UEFA Champions League group play got off to a rip-roaring start on Matchday One with several pulsating encounters. More of the same can be anticipated for Matchday Two before the competition takes a three-week break until late October.
The next matches will be conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday, split between the eight groups of four. A couple of those matches stick out above the others and are subjects of our feature for this week.
Tuesday’s card is highlighted by a Group G Iberian Peninsula clash in Lisboa as host Benfica entertains Barcelona at Estadio de Luz. Longtime Euro soccer enthusiasts will note the historical significance of this meetings between two of the all-time heavyweight sides on the continent. Although Benfica’s glory days were long ago in the early ’60s, when, behind the great Eusebio, it captured a pair of European Cups and reached the finale two other times later in the decade.
Lately, however, it has been Barcelona making more of the headlines, which is one reason European wagering outlets have placed a premium on the Camp Nou crew. Barca is priced 4/7 on the winner for the Tuesday matchup, with the take-back on Benfica at 9/2. The draw is listed at 31/10 for the 2:45 p.m. (ET) kickoff to be televised in the states by the FOX Soccer Channel.
Barca’s quick start to the campaign has done nothing to change the perception. Even under new manager Tito Vilanova – promoted from the assistant ranks after Pep Guardiola decided to step down following last season – the Blaugrana has not skipped a beat. Barca has won all five of its Liga encounters to sit comfortably on top of the domestic table, and rallied for a 3-2 win over Spartak Moscow to claim a valuable three points at the outset of Champs League group play.
Not that there hasn’t been a little controversy along the way, specifically the mercurial Lionel Messi lambasting strike partner David Villa on the pitch during last week’s Liga match vs. Granada. Villa. Villa, just recently back in the fold after missing eight months of action due to a broken leg, came under fire from his Argentinian teammate for botching a pass.
Much has been made in the Spanish media of this on-pitch row but as usual it looks to be much ado about nothing.
And Messi hardly seems out of sorts with six goals already despite criss-crossing the Atlantic in a hectic schedule that includes participation in native Argentina’s 2014 World Cup qualifiers. Villa has also quickly regained his goal-scoring form with a pair of scores to date.
As for Benfica, it was held to a 0-0 draw in Glasgow at Celtic Park in its Matchday One, and has started well in Portuguese Super Liga play, in second place with eight points. The Lisboa troops, however, are still trying to compensate for the loss of midfield ace Javi Garcia, after the Spaniard was sold to Man City at the close of the August transfer window for a near-record sum.
The strike force again featured Paraguayan striker Oscar Cardozo, who banged home 24 goals in all competitions last season and already has four tallies in the new campaign, and another young Spanish charge, Rodrigo, a 21-year-old forward who notched an impressive 15 goals in all competitions last year.
Still, taking any points from this matchup vs. Barca will be a plus for Benfica.
Action on Wednesday features a Group D matchup at Manchester where City hosts Bundesliga champ Borussia Dortmund at Etihad Stadium.
Indeed, D is rightly considered the “Group of Death” in the competition with City and Dortmund, plus Real Madrid and Ajax Amsterdam, each a winner of its domestic league a year ago.
While Real Madrid travels to the Amsterdam Arena, Man City hosts Borussia Dortmund in a match that has been rather competitively-priced by Euro wagering outlets. City has been rated 8/11 on the win, with the take-back on Dortmund at 7/2. The draw is priced at 11/4 for the 2:45 p.m. (ET) kickoff, to be televised in the states by FOX Soccer Channel.
Matchday One proved a tense one in the Group of Death, with Real Madrid using a late Cristiano Ronaldo goal to edge Man City, 3-2, while Dortmund nabbed a 1-0 win at Westfalenstadion (Signal Iduna Park) over Ajax.
City, thus, is forced into an early near must-win situation on Wednesday, already threatening to lose touch with Real Madrid. With the return match vs. Dortmund taking place on Matchday Six in Germany, Manchester City needs to begin accumulating points ASAP.
But Roberto Mancini’s crew has been struggling a bit with only one win in its last six matches (including a Carling Cup loss to Aston Villa), falling to seventh on the EPL table prior to last weekend. City were winless in four straight entering the weekend EPL match at Fulham.
Some believe City are still in an adjustment phase after adding several new pieces to their midfield mix over the summer. As mentioned earlier, Benfica’s Javi Garcia was a last-minute addition in August and has yet to make much of an impression. Neither has young Jack Rodwell, another midfielder brought in from Everton over the summer.
Still, a nice cutting edge remains on attack with holdovers such as Carlos Tevez (three goals already), Edin Dzeko (two goals in the early going) and Sergio Aguero still in the mix. Goalie Joe Hart, however, has not been especially sharp in the early going. And sources say that Mancini is having a bit of a hard time getting his troops to adjust to life in the Champs League, a competition in which City did not advance past the group phase last term.
Meanwhile, Borussia Dortmund has broken a bit slow as it tries to defend its crown in the Bundesliga. Dortmund was only 2-2-1 in its domestic slate entering last weekend, already seven points adrift of high-flying Bayern Munich in the German table. But the 1-0 win over Ajax on Matchday One has the Bundesliga holders in good shape as Champs League group play commences.
Insiders suggest plenty of upside remains within this roster, and manager Jurgen Klopp is reportedly ecstatic at the progress of young midfielder Marco Reus. Dortmund also has a veteran, international blend to its lineup with several players who starred for co-host Poland in the recent Euro 2012. Dortmund’s Polish brigade includes its top scorers Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lucas Piszcak, plus forward Robert Lewandowski. The international flavor is augmented by Croatian midfielder Ivan Perisic.
This will be a crucial match for City to secure max points or else it will be in catchup mode for the rest of the fall in its quest to qualify for the Champs League knockout phase, which commences in February. The KO phase is still a long way in the future, but developments in early October often reverberate into the next spring in the Champs League.