After a two month lull, the most important football competition since records began, back in 1992, has resumed – yes, welcome back to the bosom then, the Champions League.
But how did the remaining trio of Premier League teams, each of whom found themselves up against old adversaries, fare in the first leg of their second round encounters?
First up were Mourinho’s mechanical marvels Chelsea, who took on the might of French champions Paris Saint-Germain in the Parc des Princes in a repeat of last year’s quarter-final.
PSG, spearheaded by the ludicrously overrated Zlatan Ibrahimović, also featured the ludicrously overpriced David Luiz, up against his former and surely quite financially satisfied paymasters for the first time since last summer’s move to the French capital. The enigmatic pair were generally subdued, while Luiz, previously a somewhat loose cannon in the Chelsea armoury, managed to contribute a round of handbags at dawn with the perpetually apoplectic Diego Costa. It was, however, another defender, who normally goes under the radar, who struck the first real telling blow in this contest.
Branislav Ivanovic, who has been making all sorts of headlines recently, what with his scoring exploits (4 goals in 6 matches – Headteacher Sherwood will be after him if he’s not careful), as well as his subsequent involvement at the Battle of the Bridge, netted once again here after nifty set-up play by fellow defenders Gary Cahill and John Terry. Although, Chelsea failed to build on the lead, and after the interval PSG certainly came out with intent and were duly rewarded with an equalizer from the scruffy mop of Edinson Cavani, who looks like he may also play in a Ramones tribute band in his leisure time.
In the end a draw was about the right result and both managers will probably be satisfied with the tie level at 1-1 going into the second leg, although sadly this game will now be etched into the memory for all the wrong reasons, as it was played to the backdrop of racism, imparted by a group of Chelsea ‘fans’ en-route to the match.
Another re-match from last year’s Champions League was the hyped clash between Manchester City and Barcelona, who met at this stage last year, with Barcelona easing to a comfortable victory.
Much has been made of City’s travails in the elite European competition in recent years and this season has been no different. They may claim once again that they had been drawn in one of the hardest groups, along with AS Roma and current champions Bayern Munich, and this argument may carry a certain weight. Despite this, they laboured through the group, particularly against the so called whipping boys CSKA Moscow, before finally prevailing in the crunch match in Rome. Things looked up after this, until the moment that City were drawn against Lionel Messi’s mob, who exercise death by excessive passing.
Manuel Pellegrini had played down the chance of revenge for last year’s humbling but there would always be a sense that City had some unfinished business here, as they were beaten all ends up in this fixture last season.
On this occasion, Pellegrini opted for two strikers with Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero, both fresh from adding to their tallies in the 5-0 chastening of Newcastle United at the weekend. During the opening exchanges, City gave as good as they got, but lurking in the shadows was the quintessential pantomime villain Luis Suarez, waiting to pounce on English defenders by any means necessary for the first time since his departure in the summer. Despite the exalted presence of the likes of Anders Iniesta, Messi and Neymar, it was Suarez who stole the show, clinically finishing past the under-protected Joe Hart twice.
Everyone knows about naughty boy Suarez’s actions at the World Cup and his previous misdemeanors, including gnashing the aforementioned Ivanovic, yet witnessing him pitting his wits against City’s defence reminded us of what we, and in particular Liverpool, have been missing this season – constant and intelligent movement, playing off the back of the last man, the diminutive Suarez was a persistent pest, particularly in the first-half.
With the score 2-0 at half time, this game, nay tie, appeared all but over. However, as with PSG, we saw the second-half commence with renewed appetite from the home side, with a glorious chance for Dzeko to reduce the arrears wasted before the prolific Aguero did what he does best, taking a clever backheel from the erstwhile quiet David Silva and slamming a shot past Marc-Andre ter Stegen to bring City back into the tie.
The hope is what kills you, and once again it was this that done it for City – Gael Clichy, already booked for a needless challenge, committed another (albeit soft) foul and found himself given his marching orders (and an extra 20 minutes to use Hart’s Head & Shoulders).
This effectively ended the game as a contest and the tie really should have been put to bed in the final minute of added time when Pablo Zabaleta got in on the unnecessary fouling act by scything down Messi in the box for a penalty. Messi stepped up to seemingly complete the formalities only for Hart to save his strike, leaving Messi to somehow head wide of the unguarded net. Suarez, on a hat-trick no less, was a picture of disgust but for City it may almost seem as if they have been given a lifeline – they are not out of it yet and with the marauding Yaya Toure to return for the second leg, they surely must throw caution to the wind.
Another side left with a mountain to climb are Arsenal. Whereas City carp on about constantly drawing difficult groups, Arsenal have found themselves drawn against especially tricky opponents in the second round in recent years (including eventual winners Barcelona and Bayern Munich). Ecstatic yelps greeted the news that their challenge this time round would be Arsene Wenger’s former charges Monaco, scorers of only 4 goals in the first round and generally not fancied – the Gunners had got the easy draw they craved.
Or had they? Monaco, depleted after the likes of Radamel Falcao took his knee knack to Manchester and James Rodríguez hightailed it to Madrid, still had the superbly languorous Dimitar Berbatov in their ranks. Berbatov, who possesses the most exquisite of first touches, showed his class once again. Booed at the start of this game (as was Suarez at the Etihad), he, like the sneaky Suarez, had the last laugh by notching a crucial goal early in the second-half – this goal came while Per Mertesacker was caught up-field, perhaps pondering if a ‘Geek Pie’ would complete his look, which doubled the lead provided to the visitors against the run of play from a deflected shot by Geoffrey Kondogbia.
Against the run of play it may have been, but that’s not to say much for Arsenal’s play, so restricted in ideas as it was. Once again it appears that Wenger’s team have faltered when presented with an acid test and although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain halved the deficit, they were once again caught on the counter attack to concede a critical third away goal.
So, as it turns out, the scorelines for the English sides got increasingly worse as the results came in and only Chelsea are left with any realistic aspirations of commencement in the tournament. City and Arsenal now have to both score at least 2 away goals each to stand any chance of progression – thinking about glory in the Big Cup this season may now be well futile for these pair of towels, and not in the Nathan Barley sense of the word.