Matchday 1 of the Champions League tends to be a bit of an insipid opening to Europe’s elite club tournament. The same sides finding their way again, the same old teams playing the same old opponents, and the big clubs breezing their way through relatively easy games.
Not so this week, however. First up this week in my Champions League watching experience was Dortmund v Arsenal. Though Dortmund are former winners of the tournament (Ricken’s chip in 1997 anyone?) they have not played in it since 2002 (a whole near-bankruptcy ago), and so were (rightly) treated as relative fresh faces to the competition, perhaps unbound by the cynicism that some of the more omnipresent sides in the competition (Barca, Real, Man Utd, Arsenal, I’m looking in your direction here) have to the early stages of the competition.
As it was, Dortmund put on quite a show. Their style can best be described as “Barca-lite”, with similar midfield creativity on show in Mario Götze and Shinji Kagawa, but without that same cutting edge available up front. Götze in particular hardly played a poor pass all first half, and though Dortmund knocked on the proverbial door, Arsenal took the lead through a bit of uncharacteristically sloppy play from the home team, captain (and weakest player on the night) Sebastian Kehl selling the black and yellow jerseys in midfield, allowing Van Persie to smash a FIFA-esque finish past Roman Weidenfeller.
The second half had things a little more even though Arsenal couldn’t add to their lead, before Ivan Perisic scored probably the best goal of his life, a sweet left-footed volley from the edge of the box which smashed its way past Szczęsny with two minutes to go.
So what of Dortmund? Well, they made the game all the more entertaining for me. Götze and Kagawa are clearly fantastic talents; the young German with the vision to pick out a pass – the Japanese with a masterful first touch. At the back, Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic were immense, Hummels in particular not afraid to join in attacks in a productive way, while both looked sturdy. Weidenfeller is a class keeper, while Bender’s industry in the midfield will be something that stands Dortmund in good stead as the season goes on.
Götze is clearly the star however, and I frankly can’t wait for Dortmund’s next UCL match to see a little more of him in action. The fact that he has a monster stat behind him (first player born after reunification to play for Germany) only makes him all the more interesting a player.
Leaving young Mario behind, as far as Group F goes, Dortmund and Arsenal should be favourites to qualify from their group, though Marseille and Olympiakos, particularly away from home, will not be easy to beat.
Tonight it was the turn of the Manchester clubs, both of whom have been running away with the league thus far (although admittedly the season is hardly well-developed in September). Again for me the more attractive tie was that available at the Etihad Stadium, between two Champions League (since the introduction of that overly-commercial format in the 1992-93 season) debutants who both have exciting players in their line-ups.
Napoli were particularly intriguing for me (this one’s for you Martyn) given they came reasonably close to the Italian title last season and clearly had some top-notch attacking flair in Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamsik. Neither disappointed – Cavani got on the scoresheet as Napoli took the lead. City, who patently have talent in abundance, particularly since the additions of Messrs Aguero and Nasri, came back to equalise soon after through Aleksandar Kolarov, but no doubt a 1-1 draw in Manchester will have made people notice Napoli. Villarreal and Bayern being the other sides in Group A makes that one ridiculously tough to call, but if I had to choose I’d say Bayern and City.
United, meanwhile, suffered a similar fate to their neighbours but away from home – going a goal down to Benfica in the Estadio da Luz (to a goal from Paraguayan striker Oscar Cardozo) before Ryan Giggs smashed in a pre-half-time equaliser not unlike that of Van Persie’s goal the previous evening. The game finished 1-1.
Again, there were players on both sides who impressed me, though they were playing for two stalwarts of the tournament. Nicolas Gaitan of Argentina caused various United defenders problems all night (a mere 3 Argentina caps to his name), Luisao was absolutely immense at the back and Nolito, a former Barca youngster, was all over the place, if a little willing to throw himself to the floor at every opportunity.
For United, meanwhile, things were a little quieter – it was great to see Darren Fletcher back playing club football at the highest level; Michael Carrick continues to convince me about as much as a Daily Sport headline, and Valencia looked a little isolated on the right hand side. The player who continues to impress me this season for United, to the point where I am convinced he must be a robot of some kind, is Phil Jones. A young man who made his Premier League debut 18 months ago for Blackburn, he was absolutely electric again when he came on for the last 20 minutes or so, and was something of an attacking fulcrum for United as well as being characteristically robust in defence. The young chap has some career ahead of him if he can avoid injury – at the moment he seems to be taking the role almost of an English Lucio – what a card to have in the footballing deck.
In all then, a relatively entertaining opening week of Champions’ League group action; for once, it seems like the tournament itself will start before February.