Thursday, October 22, 2009

Road Field Advantage

Who said that there's a big team monopoly over the Champions League? And what happened to home field advantage? This most recent round of UEFA Champions League matches bucked a few generally held assumptions and may have livened things up for some teams, while sending a few others into downward spirals from which there appears a long march back.

Tuesday in particular saw a few big upsets. First and foremost among those was FK Rubin Kazan stunning Barcelona 2-1 at the Camp Nou. On the heels of their 0-0 draw with Valencia over the weekend, not too mention an unconvincing 1-0 win over Almeria before that, and suddenly the Barca machine has lost it's luster. Maybe Messi needs to get some of that Maradona-Argentina stench off him. He hasn't been as dynamic recently, and the return to health of Andrés Iniesta hasn't provided the boost yet that we would expect. No one doubts they will rebound and are still among the favorites to win both La Liga and the Champions League, but maybe they are not so invincible.

FC Unirea Urziceni went to Glasgow and crushed an embarrassed Rangers team 4-1, and Dynamo Kiev continued the great day for Eastern European teams by going to the San Siro and drawing Inter 2-2. Inter continue to underwhelm, with some people even already putting pressure on Mourinho. But let's face it, they're not a great squad and they won't win the Champions League, although they probably will win the Serie A with main rivals Juve and Milan looking underwhelming (and few would put money on Sampdoria and Fiorentina to keep up their current pace through the entire season). Actually speaking of Fiorentina, they also went on the road and pulled out a 4-3 thriller against Drebrecen.

Also on the road Tuesday was Sevilla, who is in fine form and look their typical dangerous and exciting side, beating Stuttgart 3-1. Stuttgart have stuttered so far this year and seem in rather dissaray, and they will probably miss out on Europe altogether without an unbelievable run from here on out.

And if we're talking about disarray and missing out on Europe, who better to move on to than Liverpool. Liverpool probably couldn't be in a worse state. They lost at Chelsea and then at Sunderland via beachball-gate, so Anfielf, usually a fortress on European nights, must have seemed a wonderful sight. Yet without injured striker supreme Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard limping off again after 25 minutes, you could tell that the Liverpool season was going down the drain all at once. A 1-2 loss to Lyon later, with Manchester United coming to town Saturday, and well, the odds on Rafa Benetiz's job security are certainly not getting better. I guess that's what happens when you don't strengthen an already thin squad and also sell one of your key midfielders in the offseason.

Meanwhile, Arsenal, who are playing some of their wonderful silky football, may have been expected to win at AZ Alkmaar. Of course Arsenal always think they're better than they are, while always having something of an inferiority complex in Europe I feel. AZ might not have the traditional name recognition of PSV Eindhoven or Ajax, but they have been a good team in recent years, and they managed to hold Arsenal 1-1.

Bucking the home trend was Olympiakos, who held fort 2-1 over Standard Liege. So in recap, it was a 1-5-2 day for home teams. Rather striking, and none of the road victories were by any of the "giants" of Europe. A good day indeed for those who like upsets and drama.

Wednesday returned some sanity to the regular order or things, but there were still a few curveballs thrown to keep up the spice.

If you can call it business as usual, the unsurprising results including Juve beating Maccabi Haifa 1-0 in Turin, Man U beating CSKA Moscow 1-0 in Moscow, Marseille beating Zurich on the road 1-0, FC Porto beating Apoel Nicosia 2-1 at home, and Chelsea crushing Atlético Madrid 4-0 at Stamford Bridge.

Of those matches clearly Chelsea looked the best, but the result is also indicative of the utter collapse occurring at Atlético, which HalaMadrid has touched on here in the past. Sad. Man U's win was nice, on the road, and getting a goal in the second straight game from Antonio Valencia will boost them ahead of this weekend's clash at Anfield. I'll be looking forward to seeing if they can put Liverpool's season to bed and put Rafa's head on the chopping block so early in the season. Meanwhile, Juve continues to be underwhelming despite getting a result, and it's clear that this year probably won't involve any trophies for them, but they hopefully are on the right track for next year, as long as Gigi Buffon continues to play out of his mind and can come back healthy and on form after surgery for his right knee that he's hoping to have in late December after playing through the Inter Milan game.

There were three more results, however, which did not necessarily fall as predicted. First, Bayern Munich continues to be the epitome of inconsistency and lost 2-1 to Bordeaux. While most people would be surprised by this, but Bordeaux are not to be taken too lightly, and while I'd expect them to not last too long in the knockout stages, one of Bayern or Juve could very well end up in the Europa League. Bordeaux even won despite missing two pks. Besiktas held Wolfsburg 0-0 at the Wolkswagen Arena. Pretty amazing to hold this high flying team scoreless, though much of that was from super scoring Bosnian Edin Dzeko missing a few great chances.

(By the way, most people are focusing on the France-Ireland World Cup playoff draw, but Bosnia-Portugal with Bosnia getting the second leg at home could very well be the best matchup. Bosnia is still up and coming and doesn't have all the greatest results, including a 2-5 whacking at the hands of Spain, but they have the talent to send Ronaldo home pouting.)

Last and best of all though was AC Milan's 3-2 upset of Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. This was a very exciting game, including huge gaffes by Dida and Casillas gifting goals to the other team, a wonder shot out of nothing from Andrea Pirlo, Pato scoring a game winning brace, and signs of life from one Mr. Ronaldinho. The result was rather amazing because Milan was basically playing like a shell of its former self this year. But the amazing thing about having ageing players of the skill of Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, and Ronaldinho is that if they start clicking they can put on an occasional show of beautiful passing football. It was also very heartening and pleasing to Ronaldinho having fun with flicks and skills and generally reminding the world that there was once a time where he put on a perfect show that even the Bernabéu stood and applauded (unsurprisingly, he was jeered every time he touched the ball yesterday). Granted he had large stretches where he was somewhat invisible yesterday and there's still a long way to go before he nears any semblance of being on form for him, but even just those glimpses yesterday were enough to make me happy as a football fan.

And while I applauded the nice midfield work in the second half between Ronaldinho, Pirlo, Seedorf, and Pato, I doubt the Madridistas were very happy. I've not seen much of them this year so I can't really compare it to anything, but I wasn't really impressed with Kaká and Karim Benzema looks a little off kilter. I thought Lassana Diarra and Xabi Alonso were alright and I liked Royston Drenthe off the bench, but there still needs time for this team to gel. And how much does Ronaldo mean to them, maybe too much already? Madrid will certainly argue no, and although I don't doubt they can get it right and play great without him, they need to prove it. Nonetheless, let's hope that by November 29, we're not seeing the Barca and Real Madrid of the past two days.

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