Comment on Champions League Matchday 4.
Another action packed Champions League midweek has raced by and, over the two evenings, there is one result that leaps out. On Wednesday night, a sell out crowd at Parkhead witnessed an heroic Celtic side overcome the European might of Barcelona. Despite having a measly 16.4% of possession, the Hoops defended superbly and dispatched the few chances that they got clinically.
Tony Watt will receive immense praise for the assurity he displayed when he slotted past Victor Valdes, but Victor Wanyama, the scorer of Celtic’s opening goal, showed last night precisely why Neil Lennon values him in excess of £20m. A powerful, combative midfielder with an eye for goal, Wanyama excelled in exalted company in the centre of the park.
Credit too must go to Fraser Forster; the burly ‘keeper pulled off a string of spectacular saves to enhance the growing calls for an established place within the England set up. Lennon described the victory over the Catalan giants as “up there with anything I have achieved”, for everyone who saw the spectacle unfold in Scotland last night, it will surely be up there with anything they have ever witnessed on a football field.
Although the miraculous scenes at Parkhead were undoubtedly the highlight, the quality of entertainment throughout the tournament over the last two days has demonstrated precisely why it remains the premier club competition in the world. Each week has been full of exciting contests and plenty of goals. In years gone by, the group stage has been frequently a rather drab affair with the European heavyweights steam rolling through with two games to spare. This year only one side, Manchester United, have a 100% record and their games have been far from dull. With two matches left to play, historically dominant sides such as AC Milan, Real Madrid, and Juventus are far from certain to qualify.
Similarly, there are a number of less experienced, less renowned teams that are making an impressive impact on the European stage. Cash strapped Malaga have played vibrant, fearless attacking football, and consequently sit unbeaten atop a feisty Group C. Similarly, German champions Borussia Dortmund, who were unceremoniously dumped out of the competition last year at the first hurdle, lead Group D, having accrued 4 points over their two matches against Real Madrid. Dortmund, like Malaga, commit men forward quickly and aren’t afraid of leaving themselves exposed at the back when they rampage up the field. In a similar fashion to the Spanish side, Dortmund look odds on to progress to the last 16. Attacking football in this years competition seems not only to be entertaining, but also effective.
However, in the case of Manchester City, it appears rather that focus on defending should be Roberto Mancini’s main concern as they stare down the barrel of a second consecutive first round exit. A spirited Ajax side found themselves 2-0 up inside twenty minutes at the Etihad thanks to defensive marking that would put many Sunday League sides to shame. For Sim De Jong’s opening goal, City defenders’ reactions were fatally slow, allowing the Ajax skipper to slide home from close range. For De Jong’s second, Yaya Toure inexplicably allowed his man to run right across him to power a brilliant flick header past Joe Hart. City have now conceded nine goals in this year’s competition. The embarrassment of riches they possess in the striking department will not be enough to save them if they continue to defend in this manner.
While Manchester United have qualified and their City counterparts face probable elimination, safe passage to the knockout rounds is much more in the balance for Arsenal and Chelsea. Both London clubs currently occupy qualifying positions, but neither are assured of going through yet. Chelsea were once again fluent and attractive going forward, yet once again conceded twice. Shakhtar possess great talent in the likes of Willian and Fernandinho, but Chelsea still have yet to face a Juventus side who displayed complete dominance in their 4-0 dispatching of Nordsjaelland.
The combination of Oscar, Mata, Hazard and Torres will strike fear into any side they face in this year’s competition, but the sloppy defending which allowed Shakhtar to score two carbon copy goals on Wednesday will have to be looked into before they face Juventus’ own attacking triumvirate of Marchisio, Vidal, Quagliarella, and the increasingly influential Giovinco. Arsenal too, despite the absence of the pitiful Andre Santos, conceded twice on Tuesday night and must be similarly wary of the dangers of letting a lead slip if they are to progress. With competition for places in the central striker role at a premium, Wenger must hope that his threadbare defensive resources stay in tact for the visit of Montpellier. Lots to ponder, but also look forward to, as the group stages reach their conclusion.