Interesting week in European soccer, as the Champions League group stage is now more than halfway over. What have we learned?
• Bayern Munich, Liverpool, PSV, Valencia, Lyon, and Real Madrid have secured passage into the next round with two games to spare. There aren’t many surprises here, except maybe that both Liverpool and PSV qualified out of Group C so soon. All six were expected to progress, and all have massive amounts of European experience. AC Milan, Chelsea, Roma, and Manchester United aren’t far off from qualification.
• On the topic of Manchester United; while it was greatly amusing to see them beaten by FC Copenhagen, at Old Trafford, it should have a negligible impact. Celtic’s loss to Benfica ensures that United remain top of the group by 3 points. Not to mention they were without Giggs, Neville, and Saha, with Scholes and Ferdinand on the bench. However, Rooney and Ronaldo did start (which honestly should be enough on most nights), and the entire team really was uninspired. Plus, the injury to Ole Solksjaer, who’ll be out a few weeks, means that Rooney, Saha, and Smith are the only recognized first-team strikers, so they’re short in attack as well as in midfield. But, it’s United; they’ll still finish top of the group, and I’m wondering (and worried) if the weakened lineup means that Ferguson has put more priority on the Premiership, instead of because he thought the team was good enough and qualification was likely regardless of the outcome.
• It was amazing to see all the chances that went wanting in the Arsenal game against CSKA Moscow. It must be so frustrating to be a Gooner at times. You know that Wenger’s team is capable of playing stunning soccer, but all too often, the finish doesn’t equal the build-up. And all too often you get days like yesterday and the ball isn’t going into the net no matter what, and you just can’t explain it. I know this feeling well, and the game yesterday was eerily reminiscent of Liverpool’s wretched 0-0 draw at Charlton last season. Now, Group G is a complete toss-up, with CSKA, Arsenal, and Porto neck and neck, and Arsenal still to travel to Portugal.
• Didier Drogba’s injury time goal may have put Barcelona out of the Champions League, so it’s little wonder why Mourinho celebrated in the manner he did (that, and he’s a contemptible jerk). Barca’s qualification will all come down to their last group match, home against Werder Bremen. Right now, Bremen have 7 points and Barca have 5. My guess is that when they meet, Barca will have 8 (win over Sofia) and Bremen 7 or 8 (draw or loss v Chelsea). You would have made a lot of money predicting such a close battle for qualification. All because Chelsea seem to get all the breaks, with Drogba’s late late strike and Lampard’s egregious lob. Boy, are they unlikable.
• Lyon have to be the favorites right now, and writing that about a Houllier-managed team just gave me the shakes. They have the flair you’d expect from a team full of Frenchmen and Brazilians, without losing the defensive rigidity that the Houllier-managed Liverpool possessed. Juninho, Cris, Fred, Coupet, Malouda, Govou, and Källström are all class players. They are the only team in the Champions League to win all four of their games, including a 2-0 win over Real Madrid. They haven’t lost yet this year, period (Yes, I realize they do play in Ligue 1). The early favorites rarely seem to win, but with the way Lyon is playing, they have to be the choice.