Ajax proves it belongs in Europe
England enjoyed a fine night while French teams stumbled badly as Matchday Two of the Champions League kicked off Tuesday night across Europe.
Chelsea and Arsenal collected big wins while Olympique Marseille and Auxerre continued their poor runs of form.
Elsewhere, Ajax held AC Milan in Amsterdam to a 1-1 draw in the night’s thriller; while Eastern sides Shakhtar Donetsk and Spartak Moscow collected easy wins.
Arsenal went to Belgrade with an under-strength side and real questions about their character after a weekend that saw them deservedly fall to tiny West Bromwich Albion. Their goalkeeping is almost incompetent and for the trip to Serbia, manager Arsene Wenger left the erratic Manuel Almunia in London, giving Lukas Fabianski a rare chance to shine.
Fabianski is not Arsenal’s future, for tonight raised more questions about their defense, and Arsenal can consider themselves fortunate to have gotten past a Partizan side that actually has a goalkeeper in Vladimir Stojkovic. Stojkovic kept his side in the game, and had Partizan not had Marko Jovanovic dismissed just shy of the hour mark, the Serbs might have come away with the draw.
Arsenal were under pressure early until, against the run of play, Andrei Arshavin smacked home a goal set up by Jack Wilshere in the 15th minute. That deflated the raucous crowd, before a stupid handball by Denilson in the box allowed Partizan to level behind Cleo’s penalty.
Arshavin would then miss a penalty, and Arsenal needed Marouane Chamakh’s reaction to his own first shot to pull away for good in the 71st. Sebastien Squillaci got the insurance when he headed home a Samir Nasri corner with eight to play.
Still, fans will be wondering if Arsenal are winning in spite of themselves. Once again, their defense looked porous and their keeper uncertain. They miss easy chances, squandering at least three in the first half alone, and have a tendency to drift as matches go on. And yet, this is a team that so far has managed to get it done.
Give credit to relative ease of the group. In tonight’s other Group H match, Shakhtar Dontesk put the lie to any suppositions of Braga’s power with a 3-0 whipping that will have left Portuguese fans livid. Luiz Adriano scored two and Douglas Costa converted a late penalty that leaves the Ports on a -9 goal difference and with a heavy mountain to climb after only two games. The result means the Ukrainians share the points lead with Arsenal, and are second only by virtue of goal difference.
In Group E, AS Roma boss Claudio Ranieri can be excused tonight if he’s wondering just what sort of team he has this year. The word might well be “schizophrenic.” At times the Stadio Olimpico traffic was entirely one way, but CFR Cluj goalkeeper Nuno Claro kept his side level at the interval with five high quality stops and the Romanians were doing just enough with the space provided to make the occasional raid of their own.
Class was always likely to tell so when Philippe Mexes and Marco Boriello scored twice in three minutes, both executing very nice first-timers that gave Nuno Claro no hope, it should have been all over for the Italians.
But Roma got the drowsies and watched from their torpor as Ionut Rada rose above the defense to head home in the 78th minute. Then Ranieri saw his side allow Cluj to threaten far too much in the closing 10 minutes, with wide gaps in the Roma defense. Keeper Bogdan Lobont won’t be thanking his central defenders in the lockers tonight for making him earn his paycheck.
Two second half goals from Bastien Schweinsteiger gave Bayern Munich its comeback win in Basel and left the Germans clear in Group E on six points. Roma and Cluj are next on three, with Basel still searching for their first points.
A brilliant backheel for Marco Streller to Alexander Frei gave Basel a shock lead after only 18 minutes, and the Swiss stifled the Germans for long stretches. But Munich mounted a second half fightback after Benjamin Huggel took down Thomas Muller in the area to give Schweinsteiger a a spot kick. Schweinsteiger then won the game late for Munich when he turned in a Holger Badstuber freekick in the 88th minute.
Over in Group F, Didier Deschamps must have known there was no way back when John Terry side-footed Chelsea into the lead after only seven minutes at Stamford Bridge. Marseille’s Benoit Cheyrou was properly placed, defending the post, but somehow failed to block Terry’s shot. To give credit where it is due, Terry’s strike was far more than a mere deflection, instead a neatly-directed touch from the big center back.
Stephane Mbia then handled in the box in the 26th minute to give Chelsea a penalty which Nicolas Anelka coolly put away, and with over an hour to play, Chelsea could just play out time. Marseille didn’t lack for effort, but they looked two or three shades below Carlo Ancelotti’s side and when the two former great players, now managers, shook hands after it was over you could almost sense Deschamps’ conceding the point to his Italian counterpart.
In our early game in Moscow, Ari’s two goals led the homers to an easy 3-0 win over Slovakian minnows MSK Zilina, with Ibson nicking the final goal in the 90th minute. It was one-way traffic for much of the game and could have been more lopsided had keeper Martin Dubravka not turned in a heroic performance. The only lift MSK saw was with the introduction of Momodou Ceesay, and his impact was short-lived as Spartak snuffed the life out of their opponents with a withering attack that never allowed Zilina any time on the ball.
Spartak and Chelsea are both perfect on six points, with Chelsea holding the edge on goal difference.
The thriller of the night was in Amsterdam, where Ajax and AC Milan traded punches in a tough 1-1 draw. Claudio Suarez set up Mounir El Hamdaoui in the 23rd minute for a beauty that gave Christian Abbiati no chance, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic leveled in the 37th to keep the game alive. Kevin-Prince Boateng almost won the game for Milan but his shot was well stopped late by Maarten Stekelenburg.
For long periods, Ajax looked the better team. Suarez had another dominant match, raising questions about just how long the talented Uruguayan can stay with what has become a small club. Jan Vertonghen was brilliant in the defense for the Dutch as well, consistently blunting Clarence Seedorf and Robinho’s attempts to break through.
The result showed the class the Dutch can bring in a group widely considered to be one of the toughest in the entire tournament; while Ajax have only one point to their name, they must expect that they can build off this against Auxerre in three weeks. Milan, of course, get to face Real Madrid.
Speaking of, it took an 81st minute goal from late substitute Angel DiMaria to give Real Madrid the victory at Auxerre in Group G, in another match that will have manager Jose Mourinho wondering how he can ignite a sputtering Madrid attack.
The Special One started Karim Benzema, Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo up front, a trio that ought to manufacture goals, but when Kamel Chafni cleared an Higuain strike off the line in the 14th minute it served notice both that Auxerre would defend to the end and that Real’s inability to string things together fluently is still a concern.
Perhaps too much ran through Xabi Alonso, lying a bit deeper in midfield, or maybe it is just growing pains as Mourinho tries to fashion his style in Madrid. But fact is this one became a long slog against a French team which didn’t get enough at the other end to really look like scoring. Delvin N’Dinga had a 27th minute header go past Iker Casillas’ post and Ireneusz Jelen beat the offside trap in the 62nd minute to threaten, but the Auxerre game was too defensive and eventually got found out.
The goal was a beaut, as DiMaria chested down a ball wide on the left and gave Olivier Sorin no chance with a well-placed drive to the opposite corner. Justice done, but hardly in a style that will have anyone thinking this Mourinho team is a finished product. Real are top on six points, with AC Milan trailing on four.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League.