not be applied to water down Bayern’s performance. With 70%
possession and 35 shots on target, the Bavarians have sent out a warning shot.

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