As Matchday 3 of UEFA Champions’ League draws to a close, TheHardTackle analyses the results and ponders upon 5 major revelations from the games across the continent.
The 3rd installment of the Champions League group stage saw the biggest names of club football go head to head in an array of intriguing battles to move one step closer to book a place in the knockouts of club football’s finest piece of silverware. As some moved towards the parity of progression, others sunk deeper into the danger of the knockout blow. The showstopper fixture of the game-week involved Arsenal hosting the runners up of the previous edition, Borrusia Dortmund. Other significant match-ups saw Barcelona take on AC Milan at the San Siro, and the Old Lady take on Real Madrid at the Bernebeau.
A lot of positives, a host of negatives and a cluster of other talking points emerged from the 90 minutes across various venues over the two evenings. Here are the five most significant ones –
1)Shinji Kagawa and Ryan Giggs show the rest of the pack how its done
On the backdrop of a couple of points dropped against the Saints at Old Trafford at the weekend, David Moyes’ side came into the tricky fixture against a relatively unknown Spanish quantity knowing full well that a repetition of the same mistakes could well prove to be costlier than the disappointment of being content with a solitary point. The United midfield, which has been the subject of much dissection and debate over the past few months has struggled to cope with the absence of a genuine creative force who can control the tempo of proceedings down the middle and link the 2nd quarter of the pitch to the 3rd. Wayne Rooney, who had moulded himself into an advanced playmaker under Sir Alex has now been pushed further forward under Moyes in his more conventional 4-4-2, thereby widening the gap between midfield and attack. On Saturday, Southampton exploited the lack of numbers in United’s midfield by closing down any space for Carrick and Fellaini to operate in.
However, the inclusion of Ryan Giggs and Shinji Kagawa on Tuesday gave the much needed creative impetus to the Red Devils midfield. Whereas the former started down the left, the latter started centrally alongside Michael Carrick. The duo constantly interchanged positions – as Giggs drifted out wide, Kagawa came into central midfield, rendering fluidity and creativity to an otherwise static midfield. The Red Devils looked comfortable in position for most part of the game and carved upon the Sociedad backline on more than one occasion through positional interchanges and quick one-two’s.
2)Fernando Torres continues his rejuvenation under Mourinho
If I had to pick one player who has let his suitors down than any other, Fernando Torres would be among the among the first names to spring to mind. The Spaniard has been on limbo since that acrimonious hour of transfer deadline day in which he swapped Anfield for Stamford Bridge. Be it the system that did not play to his strengths, his fitness alienating him or his self-confidence taking a plunge into the depths of obscurity , Torres has for long been a mere shadow of his flamboyant past.
And just as when the Chelsea faithful had started coming to terms with the ‘new’ Torres, El Nino has started to show glimpses of his former self on a more regular basis, and Schalke was one of those evenings when we saw the very best of the Spanish #9. Clinical finishing, exuding confidence in possession and some intelligent running off the ball re-affirmed the hard-work put in on the training ground by Mourinho and his staff on him, and though the Fernando Torres of 2008 may not be back just yet, the fire of old has certainly re-ignited.
3)There is no stopping Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Speaking of strikers brings us to the other end of the spectrum where we have the towering Swede who never seems to run out of an immense degree of self-belief to pull of the near impossible. In an exhibition display of quality in its purest form, Ibrahimovic decimated the Belgian side with two instinctive finishes, a cannonball and a far post thump to collect all three points for Le Parisens. Such was the sheer eminence of the Swede’s performance that even the home support could not help but give a standing ovation to one of the finest strikers in the game for a long time now.
4)Borussia Dortmund exploit Arsenal’s lack of width
Coming into the marquee fixture of the week, Arsene Wenger faced a selection dilemma on the wings. With Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolksi and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain ruled out due to injury, Mesut Ozil and Tomas Rosicky were played as the makeshift wingers. Whereas both can play as auxiliary wide man, it is a well known fact that neither of stay wide, given their preference of building attacks through the middle. During the game, both Rosicky and Ozil drifted in-field, congesting the middle and leaving plenty of room down the sides for the Dortmund full-backs to exploit. With either of Sven Bender or Nuri Sahin dropping back to form a three man back-line, Grosskreutz and Schmelzer pushed forward constantly as they got ample opportunities to feed Lewandowski from the wide areas.
5)Conte’s decision to play four at the back pays off(almost)
With the shock at the Artemo Franchi over the weekend, Antonio Conte arrived at the Bernebeau with a lot of thinking to do – not only in terms of figuring a way out to not leave Madrid empty handed, but to also stitch together his best combination of players. With the likes of Cuadrado having a free run against the Old Lady, the Italian reverted back to the more conventional four man defense in an attempt to negate the influence of Madrid’s quality down the wings, and the decision almost payed instant dividends. Juventus were the better team until a rather cheeky act of play-acting by Ronaldo got Chiellini sent off.
One of the telling fallacies of Madrid in this game was that Pirlo was left virtually unmarked for large periods of the game, thereby giving him all the space to dictate play from deep. Though the home side attempted to press the Juve center-backs to stop them building play from scratch, it was never going to work as the Old Lady had six players to play around and eventually move the ball forward. All in all, though Angel Di Maria caused havoc more than once down the right, Juve were rarely opened up with their full quota of 11 players on the pitch and a shift to the 4-5-1 did negate Madrid’s wings to a large extent.
With match-day four of Europe’s Elite competition nearly a couple of weeks away, it will be interesting to note whether we see more of the above or are there a few more surprises in the beckoning.