Just a quick editorial note to start, I had hoped to complete my Group Previews before Matchday 1 but that was not the case. I will still be pushing those out, hopefully finish before Matchday 2 hits. Now, on to last night’s action.
After absences last season for perennial Champions League participants Bayern Munich (pictured at the right) and Juventus, both clubs returned to action with wins yesterday as Groups E-H were in action. Bayern, who played UEFA Cup football last season after a run of ten consecutive appearances in the Champions League competition, are hoping to reclaim their place amongst the ‘big’ clubs of Europe. Juventus, who were absent for three seasons because of their demotion to Serie B for match-fixing, are also looking to re-establish themselves as one of the elite clubs in Europe.
However, we start our review of Wednesday’s action in Group E where scoreless draws were the order of the day. Celtic were held by Aalborg BK as goalkeeper Karim Zaza not only saved Barry Robson’s penalty in the first half but also produced a number of other great saves to keep the Scottish champions at bay. Aalborg got what they needed from this away match at Celtic Park, the point will be valuable as they battle in hopes of at least making a UEFA Cup spot. Celtic had another great chance to score 13 minutes from time when Samaras burst through on goal, only to be brought down by defender Michael Beauchamp, which earned him a red card. However, Zaza again kept out the resulting free-kick from Nakamura. A bit of a disappointment for Celtic one would figure and they will now need to get something from their return match with Aalborg if they hope to progress to the knockout rounds.
Manchester United and Villarreal also played out a stalemate at Old Trafford. The boost United received from Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to action in the second half was not enough as the Spanish-based club defended determinedly. United created a good number of “half-chances” and a few clear-cut scoring opportunities but do not look quite settled yet. Yesterday’s result is not a good omen for United as the last time Villarreal gained a draw at Old Trafford, three seasons ago, United did not make it out of the group.
In Group F, Bayern Munich overcame a stubborn Steaua Bucharest winning 1-0 to kick off their Champions League campaign on a good note. Bayern defender Daniel Van Buyten scored the game’s only goal in the first half before the visitors held off a second-half onslaught in the Romanian capital. An accurate cross from Bastian Schweinsteiger found Van Buyten, who directed a header into the bottom left corner beyond the reach of Steaua keeper Robinson Zapata. After a solid start from Bayern, the German-based giants fell a step behind to end the first half and that continued into the second half Steaua can feel hard done by to not have claimed a point from the match. All in all, this was a good match with plenty of chances at both ends and both teams playing positively.
The other match in Group F was also an entertaining affair with Lyon coming back to tie Fiorentina 2-2. Fiorentina were denied a win on their return to the Champions League after a nine-year absence by a determined Lyon side. Jean-Alain Boumsong showed some of his old uncertain Newcastle form as his poor clearance allowed Zdravko Kuzmanovi? to cross for Gilardino to glance in from close range and give the visitors an early lead. Gilardino scored again to close out the first half after Adrian Mutu delivered a cross that he steered inside the far post. Lyon had turned around a two-goal deficit against Nice five days earlier and they turned the trick again last night. Benzema, as he was all match long, was the catalyst for Lyon. He squared the ball for Piquionne to tap in Lyon’s first goal on 73 minutes and then scored from a set-piece in the 86th to give the French champions a valuable point. Fiorentina have to be disappointed in not closing out the win and it has to be viewed as points dropped for the Italians.
Group G saw FC Porto defeat last season’s surprise side Fenerbahce by a 3-1 scoreline while Arsenal were held to a 1-1 draw against Dynamo Kyiv. Porto’s win is not surprising when you consider that they had lost just one of their preceding 20 Champions League home games. Goals in rapid succession from Lisandro and Lucho had the home team flying early. Fenerbahce’s big summer signing, striker Daniel Guiza, nabbed a goal on the half-hour but Porto tightened up defensively after that and added a goal late in injury time to secure their first Matchday 1 win since 1999.
Arsenal endured a tough trip to the Ukraine as FC Dynamo Kyiv scrapped out a 1-1 draw. Dynamo seemingly took a page from the Arsenal playbook as they had plenty of possession but created few clear-cut scoring chances. They finally made a breakthrough in the 64th minute after Bacary Sagna wrestled Ognjen Vukojevic to the ground to concede a spot-kick. Ismael Bangoura converted and it looked like Kyiv’s run without a group-stage win was about to end. However, William Gallas popped up in the area to turn home Theo Walcott’s low ball across the face of goal, earning Arsenal a point and extending Kyiv’s winless run to 14 group stage matches. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger stated after the match that he felt Kiev captain Andriy Nesmachniy “tried to destroy” Walcott, his star 19-year-old forward, and added that the left-back could have been shown the red card on a number of occasions.
Finally in Group H, Sergio Ramos and Ruud van Nistelrooy scored for Real Madrid as they handled debutants BATE Borisov, winning comfortably by a 2-0 margin. BATE had chances to nick a goal from some of their set pieces but were lacking that little bit of quality that might have seen them take something positive from this match.
The glamour matchup of the group saw Juventus eke out a narrow win over UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup holders FC Zenit St. Petersburg. Alessandro Del Piero scored from a free-kick to take all three points for the Italian club. I still think Zenit will be in the running for a top spot in this group and I look for an even better performance in their next match against Real Madrid.