7 Lessons Learned from UEFA Champions League Wednesday
Yesterday, the matches for the UEFA Champions League were nothing short of memorable. While Barcelona engaged in an absolute destruction of Bayer Leverkusen, history was being written at the GSP Stadium in Nicosia.
Barcelona's relentless performance against Bayer Leverkusen provided Lionel Messi with a record that we won't see beaten in our lifetimes. Messi is the first player ever to have scored five goals in a Champions League match.
What was most impressive of it is that it wasn't a regular match. He did it on the last leg of the first knockout stage.
In Cyprus, the warriors of APOEL Nicosia scored early in the first half to tie Lyon in the aggregate score. Then, Constantinos Charalambides put forth the greatest performance ever by a player from Cyprus to keep Lyon at bay for most of the game.
After Charalambides left the game for Marcinho, APOEL lost its attacking impetus and Lyon started creating more chances, though, none too dangerous for keeper Dionisis Chiotis. The defenses played very well through the final minutes and through overtime, which led the game to the penalty shootout.
After both teams scored the first three chances. Alexander Lacazette made a pitiful effort that was saved by Chiotis. Ivan Trickovski scored for APOEL on their fourth try and sealed their ticket to the quarterfinals.
Here are seven lessons we learned from this match day.
1. Messi, Is He Really Human?
I think Messi is some sort of CIA experiment that went rogue from Argentina to the world. I can't find another explanation for his sustained other-worldly performances on football's biggest stages.
Personally, I don't think Messi would survive a season in the EPL, but with Barcelona he has done it all and never ceases to amaze the crowd, his teammates and even his opponents to a certain degree.
This performance might come a long way when building the case of who was the best ever, but Messi can only crack the echelon where Pele and Maradona currently remain when he wins a World Cup.
For me, it's just a matter of time before Argentina wins once again, and I hope it's not in 2014. It would be too much for us Brazilians to endure.
But I digress...
My point is that Messi's performance today was better than anything Ronaldinho put together in his heyday, which makes Messi the best Barcelona player of all time, in my opinion.
2. Tello's Two Goals Are Proof That Barcelona Has the Best Youth System Ever
Tello's superb performance will get lost in the midst of Messi's life-shattering performance. Tello played very well on the wing, running Gonzalo Castro ragged throughout the match.
Granted that Castro's natural position was not that one, he was just schooled by the Barcelona youth system's latest product.
These players, when sold on their own, do not play as well (see Giovani dos Santos, Bojan Krkic). Playing this system, they're unbeatable.
Why? Because they're used to it. Guardiola's system is being taught to the kids at the most basic level so that by the time that they are pros, they don't have to adapt to completely different systems.
Fabregas, even though he left for six years, meshed in almost instantaneously with Messi & Co. because of their days in the youth system.
Barcelona, for the foreseeable future, will keep producing players that will continue to perpetuate this system until someone comes up with something better.
3. Leverkusen Are Still Far from Where They Used to Be
Bayer Leverkusen are a shadow of that team that lost the Champions League final to Real Madrid on Zinedine Zidane's stroke of brilliance.
In the early 2000s, Leverkusen were a force to be reckoned with. With Hans-Jorg Butt on goal, Juan and Lucio holding the fort on defense and Michael Ballack running the show in midfield, Klaus Toppmoller led the team to a loss in the semifinals and the aforementioned loss to Real Madrid.
Also, Leverkusen had a strong squad that always fought for the top positions in the Bundesliga. That was a long time ago.
After a massive budget shrinkage, Leverkusen underwent a lot of restructuring that enabled the rise of Stefan Kiessling, Eren Derdiyok and Arturo Vidal. These players gave them a fighting chance within their budget.
But, because it was not long ago that they were a dominant force, Leverkusen have a shadow over them from what they used to be.
5. Lyon Needs to Rebuild from Scratch
Lyon was the best squad of the past decade in French football.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen!
Lyon's history can be divided into two parts: life before Juninho Pernambucano and life after Juninho Pernambucano.
Life before Pernambucano showed a team that had never been a force in domestic football and even less in European terms. When Juninho came, they won eight French titles and went deep in the Champions League quite a few times.
Juninho gave them notoriety and set the standards for further teams to abide by. Certainly, this elimination can build a strong case for their need to rebuild.
Even with the emergence of Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Marseille, Lyon is no longer a dominant domestic force and less so in Europe despite last year's impressive finish in their battle against Real Madrid.
6. Watch out for Other Markets
While the picture might be old, APOEL are certainly enjoying their current moment in the Champions League. Their strong showing evidences an interesting phenomenon in European football.
Long gone are the days the dark horses came exclusively from places like the defunct Yugoslavia, Czech Republic and ex-Soviet Union.
Football is rapidly growing throughout the entire continent. This is not evidenced by the national squad but, it's only seen at club level.
Red Star Belgrade and Sparta Praha, arguably the two most traditional teams in the countries aforementioned, haven't been to the group stage in the Champions League for a long while now.
Also, teams from those countries haven't been cracking the Champions League main stage with frequency. Also, Romania, Austria and other fringe markets have seen their power reduced.
Instead, what is being seen is a rise in frequency from Scandinavian teams, Russian teams and teams from markets that have little to no tradition in football.
In the last two five years, Cyprus had two teams, Anorthosis Famagusta and APOEL Nicosia in the group stage.
FC Kobenhavn was defeated by Chelsea in the first knockout stage. Slovakia put both MSK Zilina and Artmedia Bratislava both in the group stage. Switzerland's F.C. Basel is with Bayern Munchen in the ropes. Russia's Zenit St. Petersburg lost in the round of 16 this year, and CSKA Moscow has already won an Europa League.
Football, due to a better economic situation in the various markets around Europe, at least before this year, has expanded and we can expect better performances at club levels from other emerging football markets like Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
7. Brazilian Players Are Still Very Useful
It's because our best players have been playing poorly lately that Brazilian football can be dismissed entirely. The connection between the rise of emerging markets at club level with the influx of Brazilian players into those markets are almost directly connected.
APOEL used five Brazilian players yesterday against Lyon. Apart from the goalkeeper, Dionisis Chiotis, from Greece, and Constantinos Charalambides, from Cyprus itself, all other key players were Brazilian.
Manduca, the scorer of the goal that sent the game to the shootout, is a Brazilian journeyman in Europe. Ailton, APOEL's hitman, was successful in Denmark before taking his skill to Cyprus. Centerback Marcelo Oliveira used to play for Corinthians and Gremio before taking his expertise to Greece and now, Cyprus.
Marcinho, who went in for Charalambides, played in Maritmo before moving to Cyprus and, left-back William Boaventura left a second-rate squad in Rio to move between Cyprus, Ukraine and Russia until he arrived in Nicosia.
This phenomenon is not only limited to APOEL. Teams like Omonia Nicosia and Anorthosis Famagusta currently boast Brazilian players in their squad.
The bigger names of Brazilian football like Ronaldinho and Kaka are enduring a dry spell of good soccer, but there a lot of Brazilians plying their trade across Europe and reaching the spotlight in teams the world wasn't privy to.