09 November, 2007

Champions League – Group Stage 4

So, we are now over halfway through the group stage of this season’s competition, and as ever, there have been excellent displays and also surprises aplenty around Europe.

This week’s action saw, on Tuesday, a somewhat emphatic win for Liverpool, cruising to a 8 (eight) – 0 victory over minnows Besiktas, extracting serious revenge for their humiliating loss in Turkey a fortnight ago. Chelsea however struggled in Germany against a resurgent Schalke side and were lucky to leave unscathed in a game that ended 0 - 0, while Celtic continued their excellent streak of form, defeating Benefica 1 - 0 at home.

To Anfield then, and the largest winning margin in Champions League history, where Yossi Benayoun bagged a hat-trick, Ryan Babel and Peter Crouch both picked up a brace each, and Steven Gerrard also netted for the Reds. It might sound stupid but to be honest Liverpool were not that great and Biscuits were simply abysmal, falling apart in a second half that saw them concede six of the game’s eight goals following some truly woeful goalkeeping. Arsenal’s 7-0 victory over Slavia Prague two weeks ago, and Manchester United 7-1 defeat of Roma last season, were true masterclasses in total football, this was simply all too easy for the Scousers; Liverpool honestly should’ve had double figures, and while this will do wonders for confidence, there’s still a hell of a lot of work to do for Rafa Benitez’s side to qualify for the knockout stages. The group’s other game was between the top two, Porto and Marseilles, and ended 2-1 to the Portuguese side, with Tarik Sektioui scoring a sublime individual goal, running from inside his own half and beating three defenders before rounding keeper Steve Mandanda to slot into the open net. Liverpool play Porto at home next (Wednesday 28th Nov) and a win is absolutely essential.

Flying back from Germany, Avram Grant will certainly be counting his blessings after Chelsea rode their luck to escape with a point from an impressive Schalke, who twice rattled the woodwork during a game that Chelsea never really got started in. Petr Cech went off injured, Belletti looked like he was still hungover from celebrating his wondergoal at the weekend, and Drogba’s shooting was tame to say the least. A hiccough certainly, but given Valencia’s last two appalling results, the group win is all but theirs. This second shock in two weeks for the Spanish side came as they once again lost 2 - 0 to Norwegian side Rosenborg, but this time humiliatingly in their own back yard. Steffen Iversen bagged his first Champions League goals in 11 years, scoring twice in the Mestalla to add to Valencia’s growing misery.

And north of the boarder we go, as Celtic delivered another impressive home performance to keep them in contention to qualify from this tricky group. Aiden McGeady’s deflected shot was the difference between the two sides, but the game’s main incident was a genuine attempt by Augustin Binya to break Scott Brown’s leg five minutes before time. Thankfully the plucky Scot was ok, but see yesterday’s STT coverage on this incident for more information. Why doesn’t this kind of stuff ever happen to unpleasant scumbags like Diouf or Konchesky? Elsewhere, Milan romped to victory 3 – 0 over Shakhtar Donetsk to put them on 9 points in the group. As ever, Kaka and Pirlo were sublime and super-poacher Inzaghi benefited from their genius to bag another two Champions League goals for his tally.

The night’s other matches took place in Group C, and were relatively without incident unfortunately. A lackluster game in Greece between Olympiakos and Real Madrid ended 0 – 0, with a delightful chip from Ruud van Nistelrooy hitting the crossbar the only marginal highlight. Finally, Lazio bounced off the bottom of the group after beating Werder Bremen 2 – 1 in a pretty uninspiring game. Tommaso Rocchi netted twice for the Italians, while mini-maestro Diego scored from the penalty spot for the German side late on before being sent off for a second yellow card.

Moving onto Wednesday then, and a slightly less successful night for our three representatives. Arsenal were lucky to leave Prague with a point after hanging on for 0 – 0 against a considerably more fired up Slavia side, while Rangers went down 2 – 0 to the mighty Barcelona at the Nou Camp. Manchester United however, were very impressive, romping home 4 – 0 winners over a Dynamo Kiev side that weren’t really given a chance to get out of the blocks at Old Trafford.

And it’s in Manchester we shall start, where a classic performance of attacking flair proved far too much for the Ukranian champions. Pique opened the scoring with a header after Kiev failed to clear a chipped freekick, but after this United really got going, with Tevez and Ronaldo scoring beautiful goals to put the tie beyond the visitors. In this kind of mood, the interplay, movement and pace of this United front six should really be a concern of every other team in the competition. Group F’s other game last night saw Sporting Lisbon and Roma share the points in a close fought encounter in Portugal, where a last minute equalizer from Anderson Polga snatched the win away from the Italians. With Man United already though from this group, if either Sporting or Lisbon can beat the English champions, they will surely join them in Round 2.

After the humiliation of losing 7 – 0 a fortnight ago in London, Slavia Prague were obviously keen to prove that they weren’t a joke outfit when Arsenal traveled to a rainy Czech Republic for the return match last night. Admittedly Arsenal played a seriously under-strength team, but still Slavia were impressive and without doubt deserved a win from the game with the Gunners struggling to get a shot on target till late on. Despite failing to score for the first team this season, Arsene Wenger’s men still progress to Round 2, sitting on 10 points after 4 games. Elsewhere, in Romania, Sevilla inched closer to joining them in the knockout stages, easily beating Steaua Bucharest 2 – 0, with the vastly under-rated Brazilian midfielder Renato bagging both goals for the Spanish side.

Rangers meanwhile faced the somewhat daunting prospect of playing Barcelona in Spain, and while keeping the Catalan giants from scoring for another 90 minutes was always going to be a tough task, the Scots by no means disgraced themselves. With Ronaldinho finally starting to tick again and Messi in the form he’s in these days, Rangers were on the backfoot from the kick-off, and going behind in under 10 minutes to an Henry tap-in made their priority damage control to avoid a disheartening rout. The result might not have been emphatic, but the performance certainly was, with Xavi and Iniesta expertly pulling the strings. Rangers’ chances of qualification took a further blow as Lyon again won last night to give them more then a sniff of finishing second in the group, sitting now just a point behind Rangers. In a thrilling game, the French champions finished 4 – 2 winners over Stuttgart, with Hatem Ben Arfa in particular having a superb game, topped off with a cracking 2 goal brace in the Stade de Gerland.

And finally to Group G, where the game of the round took place in the San Siro between Inter Milan and CSKA Moscow. The impressive Sneeze took an early 2 – 0 lead, following lovely goals by Brazilian forwards Jo and Wagner-Love, leaving the Italian side everything to do in the final hour of the game. Cambiasso and Ibramhimovic then each netted twice for Inter in a superb come-back full of pace and intent, with Crespo also playing his part with some neat touches. Fenerbahce are also poised to join Inter is progressing through to Round 2 after they beat PSV Eindhoven 2 – 0, with another decent performance from the promising Turkish side. An own goal by Dirk Marcellis and a cool finish from Semih Senturk within the first half an hour were enough for Fenerbahce, although Roberto Carlos did graze the post from about 40 yards with a free kick just before the break.

Goal of the Round – With many excellent goals again during the round, this was tough to call, but Zlatan Ibramhimovic’s sweet turn and pile-driving strike for his second at the San Siro takes it, simply because he usually struggles to even stand up.

Trick of the Round – Ronaldo’s beautiful running Cruyff-turn to set up his goal at Old Trafford sums up just how dangerous he can be. Ronaldinho busted an unreal Maradona spin at full speed that was almost as good though.

Player of the Round – He scored a hat-trick so I guess it has to be Yossi Benayoun, even if he was kind of just in the right place 3 times on Tuesday. To be honest though I’ve always liked him, and he never usually gets the props he deserves so big up the Israeli mandem.

Surprise Package of the Round – Liverpool; bouncing back admirably from an awful opening three games to get themselves finally moving in this season’s competition. With two finals in the last three years, expectation was understandably high, and given the superb new signings brought in by Benitez, you can’t help but feel that it’s only a matter of time before everything starts coming together for them…