The group stage of the Champions League began on Tuesday evening, and two La Liga outfits looked to initiate the exorcism of their personal demons.
Real Madrid and its galácticos played its first Champions League match of the season against an upstart FC Zürich team who, before the match, seemed more interested in whom they would swap shirts. It is no secret of Madrid’s lack of success in the Champions League in the past five seasons, and even more than recapturing La Liga from FC Barcelona, Madrid desperately wants to regain their status as THE team in Europe.
For the first twenty-five minutes, the team in white played as though it showed why it spent millions of Euros to bolster its squad. The only caveat was that FC Zürich wore the white kit and did not seem the least bit intimidated by Real Madrid, the men in black. Rather than resorting to a direct, long ball approach with physicality as the answer, Zürich displayed a flowing game of football, including an audacious attempt at a back-heeled goal in the ninth minute.
The fans chanted, the electric atmosphere buoyed Zürich to outplay their modest abilities, and they truly believed they had a legitimate chance to obtain a result against Real. Then Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up to take a twenty-five meter free kick and struck it with venom past Zürich keeper Johnny Leoni. From that moment, Madrid stepped on the pedal and suffocated Zürich with their relentless offensive pressure. By halftime, Real Madrid engineered a 3-0 advantage at the Letzigrund Stadion, and Zürich looked like the long shots that the odds makers thought of them.
For the first ten minutes of the second half, it was more of the same from Real Madrid. Then on a sliding tackle of Johan Vonlanthen, Xabi Alonso apparently injured his right ankle, and Fernando Gago replaced him in the 59th minute when it was clear that he could not carry on anymore. Madrid lost focus as they cruised with their three-goal lead, and in a span of one minute, they conceded two goals to Zürich, which gave them life once again. While the first goal came as a result of a dubious penalty, similar to the Eduardo situation against Celtic, Real’s concession of a second goal less than a minute later against an inferior team was inexcusable for a club that has Champions League aspirations. Real would score two late goals, including another free kick from Ronaldo, but they still have yet to show that they can consistently keep a tight defense. Until that happens, the demons will hang around within the team.
Atlético Madrid’s demons were more of a recent phenomenon. They tried to forget a horrendous 0-3 beatdown at the hands of Málaga and a lackluster 1-1 draw at the Vicente Calderón against Racing Santander by capturing a win against the Cypriot champions APOEL Nicosia. Even though APOEL was the bottom seed in Group D alongside Chelsea, FC Porto, and Atlético Madrid, none of those teams should underestimate this plucky side from Nicosia. Only look to last season’s Champions League when group stage newcomers Anorthosis Famagusta wreaked havoc on a group that included Inter Milan, Werder Bremen, and Panathinaikos.
The first half was tactical with few chances. The two best opportunities fell to the boot of Constantinos Charalambides, who made Atlético keeper Sergio Asenjo generate a terrific stop at his near post in the 8th minute and missed a splendid chance in the 43rd minute when a one bounce cross found his run inside the six-yard box and missed wide from four yards. Sergio Agüero was the bright spot for Atlético as his tireless engine created space for his teammates as well as set himself for shots on goal. Diego Forlán and Simão Sabrosa were held in check for the most part due to APOEL’s discipline and organization in defense. Already under fire for their mediocre performances this season, the fans at the Vicente Calderón whistled at the players going into and out of the dressing room for the second half and deemed a 0-0 score unacceptable.
Atlético manager Abel Resino made an early substitution in the second half, sending in winger Maxi Rodríguez for the defensive midfielder Cléber Santana in the 51st minute because Maxi would bring more punch in the final third, and Atlético showed that they would be able to put the clamps on the APOEL attack without the extra defensive midfielder. For the rest of the match, Atlético continually assailed the APOEL penalty area and goalkeeper Dionisis Chiotis. APOEL rarely had possession, so this forced a strategy to camp ten men behind the ball in the hope that they would somehow protect a 0-0 draw and gain a point away from home. Resino further added to the attack in the 67th minute by taking out right back Luis Perea in favor of forward Florent-Sinama Pongolle.
Atlético had seventeen shots, nine of those on target, in the second half but never breached the APOEL goal. Man of the Match Dionisis Chiotis made some spectacular saves; the most important of those saves came in the third minute of stoppage time when his leaping save prevented another Forlán rasping bullet from heading toward the top corner of the net. Forlán also had a free kick that struck the intersection of the post and the crossbar in the 84th minute. Not withstanding Atlético’s poor start in La Liga, dropping points at home against APOEL when they also have to face Chelsea and FC Porto twice is the worst kind of start possible. With Chelsea looking as the favorite to win Group D, these two points dropped could be crucial in deciding the second team in the group to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League.