Like getting through a gorgeous wedding ceremony only to find out the reception has no open bar, the first matches of the UEFA Champions League group stages start with a lot of pageantry and wonder, only to be brought back to sobering reality.
It starts with stunning scenes of passionate fandom in stadiums like Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park or Benefica’s Estadio Da Luz or Barcelona’s Camp Nou. There’s the mouthwatering prospect of getting to see up and coming players like Dortmund’s Mario Gotze play against Arsenal or Napoli’s Edinson Cavani play against Manchester City. Then the football starts and it’s … well, it’s group stage football. Which is to say it’s all a bit cynical and it’s about a cumulative, campaign-long result (finishing in the top two places in a four team group) not what happens on the field.
Manchester United’s manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is fond of saying something along the lines of give us 10 points and we’ll see you in the spring. Which means holding serve at home and stealing a few away draws, advancing to the knockout stages of the competition. It’s the philosophy of most of the big European clubs and it can lead to some less than thrilling action. Thankfully, though, Match Day 1, which took place over Tuesday and Wednesday, provided some entertaining results.
- Barcelona and A.C. Milan could have walked out on the Camp Nou field and played “duck-duck-goose” and I still would have watched. I mean … it’s Barcelona and A.C. Milan! So it was just an added bonus that the Rossoneri were able to steal a point from the Champions League trophy-holders. Alexandre Pato’s early-early-urrly goal put Milan in the driver’s seat, but then Lionel Messi carjacked them, setting up Pedro’s tap-in. Barca went up on a stupendous David Villa free kick, but Milan got out of Spain with a point when Thiago Silva headed in a late corner kick. Coming off a draw in league play, over the weekend, does this mean trouble for Barca? No. It really does not. Although they are looking a little vulnerable without Gerard Pique.
- Manchester’s two sides both ended their respective matches with draws. As mentioned above, Ferguson will feel just fine about leaving Lisbon with a point. City, on the other hand, had some opening night jitters, unable to finish off their movements and looking vulnerable to Napoli’s counter attacks, one of which ended with this Cavani classic. City needed an Alexander Kolarov free kick to save their inaugural Champions League night.
- Easily the biggest upset of the night was Trabzonspor over Inter Milan, at the San Siro in Italy. Trabzonspor only made it into the Champions League after fellow Turkish side Fenerbahce were yanked out, due to allegations of match fixing. Inter were wasteful and slow, which is how they’ve looked so far in Serie A under new manager Gian Piero Gasperini, who took over for Leonardo, who took over for Rafa Benitez, all of whom are suffering because they aren’t Jose Mourinho and the Inter players know it. But watching some of the leaden-legged displays, you can’t help but feel like Inter don’t need a new manager as much as some fresher players.
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