It may have taken them 21 matches, but Glasgow Celtic have finally done it. In perhaps the biggest story emanating from Matchday 2 of the UEFA Champions League – a matchday which witnessed a number of eye-catching scorelines and a staggering 50 goals – Celtic tasted victory on away soil in the group stages of the competition for the first time ever and they did it in a fashion that is true to their legacy in the competition.
While, in terms of sheer passion and intensity, the win at Luzhniki Stadium against Spartak Moscow still falls short of that emotional roller-coaster of a match against Juventus (the match that no one fortunate enough to witness live would ever forget), this nevertheless will go down as one of the finest nights for the Scots in the competition’s recent history.
The topsy-turvy encounter, which saw both teams trade leads, an own goal, a controversial red card to Spartak’s Insaurralde, was settled in the 90th minute when Georgios Samaras thumped a header into Spartak’s net to seal that elusive away win for the Hoops. Manager Neil Lennon was understandably elated by the turn of events and promptly declared himself to be ‘probably the proudest man in Europe’ before showering praise on his ‘magnificent’ players.
Leaving aside the historical aspect of the win, the result coupled with Benfica losing to Barcelona at home in a match marred by the horrific injury suffered by Carlos Puyol, does place the Bhoys in a fantastic position to qualify from Group G. This is just as well since Celtic’s season will probably be defined by their performance in this competition due to the demeaning of SPL’s stature as a result of Rangers’ sad demise. With the traditional set of quadruple Old Firm derbies wiped off the fixture list, games against the Europe’s elite has added importance attached to it this season at Parkhead.
While it’s extremely unlikely that Lennon’s men will get anything from their next assignment in the group which happens to be a trip to Nou Camp, Celtic will fancy their chances in the last three matches with two of them being staged at the European fortress that is Celtic Park. Crucially though their qualification may well hinge on the tie sandwiched between those home fixtures, the away leg to Benfica on Matchday 5.
However, in spite of Celtic’s history defying feats in Russia, it was in neighbouring Belarus that the greatest upset of Matchday 2 – and probably of the season – occurred. The Belarusian champions BATE Borisov had already made a dream start to the competition by defeating Lille 3-1 away from home on Matchday 1. But on Tuesday night, that dream was about to become a delirious fantasy as BATE hosted one of the competition’s giants in last season’s finalists, Bayern Munich. Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern came into the fixture on a nine match winning streak in all competitions this season; had they won this game it would have been the first time ever that they had managed to win the first ten games in a season. A team situated 53 places below them in UEFA’s club rankings seemed to provide the ideal opposition for Bayern to set the new record.
But on a night which in time would become a part of folklore among BATE faithful, Belarus’ finest team would overturn their German counterparts to notch up a memorable 3-1 victory and send shockwaves all across Europe. Even though Bayern dominated possession throughout the game, they had no answer to BATE’s fast paced counter attacks which ultimately yielded goals from Aleksandr Pavlov in first half, and Vitali Rodionov and substitute Renan Bresnan in the second half. Franck Ribéry pulled one back for the Bayern late in the second half but it was nothing more than mere consolation, that is if Bayern can draw any such thing from what surely was one of their most humiliating defeats in Europe. The victory seems even more impressive when put in the context that instead of playing at their home stadium in Borisov, BATE, in adherence to UEFA’s stadium regulations, has to play all their ‘home’ matches in the competition at the Dinamo Stadium in Minsk.
The man who masterminded this famous win is Viktor Goncharenko, who at 35 has already been in charge of the club for the past four years. After his playing career for BATE ended at 25 due to ruptured knee ligaments, Goncharenko immediately took up coaching and has come up through the managerial ranks, so to speak, by first managing the reserves, then being assistant manager in the first team before finally landing the big job. Since then he has guided BATE to four successive league titles and thrice to Champions League group stages. This result though would exceed all such prior achievements in a fledgling yet impressive career. The man himself though seems to have his feet firmly planted on the ground as reflected on the path forward with due caution.
“Emotions are overwhelming, but I’m far from euphoric. We earned a grand victory, but you shouldn’t speculate that now we have to win every match. It’s the Champions League and we shouldn’t forget that.“
With six points from their first two fixtures in Group F, a maiden progression to the knockout rounds of this competition is a definite reality for BATE. The team would soon be realizing the immense pressure that accompanies such reality. Rest assured, chances of them being taken lightly in any of the remaining fixtures have been firmly thrown out of the window. The double header against Valencia on the next two matchdays will go a long way in determining their fortunes in the competition. It will be fascinating to see how many more rabbits Goncharenko can pull out of the hat.
In Group D, the so called Group of Death, Manchester City can consider themselves extremely lucky to salvage a point at home against Borussia Dortmund. The German champions thoroughly outplayed the Citizens in their backyard and deservedly took the lead through Marco Reus around the hour mark. Only some wasteful finishing and an inspired display by Man City goalkeeper Joe Hart prevented Dortmund from adding to their lead. This ultimately would prove decisive as in the dying minutes of the game Dortmund defender Nevan Subotic was harshly penalized for handling in the box and substitute Mario Balotelli converted the resulting spot-kick to hand City a barely deserved share of the spoils.
The late equalizer though will do little to mask the problems staring at the face of Man City this season. The defense which at times seemed impregnable last season is yet to keep a clean sheet this term, a factor which seriously threatens to undermine their chances of further progression in the competition. While some of the defensive lapses can be attributed to individual errors, a major portion of the blame must be shouldered by Roberto Mancini whose inexplicable tinkering with his team’s formation has backfired more than once now. The manager’s decision to switch to three at the back during the second period was soon followed by Reus’ opener and a dominant spell by Dortmund before Man City reverted to a more traditional back four.
In the group’s other match, Cristiano Ronaldo scored his second hattrick in four days, and seventeenth in Real Madrid colours, to fire Los Merengues to a convincing 4-1 victory at Amsterdam Arena against Ajax. The goal of the game though came from Karim Benzema who scored from a stunning overhead kick.
Talking of wonderful strikes, Málaga winger Eliseu scored a pair of blinders against Anderlecht in a 3-0 away win which maintained the Spanish club’s perfect start to their debut Champions League campaign. After a tumultuous summer off the pitch due to financial reasons, it’s great to see Málaga making such a wonderful fist of the challenges posed by the premier club competition in the world. Thanks to their scintillating form, the pressure is now on the two original favourites to qualify from Group C – Zenit St Petersburg and AC Milan. In this regard, Milan picked up a crucial victory away against Zenit by winning a thrilling encounter by the odd goal in five. The hero for Rossoneri was goalkeeper Christian Abbiati who pulled off a string of fantastic saves to keep Milan in the game before an own goal by Zenit’s Tomas Hubocan settled the contest. The big spending Russians are now pointless after two matches and pretty much staring down the barrel as far as their future in this season’s competition is concerned.
In Group A, Porto reaffirmed their status as the top seeded team in the group by defeating the much vaunted PSG thanks to a late strike by Colombian winger James Rodríguez. The 1-0 scoreline probably does not do justice to the Portuguese side’s domination all throughout the match against Zlatan Ibrahimovic and co. The French club now find themselves level on points with Dynamo Kyiv who defeated the group minnows Dinamo Zagreb 2-0 at home.
English club Arsenal were 3-1 victors against Olympiacos at home in Group B in a game which saw Gunner’s striker Gervinho score his fifth goal in as many starts this season. With Schalke drawing 2-2 at home against French champions Montpellier, the result sees Arsenal in pole position in the group with two wins out of two.
Like Arsenal, their Premier League rivals Chelsea too are sitting atop their own group, Group E, after a resounding 4-0 victory away to Danish champions Nordsjælland. While their opponents are admittedly the whipping boys of the group, the margin of victory and the overall performance will please manager Roberto Di Matteo greatly. Juventus, the other heavyweight team in the group, hosted Shakhtar Donetsk in the first ever European match at the Juventus Stadium on Tuesday night but failed to mark the special occasion with a victory. In fact, their Ukrainian visitors would have left Turin aggrieved at not bagging all three points from an encounter that finished 1-1.
In Group H, Manchester United made it two wins out of two by defeating CFR Cluj away from home 2-1 thanks to a brace from Robin van Persie after falling behind to a goal which Sir Alex Ferguson later branded as ‘shocking’. In the group’s other match, Braga picked up a crucial away victory at Galatasaray and now sit level on points with Cluj.