Results so far
The first half of match day 2 of the Champions League has come and gone, with few surprise results. Madrid and Raul threatened to make me eat my words with a 5-1 pasting of Dynamo Kiev in which the latter scored a brace, but given how Dynamo went down to Steaua (who themselves got thrashed 3-0 by Lyon) I’m not quite convinced yet. Interesting to note that despite press reports alleging van Nistelrooy’s incompetence in the game against Betis (wildly exaggerated, of course) and playing up Ronaldo’s inclusion, the Brazilian only made a cameo appearance. Probably a wise move by Capello, as to me van Nistelrooy and Reyes are their most important offensive players right now. The coach sounded a note of caution after the match in an attempt to cut down on the hype that will no doubt be generated by the press, which I see as a great move, so all credit to him. The Dynamo coach on the other hand said that Madrid would probably be in the final. I’ll reserve judgment on that front , but Capello is very good in Europe, so who knows?
Manchester United were unconvincing against Benfica but came away with a crucial away win, which is really all that counts at this point. Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to rest Louis Saha for the EPL game at the weekend - lambasted by the press and some fans - seems somewhat vindicated now since he scored the only goal. Wayne Rooney continues to struggle with form as the criticisms pile on. I have to say, I’m not his greatest fan – in fact, most of the time I think he’s a bit overrated, but right now I feel bad for him. It seems that with young prodigies like him, Messi, C Ronaldo and Aguero, they’re so hyped up that any slump in form is immediately jumped on by the circling hordes. People forget that the oldest of the four mentioned above is only 21, and the youngest barely 18. An ordinary person of that age would probably be out skipping classes, getting drunk and avoiding responsibility, while these guys have a hell of a lot on their shoulders. I’m not saying that they should have a lower standard imposed on them – after all, if they’re good enough to start for a big team then they should perform. But what I am saying is that anybody can have a couple of bad matches, even prodigies. Just lay off until you’re sure that they’re really having a slump (see: Adriano - hasn’t scored for Inter for almost half a year, now that’s a real slump).
Back to the topic at hand, and Milan failed to get past Lille’s tight defence in France, ending up with a 0-0 draw to take home. No real surprises so far, unless you count out-of-form and injury-stricken Hamburg’s loss to CSKA Moscow, but in reality the Russian side who won the UEFA Cup two seasons ago were always going to be challengers for at least that UEFA Cup spot. With the speed of change going on in Clubs like CSKA who have lots of money poured into them quickly a poor record in the past doesn’t count for all that much.
Second half preview
Spartak Moscow v Sporting Lisbon
A potentially tricky away tie for Sporting after the heady heights of that upset victory over Inter. It’s never easy to play in Russia, but the visiting team can be thankful that it’s not quite winter yet, so at least they won’t freeze to death. Spartak got thrashed 4-0 by Bayern in their first game, collapsing in the second half after holding their German hosts to a 0-0 draw for the first. I’ll be looking out for this result mainly because of Spartak’s two Argentines, Clemente Rodriguez at left-back and eternally unsettled Fernando Cavenaghi at center forward. Rodriguez is a regular starter and provides a threat going forward, but Cavenaghi – once so good in Argentina’s River Plate has yet to adapt to his surroundings 2 seasons in and may not play. I think both clubs would be content with a draw here, but a win would mean a lot to Sporting who now have hopes of qualifying for the second round while Spartak would just be happy to finally win a game in the Champions League.
Bremen v Barcelona
Mark van Bommel seems to have enjoyed his one-season stay at Barca immensely, despite not getting enough regular playing time, an unfortunate consequence of a large squad which saw him and the club part amiably at the beginning of this season. He’s now a mainstay for Bayern Munich, attempting to pick up where Michael Ballack left off. Why is this discussion part of the Barca preview instead of the Bayern one? Well, he’s given a fairly gushy interview to a German magazine basically telling Bremen what they already know – that playing an open attacking game against Barca is very risky.
He’s got a bit of a reputation as a trouble-maker, but I’ve never seen any signs of that in his time at Barca. In fact, he seemed pretty popular within the squad, never complained about lack of playing time and made the best of his opportunities. As a result Barca fans were all wishing him well when he chose to leave, and he’s been very good about his departure. I was worried that he’d have some unhappy views to air, since that seems to be the trend for players moving clubs right now, but he’s been a perfect gentleman about it, so all credit to him. I don’t think many could complain about a one-year stay that yielded a Spanish title and a Champions League winner’s medal, but you never know these days.
Turning to actual team news, Miroslav Klose could play despite not being 100% match fit after Bremen failed to win all the Bundesliga matches that he missed through injury. The attacking axis of him and Torsten Frings is undoubtedly Bremen’s main threat, so they’ll be hoping those two have a blistering game. Playmaker Diego looks set to play after recovering from injury. They’ve had a bad run of form recently and a win would really help the team get back on track.
Barcelona have continued their policy of rotation, leaving Marquez, Gio, Saviola and the still injured Ezquerro out of the squad. This means the starting line-up will look something like this (4-3-3): Valdes; Zambrotta/Belletti, Puyol, Thuram, Sylvinho; Edmilson/Motta, Xavi, Iniesta/Deco; Giuly, Eto’o, Ronaldinho.
The reason there are so many uncertainties in the above is because I’m not sure how concerned Rijkaard is about fatigue after that hard-fought game against Valencia. Zambrotta would play most games because of his defensive abilities, but against a team like Bremen who play in a similar style to Barca the defensively dubious attacker Belletti might be in his element. I’m also not at all sure which of the midfield trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Deco will play. Personally, I’d want to rest Deco because he looks like he needs it after playing every match so far. Rijkaard might not want to take that risk, though. In any case, I would like to see Iniesta play some part, taking the place of either of the other two, starting or coming in from the bench. Edmilson is popularly thought of as better than Motta in the holding midfield position, but after his unconvincing performance against Valencia I’m not sure he’d be better than Motta against a fast team like Bremen. Giuly should start as a matter of rotation, with Messi or Gudjohnsen perhaps coming in from the bench later on.
This has the potential to be a very good game between two sides that both use positive, attacking tactics – just the kind of spectacle that, personally speaking, I’d like to see more of in club football. I’m hoping it lives up to expectations, since last year’s group stage opener (also away at Bremen) resulted in a scrappy 2-0 win that really flattered Barca. A better game this time would be great. Of course, beyond that winning the game is the most important thing for us in this very difficult group. Bremen are probably my second favourite side in the group and I genuinely hope they qualify, but not at Barca’s expense. So with no disrespect to the German side, this is a game the defending champions should be looking to win. There’s no excuse for not coming up with a result as Bremen will not employ stifling defensive tactics like Valencia. In fact, their defence is really pretty poor. If the offence finally gets itself together, Barca should be fine. If not, we could be in a bit of trouble.
Levski v Chelsea
The big question hovering over this tie seems to be the fitness of John Terry. Late news seems to be that he will be fit to play, although knowing Mourinho I’m not sure how far that can be trusted. Either way, Chelsea will be looking to pick up a comfortable win here, even though playing away in Bulgaria is sure to be difficult. Since Michael Ballack is available, they’ll probably revert to the diamond formation that so stifled Frank Lampard before Ballack’s suspension in the EPL. Whether it’s a good or bad thing, you decide. Andriy Shevchenko to score, I say. He’s such a class act that it’s bound to happen sometime.
As for Levski, having handled the roughest start a Champions League rookie could have (away to the defending champs) with admirable spirit, things aren’t going to get easier. A thrashing by Barca in Camp Nou shouldn’t have dampened spirits too much since it was so predictable, and they should run out with the same positive attacking mentality that they showed in the last game. This is just as suicidal against Chelsea as it is against Barca, but good on them for doing what I think is the right thing. Here’s hoping they avoid another thrashing, although I can’t see past a Chelsea win.
Inter v Bayern
One of the big ties of this round, along with Valencia-Roma and to a lesser extent Barca-Bremen. On paper this is an exciting clash between the champions of the German league and the (non-cheating) champions of Italy, but in reality I’m not sure either of these teams have really lived up to their billing so far this season.
Let’s start with Inter. The ‘crazy Inter’ cliché is overused and exaggerated, but it is true that their ability to fail against all odds is kind of amazing. While not being a fan of any team in particular in Serie A, I usually have one eye on Inter because of the sheer number of Argentinean players in the team. It was great to see Cambiasso start the season with a brace in a game against Fiorentina but worrying when the defence then conceded 2 goals when leading 3-0. The same thing happened against Chievo, Inter storming to a 4-0 lead which included a brace by on-fire Hernan Crespo and a header by fellow Argentine Walter Samuel. Then they managed to concede 3 in the last 20 minutes. A win against Roma helped them bounce back from a disappointing defeat in their opening CL game against Sporting Lisbon, and they’ll be looking to pick up points here to steady the boat, qualification-wise.
In team news, Recoba, Argentines part-time striker Julio Cruz and team mainstay Cambiasso are all injured, while Patrick Viera is suspended for that red card picked up against Sporting Lisbon. This should pose no problems given the depth of the Inter squad, with versatile Argentineans (see what I mean about the number of Argentine players?) captain Javier Zanetti and Santiago Solari able to slot in to any number of positions on the field. Crespo is of course one of the most on-form strikers in Europe right now, and I’ll stick my neck out here – Hernan to score at least one.
Similarly, Bayern have not been having a happy fun time at all, although they’ve climbed back up to the top of the league table. They looked particularly poor in pre-season with new signing Lukas Podolski nowhere near match fitness, especially in that 4-0 thrashing by Barcelona at Camp Nou, which was particularly embarrassing given that Barca used a completely different XI for the first and second halves, managing to beat them with both (3-0 first half, 1-0 second). After purchasing the aftementioned Mark van Bommel from Barca they’re looking better in midfield, but I’m not quite convinced that they have the quality to go far in Europe. They’re known domestically as a utilitarian side that grinds out results, but in the Champions League lately there hasn’t even been that, with last season’s embarrassing thrashing by AC Milan no doubt still on the mind of their fans. In Bayern’s last game they took their sweet time breaking down Spartak Moscow in the last game before scoring 4 goals late in the second half at home. On a positive note, though, they have no injury worries for this clash.
Another difficult visit to the always fearsome San Siro beckons for the German champions, and it’s difficult to call this one with both teams displaying somewhat inconsistent form so far. Inter will be looking to win, no doubt about that, but quite honestly I think Bayern would not complain about a draw.
Liverpool v Galatasaray
No one in this group seems to know how to score so far, but with Liverpool’s luck improving in front of goal maybe that’ll change. Galatasaray are difficult to play at home but notoriously poor travelers, so Liverpool should be looking to pick up points at Anfield. Anything less than a victory would be unacceptable.
Bordeaux v PSV
Bordeaux will be difficult to break down at home, but PSV should still expect to pick up points here given their league form and the fact that after drawing at home to Liverpool they kind of need them. I’m not all that certain that the Dutch side will achieve that here though. It’s a good chance for Bordeaux to show that they have quality going forward as well as in defence. 0-0 draw, anyone?
Shakhtar v Olympiakos
The Greek side managed to put 2 goals past a normally water-tight Valencia defence at home but managed to concede 4 for the first win by a Spanish side in Greece. Still-dangerous Rivaldo’s injury is a major drawback for them, especially given their poor away form in the CL. Shakhtar will be looking to get 3 crucial points with the advantage of playing at home, since they also travel badly, having been beaten in the first game 4-0 by Roma despite putting up a decent fight for the first half.
Valencia v Roma
Roma are yet another team who don’t travel all that well, although their recent impressive form in Serie A and a good win over Shakhtar means that they’ll be confident going into this game of getting a result in the noisiest stadium in Spain, never a easy place to for away teams to play in.
Valencia on the other hand are riding high after their impressive away draw against Barcelona and are in great form on all fronts. Their only worries might be the increasingly long injury list and fatigue from a hard-fought game in the Camp Nou, as their large squad is stretched to the limit. Marchena, Albiol, Baraja and del Horno are all injured, which is concerning but not a big problem since they’re all replaceable. What might be worrying Valencia fans more is the sight of their usually indefatigable captain David Albelda getting cramp near the end of the Barca game, and the suspicion that he rushed his comeback from injury to play.
If exhaustion doesn’t set in then I think Valencia should win this game. They’re playing well as a team with a tight defence and some great players going forward. Fernando Morientes nabbed a perfect hat-trick in the last game, scoring with left foot, right foot and his head, but I think it’s David Villa’s turn this time. Valencia to win with at least a goal from the best Spanish striker around.
(By the way, something that I forgot to mention about Valencia last time – they’re really lacking a dead-ball specialist now that Aimar is gone. Villa isn’t bad, but he’s not very consistent on free-kicks, and Joaquin is only accurate from one side.)