UEFA Champions League: 7 Things We Learned from the Opening Matches
The 2013-14 UEFA Champions League got underway with a bang, the opening round of 16 matches featuring 53 goals as the great and good of European football began on the road to Lisbon.
Elsewhere, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were unsurprisingly amongst the goals, while more surprisingly Thiago Motta did likewise as he bagged a brace for PSG, and Austria Vienna's Champions League bow ended in a 1-0 home defeat by Porto.
Here's a look at seven things we learned from the opening round of fixtures:
Real Madrid in Hot Pursuit of La Decima Once More
In the 12 years since Real Madrid won their ninth and last European crown, the pursuit of what they call in Madrid "la Decima" has become increasingly all-encompassing.
Having been halted at the semi-final stage in each of the last three seasons under Jose Mourinho, Los Blancos have called on another two-time Champions League-winning coach in the shape of Carlo Ancelotti.
His first European assignment appeared to be a tricky trip to Istanbul, with Turkish champions Galatasaray, who Madrid beat at the quarter-final stage last season, the opponents. Ninety minutes and a 6-1 victory later and Round 1 had been comprehensively blasted through.
For much of the first period, Gala played their part and gave their visitors a thorough examination, testing both Iker Casillas and substitute goalkeeper Diego Lopez. However, a Madrid side barely out of first gear went in at the break with the lead through Isco's composed finish.
Then, they took complete charge of the second half, clicking through the gears like a Formula One car hitting a straight, overpowering their hosts with clinical precision. Karim Benzema, having looked out of sorts in La Liga so far this season, helped himself to a brace, while Cristiano Ronaldo, last season's Champions League top scorer, netted a treble, including a sensational third which deservedly earned applause from the home supporters.
Throughout, there was an attacking purpose which looks all the more ominous given that Gareth Bale isn't yet up to speed, while Xabi Alonso, Raphael Varane and Marcelo were all missing due to injury.
Nevertheless, an excellent opening day suggests Real Madrid mean business and that their 12-year wait may well be coming to an end.
Victorious Manchester United Still Offering Opposition Chances
David Moyes' European Cup debut in charge of Manchester United ended with the English champions running out 4-2 winners and but for some profligate finishing from Messrs. Rooney and van Persie—although they did score three times between them—it could have been more.
With Rooney and Kagawa roaming and offering incision, and Michael Carrick picking passes from deep, United's attacking play looked far more fluent than it has at any point this season, while Marouane Fellaini's first start offered encouragement.
Nevertheless, while United looked good on the front foot, defensively they left a lot to be desired. Bayer Leverkusen weren't at their best—instrumental midfielder Lars Bender only appeared late having been struggling with injury, while Gonzalo Castro, the main goal threat from midfield, picked up an injury at the weekend—however they still scored twice and created other chances.
The worry for United in that is that none of Bayer's front trio, Sidney Sam, Heung-Min Son and Stefan Kiessling had particularly effective games.
Nonetheless, both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic appeared somewhat shaky, particularly to balls down the sides, while Emre Can and Simon Rolfes—additionally Bender when he came on as a second-half substitute—both moved from the middle to the final third unchecked on a number of occasions. Indeed, Rolfes took advantage, scoring with a free shot on goal from some 25 yards when afforded too much space.
It is something which has come back to bite United in past seasons, their inability to keep a clean sheet against either Basel or Benfica seeing them fail to navigate the group stage in 2011-12, while they kept only one clean sheet during the group stage last term.
No doubt Moyes will be looking to shore up the defence moving forward, and a tough trip to Shakhtar Donetsk and their free-flowing South American attack on Matchday 2 means he'll need to cut the defensive exposure sooner rather than later.
Gonzalo Higuain Rediscovering His Best Under Rafael Benitez at Napoli
Gonzalo Higuain's last two years at Real Madrid were undoubtedly goal-laden, of that there can be no question. However a back injury in 2010-11, coupled with his reduction to second fiddle at the Santiago Bernabeu behind Karim Benzema, meant that, despite 45 goals in the last two seasons, there was something lacking: a sharpness that comes with starting week-in, week-out.
However, the 25-year-old's arrival in Naples for £32.5 million this summer to spearhead Rafael Benitez's new-look Napoli attack has offered the Argentine that regular starting place and "Pipita" is flourishing and looking on top of his game.
Two goals in his last two Serie A games were a sign of his good early form in Italy, but his 77-minute display in the 2-1 win over Borussia Dortmund showed why Higuain is one of the best pure strikers in world football.
Aside from his goal, which showed excellent anticipation to evade his marker and a predatory glance of the forehead to divert the ball into the bottom corner, Higuain was a constant menace to the Dortmund defence. His lateral movement was intelligent and offered Napoli a platform to play off, while his touch, vision and passing were key to changing the point of attacks.
Nevertheless, it was his vertical movement and rediscovered pace—something which has been somewhat missing over the past 18 to 24 months—which really shook up the German's defence, particularly in the first half. Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic were both uncomfortable against his runs in behind, while his splitting of the defence was the reason why goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller was dismissed on the stroke of half-time.
Rafa Benitez is looking to change things at Napoli, both in formation terms, away from Walter Mazzarri's 3-4-2-1 to his own preferred 4-2-3-1, and with regards to mentality; making them believe they can be winners both at home and on the European stage.
If both Napoli and Higuain continue in their present form—aside from their victory over Dortmund the Neopolitans are three wins from three in Serie A—then Benitez could well be eyeing another Champions League run to match those of his Liverpool days.
Barcelona Remain Thankful for Victor Valdes
Much has been made this summer of Barcelona's transfer dealings; splashing out on Neymar, allowing Thiago Alcantara to depart, keeping Cesc Fabregas and not improving on a defence that was shaky last season and has continued to look so this.
However, while much of the plaudits following the 4-0 win over Ajax will go to three goal Lionel Messi, it is a man who has spoken of his plans to depart Camp Nou, but who remained this summer, who is proving invaluable: Victor Valdes.
The Spanish international, five times a Zamora Trophy winner for the La Liga 'keeper with the lowest goals-to-games ratio, a three-time Champions League and a six-time La Liga winner, has long been an important piece of the jigsaw with Los Cules thanks to his decisive sweeping off his line and tremendous shot-stopping prowess. But this season, Valdes is arguably in the form of his life.
Consistent excellence, both in terms of saving the routine and the difficult, have led to some match winning displays thus far this season—most notably in the 3-2 win against Valencia prior to the international break—and Valdes was at it again against the Dutch champions.
A brilliant save from Ricardo van Rhijn kept the score at 1-0 on the half hour, while Lerin Duarte was also denied before half-time. As Barcelona continued adding to their tally at the other end, Valdes was keeping his clean sheet in tact at his: Nicolai Boileson was twice denied while Kolbeinn Sigthorsson's penalty in the 77th minute was also swatted away.
Ajax had their chances to register at Camp Nou, but Valdes was equal to them throughout. Gerardo Martino's side may still be offering opponents chances, but Valdes continues to stand tall, leaving Barca supporters thankful they've got him for at least one more season.
Massimiliano Allegri's Tinkerings Leave Milan Looking Stale and Unsure
AC Milan duly got the expected result against Celtic in their Group H bow, two late goals securing three points. However their performance, or lack thereof, left a lot to be desired, and much of the frustration must be pointed in the direction of manager Massimiliano Allegri.
While a number of key players—Stephan El Shaarawy, Kaka, Ignazio Abate, Riccardo Montolivo and Mattia De Sciglio—were all absent, Allegri selected to alter his side's attacking trident, stationing Valter Birsa on the right, Alessandro Matri through the middle and withdrawing Mario Balotelli out to the left.
In itself, it appears to be a way of involving new signing Matri when options appeared slim. But by taking Balotelli away from the No. 9 position where he has looked so at home since his return to Italy in January, and the position from where he had scored 15 goals in 18 games before the Celtic match, Milan's attacking play was lacking.
Since returning to Serie A, the 23-year-old has quickly matured into an outstanding centre-forward who leads the line well, scores goals and brings others into play; in short, he's proven himself an outstanding focal point to this Milan team.
Yet, on Wednesday evening, Balotelli appeared frustrated, while Matri's want to continually run in behind the Celtic defence rather than mix his game and offer short meant that the focal point was missing. It merely added to what was a far less than accomplished display and only served to encourage the Scottish champions.
Additionally, the Rossoneri's lack of speed throughout the side, particularly without their pacy and adventurous full-backs Abate and De Sciglio, hindered them whenever they looked to counter-attack; Zaccardo and Constant simply don't offer the same outlet. However, that is something easily rectified when both missing players return.
It is the Balotelli situation which is most puzzling however. Having spent a sizeable fee on Matri in the summer, perhaps Allegri feels he needs to play regularly. But at the expense of Balotelli and the position where he does his best work, and which seemingly brings out the best in others, it's perhaps something Allegri needs to rethink.
How Good Are Basel?
While much focus will undoubtedly be on the shortcomings of Jose Mourinho's Chelsea following their 2-1 home defeat by Basel, another angle to the same question could well be just how good are the Swiss champions?
Last season saw the RotBlau claim a fourth successive Swiss Super League crown but also saw them make considerable progress in European competition. A run to the Europa League semi-finals, encompassing victories over the likes of Zenit St. Petersburg and Tottenham Hotspur, showcased a talented group of young players, led by an intelligent, tactile manager in the shape of former player Murat Yakin—of course, their Europa League run was ended by Chelsea.
However, events at Stamford Bridge in their Champions League opener showed that Basel have learned and been encouraged by the events of last season. And despite falling behind to an Oscar goal before half-time, the Swiss side stood firm, continued playing their neat passing game and took their chances when they came (indeed, the equaliser was as good a team goal as you'll see in the Champions League this season).
But following their opening-day success, how far can Basel go?
In Yann Sommer they have a talented goalkeeper, while Fabian Schaer, the 21-year-old defender, has a bright future. In midfield, the Chilean Mauro Diaz is an excellent distributor—increasingly vital to his country in recent times—while the winger Mohamed Salah is a box of tricks with a wonderful left foot. Up front the experienced Marco Streller offers a physical presence and a knowledge of how to score goals.
With a considerable threat on the counter, particularly in the pace of the Egyptian Salah, and a well marshalled defensive structure, they're well built to create and contain in equal measure, something which they proved to onlookers at Stamford Bridge.
While they've made a very impressive start, their next match against Schalke—victorious in their opener also—at St. Jakob-Park will tell us exactly what Bebbi are capable of: Can they make the knockout stages and perhaps even aspire to a place among the final eight?
Arsenal's Jack Wilshere Conundrum
And while the performances of Mesut Ozil, Laurent Koscielny and particularly Kieran Gibbs and Aaron Ramsey were excellent and will have pleased Arsene Wenger, the role of England midfielder Jack Wilshere in midfield may well be seen as a cause for concern.
With Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all absent, Wilshere was stationed in a left-sided role for the Gunners, Ozil, Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini handed the central positions. And while Wilshere did a decent enough job, things are suddenly beginning to look a little more difficult for the 21-year-old.
Certainly, he's a talent and a potentially excellent midfielder, capable of both shaping games with his passing and vision and of opening up matches with his driving forward runs and ability to ease past opposing players. However, too often against the French runners-up he was guilty of picking the wrong option, running into trouble when there was no need to and turning over possession when his teammates had committed ahead of the ball.
While in the last six months Wilshere has witnessed his midfield colleague Ramsey take his game to another level and become an increasingly integral part of the Gunners midfield, his own level of performance has somewhat plateaued.
Moreover, how he fits into Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 formation, particularly following the arrival of Ozil, is still somewhat up in the air. It's a conundrum that Arsene Wenger will need to assess quickly so as not to affect the confidence of either the individual or his in-form side.
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