Champions League Winners And Losers

The greatest positivity stems from the fact that this was not New Arsenal, but Old Arsenal playing better. Also, why it was two points dropped for Moyes and United and much more...

Last Updated: 07/11/13 at 12:30 Post Comment

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What's that you say, Arsenal top the Winners again? Well, when the record stops being so bloody brilliant we'll change it.

There seems little benefit in reiterating at length why Arsenal should be considered contenders for every competition they enter right now as you can read Monday's Premier League Winners and Losers, but the win in Dortmund was crucial for a good number of reasons.

Most evidently, it puts Arsenal in the driving seat in the group. Beating Marseille at the Emirates would mean a draw is all that would be required in Naples to not only ensure qualification but also win the group, no mean feat given the difficulty of the task when the draw was made. Qualification could even be claimed before the final match should Dortmund fail to defeat Napoli.

Secondly, despite Arsenal's overwhelmingly impressive run, this was their first victory of the season in which they had not been favourites before the game. On the only two other occasions in which Arsenal had entered as underdogs (Dortmund and Chelsea at home) they had lost, creating the air that Wenger's side were still fallible in the crunch fixtures (ie Manchester United away). Victories against Spurs and Liverpool had been achieved with a modicum of comfort, and without conceding, but going into both they were 'expected' to win, according to the pre-match odds at least.

This was different. As Nick Miller wrote after the game, this was a victory achieved through resilience, through the soaking-up of substantial pressure, before clinically hitting with the sucker punch. Yes it was smash and grab, but you would be a fool to use the term with negative connotation. When was the last time you saw Arsenal do smash and grab, a potentially crucial string to the bow in a title race?

Such a win showed a striking togetherness from Arsenal. In the first half, Klopp's Dortmund aimed to expose what they perceived to be a still-present soft underbelly, cleverly concealed by some wonderful attacking form. What they found was a hard shell, a defence imperious enough to repel an attack that had scored 21 goals in their last five matches at the Westfalenstadion and a striker (Robert Lewandowski) with nine goals in five games. This was just the second time in 64 home games that Dortmund had failed to score.

Finally, and perhaps the most positive indicator for Arsenal supporters, Mesut Ozil wasn't particularly good and Matthieu Flamini, so often labelled as the difference in midfield this season, wasn't playing. Nine of the starting XI on Wedneaday night played a part in the home defeat to Bayern in February, when the Gunners were overrun by a flowing, fluid and attacking German side. The same players but an infinite improvement, both individually and as a collective.

This win wasn't about the new Arsenal, it was about the old Arsenal looking a hell of a lot better and a hell of a lot more secure - that's reason enough to have faith that this is no flash in the pan run of form.

Besides, I always preferred Elgar to Rammstein anyway.

Aaron Ramsey
11 goals now for his club this season, as many as Ramsey had managed in five years previous. Forget England, are we watching European football's most improved performer?

Per Mertesacker
"I think Mertesacker is going to be a weak link in every match," Jamie Redknapp stated before the game. Despite going on to admit that the defender was "playing like Franz Beckenbauer" at the moment, seeds of doubt had already been wilfully sown, and were rightly derided by fellow guest Michael Ballack.

Mertesacker was immense against Dortmund, the defensive rock on which all unexpected away wins depend. No-one in an Arsenal shirt made more clearances, interceptions or blocks, and no player on the pitch won a higher proportion of their individual battles. He didn't commit a single foul.

Yes he can occasionally look awkward, but so would I if I was 6'6" and trying to repel players such as Marco Reus (I'm a long way from being either). Mertesacker has 94 caps for Germany and has only just turned 29. Can we all agree that is probably a fair indicator of quality?

Manuel Pellegrini
Well, there you have it. At the third time of asking Manchester City have qualified for the knock-out stage of Europe's premier competition. A true tale of footballing spirit after spending just £668million on transfer fees in six years.

Cutting the sarcasm, at least temporarily, whilst there is no doubt that City were impressive against CSKA Moscow on Tuesday (and therefore deservedly listed as Winners) it is difficult to know how to rank their achievement thus far. On the one hand, as soon as the draw was made they would have reasoned that second place was their best hope - Bayern are rightly viewed as Europe's best side. Furthermore, following the hand-wringing after the defeat by Bayern last month, City have responded with two victories against their only realistic competitors for second place.

Alternatively, you could decree that by losing to (and being outclassed by) the only team of any significant quality faced, City have rather shuffled into the knock-out rounds. Your stance probably largely depends on your allegiance, but as a near-neutral I'd lean towards the latter.

One thing is certain - for now the job is done, and Manuel Pellegrini was understandably buoyed after the crushing 5-2 crushing of CSKA. "I think we can beat anyone," was the rallying cry. Looking at the teams likely to top the groups, they might bloody have to.

Manchester City's Home Form
31 goals in 8 home games in all competitions this season, you won't tend to lose many if you're practically scoring four a match. You have to go back to January 2012 for the last time City failed to score at home, and it's now three years since they did so in anything but a League Cup match.

Pellegrini still has significant problems away from the Etihad (problems that will be severely examined in Munich in December), but this is not the time for such worry. Viktoria Plzen will not be relishing their trip to Manchester later in the month.

Aguero and Negredo
The Premier League has been rather tiresomely awash with discussion as to whether Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney or Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge are the most formidable strikeforce in the Premier League. Well, sorry to p*ss on your parade folks, but that award currently lies at the feet of Manchester City's front two.

The figures are getting a little bit silly, actually. In six games that the pair have started together, Manchester City have scored 24 goals (just the four per game). Of these, Aguedo (and that's surely their new moniker) have scored 15 and got 7 assists. Over such an (admittedly short) period that puts any other duo in Europe to shame, and makes the decision not to start both against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge seem even more odd.

"From the first moment we did well together," Negredo said quite correctly after Tuesday's victory. "It's been very good from the first day, and especially with both us speaking Spanish, we understand each other well. He's a great player, and with great players it's easy to get along."

Makes you feel warm inside (and outside).

To preserve our sanity if nothing else, they're included. But leave your comments in the usual place if you took anything from the game that you didn't already know. And don't swear.

Bayern Munich
Their Viktory in Plzen was functional rather than flamboyant, but the end result was the same as ever - nine consecutive Champions League wins equals the competition record set by Barcelona in 2002/3.

In those nine matches, an Ilkay Gundogan penalty and Alvaro Negredo's consolation in Manchester are the only goals conceded during a run that featured fixtures against Juventus (twice), Barcelona (twice), Dortmund and Manchester City.

It is difficult to find a reason why Lisbon in May shouldn't be the time and place for the first ever retention of the Champions League.

Atletico Madrid
Four goals to give Atletico Madrid a 100% record only matched by Bayern in this season's competition. Zenit St Petersburg and Porto have simply been brushed aside as Atletico have reached the knock-out stages for only the second time since 1996/7. Mightily impressive stuff.

Lionel Messi
Bloody typical. Just as we'd finished carving L-I-O-N-E-L-M-E-S-S-I into a football headstone, the Argentinean goes and scores twice in a bid to persuade us all that he's not dead and buried, despite going three whole games without a goal.

He's also now reached 65 Champions League goals by the age of 26. Steady.

After the underwater farce of a fortnight ago, revenge gained back on home soil. Victory against Anderlecht in their final group game (even assuming away defeat to PSG) will be enough to see them qualify ahead of Benfica, a fine achievement.

Federico Piovaccari
Touch (from a wonderful pass), shimmy, fake, curl into the top corner ("Where the spiders live," as my old football coach used to say). This is how you finish a one-on-one.

Gokhan Inler
Just a beautiful strike with his weaker left foot.


Manchester United
It wasn't that a point away from home in the Champions League is a terrible result (because it isn't), but the negativity derived from the scoreline stems from the fact that a victory was so evidently there for the taking. This is a Sociedad side that came rooted to the bottom of Group A without a point before Tuesday, and lost 2-0 at home to Shakhtar Donetsk. The evidence for the dangers of looking a footballing gift horse in the mouth should be obvious - doing so simply creates pressure.

That United were not able to win owed much to their stagnancy on the ball, as explained in further detail by Sarah Winterburn after the game. It had the feeling of a second leg of a tie in which a United side already held a two-goal lead. 'Yeah, we'll try to score if the opportunity arises, but we're not going to sweat on it." There was no verve from United's attacking third, no sense of energy or élan.

Unfortunately, however, there was a real need for urgency, and a need for three points. Had United come away from the Estadio Anoeta with a win, only two points would have been needed from their final two matches in order to guarantee finishing top of the group. Had they therefore beaten Bayer Leverkusen in three weeks' time, the final match at home to Shakhtar would have been a freebie, an opportunity to rest players. That's vital given that United have away trips (Spurs and Aston Villa) following their next two CL fixtures.

As it is, United now need four points to guarantee top spot. Lose in Leverkusen and it is out of their hands, draw and they will need to beat Shakhtar. Whatever happens, there will be no chance to rest players for the final game. That's what makes Tuesday's result two points dropped and one gained.

Or, perhaps Moyes is suffering from a lack of Champions League ambition, hinted at in his post-match quotes. "We are still in a good position, so hopefully in those last two games we'll make sure we qualify."

Let's be clear, a club such as United should not be simply looking to qualify, especially given their start to the group and its comparative ease. The punishment for finishing second looks to be Barcelona, Bayern, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid or Paris St Germain.

Simple qualification will not do should Moyes wish to take United into the latter stages of the tournament, and a chance for welcome security has gone begging.

Marouane Fellaini
Much like Manchester United themselves, it wasn't that Fellaini was particularly abject against Sociedad, it was just that he was a bit...and wait for the insight... meh. And when you spend £27.5million on a midfielder, you do expect rather more than meh.

Fellaini rather laboured around midfield on Tuesday, having no shots, putting in one cross, losing more than half of his duels for the ball and committing more fouls than any other player on the pitch. When Antonio Valencia is making more than double your amount of tackles and you are supposed to provide the solidity in midfield, something has gone awry. Topping it off was the red card for two reasonably innocuous fouls, but indicative of a player that just seemed a little behind the action.

The worry is not that the Belgian will be missing in Leverkusen in three weeks' time, but that some United fans will be relieved at such news.

Ashley Young
He may have been publicly defended by his manager after the match ("I have seen it and the boy certainly tugs him") but it is thought that privately David Moyes will again discuss the issue with his winger. Ray Wilkins came up with a more feasible explanation, labelling Young "pathetic". There may well have been a touch on Young, although it most certainly did not constitute a "tug", but the way in which the winger consistently dramatises his fall is threatening to damage his repute irrevocably.

Young is not the sole offender, of course. Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets and Neymar are current cases of those that 'go to ground rather easily', if you'll excuse the cliché. However, those five examples are all players of far greater quality than Young.

Having a reputation for diving is not terminal, but only if you have other aspects to your performance that shine brighter. With Young right now, the only other hallmarks of his game are wasteful crossing and the inability to beat his man. That's when the simulation stands out.

Why did we even bother believing? Despite the initial promise in Amsterdam, Celtic have still just won one away Champions League proper match in twelve years. In failing to even take a point back to Glasgow, the Hoops are now favourites to fail even to reach the Europa League through the back door.

Given a domestic situation in which Celtic can be four points clear (with a game in hand) without even breaking out of second gear, it's quite a sobering thought that the home match against Milan in three weeks may be the last stellar occasion at Celtic Park for almost 12 months.

Of course they were drawn in the Group Of Death Aesthetic Wonderment, but four defeats from four games for Marseille leaves them stranded with Viktoria Plzen as the only team without a point so far. Perhaps some of the £37m summer spending should have been on a centre-back - L'OM have now lost their last seven CL matches, conceding at least two goals in each. Elie Baup's side have now not won in seven in all competitions.

Timo Hildebrand
Quite why Hildebrand thought he had somewhere in the region of half an hour to clear the ball is unclear, but after a bright start his calamitous error began what ended in a comfortable defeat for Schalke at Stamford Bridge. It wasn't even as if Samuel Eto'o was running from outside the German's line of vision.

Roberto Mancini
On a night when his former side reached the knock-out stage for the first time, Mancini's Galatasaray side fell out of the driving seat to finish behind Real Madrid in Group B with a woeful defeat in Copenhagen. With Real and Juventus to come, Bobby Mancini's toils with the Champions League look set to continue.

Milorad Mazic
When you are deeming a finish as good as Lionel Messi's last night as redundant, there really ought to be a rule to stop the referee taking notice of an offside flag.

Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter

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