La Liga in the UEFA Champions League: A Recap
Tuesday and Wednesday brought about Match Day 2 in the UEFA Champions League, and the four representatives from Spain had interesting ties that helped shape their respective groups. On Tuesday, Sevilla FC visited Rangers FC at the Ibrox Stadium, where the European night atmosphere is second to none, buoying their beloved Gers, and FC Barcelona hosted FK Dynamo Kyiv at the Camp Nou, where both teams headed into this clash with undefeated records in both league and in Europe. On Wednesday, Real Madrid faced Olympique de Marseille at the Santiago Bernabéu, where Gabriel Heinze and Fernando Morientes played against their former employers in white, and Atlético Madrid tried to forget their domestic troubles at the Estádio do Dragão against FC Porto.
Rangers knocked Sevilla on their heels in the first half, keeping up with Sevilla’s passing football as well as using their robust style to wear down the opposition. The height of the half culminated in the 36th minute, when Abdoulay Konko tackled Steven Naismith inside the penalty area, and referee Jonas Eriksson continued play. There was little doubt about the legitimacy of Naismith’s claim for a penalty, as Konko made no contact with the ball and clearly took out the ankle of Naismith.
Up to that point, Rangers was even with Sevilla, but a pivotal call, or non-call in this case, changes the momentum of a match, and instead of a likely 1-0 to the home side and an extra boost to an already rapturous Ibrox crowd, Sevilla rode its bit of luck and scored four goals in a span of twenty-four minutes in the second half to secure the three points and seize control of Group G. Rangers would ruin Andrés Palop’s clean sheet in the 88th minute by a Nacho Novo strike, a goal fully deserved for their valiant performance, but Sevilla is the class of this group and should cruise to first place at the end of the group stage.
Even though Barcelona was at home and dominated their five games in La Liga, they were wary of Dynamo Kyiv and their attacking threats of Oleh Husyev, Andriy Shevchenko and Artem Milevskiy. Dynamo remained competitive for the opening fifteen minutes, but eventually the Barcelona Way overshadowed any attempt of Kyiv to produce any significant buildup play. When Dynamo had possession, either Barcelona took it away quickly, or they resorted to long balls. Barcelona forced them out of character, as they do with most teams, and their possession strategy created a plethora of chances, two of which they converted for a simple 2-0 win. The blaugrana will not be amused with their abnormal amount of giveaways or the lack of finishing that could have spelled another two to three goals, but a solid team effort and a comfortable 2-0 win sends Barcelona to the top of the group.
Real Madrid and Manuel Pellegrini tweaked the formation and lineup for Wednesday evening’s fixture with Marseille by forming a three-man front line with the three big signings of the offseason: Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Kaká. With Guti behind the three as the roaming creative force, there was no room for Raúl in the starting XI. At the moment, Pellegrini’s rotational policy has not created any problems in the dressing room, and if they continue to win, the players will continue to buy into him. It is clear that Pellegrini does not quite have the grasp of how to shape this Madrid team in the best way possible as of yet, and the first forty-five minutes showed a work in progress despite its blistering start domestically. A combination of Marseille’s work rate and discipline and Real Madrid’s tentativeness and lack of understanding within the attacking trio led to a dull first half. In spite of a 57/43 possession ratio in favor of Los Blancos, Marseille was on equal footing, canceled out Madrid for the most part, and generated chances of their own.
Similar to the Sevilla-Rangers match, where Sevilla changed the momentum in a short time gap, Real Madrid tallied three times in a span of six minutes, including a penalty resulting from a second yellow card for Marseille central defender Souleymane Diawara that sealed any chance for Marseille to play their way back into the match. Replays showed that Diawara made contact with the ball first, but the apparent severity of the challenge on Ronaldo forced referee Martin Hansson to flash the yellow card and send Diawara off. With AC Milan suffering a shock 0-1 defeat at the San Siro by the hands of FC Zürich, Real Madrid has complete control of Group C. This season, Madrid has had a tendency to let the opposition hang around and not step on their throats when they have the chance, but as the chemistry continues to develop and the familiarity increases, expect Real to salt these types of games away sooner and with more verve.
Poor Atlético Madrid. They need some alone time to figure out their problems and deficiencies. In the limelight of the Champions League and La Liga, however, all their frailties are shown for everyone to see, and they cannot hide. Their Champions League matchup with FC Porto could not come at a better time. Already struggling in the league, Atlético saw this match as an opportunity to leave their past troubles behind and start anew. Even though Porto was a quality side who advanced to the quarterfinals of the Champions League last season by defeating Atlético on the away goals rule, a positive result could spark a much-needed boost within the team.
An ominous sign came in the 26th minute when an apparent groin injury to backup goalkeeper Roberto forced manager Abel Resino to substitute in eighteen-year-old Atlético Madrid product David de Gea for his first senior appearance. Through the first 70+ minutes, the match was lively yet scrappy with much congestion in the midfield. Porto had the slight edge, but there was hardly anything between them. Then a slice a magic engineered by Porto swung the match in their favor.
In the 75th minute, Falcao scored an incredible goal to take the 1-0 lead. Raul Meireles started the move with a pinged cross-field ball to Hulk in the box. Hulk then blasted his shot at the right near post but de Gea brushed it aside. The rebound came straight back to Hulk, however, but he completely mishit it. He was able to recover, settle the ball, and square a pass to Falcao, who attempted a daring back heel and converted the shot to take a late 1-0 lead. Los Colchoneros did not convalesce and eventually conceded a second goal to suffer another defeat. Now they have to travel to Stamford Bridge to confront an in-form Chelsea team who will look to secure a likely spot into the knockout stages with a win over Atlético on Match Day 3. Abel Resino did get a public vote of confidence from the Atlético brass, but that kind of endorsement usually means very little, and more results like this will lead to his sacking sooner rather than later.