After a long winter with no European action—and in many cases reduced domestic action—for football fans to sink their teeth into, the return of the UEFA Champions League this week has seen plenty of viewers eagerly anticipate giant clashes involving the likes of Arsenal and Bayern Munich.
Few are better placed to take in the action first-hand than those who are watching with a professional eye, so we caught up with Fox Soccer analyst Brian McBride to get his take on the first bout of clashes, who he thought the stand-out sides were and whether the two defeated English clubs could mount a comeback.
In arguably the most intriguing tie of the round, Arsenal went down 2-0 at home to the reigning Champions League holders, Bayern Munich. One of the main issues of contention was whether the two penalties awarded, one for each side, warranted the same punishment for both offenders. As it was, Bayern's Jerome Boateng was only booked, while Gunners stopper Wojciech Szczesny saw red.
Though it changed the game somewhat drastically, McBride feels the calls were the correct ones.
"There's no question it was a straight red for Szczesny. Arjen Robben would have reached the ball and it's a clear goalscoring opportunity. At the other end, you have to factor in all the in-game movements. Yaya Sanogo might get the ball but it's not so clear-cut. There's no major problem with Boateng's yellow."
Of paramount importance to Bayern's win, though, was the way they took the game to Arsenal.
McBride notes that a lot of clubs facing 10 men will take their time, wait for the opening to appear and keep passing without any real tempo or penetration. Bayern took the opposite approach; they moved the ball quickly and concisely, kept centre-backs Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny under constant pressure and showed great quality with their final pass when the time was right.
Against the very best sides it only takes half a second of poor or hesitant decision-making to cost dearly and Mathieu Flamini's failure to close down for the first goal, then track the clever run of Thomas Muller for the second, have ultimately made all the difference.
It's not all over for the Gunners, though, reckons McBride. It will be extremely difficult for them to progress of course and all the signs point to a Bayern win, but with Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud back in the team and the knowledge of having beaten this side already last year, there remains some hope.
For their part, Bayern will not need any more motivation than to remember last season's match.
Elsewhere, another English side in Manchester City suffered a similar 2-0, down-to-10-men defeat. McBride believes City have it in them to defeat Barcelona in a one-off game, but again it will be tough to overcome a two-goal deficit.
The return of Sergio Aguero will be another plus-point, but City have no margin for error if they want to mount a spectacular comeback.
In the two matches played this week, away victories for Atletico Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain should safely see both sides through to the quarterfinals. And can either of those challenge further along in the competition?
Will Barcelona reach the semifinals of the Champions League?
"All No. 1 seeds should progress now. If that happens it should be a fantastic rest of the competition regardless of the draw as they're all massive sides. As for who we could see make a big impact in the latter stages, at this point I'd have to go for Bayern, PSG, Real Madrid and Chelsea.
The one area of concern for the latter side is their relatively light front line, but overall I'd just go for them—even ahead of the likes of Barcelona."
It's a big call to leave out one of the favourites but McBride is well-placed to give his opinion. The second legs could go some way to justifying his selections.
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