All eyes on the Champions League

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COMMENT – This past week domestic football in Europe took a back seat as all thoughts and attention turned to the return of the Champions League and Europa League. The bigger matches to look for were, of course, in the Champions League, the most notable being first leg of the tie between Arsenal and Barcelona at a packed Emirates Stadium in North London.
Anyone expecting a repeat of the opening half an hour from last year’s tie, where Barcelona put together a breathtaking flurry of passes and attempts on goal, could be forgiven for being frustrated by this showing. Barcelona were without the services of Puyol, and Ibrahimovic is no longer at the club. His replacement, David Villa, did start the match, and even scored after being put through by Messi. But for large parts of the game, Villa remained a peripheral figure, unable to give the Arsenal back line a thorough test.
On this note, full marks to Koscielny, for he arguably produced his best in Arsenal uniform. The Frenchman was tasked with keeping Messi in check, particularly when the now two-time World Player of the Year drifts in from the right flank on to his favoured left foot, and so he did with the aid of countryman Clichy. The latter had to restrict his usual forays into the opposition half to be wary of Messi’s pace, but he still managed to dink a neat pass over the Barcelona back line for Van Persie’s goal.
This a good strike, but the keeper was to blame for leaving his near post unguarded. Valdes should rightly be furious at himself for stepping off his line to anticipate a cross, particularly when he did have cover from two defenders behind him. In any case, the second goal was a classic counterattack: the ball delivered for a speedy run down one flank; the cut back from the by-line to the centre of the penalty area and the finish provided by a winger coming in unattended off the opposite flank.
For their part, Barcelona put in a lacklustre performance, but credit should not be taken away from an Arsenal side that well and truly stifled them in midfield, thanks in no small part to Wilshere and Szczesny, who were gigantic figures in the midfield and in the goal respectively. Contrary to the norm, Arsenal were defended more than attacking, as evidenced by Barcelona having 61 per cent of the possession.
They could do little with the ball other than passing it around in vain, as Arsenal even racked up more attempts at goal. For now, this match will have served Arsenal well in terms of confidence for their upcoming fixtures, until the two sides meet again at the Camp Nou, where Barcelona’s away goal may prove to be crucial. A night earlier, Arsenal’s North London rivals Tottenham scored a victory over AC Milan at the San Siro, and that particular evening saw events gaining attention that took place both on and off the pitch.
Milan were toothless in attack in the first half, and were thoroughly outplayed by Redknapp. Still, they battled and battled hard, with both Flamini and Gattuso turning the affair into a physical conflict. Gattuso in particular seemed more intent on riling up the Milanese crowd rather than create a goal on the pitch. The front line received next to no service from midfield for large parts of the first half, and Tottenham were getting much joy down the centre and the wings, from where crosses kept raining down into the Milan penalty area.
Milan’s keeper, Abbiatti, was kept busy with collecting shots and intercepting crosses until his last effort to deny Peter Crouch a header on goal ended up with the keeper getting injured and stretchered off. Indeed, Milan’s best performers in the first half, and for most of the match in general, were the defenders and the out-of-position Thiago Silva, who was given the responsibility of shielding the back four. It was in the second half that the game came alive with Pato’s introduction in place of Seedorf.
Immediately, Milan went on the offensive, and won a succession of corners, two of which they so very nearly scored off of, but for the acrobatic heroics of Tottenham’s goalkeeper Gomes, who, barely two seasons ago, would have been odds-on to watch the ball go into the back of the net. As it was, Milan were caught out eventually by the two players whose combination had looked the most threatening; Lennon and Crouch. The lanky Englishman has been the most reliable striker for Tottenham in Europe this season, and his goal may well prove to be Milan’s undoing in this tie.
For Milan, their only hope to progress beyond this tie lies in attacking football, and for this, the triad of Pato, Robinho and Ibrahimovic must be given more than a half of football to score. In addition, they will need to take some more risks when passing the ball forward from midfield. Valencia and Schalke played out a draw at the Mestalla where Raul, the scourge of La Liga defences for so many years, returned to score and become the undisputed leading scorer in European club football, edging ahead of Filipo Inzaghi.
This is a remarkable achievement and another feather in the cap of the man who has been one of the best goal scorers of his generation, but the fact that he has reached this milestone in a shirt other than the white of Real Madrid, is a sad testament to the fading romance of the game. Valencia’s goal was scored by Soldado, who was as ever reliant for the Spanish side, and ironically has scored more goals than his former team mate David Villa, who has only managed half as many after his move to Barcelona.
Schalke have the away goal on their side, and it was only a moment of inspiration that allowed for it. They can do better than hope for a goalless draw in Germany to secure passage through to the next round. The most exciting match of the week was between Roma and Shakhtar in Rome. The Ukrainian side have managed three away goals, and it will take a resounding victory by the Italians to overcome this home defeat and end Shakhtar’s first foray into the knockout rounds of the Champions League.
Roma’s keeper Doni was unlucky twice, where the ball deflected off of a defender and then the keeper himself and into the net after he had made what was in itself a good effort to block it. Roma’s defence was prone to switching off, and this was their undoing in a tie that saw both sides go at each other hammer and tongs. All five goals were technically sound, and a combination of individual and collective skill, and it does seem a bit harsh that Roma’s first goal was declared an own goal by Shakhtar’s defender Rat.
The coming week will see Chelsea, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern Munich travel to Copenhagen, Lyon, Marseille and Inter Milan respectively. Watch this space.