30 November, 2007

Champions League – Group Stage 5

Hello everyone and welcome to what is usually the least exciting part of the Champions League every season. To be honest after four matches, most groups have already been decided so it tends to result in two gameweeks of fluffing before the real tournament starts, knockout-stylee, in the new year. Not much is different this year unfortunately, although due to appalling early form, Liverpool are not guaranteed to qualify, while a mixed bag of recent results have seen the Scottish Old Firm of warrior poets also still fighting for advancement…

Starting with Tuesday then, and already-through Arsenal faced off against the group’s other decent side Sevilla in a difficult tie in Spain which saw them take an early lead through Eduardo, before being shocked by a resurgent Sevilla. The third best team in Spain controlled 3/4s of the game, attacking with flair and purpose, and were more than worth their ultimate 3 – 1 victory. The game’s main incident however took place off the pitch, where the normally serene Arsene was sent to the stands by game’s fourth official. Given this was Arsenal’s first defeat this season, Wenger had a right to be frustrated, but it was more the unusually tepid manner of the defeat that riled the placid Frenchman’s feathers. The group’s other game this week saw both no-hopers Steaua Bucharest and Slavia Prague face off in an underwhelming night in Romania which ended 1 – 1. Badea’s ridiculously scrappy goal put Steaua ahead early on, before Senkerik scored a late equaliser for the Czech side.

Manchester United had similarly already qualified for the second stage of this year’s tournament but still, they weren’t about to sacrifice their 100% record in a home tie against essentially their youth team, Sporting Lisbon. Alumni Ronaldo and Nani marauded down both flanks for United but they went into half time shockingly a goal down, after Abel’s shot/cross embarrassed Kuszczak at his near post. The second half showed just what this team is capable of however, with the injection of Tevez once again proving the attacking catalyst as he bagged the equalizer before the hour mark. The winner came from who else but Ronaldo, blasting a trademark freekick like an anti-aircraft gun into the top corner in injury time. Elsewhere, Roma all but booked their spot in round two with an impressive 4 – 1 win over Dynamo Kiev in the Ukraine. Mirko Vucinic bagged a brace for the Italian side who are looking excellent at the moment, despite missing talisman/dickhead Totti through injury.

Rangers do not believe in doing things the easy way. In an awesome rollercoaster of a match in Germany, the Scottish side eventually left with a 3 – 2 defeat after a late winner from Marica left them needing a point away to Lyon to ensure qualification. This is quite a mountain to climb for Walter Smith’s men however, as the French champions seem to have remembered how to play again following two opening defeats in the tournament. Lyon were at home to Barcelona this week, but more than held their own against the rampaging Catalans. Iniesta opened the scoring for the Spaniards before Juninho’s long range freekick crept into Valdes’ bottom corner to level things up. Messi then put the 2006 champions ahead again from the penalty spot, before Juninho matched this feat late on to share the points and set up a crucial decider at Ibrox in a fortnight.

‘Other group’ number 1 saw CSKA Moscow go down 1 – 0 at home to PSV Eindhoven in a game that was perhaps as entertaining as you’d expect, while finally, in-form Inter Milan continued to dominate the group was a convincing 3 – 0 victory over Fenerbahce. Ibrahimovic bagged his fifth goal in as many games in the competition, but the most notable thing about this match was the shirts Inter played in. Presumably the makers offered them around on the cheap after deciding the England team just weren’t even worthy of the postage costs required to send them over:

And so to Wednesday, where Chelsea, Liverpool and Celtic all lined up against tricky in-form opposition. After they have beaten the quietly fancied Valencia 2 – 0 both home and away in consecutive matches, facing Rosenborg away in Norway looked like a unappetizing prospect for Avram Grant’s rejuvenated Chelsea. Any feelings of apprehension were quickly forgotten however when Didier Drogba netted a fast double for the London side, putting the game beyond reach before the half hour. Alex and Joe Cole completed the scoring to leave Chelsea 4 – 0 winners, but since they have not been at all tested so far in the competition, how they fare in the knockout stages will be very interesting viewing. The group’s other game saw Valencia play Schalke in somewhat of a ‘wooden spoon’ match, which excitedly ended 0 – 0 and was completely devoid of incident apart from David Albelda getting sent off for an absolute scythe of a tackle for the Spanish who are now officially out of the tournament.

To Liverpool then, where visitors this week were Porto, and only a win would do for last year’s runners-up. And win they did, albeit not quite as convincingly as the 4 – 1 final score would suggest as three of those four goals came in the final 15 minutes at Anfield. Torres as ever was absolutely sublime, scoring twice and causing problems every time he went near the ball, see below for video highlights. The Reds now need to win against Marseilles in France in two weeks time to qualify. The French side went down to a surprising 2 – 1 defeat away at Besiktas elsewhere in the group, with Bobo bagging a late winner to keep the Turkish side’s hopes alive in the competition.

Heading slightly more north and across the border then, and Celtic hosted difficult Ukranians Shaktar Donetsk, knowing that a win for vital to progression past the group stage. They left it late, but having been a goal down, Massimo Donati scored a dramatic injury time winner for the Scots to leave them needing a result against the defending champions next week in Milan. AC ensured qualification themselves last night with a 1 – 1 draw at Benfica, featuring two excellent long range strikes from Andrea Pirlo and Maxi Pereira. Kaka almost pinched it for the Italians in the last minute but after skinning a couple of defenders, slid the ball just wide of the post.

And finally to ‘other group’ numero dos, where actually things are pretty interesting. Real Madrid, expected to run away with it somewhat, failed to guarantee advancement last night after losing 3 – 2 away at Werder Bremen, despite great goals from Robinho and Ruud van Nistelrooy. This allowed Greek side Olympiakos to draw level on points in the group with leaders Madrid, after they beat Lazio 2 – 1 at home with goals from Luciano Galletti and Darko Kovacevic. Madrid play Lazio and Olympiakos play Bremen in two crucial final matches in two weeks time.

Goal of the Round – Benfica’sMaxi Pereira blasting one from range although Pirlo’s strike in the same game, and both Real Madrid goals were up there too.

Notable mention also to MarseillesTaiwo for his distance wonderstrike that was 2 hot 2 handle

Player of the Round – Christiano Ronaldo was phenomenal against his formative club, weaving his magic in a mesmerizing performance that ominously showed that he is finally back to his penetrative (easy now) best. To top it all off, the scene is 1 - 1 in the 90th minute, the cameraman zooms in on his name as he stands over a freekick, then he produces this -

Fernando Torres wasn’t half bad for Liverpool on Wednesday night either though, see all that game’s goals here.

Surprise Package of the Round – Not really a surprise, but Italian sides Inter and Roma are looking scarily impressive at this early stage. Although there most likely won’t be too many teams you really want to play in round two, these sides, along with holders AC Milan, will be right at the bottom of most people’s lists…