05 October, 2007

Champions League – Group Stage 2

Tuesday’s action saw success for all three British teams involved, with Manchester United and Arsenal both grinding out 1-0 victories in highly competitive matches, while Rangers produced the second biggest upset of the tournament so far, destroying a hapless Lyon 3-0 in France to put themselves in a decent position in what is certainly this year’s “group of death.”

After last season’s 7-1 humiliation at Old Trafford, Roma were always going to be fired up for this year’s return fixture, and came out of the blocks fast, dominating early possession and creating several decent chances. United were resolute however, and young Nani impressed throughout, with the kind of exciting wing play we are used to seeing from his countryman on the opposing wing, Ronaldo. Finally, with a little over twenty minutes to go, one of Nani’s delightful throughballs found Wayne Rooney, and the finish was never in doubt. In the group’s other game, Sporting Lisbon secured a valuable victory away from home over Dynamo Kiev, with Kiev keeper Alexander Shovkovsky gifting the Portuguese side both goals in a night he will soon want to forget.

Arsenal too faced strong opposition, as they traveled to Romania to face national champions Steaua Bucharest in a tight game which either side could’ve won. In the end it came down to the quality of finishing, something which on the night Steaua lacked, and which Robin van Persie has in abundance. With 15 minutes to go, and a goalless thriller on the cards, the Dutch hitman latched onto a cross from Emmanuel Adebayor to rocket the ball into the roof of the net and take the points for Arsenal. Elsewhere in the group, Seville recovered after their opening game drumming at Arsenal to romp away 4-2 winners in an exciting open game against Slavia Prague, where ex-Spurs man Fredi Kanoute was the star.

The performance of the night however undoubtedly belonged to the Scotsmen, as Rangers secured their first away win in the Champions League since 2000 against the stumbling French champions. Brazilian wizard Juninho rattled the woodwork twice, but otherwise there was nothing positive to take out of the game as Lyon now sit bottom of the group on 0 points, having conceded six unanswered goals in two games. Meanwhile, group heavyweights Barcelona faced a potentially difficult trip to Stuttgart, unbeaten at home in over 20 matches, but the Spanish giants battled their way to victory with Puyol inspirational coming off the bench. Once again, Lionel Messi was sublime, bagging the team’s second goal after some beautiful interplay with a now in form Theirry Henry, fresh from a weekend hat-trick in La Liga. Next up for Barce, back to back games with joint group-leaders Rangers.

Finally, the night’s other matches took place in Group G, with Inter Milan cruising to a 2-0 victory at home to PSV, despite having goalscorer Chivu sent off with half an hour still to play. The group’s other game saw some of STT’s Obscure South American stars hit form as CSKA (Sneeze) Moscow faced off against Fenerbahce in icy Russia. Alex put the Turkish side ahead early on, following a defensive blunder, before two early second half goals from CSKA (including a Vagner Love penalty) looked to have put the tie beyond them. However, with just five minutes left on the clock, Brazilian striker Deivid picked the ball up 40 yards out, and with the Russian defence dropping off, was allowed to carry it to within shooting range where he unleashed a powerful, swerving strike that rocketed under CSKA keeper Veniamin Mandrykin to ensure that points were shared.

Moving onto Wednesday then, and the biggest upset in the tournament. In truly horrendous weather conditions, Celtic played current holders AC Milan off the park and were victorious 2-1 in a dramatic conclusion that saw Brazilian keeper Dida fully embaress himself for several reasons. After parrying a shot straight to feet of McDonald for Celtic’s last minute winner, Dida was allegedly assaulted by a celebrating jubilant Scotsman. You can see the video for yourself below on STT, but suffice to say, this is up there with Rivaldo’s disgraceful theatrics at the 1998 World Cup. The group’s other tie saw Benfica upset 1-0 at home by Ukranian side Shaktar Donetsk, securing their first ever away win in the Champions League.

Many saw Chelsea’s visit to Valencia as a real make or break game for the London club’s season, even this early on, and when the immense David Villa slotted the Spanish side ahead within 10 minutes, there was danger of the floodgates opening. However, as a sign of their championship-winning pedigree, Chelsea stepped up to the challenge, spurred on by masked captain John Terry giving one of his greatest displays. A relatively scrappy equalizer from Joe Cole against the run of play gave them hope, as Valencia wasted chance after chance to put the game beyond Chelsea. However, with twenty minutes to go, Cole unleashed one of the passes of the season with the outside of his right foot from inside the Chelsea half, putting Drogba through with a defender and goalkeeper to beat. His finish was worthy of the pass, expertly beating Timo Hildebrand to give the former English champions their first European win this season. Elsewhere in this group, Schalke got their first points on the board against Rosenborg, winning 2-0 in a somewhat frantic match in Norway.

Liverpool meanwhile continued their frustrating season, flopping miserably 1-0 to Marseille at home. In midfield, Liverpool were out-battled and out-passed, never really having the extended periods of possession required to pressure the opposition, and when Sissoko gave the ball away cheaply to Valbuena with 13 minutes to go, the excellent Frenchman found the top corner with a beautiful strike that even I would’ve been happy with.

Group A’s other match saw Porto travel to Besiktas, keen to capitalize on their first round point. In another tight match, Porto wasted several decent openings before the ever-present Ricardo Quaresma popped up in the 90th minute to give the Portuguese side the victory.

This round’s Group C games saw the two heavy-hitters of Lazio and Real Madrid face off in Italy, with 2-2 a fair result in the end, as both sides played decent attacking football. Goran Pandev netted twice for Lazio as they looked to have the sealed the win, before Ruud van Nistelrooy (who else) equalized late on for the Spaniards with a deft finish, lifting the ball over Lazio keeper Ballotta. In the group’s other game, Werder Bremen hosted Olympiakos, who were without an away win in the competition from 32 attempts, and when the German side took an early lead, it looked to be 33 failed attempts for the Greek side. However, in an incredible second half display, Olympiakos netted three times in the closing 20 minutes to break their long-running jinx and cue all night parties throughout Athens.

Goal of the Round – Valbuena’s wonderstrike for Marseilles to sink a despondant and flat Liverpool side at Anfield.

Player of the Round – John Terry. Despite looking like an extra from a low-budget horror movie, JT was absolutely world class alongside the recalled Mourinho-alumni Ricardo Carvalho. His passion and intensity was unparalleled, despite having his fractured face repaired just 4 days ago, and this spirit inspired the whole Chelsea performance.

Surpirse Package of the Round Scotland, generally. Who would have thought that Rangers could destroy reigning French champions Lyon 3-0, or that Celtic could topple current European Champions AC Milan??!! This is why we love the game so much.