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5 thoughts from the Champions League

November 28, 2013

The group stage of the Champions League is almost complete. One more round of matches remains in December for teams to sink or swim and reach the knockout stage. Here are five thoughts to chew on from this week’s 5th round of group games:


MATA DOESN’T MATTER: The sight of Juan Mata bundled up against the November cold on Chelsea’s bench yet again was like seeing a racing car that never leaves its garage: impossible to look at without thinking, “What a waste.”

Coach Jose Mourinho’s infrequent use of Chelsea’s 2012 and 2013 player of the year is increasingly baffling.

After the 2012 Champions League winners sleep-walked through a 1-0 defeat at Basel in Group E, Mourinho rightly observed that his team looked tired and mused that he perhaps should have used fresher players.

Well, they don’t come much fresher than Mata. Tuesday night marked the eighth game this season that the Spain international, such a fine servant for Chelsea since he joined in 2011, sat unused on Mourinho’s bench.

Of Chelsea’s 20 games under Mourinho in the manager’s second spell at the club, the midfielder has started in just eight. For only two of those did he play 90 minutes — both League Cup wins of lesser importance, against third-tier Swindon Town and a second-string Arsenal side. Mata also came on as a substitute in three additional games.

Mourinho prefers Eden Hazard on the left wing and Oscar in midfield where Mata has been effective in the past, with darting runs and incisive passing.

The thin excuse Mourinho uses is that although Mata “deserves to play,” he only has space for 11 players in his starting team.

In short, Mata would be better off at a different club that could use him. There should be no shortage of those for a player of such worth and still only 25. That big clubs rotate players is understandable. But leaving out Mata when Chelsea needed inspiration and fresh legs was not.

A waste.


ALL GUNS FIRING: One reason Arsenal looks so good this season is that goals can come from almost anywhere in Arsene Wenger’s team.

An array of 13 different players has built up the Premier League leader’s total of 38 goals in 21 games.

The bulk come from striker Olivier Giroud, with 10, and inspired midfielder Aaron Ramsey, with 11.

But others are making important contributions.

With both goals in Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over a disinterested Marseille side in Group F, Jack Wilshere took his season total to 4. The first after just 29 seconds, lofted ever so delicately over Marseille ’keeper and captain Steve Mandanda, suggested there is plenty more scoring to come from the 21-year-old who says he has learnt to relax in front of goal. The England international is now nearly half way to the target of 10 goals he set himself this season.

“Before, he rushed a little bit. He’s starting to think, ‘What Ramsey can do, I can do as well,’” Wenger said.

Wenger can also expect more goals from Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski as the forwards recover from injuries. Midfielder Mesut Ozil has also scored three.

Still, Arsenal looks vulnerable without a decent second striker to back up Giroud. Should the France international suffer a long-term injury, can a coalition of his teammates together chip in sufficient goals to win Arsenal its first trophy since 2005?



BAYERN RECORD: In setting one Champions League record, Bayern Munich looked increasingly capable of setting another.

No team had won 10 consecutive Champions League matches until Arjen Robben and company did it with their 3-1 victory in falling snow at CSKA Moscow in Group D.

Having set that mark, can the Champions League holders now become the first team to successfully defend the trophy?

Certainly, with each virtuoso display, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to bet against Germany’s wealthiest team and its enviable collection of top-quality players.

One could only admire the swerve Robben put on the ball to artfully squeeze it past CSKA goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev in the 17th minute.

And Mario Goetze threading past six CSKA players for Bayern’s second. Bayern’s third and CSKA’s goal both came from penalties.

Undoubtedly, the team to beat.


ZLATAN 8, CRISTIANO 8: Cristiano Ronaldo got the better of him in World Cup qualifiers, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic might yet have the last word in the Champions League.

Scoring the first goal in Paris Saint-Germain’s 2-1 victory against Olympiakos in Group C took Ibrahimovic’s total for this group stage to eight — the same as Ronaldo. Both players have now equaled the record jointly held by Ruud van Nistelrooy, Filippo Inzaghi and Hernan Crespo.

If they play, Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo could be contesting to make that record their own in the last round of group games, with PSG going to Benfica on Dec. 10 and Real playing in Copenhagen.

Ronaldo’s four playoff goals this month carried Portugal to the 2014 World Cup at the expense of Ibrahimovic’s Sweden.

To now better Ronaldo with Champions League group-stage goals would be meager consolation for the PSG striker. But it would be a pointed reminder of how football’s showcase tournament will miss Ibrahimovic’s skills next June in Brazil.


HOME SWEET HOME: Not by any stretch of the imagination was Manchester City’s 4-2 victory over Viktoria Plzen in Group D a vintage performance. Without defensive rock Vincent Kompany, City is iffy at the back and Martin Demichelis a liability.

Still, in 10 home games under new coach Manuel Pellegrini, City has now won nine and lost just once, to Bayern Munich on Oct. 2. It scored 41 goals in those games, but conceded just nine. Impressive. No team will relish a trip to City’s Etihad Stadium in the knockout phase.

But away from home comforts, City is a different story: Played 9, lost 4, drawn 1; 15 goals scored, 11 conceded. Unimpressive.

City has four more home games in 2013 but five away, so Pellegrini needs to cure his team’s travel sickness immediately.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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