United enjoy easy run, Real fail to make the cut


COMMENT – This past week saw the completion of the first leg stage of the Champions League knockout phase. Real Madrid and Manchester United were on the road visiting Lyon and Marseille respectively while Bayern Munich travelled to face Inter Milan and Chelsea visited Denmark to face FC Copenhagen.
Manchester United had the easiest run of the lot, as Marseille lacked any real threat going forward. With the absence of the energetic Valbuena, who is capable of all sorts of trickery, the task of playmaking was wholly and solely placed on the shoulders of Lucho Gonzalez.
Sir Alex Ferguson had realised this too, and his team were under strict orders not to allow the Argentinean much space to pick his passes. The absence of Andre-Pierre Gignac meant Brandao had to play the lone striker, and this was always going to be a one-sided battle in favour of the United back line. Brandao lacks the pace to run at or behind most defensive setups, and his aerial ability was no match for the dominant Nemanja Vidic.
For their own part, United’s chief offensive outlet was Nani, and the winger caused enough problems in the first half to force Marseille’s midfield deeper, and even caused winger Ayew dropping deep to help out Heinze with defending on Nani’s flank. The match saw a total of 9 attempts on goal, 5 of which were off target. The statistics show that this was an even contest, and the return leg will need an early Marseille goal to make things interesting.
With the return of key players Gignac and Valbuena, the possibility of that happening will definitely increase. In Lyon, Real Madrid were aiming to banish the ghost of seasons past, as Mourinho’s sets out to achieve their first win in six matches. The former French Champions have had a hard going in the domestic league so far, but it was a loud and intimidating Stade de Gerland that greeted a club who have not scored here in three visits.
The first half saw the hosts come out strongly. Though they were getting much joy down the wings, but the crosses were ineffectual. Still, the home side looked much likelier to score and it took a Casillas fumble-and-save combination to provide the most dramatic moment of the first half, where he first spilled Bastos’s incoming cross, only to parry the resulting Gomis effort over the cross bar. While Madrid tried to rally, it was only in the second half that they came to life. Ronaldo and Ramos both came painfully close to scoring, only to be denied the spoils by the post and the cross bar.
Adebayor failed to provide much in the centre of the formation, and Mourinho’s decision to send in former Lyon fan favourite Benzema was an inspired move. The Frenchman, who has looked much more eager on his outings in Europe compared to the demure figure he has cut in La Liga, scored barely a minute after coming on.
While the Lyon faithful can be forgiven their mixed emotions on Benzema’s visit, Real should check themselves for what became an uncharacteristic display of complacency.
The urgency that had been so visible from the start of the second period suddenly disappeared. What is more, it was not just in attack that this vague apathy settled in. The defense also exhibited some of the slip-ups that can now be called part and parcel of any Real Madrid side. Lyon’s goal was a result of Real’s inability to deal with a well delivered Gourcuff set piece, and now the tie is evenly poised at 1-1, with a slight away goal advantage to Real Madrid. Mourinho has not placed his faith in Benzema enough to give the striker many starts, but with Adebayor clearly unable to fill the gap created by Higuain’s injury, the Frenchman could be the answer to Real’s centre-forward riddle.
Chelsea had a good outing against FC Copenhagen in a match that saw both Torres and Anelka function well together and individually. With Drogba sitting on the bench, Torres was able to manoeuvre much more comfortably in spaces that, with both of them on the pitch, were crowded out. This is similar to how Drogba himself performed in the game against Everton, when he played without Torres in tow. The two occupy similar areas on the pitch, and there appears to be little they can do together except get in each other’s way.
Anelka’s match-winning brace in Denmark is further proof that he should not be played in a deep role, as was the case when Torres, Drogba and Anelka all started the game. While he may worry about ways to juggle the attacking options presented by the aforementioned strikers and the effective Malouda, Ancelotti will take heart from Torres’ performance in Copenhagen.
Lampard also looked more comfortable on the ball, and his performances always play a crucial role in Chelsea’s season. For Copenhagen, their run in the Champion’s League this season may well be at an end. Stamford Bridge may not be the impenetrable fortress it was some seasons ago, but scoring a minimum of three goals there may well prove impossible.
In the clash of last year’s Champions League finalists Bayern and Inter, it was the Germans who came away with a deserved victory. The hero of the night was undoubtedly Bayern goalkeeper Thomas Kraft, who pulled off a series of saves to deny Eto’o in particular. Bayern faced an Inter side who were looking to venture forward at every opportunity, and the visitors replied in kind.
As is always the case when Ribbery and Robben line up together, the men in red were able to find an easy outlet for their passing down the flanks. Robben in particular gave a hellish time to Inter’s back line with his pace and close control.
Both sides went at it hammer and tongs, and while Inter deserve credit for not letting up on the pressure, Bayern deserve even more for refusing to buckle down in their own half and see the evening out.
An event timeline of the match would show a smattering of attempts at goal, both on and off target, as both sides looked to create and take any and all chances that came their way. The last gasp Bayern goal was a result of Lucio switching off, probably assuming that Julio Cesar will easily deal with Robben’s speculative effort, only for Gomez to slip in for the winner.
This not-so-small step for Bayern was a giant stride for German football as this win took the German football’s coefficient ahead of Italy’s, which means that now Germany will be allowed to enter four teams in Champions League starting in the 2012-13 season. Italy will lose out on one of their current four spots. Defeats to all Italian teams in home legs are evidence of this seismic shift in the continental game, as AC Milan, Roma and Inter Milan all lost their first leg ties. The second leg matches will be played out over the next fortnight.