At the midway stage of this season’s Champions League competition most of the group favourites are moving into contention for qualification for the knockout phase writes Ger McCarthy.
Tottenham Hotspur almost pulled off the shock result of the Champions League Matchday 3 programme when 10-man Spurs battled back from 4 – 0 down to narrowly lose 4 – 3 away to reigning champions Inter Milan in the San Siro. Inter were in scintillating form early on and blazed into an early lead thanks to goals from Zanetti, Stankovic, and Eto’o (2). The dismissal of Gomes at 1 – 0 hardly helped Spurs but a terrific fight-back culminating in Gareth Bale’s terrific hat-trick proved some consolation for the travelling Tottenham fans. Werder Bremen and Twente Enschede drew 1 -1 in Holland with Arnautovic cancelling out Janssen’s 75th minute opener for the hosts to earn Bremen a point.
Spurs host Inter Milan at White Hart Lane and will take heart from their defeat in the San Siro. A point for the visitors will be enough to guarantee progression to the latter stages of the competition. On the same evening Bremen host Twente with both sides anxious to close the gap on Tottenham who are currently two points ahead in the race for the second qualification spot.
Lyon made it three wins out of three in Group B thanks to a routine 2 – 0 win at home to Benfica. Jimmy Briand headed the home side ahead after 21 minutes and star striker Lisandro made sure of the points thanks to a rebounded effort in the 51st minute. German side Schalke put their domestic woes behind them to record their second Champions League win of the season at home to Hapoel Tel-Aviv in Gelsenkirchen. Raul scored twice and another effort from Jurado earned the hosts a morale-boosting 3 – 1 win with a late Shechter goal proving a mere consolation for the visitors.
Lyon travel to Portugal on Matchday 4 knowing another victory over Benfica would see the French side safely through as Group B winners. Should Schalke 04 repeat their Matchday3 win over Hapoel when they make the trip to Tel Aviv then the Germans will be favourites go through as group runners-up.
In a week the soon to be departed Wayne Rooney grabbed all the headlines Manchester United managed to squeeze past Turkish outfit Bursaspor 1 – 0 at Old Trafford thanks to a magnificent strike from Nani after 7 minutes. The home side laboured for long periods but the win helped United stay in contention for a qualification spot. Valencia travelled to Ibrox and were fortunate to come away with a point following a 1 – 1 draw. The Scottish Champions wasted a plethora of chances until Maurice Edu headed home after 34 minutes to hand Rangers a deserved 1 – 0 lead. Valencia drew level courtesy of an own goal from Ranger’s previous goal hero Edu and the Spanish side held on for a nervy 1 – 1 draw.
United travel to Turkey to take on Bursaspor looking to extend their lead at the top of the group. Rangers will be in Spain to face Valencia on the same evening where an unlikely away victory would see the Scottish Champions move to the top of the group. Valencia and Manchester United remain favourites to progress.
A straight-forward 2 – 0 victory at the Nou Camp over Copenhagen saw Barcelona go a point clear at the summit of Group D. The Danes gave a good account of themselves but Lionel Messi scored in each half and tormented the Copenhagen back four throughout. The Argentinean’s first was a pile-driver from the edge of the box and his second in injury time was bundled over the line after good approach play. Rubin Kazan travelled to Greece to face Panathinaikos in the Spiros Louis Stadium but neither side could muster up a goal in a 0 – 0 draw although the home side’s star striker Cisse had a goal ruled out for offside.
Barcelona travels to Denmark on Matchday 4 to take on FC Copenhagen looking for a victory which would all but cement the Catalan club’s place in the knockout phase. Rubin and Panathinaikos do battle once again with both sides still in search of a first Champions League win this season. Barcelaon and Copenhagen look set to qualify from Group D.
Bayern Munich maintained their 100% start to Group E with a somewhat fortuitous 3 – 2 win at home to CFR Cluj in the Munich Arena. The visitors took a shock lead in the 28th when Cadu nodded in at the far post. The German champions drew level and then took the lead courtesy of two own goals in the space of five minutes before Mario Gomez made it 3 – 1 thanks to a deflected effort in the second half. Culio pulled one back for Cluj with four minutes to go but Bayern held on for their third consecutive win. AS Roma fell to a surprise 3 – 1 defeat at home to FC Basle in the Stadio Olimpico. Swiss international Alexander Frei bagged his fourth CL strike in six games to put the visitors in front before Totti and Borriello combined beautifully to carve open the Basel defence for Borriello to draw Roma level. The home side would have been expected to push on from there but two excellent strikes from Inkoom and Cabral earned FC Basle a richly deserved away win.
Reverse fixtures on Matchday 4 sees Roma travelling to Switzerland needing to avoid defeat if they are to harbour any hopes of progressing. Cluj welcome a Bayern Munich side to Romania with the visitors seeking a point to all but guarantee a place in the knockout stages.
A wonder strike from Yuri Zhirkov and a clinical Nicloas Anelka finish were enough to earn Chelsea a 2 – 0 victory away to Spartak Moscow on the plastic pitch in the Luzhniki Stadium. The Londoners were good value for their win but still needed a string of Peter Cech saves to keep Moscow at bay during a frantic second half. Chelsea made it three wins on the trot and banished some of the painful memories of that CL final penalty shoot-out defeat to Manchester United. Elsewhere in the group a solitary Souleymane Diawarra header proved enough to earn Marseille a 1 – 0 win at home to MSK Zilina.
A Chelsea victory at home to Spartak Moscow on Matchday 4 will see the Premier League Champions safely through to the knockout phase while MSK Zilina will hope register their first points of the competition when Marseille visit Slovakia on the same evening looking to close the gap to second placed Moscow.
Real Madrid won the battle of the former European heavyweights with a 2 – 0 victory over AC Milan in the Santiago Bernabeu. Cristiano Ronaldo’s free-kick which flew through a gaping hole in the Milanese wall set Jose Mourinho’s side on the way to victory. Within two minutes Real had doubled their advantage when Mesut Ozil tried his luck from long range and the German international’s effort took a big deflection before nestling in the back of the net. Ajax earned their first victory of the Champions League campaign thanks to two brilliantly taken efforts from Demy de Zeeuw and Luis Suarez. Valter Birsna pulled one back for Auxerre courtesy of a converted free-kick but Martin Jol’s Ajax move onto four points and are still in with a shout of grabbing second place in the group.
Real travel to the San Siro on the back of third straight win knowing a point will be enough to set them up for qualification from Group G. The Milanese outfit need to avoid defeat with Ajax likely to get something from their trip to France on the same evening setting up an intriguing battle in the coming months for the second automatic qualification spot from Group G.
Arsenal overpowered a pathetic FC Shaktar Donetsk by recording a facile 5 – 1 victory at the Emirates Stadium. The Gunners went clear at the top of Group H on maximum points from their three outings thus far thanks to goals from Song, Nasri, Fabregas (penalty), Wilshire and Chamakh. A consolation effort from former Arsenal striker Eduardo elicited a loud cheer form the home fans whose side are odds on to ease through to the next phase of the competition. SC Braga recorded their first ever Champions League victory at home to the pointless Partizan Belgrade at the Municipal Stadium in Braga thanks to sublime Lima free-kick and last minute breakaway strike from Matheus.
Arsenal make the long trip to the Ukraine on Matchday 4 with hosts Shaktar looking to erase the memory of their previous 5 – 1 drubbing at the hands of the gunners. A point should suffice for an Arsenal side certain to make the knockout phase. Partizan can put themselves back in the hunt for Europa League qualification and record their first ever Champions League victory if they overcome Braga in Belgrade.
Ger McCarthy is author of the book entitled ‘Off Centre Circle’ about a lifetime spent playing amateur football in Ireland. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here.