Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Champions League Wrap - Tuesday

The Champions League is officially underway, and it just wouldn't be the old continent's top club competition without some surprises. Actually, only one, sort of "surprise."

That, of course, was Atletico Madrid's home draw to the Cypriot and first time Champions Leaguers APOEL FC. The Vicente Calderon was at best half full due in part to the unknown opposition and in part to the Atletico faithful being engaged in an all-out war with the club's management. After promising defensive reinforcements if the club qualified for the Champions League - which never came - the club proceeded to sell starting defender Johnny Heitinga to Everton. The club, promising in the preseason mostly because they kept Aguero and Forlan, started the season off with a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Malaga, and followed that up with a drab 1-1 draw against a Racing Santander team that played most of the second half a man down. So perhaps it wasn't that surprising to see the squad prove completely ineffective over the first 45 minutes of play, allowing the Cypriots two very good chances at drawing first blood. The second half was much better, but Atletico still haven't learned that you have to play a full ninety - especially in Europe. Instead of being their own worst enemy in the last 45, Atletico ran into APOEL keeper Chiotis who basically stopped anything and everything that came his way. His final save on a Forlan cracker served only to frustrate an already downtrodden rojiblanco side. While I hope for the best for Madrid's second side, after this pathetic display they'll be lucky to slide into the Europa League much less beat out either Porto and Chelsea into the knockout rounds. So far this year Atletico has lived up to its nickname - Patetico de Madrid.

Meanwhile, Chelsea beat Porto in London 1-0 with a goal by Anelka at the start of the second half. After a solid save by Helton, Anelka grabbed his own rebound on the right side of the box and somehow, almost without an angle, glanced the ball over a sliding defender's torso and beat the keeper. That said, Porto played a solid match, and these two look to go through - at least on first impressions.

The other Madrid side, Real Madrid (perhaps you've heard of them), fared much better in Zurich. With Higuain starting at striker and Drenthe at leftback as the only changes in the starting lineup, Real came out full force against the Swiss minnows. Even with Kaka having a semi-off day, Ronaldo proved he is fast finding his form, and Drenthe is finally showing real progress on the left wing after two ineffective years. While the team is still clearly finding its way, the potent attack proved too much, with Raul (poacher's special), Ronaldo (2 free kicks), Higuain (phenomenal finish), and Guti (beautiful chip) all finding the back of the net in a 5-2 victory. At least one fantastic combination was laid to waste by Raul after an amazing combination by four players on the left wing, which proves little by little the players are gelling. On a more unfortunate note, Xabi Alonso was injured at the start of the second half. His absence was sorely missed especially since Fernando Gago looked atrocious, as usual. He was not quite as atrocious as the English referee who invented the penalty on Iker and drew yellow cards six times against Real and only two against a Zurich side that clearly aimed to kick Ronaldo and Kaka off the field from the outset. I guess since Platini's disdain for Real Madrid is so well known the refs have realized what the ticket to working the final might entail.

Nevertheless, the scoreline covers up the loss of a 3-0 lead in a feeble five minutes due to a Casillas penalty and a poorly defended corner kick. The concerns remain the same. The defense is particularly fragile on dead ball plays, the team tends to relax after building a lead, and the players haven't quite gotten to know each other. Casillas remains below his regular form, and the defense hasn't quite settled in yet. Talent and a nose for goal has obscured these concerns on the scoreline so far, but there's precious little time for Pellegrini and his troops to iron these worries out. Pepe needs to return and take control of the backline, as does Sergio Ramos - if he's back to his 2007-2008 form and not his recent middling play. It will be interesting to see if (or when) this team will achieve the balance it needs to compete against top flight competition. If you saw Ronaldo's two free kick goals, both were saveable but had just enough power or movement to go in. Real Madrid as a whole are analogous to this; they're getting it done, but in other circumstances the result might be drastically different.

Also in Group C, AC Milan takes home three points from France, beating Marseille 2-1 on two Inzaghi strikes. Who scored for Marseille you ask? Ex-Real Madrid and Manchester United man Gabriel Heinze, of course. Is Real Madrid European football? Yes, yes they are. Thanks for asking.

Elsewhere, ex-Real Madrid coach Juande Ramos started off on the wrong foot at CSKA Moscow, as his side saw defeat to Wolfsburg in Germany, 3-1. Manchester United got a valuable three points from their visit to the inferno that is playing in a Turkish stadium. These two results probably give a good idea of who will be going through as United and Wolfsburg are probably the most talented teams in the group. That said, trips to Russia and Turkey can often be grueling on teams, and no one would be surprised to see points left by the wayside.

Finally, yesterday's action saw Juventus draw with Girondins in Italy, and Bayern Munich win easily (at least on the scoreboard) in Israel. I'm sure ARF will discuss, but these results probably only affect whether Bayern or Juve go through first or second, as neither Girondins nor Maccabi look the part of spoilers.

But the real action takes place today, with Barcelona and Ibra travelling to Milan for a mouthwatering matchup with Mou, Inter, and, of course, Eto'o. I'm hoping for an Eto'o hat trick. But that's why they play the games. Enjoy!

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