Tuesday’s match day four fixtures of the UEFA Champions League had a total of 27 goals, comebacks, mauling, anxious moments and of course talking points. TOUCHLINEUI will examine the talking points of what was a thrilling night of European top tier football. We’ll examine it on a group-to-group basis.
WELCOME TO THE 100 CLUB
Tuesday’s matchup between Italian Champions, Juventus and Greek giants, Olympiakos saw Andrea Pirlo become the 29th player to make 100 or more appearances in the European Cup/UEFA Champions League Competition. The Italian joins the likes of Maldini, Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Xavi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Oliver Kahn, Carles Puyol, Edwin Van Der Sar, Iker Casillas, Petr Cech, Victor Valdes, Roar Strand, Luis Figo, Raul, Roberto Carlos, Andriy Shevchenko, David Beckham, Javier Zanetti, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Clarence Seedorf, Gary Neville, Ashley Cole, Fernando Morientes and Oleksander Shovkovskiy in the exclusive list. To mark the occasion, the deep lying playmaker celebrated the occasion by scoring a sublime freekick that briefly put the Turin side ahead. Congrats Andrea Pirlo!
Teaser: Out of the 29 players, how many achieved the feat with a single club?
ATLETICO MADRID IN CONTROL OF GROUP A
After a shock opening day defeat in the hands of Olympiakos, questions were raised as to how Diego Simeone’s men will respond. How did they respond? The Atletico way! Since the defeat in Greece, Los Colchoneros have won their next three games, scoring 8 goals and conceding none. Another victory at home to Olympiakos will guarantee their European adventure into February and should Juventus drop points away to Malmo, then the clash between Juventus and Atletico Madrid on match day six will be a dead rubber for the Los Rojiblancos. It is still too early to say whether they will replicate last season’s run to final but at this rate, it will take some beating to stop them.
While Juventus have in recent years dominated domestically, they have been far from it on the continent. Quarter final exit to Bayern Munchen in 2013 and a group stage exit last term have seen them labeled with the unwanted tag of “local champions”. This was however partially due to the refusal of then coach, Antonio Conte to tinker with his favored 3-5-2 formation to suit the demands of European football. The formation, though brilliant, could be exposed by teams who overload the flanks. Bayern with Ribery/Alaba and Robben/Lahm exposed it in 2013 while Real Madrid with Marcelo/Ronaldo and Bale/Carvajal exposed its flaws last year. Yesterday’s match against Olympiakos saw new coach, Allegri switch to the 4-4-2 formation and it resulted in a 3-2 comeback win for the Old Lady. While it will take some time to get used to, it provides a number of variables for the Italians and makes the Bianconeri less predictable.
HEAD TO HEAD RECORD
Juventus 3-2 over Olympiakos was a much needed one but it has put Bianconeri in a tight corner. Should Juventus and the Greek side finish level on points after the group stage; the Greek giants will advance based on the infamous head to head rule. Olympiakos beat Juventus 1-0 at the Karaiskakis Stadium and subsequently scored two away goals at the Juventus Stadium which puts the Thrylos at an advantage should they be tied on the same points after match day six.
CAN ANYONE STOP REAL MADRID FROM RETAINING THE CUP?
Real Madrid’s hard fought 1-0 win on Tuesday extended their winning streak to twelve (47 goals scored and 7 conceded). At the moment very few teams can keep up with the frightening talent in the team. After the sale of Alonso and Di Maria, most pundits and fans feared the worst but credit must however be given to Carlo Ancelotti for steadying the ship after a rocky start. In the Blancos twelve match winning run, they have taken scalp of teams like Barcelona and Liverpool (twice), the latter being the latest victims. Unlike Bayern (the defending champions last year) that looked vulnerable at the back, it is hard to point out any weaknesses in this Madrid team. The lack of a pivot was pointed out as a potential weakness but the 3-1 Clasico win has shown that the likes of Modric and Kroos can play against the very best in the middle of the park. At the back, Casillas, for all his gaffe of recent, is still a very fine shot stopper; Carvajal, though raw, has improved; Ramos is arguably the best centre back in modern football while Pepe and Varane are fantastic sidekicks; at the left back, Marcelo has been brilliant and Coentrao is also a decent option. In the midfield, Kroos and Modric have developed a fine partnership with Khedira and Illara waiting in their wings. Upfront, Rodriguez is gradually churning impressive performances after an underwhelming start to his Madrid career. Then the BBC! Ah, Benzema is at the moment the best striker in the world and he is also Madrid top scorer in Europe this term, Bale is threat down the flanks and can score goals and let’s not forget the World’s best Player, Cristiano Ronaldo who already has twenty-two goals and just keeps getting better.
The question now is CAN ANYONE STOP THE MERENGUES? On current form, it looks a tall order. However, history has shown that no one has ever retained the UEFA Champions League. Will they become the first to break that jinx? Time will certainly tell.
RONALDO HAS TO WAIT!
Cristiano Ronaldo went into the game against Liverpool on 70 Champions League goals, one shy of equaling the record set by Spain and Real Madrid legend, Raul. However it was not to be his night as he was thwarted by Mignolet, Toure, poor finish and control. The Portuguese seemed too eager to equal the record and he tried too hard to etch his name in glory. The 29 year old will have to wait till the 26th of November when Real plays Basel.
LIVERPOOL RESERVES GIVE RODGERS FOOD FOR THOUGHT
I have been surprised by some of the criticism Rodgers has gotten over his team selection. I feel it was the right thing to do considering the fact that their hopes did not lie on the match. Their Champions League fate lies on their next two games away to Ludogorets and the home clash against Basel. With a blockbuster clash against Chelsea on Sunday, which they can win and move up in the table, why not give the non-starters a run-out and rest the likes of Henderson, Gerrard, Sterling, Coutinho, Lovren, Glen Johnson and Balotelli a break especially when you consider the fact that six of those players rank in the top ten of Premier League minutes played this season.
Despite the uproar the former Swansea boss’ selection caused, credit must however be given to the lads that came in. Kolo Toure was exceptional, denying Cristiano Ronaldo a couple of times. Lucas Leiva and Emre Can and Joe Allen were sound defensively and stuck to their guns. Up front Markovic had a decent game though his decision making let him down while Borini and Lallana worked their socks off. These players have given Rodgers a food for thought going into Sunday’s clash which is a welcome problem especially with some of the regulars flattering to deceive this season.
KOLO TOURE’S GAME BY NUMBER
Tackles won: 100%
Squawka Football @Squawka
Great job boys, up next, Chelsea!
ALL TO PLAY FOR
Bayer Leverkusen’s win in Russia saw them move four points off their nearest challengers, Monaco, meaning they have a foot in the next round. However, there is still a lot to play for the likes of Monaco (5 pts), Zenit (4pts) and Benfica (4pts) with two rounds of fixtures to go. Talisca’s late goal for Benfica against Monaco put them back in the mix after a poor start to the campaign. With nine points, Leverkusen is almost there and with a home game to come against Monaco, they will fancy their chances. Zenit will host Benfica on the 26th of November as the Russians look to bounce from a disappointing home loss on Tuesday. The group has been called the Group of Even Sides and with two match days to go, it is living to that billing.
RUSSIAN DISAPPOINTMENT IN EUROPE
Zenit’s hopes of qualification took a huge blow on Tuesday thanks to a disappointing home loss to Leverkusen. Apart from the qualification blow the defeat landed, it also showed how far Villas Boas men are from the zenith. After a brilliant start in which they beat Benfica 2-0 in Portugal, the Gazprom sponsored side has picked up just a point from the following three games. Thankfully, no one has run away with the group. This contrasts with their domestic form where they are undefeated, having won ten out of their opening twelve fixtures. They are currently four points clear of another Champions League struggler, CSKA Moscow. Local Champions you call them? You are not far from the truth.
On Tuesday, Borussia Dortmund became one of the two sides, the other Real Madrid, to extend their Champions League campaign to February thanks to a comprehensive 4-1 win over Galatasaray at
the Signal Iduna Park. The victory also means they need a win from their next two games (away to Arsenal and at home to Anderlecht) to secure top spot and a favorable draw in the knockout. They are one of the three sides, the others Real Madrid and Bayern Munchen, with a 100% percent record. The Blacks and Yellows have found the back of the net thirteen times and have let in just one, which was on match day four.
This however contrasts with their terrible domestic form where they lie 17th on the log with just 7 points from a possible 30! Klopp’s men have the longest losing run which stands at five and they have won more games in the Champions League (4) than in the Bundesliga (2). Strange! Despite their poor form in the German division, their Champions League form suggest that they are still very much up there with the best and at full strength can go toe to toe with the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munchen, Chelsea and Barcelona. Another 2013 mazy run in the offing?
WAS IT THE EMIRATES OR ISTANBUL?
Arsenal also went into Tuesday’s round of fixtures knowing a victory against Anderlecht coupled with a victory for Dortmund will ensure their qualification to the next round and make their home clash against Dortmund on the 26th of November a final. A Mikel Arteta penalty and an Alexis Sanchez volley after his free kick put the Gunners in control and left the Belgians stunned. A second half finish from the Oxlade looked to have Wenger’s men in full control until the unthinkable happened. A Vanden Borre finish, though clearly offside, looked a consolation until Monreal for best reasons known to him presented a penalty gift to Borre who took it with all gladness and put the Belgians on a comeback trail. Still it looked the Gunners would hold out but the Purple and Whites had other ideas and completed the comeback with a superb header from Aleksander Mitrovic.
Credit must be given to Anderlecht for staging such a comeback but what however surprised me is the way the Gunners collapsed in the space of thirty minutes. The first goal, though offside, was as a result of failure to pick up your man in the box, the second goal shows everyone why Monreal is not a central defender and why Wenger should or should have dipped his hands in the market during the summer window and buy a centre back, the third goal resulted from Per Mertesacker’s failure to keep to a simple training rule which is-do not allow your opponent run ahead of you. Another thing that surprised me is Wenger’s willingness to play a highline despite the fact Mertesacker does not ring a bell as a fast defender. While playing a highline pushes the opposition back, it leaves the attacking prone to being caught on the break or through balls played behind the defence. Fabregas assist for Diego Costa goal against Arsenal and Chelsea’s 6-0 demolition of Arsenal last season shows the flaws of a highline. A team with a better strength upfront would have exposed Arsenal’s defensive vulnerabilities. Also, why would Wenger bring in Podolski and Rosicky when it was in 3-2 instead of trying to see out the game?
Arsenal’s 30 minute collapse means their match day home clash against Dortmund will no longer be the final fans dreamed of but a potential dead rubber. With the Germans playing Anderlecht at home on match day six, it will take something special for Arsenal to top Group D. If Arsenal can lose concentration against Anderlecht, then you wonder if the Gunners are ready to take on the big guns.