On May 27th of this year, FC Barcelona faced off with Manchester United in the final of the UEFA Champions League at the Olympic Stadium in Rome. Soccer lovers around the world, fans and pundits alike, agreed that it was the dream final – arguably the best teams in Europe over the past year, waltzing past their opponents with brilliant attacking play and winning their respective domestic leagues.
Fast forward to Matchday 5 of the current edition of the Champions League, and both of these two heavyweights were held to draws by relatively small fish – while Barcelona were unable to score against Rubin Kazan, Manchester United had to fight to salvage a draw after surrendering a shock two-goal deficit against CSKA Moscow. It seemed to be the story of this round – ‘traditional giants register surprising failures as supposed minnows put up a brave fight to steal the points.’ Along with last year’s finalists, clubs like Chelsea, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, and Sevilla all failed to pick up wins against opposition that they would usually expect to beat.
Diehard fans were left scratching their heads in frustration and wonder in midweek; but a closer look at the results will show that there weren’t really too many surprises. Barcelona have been slightly lackluster of late and were beaten 2-1 by Rubin Kazan a fortnight previously in what was arguably the upset of the year in the world of soccer, so it was always going to be tough winning in the freezing Russian conditions (especially with an out-of-form Lionel Messi and rusty Thierry Henry). Manchester United played without their first-choice defenders and despite conceding three goals, eventually fought back through Paul Scholes and Antonio Valencia, although the latter had a deflection to thank for his goal. Chelsea were playing against an admittedly out-of-sorts Atletico Madrid and a fired-up Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero, who scored a brilliant volley and an even better free kick from 30 yards to beat Petr Cech at the near post to tie the game at the death.
Nevertheless, most big clubs have nothing to worry about and will probably cruise through to the knockout stage – several already have. Two of the biggest guns in Europe, though, are dangerously close to being knocked out – Liverpool and Bayern Munich.
Bayern Munich were defeated 2-0 by Bordeax and need a minor miracle to see them through to the next round, having won just a solitary fixture in the group stage and that too against minnows Maccabi Haifa. It’s been a shocking string of performances for the boys from the Bundesliga and the primary benefactors of the German lapses have been the French champions Girondins de Bordeaux. Bordeaux, for those who don’t follow Ligue Un football, broke FC Lyon’s amazing seven year winning streak in the French league last year, spearheaded by the brilliant Youann Gourcuff and Arsenal target Marouane Chamakh, coached by Les Bleus legend Laurent Blanc. They’re a team to watch, currently undefeated on their return to the Champions League.
The biggest losers in Europe this year have been, unquestionably, Liverpool. They have been finalists and semifinalists twice in the past four years, winning the coveted trophy in an unforgettable final against AC Milan in 2005. This year, though, there’s a crisis at Anfield and progression to the next round is not certain even if Liverpool win their remaining games. Defeats against unfancied Fiorentina and French giants Lyon have thrust the Champion’s League future of the Scousers into uncertainty. Rafael Benitez has made several tactical blunders, such as playing left-back Fabio Aurelio in the middle of the park at times, and the absences of club captain and talisman Steven Gerrard and star striker Fernando Torres have hurt severely. The Kop, silenced by Lyon’s equalizer at the death last week, will have to pray for results to go their way if Liverpool are to achieve any measure of success in this year’s Champions League tournament.
As far as the rest of the groups go, the decisive Matchday 6 is coming up on the 24th and 25th of November – stay tuned!
Nabeel Shakeel Ahmed