25 October, 2007

Champions League – Group Stage 3

Another Tuesday and another cracking night for the three British clubs involved, with Rangers holding 2006 winners, and all round p.i.m.p.s, Barcelona 0-0 at home, while Arsenal and Manchester United scored for fun against Slavia Prague and Dynamo Kiev respectively.

Starting first out in the icy Ukraine, Man United got off to a flyer against the national champions and were 2-0 up within ten minutes. Things got interesting however when Kiev bagged a goal back not long after, due to some suspect marking from John O’Shea and some theatrics on the post from Ronaldo, but United were keen to push on. As the game developed Ronaldo became more and more involved, scoring United’s third with a sweet header before the break, and then notching up his team’s fourth from the penalty spot not long after halftime. Despite having a certain penalty denied themselves, Kiev were still eager to attack throughout the second half, and the useful Ismael Bangoura scored from distance with twenty minutes to play as they continued to press. On another night, it could’ve been 4-4 but United came away happy with another 3 points. Elsewhere in the group, Roma also continued to impress, beating Sorting Lisbon 2-1 in a hard fought tie in Italy. Mancini was tricky, and Totti a threat as ever, but it was substitute Mirko Vucinic who grabbed the winner twenty minutes from time for Spalletti's side.

Moving over to North London now, where Arsenal put on an unbelievable show, scoring 7 (seven) unanswered against an admittedly fairly weak Slavia Prague side. Still, you get the feeling that even against a Barcelona or a Milan, this kind of breathtaking performance would’ve been almost as dominant, such was the level of ability on display. As usual Fabregas was majestic, but special plaudits must go to Alexander Hleb and young Theo Woolcott who is finally starting to show he can handle life at this level. Every goal was beautiful, and at the final whistle, I think Prague were genuinely thrilled that they kept it under double figures. The other game in this group saw a resurgent Seville performing well against Steaua Bucharest, coming out on top 2-1 in a game that they were always in control of. Once more, Kanoute was on the scoresheet, but the real star of the show was Brazilian hitman Luis Fabiano who bagged his eighth goal in as many games for Spain’s third best team.

To Ibrox then, and Rangers’ continuation of their unbeaten start to the Champions League campaign against the orange-shirted Catalan giants. In a tight game, both teams had chances to win it, with Ronaldinho coming especially close from a freekick that had to be touched onto the bar by Allan McGregor. Little Leo Messi has criticized Rangers’ tactics of playing “anti-football” but to be honest, what did he expect? In the group’s other game, Lyon finally broke their duck against an awful looking Stuttgart side in Germany, coming out 2-0 winners, but is it already too late for the French champions?

Finally on Tuesday, in the “other” group (i.e. one of the two without British interest) Inter Milan were victorious in Russia against the mighty Sneeze Moscow, with Crespo expertly poaching the opener, while PSV hosted a 0-0 thriller against Fenerbahce. The highlight was genuinely STT favourite Deivid getting sent off for a pretty shocking two-footed lunge.

Moving onto Wednesday then, and not such a good night for our three representatives. While Chelsea earned a resilient 2-0 win against Schalke, Celtic (1-0 to Benfica) and Liverpool (2-1 to Besiktas) both suffered dehabilitating defeats on the road.

And its in Instanbul that we shall start, where another dismal performance from Rafa Benitez’s men leave them languishing at the bottom of their group with just one point on the board and everything to do in the remaining three matches. Biscuits are not exactly a great side but the Scousers just posed no threat and genuinely did not look like scoring from open play the whole game. Team morale was not helped by the farcical defending that led to game’s opener, with multiple ricochets wrong-footing Pepe Reina just 13 minutes in, but there was simply no urgency from the 2005 winners as the game slowly slipped away from them. Elsewhere in their group, Marseilles and Porto shared a point in France, leaving both sides fairly confident of qualification at the halfway stage.

To sunny Portugal then and a great game between Celtic and Benfica, both of whom will feel they had the chances to claim the points well before Oscar Cardozo stole in behind the Celtic backline to slot home with just three minutes left on the clock. Celtic keeper Artur Boruc produced several world class saves from Cardozo and the excellent Rui Costa but once more, concentration seemed to let down the Scottish club. Meanwhile in Milan, defending champions A.C. faced off against Shakhtar Donetsk's 100% record in the competition, eager to make amends for their defeat at Celtic Park a fortnight ago. And make amends they did, running out 4-1 winners, buoyed by world-class performances from STT personal heroes Clarence Seedorf and Ricky Kaka’.

Over to West London next, where Chelsea finally established themselves in command of Group B after a relatively comfortable victory against a fairly uninspiring German side. An early howler from young keeper Manuel Neuer set the tone, as Malouda’s virtual backpass squirmed between his legs but overall Chelsea were decent, with Drogba putting himself in the shop window with a great attacking performance. Sad face for trying to bite Ronaldinho’s trick of passing off his back though, even Eider Gudjohnson was laughing at you Diddles and he likes everyone. The group’s other game saw a wonderful victory for Norwegian side Rosenborg against normally impressive Spanish outfit Valencia, winning 2-0 in the icy plains and keeping themselves as outside contenders for qualification.

And so finally to the other “other” group. A decent Werder Bremen side claimed a 2-1 victory over Lazio, inspired by pint-sized Brazilian whizzkid Diego, and it looks like they should have no problems making it into the knockout stages if they give a good performance in Italy in a fortnight’s time. Along with them I fully expect Real Madrid to go through as well. Despite going 2-1 down at home to the ten men of Olympiakos, the Spanish giants bounced back to finish 4-2 victors in a game that could’ve gone either way at the death. Robinho was excellent (big dance moves too!), but it was Iker Casillas’ late heroics which proved crucial in Madrid’s success, somehow clawing away a last minute header from Darko Kovacevic which would’ve made it 3-3.

Goal of the Round – Several of the Arsenal seven were just sublime team goals, that few other teams in the world could have produced but I’ve got to give this to Clarence Seedorf for his second against Olympiakos, perfectly volleying into the top corner over the stranded visiting keeper from 25 yards. Legend.

Player of the Round – Alexander Hleb, although you could just take your pick from the whole Arsenal midfield as they were all on song. Elsewhere, Kaka didn’t have a bad game for Milan either…

Surpirse Package of the Round Rosenberg for putting the hotly tipped Valencia to the sword. The Norwegians had gone six years without winning on home turf in the group phase, but had too much for the rather lacklustre looking Spaniards.