When offers on Jermain Defoe scoring first and Spurs securing a handy victory appear in the bookies’ window, you can be pretty certain that another night of Europa League football is upon us. UEFA’s second string continental shoot out, a perpetual fixture of Thursday night television is very hard to get excited about – even if you’re Jermain Defoe. It doesn’t help its cause that it is generally preceded by two nights of European football that rarely fail to throw up at least two or three great performances from football’s elite clubs. Gameweek two is now complete and the Champions League is beginning to take shape.
For those teams we practically consider domestic – Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea – it was a week of divided opinion.
On Tuesday night, Arsenal took on a Rafa Benitez managed, and domestically unbeaten Napoli side in London. As of late Arsene Wenger has developed a bubbly exterior charged by the evidence of just what £40 million can actually get you. Mesut Ozil, far from being a surprise package, has given Wenger and Arsenal exactly what was expected; a rare commodity when one considers the money so regularly bandied around on underwhelming talent. Ozil’s opening goal and his subsequent assist for the conveniently prolific Olivier Giroud led Arsenal to a truly impressive 2-0 win on Tuesday night. With 6 points gathered from two tough games, (they went to Marseille and won 2-1 in week 1) Arsenal’s two upcoming games with Borussia Dortmund can now be approached with a relative calm. A second place finish may still be Arsenal’s best hope if Dortmund continue their impressive start to the campaign, but the matches of week 3 and 4 will allow that dynamic to manifest itself clearly.
While Arsenal hosted Napoli, Chelsea made the unenviable journey east toward Bucharest. The embarrassment of week 1’s home defeat to Basel did not stifle Chelsea’s European ambitions as they decimated their Romanian opponents. Two Ramires goals couples with an own goal for Steaua’s Georgievski and a Frank Lampard strike made some amends for the set back in week one. Facing up to two games with the German side Schalke, this 4-0 win away from home will be a considerable boost. Performance in the group stages can often be overlooked as long as the results are positive. Should Chelsea play as they can against Schalke qualification to the knockout rounds will be a given. It is only then that we will see Mourinho back to where he does his most dangerous work and a spot in the Semi-Final becomes an almost guaranteed minimum.
On Wednesday night, a darker shade of blue hung low over Manchester. Neither United nor City, both operating under the leadership of new managers, will be very happy with how their seasons have begun. Derby day disgrace has ensured that domestic gloom is draped in red, but this week Man City faced off against a team in red possessing a far more terrifying threat. At half time, Bayern Munich led at the Etihad Stadium by a single goal to nil. They had had 70% of the possession. It is fair to say that all those months that Pep Guardiola spent working on Munich before actually taking control have had their desired effect. By full time Bayern had racked up two more and the game finished 3-1. Rarely has a team seemed more likely to finally have what it takes to win back to back Champions League titles, but with Pep at the helm of this Bayern Stronghold City must fear that they will offer little resistance to Bayern’s attempts. Two points of interest from this game arise in the performances of Joe Hart and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Hart again displayed his fallibility with his attempts to save what turned into goals 1 and 3 for Bayern. The shots of Ribery and Robben respectively were hit with some venom, but in both cases he got a hand to the ball but could not keep it out. He will be equally unhappy with the circumstances surrounding goal number 2 as Gael Clichy decided to just not follow Thomas Muller as he ran onto a sublime pass by Dante that his name sake would have deemed poetry in motion. Muller calmly left Hart flailing but one couldn’t but feel sorry for him as he was left so thoroughly exposed. As for Schweinsteiger, 73 passes hit in the 76 minutes he played. 95% percent reached their destination, 98% of the passes he hit in City’s half did likewise. Not too bad.
United’s domestic difficulties will probably overshadow what will in hindsight be seen as an adequate result. Although the transition at Old Trafford from Fergie to Moyes is taking longer than many United fans would have wished, a 1-1 draw at Shakhtar’s Donbass Arena is a result on which qualification for the knockout rounds can be built. However, the performance left so much to be desired you would find it hard to believe you were watching Manchester United at all. An early goal tinged with luck from Danny Welbeck allowed United to pursue a method of play famed by the Ireland team of Brian Kerr; score early and try desperately hard to hold onto it. Sickeningly enough, United were doing a fantastic job of keeping Shakhtar virtually walled out of the United box and a 1-0 win in that fashion could have announced a whole new dimension to the potential discipline evident in Moyes’ side. However, when the same fate that allowed Welbeck to score reversed itself and left Taison with a comfortable – although emphatically taken – finish, a draw seemed the most adequate result. United will now face up to two ties against Real Sociedad who as of yet remain without a point in Group A. With six points the optimum expectation United fans will be hoping that Leverkusen and Shakhtar end with parity. United have no excuse but to qualify from this group, but with this game being only the third Champions League tie since 2006 in which they hit the target only once, most will be sceptical as to what United can hope to achieve once in the knockout round. Where it all once seemed so optimistic for Manchester’s top two, seeds of doubt are solidly seeking the light.
As for the other big ties of this week’s Champions League, Roberto Mancini’s Galatasaray side as of last Monday secured a fantastic 2-2 draw in Turin against Juventus. Real Madrid, who humbled Galatasaray with a 6-1 win in week one reached the ten goal mark as they bet F.C. Copenhagen 4-0.
The hearty influence of two goals from Zlatan aided P.S.G in their 3-0 win over last year’s Europa League finalists Benfica. Keep a close eye on them, they could go far this year.
Celtic could not replicate the achievement of last season and went down 0-1 to Barcelona in Park Head on Tuesday night. With their opening day loss to A.C. Milan, and Ajax and Milan drawing on Tuesday night, Celtic’s next two games against the Amsterdam side will have a large say as to their involvement in European football in the new year. Will they pull off the impossible or become a regular fixture in the bookies’ window on a Thursday?