Champions League Storylines That Don't Get Enough Attention
The Champions League is only two matchdays in, but already looks set to deliver another year of thrilling competition.
Several of the highly rated clubs have laid down their markers early on, while other favorites have gotten off to a stuttering start.
Clubs like Manchester United and Barcelona, and players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Frank Ribery, will attract headlines no matter what they do. However, there are numerous other fascinating storylines that deserve a bit more coverage.
Here are a handful of such narratives that are worth keeping an eye on as the tournament unfolds.
Julian Draxler-Led Schalke Are off to a Flying Start
Without too much fuss, German club Schalke 04 have picked up two straight wins to commence their Champions League campaign, and are now well poised to progress to the knockout stages of the competition.
Schalke finished fourth in the Bundesliga last season but currently sit in 14th place after seven games in 2013-14. Their form in Europe's top club competition, however, has been excellent thus far.
Even after a convincing 3-0 win over Steaua Bucharest on Matchday 1, Schalke coach Jens Keller maintained that his side were the underdogs ahead of their clash with in-form Swiss outfit Basel, per Goal.com.
It was the German side, though, who took all three points from their trip to Switzerland, thanks to a goal from wunderkind Julian Draxler.
The 20-year-old pummeled a dropping ball into the top corner of the net from well outside the box to secure a precious 1-0 away win for his side.
High-profile Schalke signing Kevin-Prince Boateng is impressed with his new teammate. He told Sport Bild that he is a rare talent, as reported by Stefan Coerts on Goal.com.
"If you have a Julian Draxler wearing the number 10 in your squad, it's easy to take," Boateng said.
"He's the best player in the world at his age. Young players like him with so much talent deserve to wear the No. 10."
Schalke sit three points clear of Chelsea and Basel atop Group H, and a positive result at home to the English side in Matchday 3 will go a long way to securing qualification for the next round.
Could Pirlo Be Dropped for Juve's Double Header Against Real Madrid?
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Without doubt the finest Italian midfielder of his generation, Andrea Pirlo has suffered a dip in form of late, and Juventus are paying the price in Europe.
At his best, the bearded one is able to dictate the tempo of a match from his deep-lying midfield position. He has made the difference in crucial matches on numerous occasions, through his brilliant passing, free-kick expertise and erstwhile goal threat.
However, when he is not at his best, the weaknesses in his game become more apparent. For example, his lack of physicality and mobility.
This can be exploited by canny opponents.
Mina Rzouki, ESPNFC's Juventus expert, explains why the team had so much trouble taking control of the game in their disappointing 2-2 home draw with Galatasaray:
One need only watch the match between Arsenal and Napoli to realise the value of mobility in a team. There was no one capable of dragging players out of position, so instead Juve were forced to deal with a huge number of men in the penalty box -- all in their rightful position; all eager to halt their play.
Moreover, there were never enough Bianconeri players to offer support in attack. Lacking in courage, the Old Lady was simply not good enough.
Leaving Pirlo on the bench and playing with a midfield trio of Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio against Real Madrid would give the Old Lady more dynamism in the center of the pitch to counter the Spanish side's talented lineup.
On the flip side, Pirlo is a timeless genius who can at times win a match by himself, as he demonstrated with his delightful assist for Fabio Quagliarella's goal against the Turkish side.
Antonio Conte will have a tough decision to make when he names his next Champions League starting 11.
Don't Rule out Ajax and Celtic in Group H
A cursory glance a the Group H table after two games reveals few surprises.
Barcelona sit top with six points, while Italian giants AC Milan are second, having secured a win and a draw from their opening matches.
Ajax have one point so far, while Celtic prop up the table with zero.
It appears that the Spanish and Italian sides are strong favorites to progress to the knockout stages, but both Celtic and Ajax are in with an excellent chance of sneaking past Milan into second spot before the group stage is done.
Max Allegri's side have been far from convincing in both domestic and European competition so far. In fact, they could consider themselves lucky to have gained four points after grinding out victory over Celtic and winning a questionable late penalty to earn a draw against the Dutch side.
It would not be a huge surprise if Barcelona won both of their upcoming matches against the Italians, so whoever can take control of the corresponding pair of matches between Celtic and Ajax could well find themselves in control of their own fate with two matches remaining.
Angel Di Maria May Be Better Than Gareth Bale
Real Madrid deemed it necessary to fork out in the region of €100 million over the summer for flying winger Gareth Bale, but they already had a devastatingly effective wide man on their books in Angel Di Maria.
The Argentine could have chosen to take his services elsewhere, but opted to stay and fight for his place in the side, and thus far his decision has been justified. "Noodle" has been in scintillating form for the Spanish giants in both La Liga and UCL, far outshining the admittedly injury-hobbled Welshman.
Two goals and an astonishing rabona assist for Di Maria in the 4-0 win against Copenhagen on Wednesday highlighted one of the best individual performances in European football this season.
Bale will have his work cut out for him if he is to displace the brilliant No. 22 from Carlo Ancelotti's starting lineup.