In a League of Their Own

 
 

After an eventful opening week in Europe’s greatest club competition, Gordon O’Callaghan looks forward to what we can expect from the season ahead.

I could not find a more apt quote after the first round of Champions League fixtures that of Shakespeare’s Henry V – “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”. Every football fan knows that there is nothing better than witnessing their team playing on the biggest European stage with all the lights, music and ever-present drama we have come to expect from the Champions League.

As a whole, the first round of games fulfilled even the most optimistic of fans expectations. With Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona and Valencia all recording comfortable wins. Although they may be disappointed at having to settle for a point, Tottenham Hotspur can be proud of their opening display of the tournament with a fine first-half display, particularly from Rafael van der Vaart.

Manchester United fans, on the other hand, will be disappointed that their side were only able to come away from a relatively easy opening fixture against Rangers with a point. Alex Ferguson may well be concerned by their inept performance.

The prize for the best display of round one has to go to Arsenal. Their fine demonstration of free-flowing football was far too much for Portuguese outfit S.C. Braga, and saw them running out as 6-0 winners.

Some may turn their nose up and question why Braga are even allowed participate in Europe’s premier competition. Let’s not forget, though, that this small club from northern Portugal held former European champions Porto to third place in the league last year, before navigating the qualifying rounds – overcoming Celtic and Sevilla – to earn their spot in the Champions League.

At this time of year, there are always plenty of people praising the performances of Arsenal, and every year people begin to speculate that it may be their time. From this display, however, it just might be. Arsenal’s weakness always lay in the physical dimensions of the game. However, having added some much needed muscle in the form of Laurent Koncienly and Sebastian Squillaci, Arsene Wenger finally seems to have addressed the issue.

Barcelona recorded an impressive 5-1 win against Greek side Panathinaikos. Argentine superstar Lionel Messi continued his great form with two goals, once again demonstrating why he is considered to be the best in the world. The route was completed when new signing David Villa found the net, along with goals from wunderkind Pedro and Brazilian right-back Daniel Alves.

What Pep Guardiola brings to Barcelona is the consistent development of his side. With the arrival of David Villa, they have added a good old-fashioned poacher and Mascherano’s introduction gives the squad some much-needed strength in the center of the park.

On top of this, Barcelona have true quality coming through their ranks in Pedro and Sergio Busquets – both of whom are already World Cup winners. What Villa brings to the side is what his predecessor, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, could not – the ability to sneak a vital goal in a close contest. Los Culés were missing such a factor when they crashed out of the competition in last year’s semi-final – losing to eventual winners Inter Milan.

Last years finalists, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, had contrasting starts to this years campaign. Inter where poor against Dutch champions FC Twente drawing 2-2, whilst Bayern recorded a strong 2-0 victory at home over Italian side AS Roma.

Under Rafael Benítez, Inter looked nowhere near the team that won the competition last year. They have had a poor start to their domestic league, and have failed to add any new dimensions to their play. Bayern Munich players, such as Thomas Muller and Bastian Schweinsteiger, have grown and developed into World Class performers after their strong showing in the World Cup for Germany. Bayern have a great chance of continuing late into the competition.

Chelsea ran out comfortable 4-1 winners away to Slovakian side MŠK Žilina on the same ground where the Roman Abramovich‘s Chelsea experiment began seven years ago under Claudio Ranieri.  Carlo Ancelotti’s side will be very pleased with their opening fixture, in which Nicolas Anelka (twice), Daniel Sturridge and Michael Essien found the net.

The competition began in predictable fashion. The top clubs exhibited just why they are considered such, while the minnows failed to rally any shocking upsets. That said, the time of easy predictions may soon come to an end as the weaker sides crash out, leaving the big-hitters to battle for the top prize in Europe.

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