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5 things to chew on from Champions League opening

September 19, 2013

With the top 32 teams in Europe playing their first matches in the group stage, this opening week of the Champions League provided plenty of talking points. Here are five things to mull over going forward in club football’s richest competition:


LOPSIDED LEAGUE: Real Madrid thrashing Galatasaray 6-1; Paris Saint-Germain steam-rolling past Olympiakos 4-1; Barcelona brushing aside Ajax 4-0. Such lopsided victories and the deluge of goals in this first round of Champions League football strengthened the impression that Europe’s heavyweight teams are becoming unstoppable.

The total of 30 goals scored Tuesday was a record for an opening night of the Champions League since the competition expanded to 32 teams in 1999. Another 23 were scored Wednesday in the second lot of opening games.

With the obvious exception of Chelsea’s surprise 2-1 loss to Basel, the comfortable, high-scoring wins seemed to amount to yet more proof of a widening gulf in spending power and, therefore, on-field performance between Europe’s elite of super-clubs and an underclass of teams with fewer resources, smaller revenues and stadiums, and — unlike PSG, Manchester City and others — no mega-rich backers to finance a rise to the very top.

Critics argue that UEFA’s squeeze on excessive spending in football, its so-called “financial fair play” rules, will set this status quo in stone, because the restrictions will make it harder for the have-nots of European football to catch up with the haves.

However, lopsided victories in Champions League group play aren’t new. In the first round of matches in 2000, for example, Manchester United whipped Anderlecht 5-1 and Barcelona thumped Leeds 4-0. Bayern Munich sank Spartak Moscow 4-0 in 2006. Arsenal brutalized Braga 6-0 in 2010. The list goes on.

Nor should too much be read into the large number of goals. The last 14 seasons, on average, saw 40 goals from the opening round of 16 matches. In 2000, the opening round produced 63 goals; in 2002, it was 50.

So this week’s total of 53 goals, while significantly higher than average, wasn’t unprecedented.

In short, this week certainly didn’t prove, at least not alone, that the gap between Europe’s top clubs and the rest is suddenly much larger than it already was.


STILL SPECIAL? Losing 2-1 to Basel at Stamford Bridge surely cannot have been what self-described “Special One” Jose Mourinho had in mind when he decided to return as manager to Chelsea from Real Madrid this summer.

It is far too early in his second stint at the London club to argue that the two-time Champions League winner with two different teams — Porto and Inter Milan — is losing his Midas touch.

Still, Mourinho has some explaining to do, not least about how he’ll get enough goals from his team that has more creative midfielders than it needs and not enough forwards firing on all cylinders.

Summer recruit Samuel Eto’o didn’t impress up front against Basel, Demba Ba didn’t make the difference coming off the bench, and Mourinho didn’t even include Fernando Torres in his squad.

At this rate, Mourinho will need to shop for a goal-scorer in January — even if he insisted Wednesday that he won’t look to add to his striking options.

Chelsea had not lost a game in the group stage since October 2003, when Claudio Ranieri was manager.


ARSENAL’S FIRST SHOT: For 13 consecutive seasons, Arsenal has always advanced beyond the group stage. To maintain that record this season, the London club really needed to get points on the board in Marseille.

The Gunners’ 2-1 win in the south of France — with goals from Theo Walcott and the resurgent Aaron Ramsey — was the ideal start for Arsene Wenger’s team in the toughest Champions League group.

With injured players missing, this could have been a treacherous trip for Arsenal. An opening loss could have been extremely costly in Group F, which also includes Napoli and Borussia Dortmund.

Only minor cloud for the team: Mesut Ozil, Arsenal’s club record signing at 50 million euros ($67 million), didn’t make a massive impact in midfield.


HE’S FANTAS-ISCO: Although Christiano Ronaldo and new recruit Gareth Bale have hogged headlines at Real Madrid of late, keep your eyes peeled for Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, the 21-year-old signed from Malaga this June by the nine-time European champions.

The midfielder’s 33rd-minute goal that started Real’s 6-1 rout of Galatasaray oozed poise. He neatly collected and controlled a high-ball pass and stranded goalkeeper Fernando Muslera with his right-footed strike.

That makes four goals from Isco’s first five games for Real. At this rate, he could overshadow the ludicrously expensive Bale.

Still, Isco’s wasn’t the best goal of this opening round. Yaya Toure scored a beauty with his inch-perfect right-footed, long-range wonder-strike in Manchester City’s 3-0 defeat of Viktoria Plzen.


MOYES MAKES MARK: David Moyes caught some flak for Manchester United’s chaotic transfer dealings this summer.

The late 27.5-million pound ($43 million) signing of Belgium midfielder Marouane Fellaini from Moyes’ former club Everton hardly counts as a major splash and suggests that United’s new manager hasn’t fully got to grips with the job that Alex Ferguson did so superbly.

But convincing Wayne Rooney to stay at United when the forward’s heart seemed set on leaving is proving vitally important and points to Moyes’ skill as a motivator.

Rooney now shows no signs of being anything but fully committed to United’s cause. He looks leaner and far keener than he did toward the end of Ferguson’s reign. With this exemplary attitude and fitness, Rooney seems set for an outstanding season that could move him within striking distance of Bobby Charlton’s record of 249 goals for United.

Rooney now has 200, after scoring twice in United’s 4-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen.


Follow John Leicester at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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