Matchday 1 of the UEFA Champions League has come and gone, ushering in a new season of Europe’s premier club competition. Even the hopeful among us can’t believe they’ve garnered enough knowledge after 90 minutes to decide all eight groups. But several things have become blatantly obvious. So I present the Starting XI things learned about this year’s UCL field.
We all should know who Mario Gotze is
Cristiano Ronaldo may not be familiar with the diminutive German teen, but the Borussia Dortmund star is serving notice quickly. The German champions were only able to manage a draw against Arsenal despite dominating for large stretches. But the cohesive unit that features exciting attackers like Shinji Kagawa, Kevin Groβkreutz, Robert Lewandowski and goal-scorer Ivan Perisic could be a factor in the knockout stages, especially if it can get a favorable draw. And the guiding light in the quest will be Gotze, who scored six goals and had 11 assists in 33 league games a season ago.
Barcelona is human
This one may sting a little bit, especially among those of us who saw Barca on paper in the offseason and assumed they would win all sixty-some-odd matches this year. Back-to-back 2-2 draws with Real Sociedad and Milan tell otherwise, however. There are question marks. There will be growing pains in the midfield as Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez are integrated, exacerbated by Andres Iniesta’s absence for a month. And they’re riding the knife’s edge trying to subsist with a backline consisting of three defenders, the only role Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano seem to fill these days. It’ll take some time to figure out how all the pieces fit together.
The group of death is living up to its moniker
Group A is looking quite dangerous. We knew going in that Bayern Munich, Villarreal, Manchester City and Napoli would be a tough group to sort out. A reshuffling Villarreal got off to a poor start, losing at home to Bayern Munich behind Toni Kroos, Rafinha and the suddenly resurgent Franck Ribery. But for a team like Napoli to go into Manchester and draw the Citizens is some feat. This may be a group of death that actually elicits change since two teams from the continent’s four biggest leagues are guaranteed to be exiting the group stages. But at least it will provide some entertaining soccer for the next few months.
Gasperini is not long for Milan at this rate
The Gian Piero Gasperini era, well, it’s not off to a great start. A 2-1 loss to Milan in the Italian Super Cup in early August, eh, that’s excusable. A season-opening loss away to Palermo, 4-3, a little less. But a 1-0 loss to Trabzonspor, a team that learned they’d be in the Champions League only a few weeks ago after Fenerbache’s expulsion, no way. Gasperini is feeling the heat over his formation choices, and a tough schedule that has them play four games in the next 14 games, including a meeting with a desperate Roma club this weekend and Napoli Oct. 1, is anything but favorable. Serie A has been lost in September by would-be contenders each of the last two years (Juventus and Roma last season, Juve and Milan the year before), putting Gasperini on a short leash.
Robin van Persie is among England’s elite forwards
Ok, that’s not exactly news. But look at his numbers in the English Premier League the last three seasons.
2008-09: 11 goals, 10 rebounds in 28 matches
2009-10: nine goals, seven assists in 16 matches
2010-11: 18 goals, seven assists in 26 matches
His goal against Dortmund, popping up against the run of play to sneak one for the Gunners, is quintessentially him. He’s been plagued by injuries for years. If he can get on the field for 30 games once – just once – you’ll see him put up numbers that over the last decade have only been rivaled by names like Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney.
Ryan Giggs is still awesome
There’s not much more that needs to be said, except that Sir Alex Ferguson’s ability to interchange pieces in the midfield has kept the Welshman evergreen on the downside of 35.
Someone needs to buy Hulk and soon
Ok, so he missed a penalty in Porto’s 2-1 win over Shakhtar Donetsk. But his free kick goal later in the first half was sublime. Last season, the credit for Porto’s Europa League-Portuguese Liga double was split between Hulk and Falcao on the field and wunderkind Andre Villas-Boas on the sidelines. With the latter player at Atletico Madrid and the manager having traded Porto for London, it’s Hulk’s time to shine … and receive the spotlight and commensurate payday. The Portuguese side would be well-advised to cash in on the 25-year-old soon; just ask Sevilla about the €20 million or so they lost holding onto Luis Fabiano too long.
The rumors of Fernando Torres decline may have been premature
The Spanish striker may only have one goal in 23 matches in a Chelsea shirt. But Torres had numerous opportunities against Bayer Leverkusen – and not just the ones created for him that he was unable to finish. Torres was able to make his own space, almost scoring a wonderful flicked-on goal before finding the free space that set up goals by David Luiz and Juan Mata. It’s safe to say that Drogba and Nicolas Anelka represent Chelsea forwards past, while Torres and Daniel Sturridge look comfortable as the strikers of the future. We’ll see how they combine in the present, but Torres should keep up his end of the bargain. The goals are bound to come.
Is the 4-4-2 dead?
That’s clearly an overstatement. But how many teams are really still rolling out this formation? By my reckoning, only 10 of the 32 teams in group play used it, most from smaller nations, the only exceptions being Villarreal, Manchester City, Milan and Valencia. It’s worth noting that of those four, three utilized a diamond formation in the midfield capped by a traditional trequartista. Napoli opted for its favored 3-4-2-1 with Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi supporting Edinson Cavani. As mentioned before, Inter took heat for using three at the back. Barcelona ostensibly had four at the back, but with Dani Alves constantly in an advanced position, it really was more of a 3-1-3-3. And Zenit St. Petersburg went conservative with five at the back. The most popular formation seems to be 4-2-3-1 – preferred by Bayern, Real Madrid and Dortmund – while others like Manchester United went more cautious in a 4-3-2-1. I think the formational shifts are indicative of how blurred the line between attacking midfielder and forward have become as well as a reliance on wide play.
Slow start to season could help small countries
Prior to their first Champions League matches, teams from Spain had two league matches under their belts after a players strike and strung around an international break. For Serie A clubs, that number was one. It’s possible the late start could cost them in Europe. Napoli looked none the worse for wear in Group A, but Villarreal could get left behind. Inter is a step slow out of the gate with precious little time to right the ship. And Valencia face a battle to get out of Group E.
Could Apoel Nicosia be my team?
In 2007, it was Norway’s Rosenborg (heady draw at Stamford Bridge and a win over Valencia in first three matches). In 2008, it was Romanian side CFR Cluj (group-opening win at Roma) and Cyrpus’ Anorthosis (draw with Werder Bremen and win over Panathinaikos to open group). In 2009, Romanian side Unirea Urziceni got the honors (4-1 win at Rangers). Last year, it again was Cluj (win over Basel and one-goal losses away to Roma and Munich). Each year, it seems I latch my rooting hopes onto a small club from an obscure nation to survive the group stages. It amounts to pretty much a death sentence for those clubs. This year’s unlucky victim is Apoel Nicoisa, the Cypriot club that opened their group with a 2-1 home win over Zenit St. Petersburg. Group G seems easy enough, with Porto the favorite and Shakhtar Donetsk an unconvincing second choice. Apoel may be able to escape, though to do so they’ll have to contend with daunting trips to Eastern Europe, never easy venues to escape with points. Should they falter, I’m prepared to shift my rooting interest toward Dinamo Zagreb, who were impressive in their attacking of Madrid at home, falling 1-0.