FOX Soccer Exclusive
Eastern Europe takes deserving bow
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE RESULTS
|Tuesday, October 2|
|CFR Cluj||1-2||Manchester United||Recap|
|More: Scores | Stats | Champions League|
The Champions League continues to be the most unpredictable competition in world sport, with major shocks Tuesday night in Eastern Europe shaking up groups F and G.
Celtic, a side that has never won a Champions League away match, came out of Russia with three points and a stunning 3-2 win over the far tougher Spartak. BATE Borisov drove a freight train through Bayern Munich, stunning last year’s finalists 3-1 in Minsk. And Manchester United got nearly all they could handle in another Eastern venue as Transylvania’s CFR Cluj dropped a narrow 2-1 game at Dr. Constantin-Radulescu.
Let’s start with Scotland: the Glaswegians last won an away game in Europe when the Champions League was still a dream of UEFA’s financial managers. That was in 1989, in the old European Cup, and it was against, ahem, Shamrock Rovers. Not exactly heavyweight competition. Most expected a continuation of a series of dreary results in Moscow against a team that is stronger in just about every position.
Instead, Neil Lennon’s men orchestrated one of the greatest wins in Celtic’s modern history: a comeback triumph against ten men than cannot be dismissed as mere fluke. The Bhoys earned this win, starting matters off with a cracking goal from Gary Hooper, then recovering after Spartak’s Emmanuel Emenike seemed to have condemned them to another night stuck on repeat. True, they got some advantage, first when Juan Insaurralde was sent off for a professional foul, and then when Dmitri Kombarov was unlucky to redirect a parry from his own keeper into the back of his own net.
But there can be little argument with the fact that it was Celtic pressure that caused both incidents, and no one can deny Georgios Samaras the glory of his last-minute header to give the Scots their first win away in 19 tries. They now have the joy of facing Barcelona in back to back matches but the fact is, Celtic trail only the Spanish giants in group G and have a full game over Benfica. That’s not what anyone – at least not anyone out of shouting distance of Parkhead – would have thought.
BATE -- a team named after a tractor factory – simply plowed through a Bayern side that looked utterly taken aback in Minsk. The Bavarians were never in the game, dropping their first tie after nine straight wins across all play, and seemed deeply frustrated by their inability to spark any offense.
BATE allowed Bayern the lion’s share of possession but until Franck Ribery grabbed consolation in stoppage time, were rarely troubled by a team that pays more for a single transfer than BATE pays in combined wages for a season. Predictably, the knives are already out in Munich: the estimable Kicker is sniffing at the game’s “nasty surprise” on their front page.
It shouldn’t be a shock: BATE won their first game, demolishing Lille in France by the same score a fortnight ago. At some point, this anonymous group of Belarusians, whose best-known player is Barcelona cast-off Alexander Hleb, has to be taken seriously.
And Cluj, who started out this tournament with a resounding win of Portugal’s Braga, showed they are more than minnows with a tough game against a United side that looked very flawed. Pantelis Kapetanos exposed the mess that is United’s back four in the 14th minute with a fine finish, and it was only by the graces of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, and an excellent series of saves by David de Gea that Cluj didn’t come away with a share of the spoils.
Cluj had width where United were compact, had pace where Rio Ferdinand and Partrice Evra looked glacial, but suffered from a lack of experience and precision. Still, had de Gea not been able to reach back and claw the ball away from his near post at the death, we’d be talking about Rafael Bastos and how the Romanians deserved a share of the points – which they did.
It’s somewhat fitting that Cluj plays games at a stadium named after a philosopher, because Tuesday's results should make people think. People expect this year’s tournament to be a cakewalk for the English and the Spanish sides, with a nod given towards Germany’s direction. On the evidence of the first three days of play, the Champions League is hardly that simple and simply not that reductive.
Certainly, the likes of BATE and Celtic have no compunction about reminding us they not only exist, but matter as well.
Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.