CL review: Slogging Arsenal snag first
Aaron Ramsey scored a dramatic last-second winner to give Arsenal all three points and a massive win over Olympique Marseille as Match Day Three of the Champions League came to a close. Elsewhere, Chelsea ripped Racing Genk 5-0, Bayer Leverkusen recovered to stun Valencia 2-1; and Olympiakos shocked German champs Borussia Dortmund 3-1 in Greece.
Barcelona and AC Milan both performed as expected, easily winning 2-0 in their games against Plzen and BATE, respectively. The barnburner of the evening was in Ukraine, though, where Shakhtar and Zenit drew 2-2 in a game featuring one of the goals of the tournament from Willian. And finally, we have to start taking APOEL Nicosia seriously after they held Porto 1-1 in Portugal to stay top of Group G.
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Arsenal seized sole control of Group E tonight after what can only be described as a slog of a game at the Stade Velodrome against Marseille. Pretty football, this wasn’t. It was a foul-ridden, clumsy and sloppy on both sides of the ball, and for nearly 70 minutes, both teams seemed content to play for the draw.
All of Arsenal’s weaknesses were on display: indifferent performances from Andrei Arshavin and Gervinho; some reckless defending; and a poor show in midfield from the likes of the normally reliable Alex Song. The standout? The much (and justly) maligned Carl Jenkinson, who looked good going forward and woeful in the back.
The fact that Marseille played the same sort of game, getting nothing out of Loic Remy or his replacement, Andre-Pierre Gignac, and very little out of anyone else save keeper Steve Mandanda made things at least level, if often unwatachable.
But there was one flash of the “old” Arsenal: their penchant for nicking the late winner. This is not the team of Cesc Fabregas or Thierry Henry — or really, anywhere in between — but when Gervinho fumbled a cross from Johan Djourou, Ramsey was all alone and made it count. The fans ripped Didier Deschamps’ men as they trudged off the turf; the expression on Arsene Wenger’s face spoke of qualified relief. This wasn’t a good show — but in the end it was good enough. The Gunners will take it.
Olympiakos stunned Borussia Dortmund in the other game in the group, with Rafik Djebbour and Jose Holebas tormenting Roman Weidenfeller all night long. Holebas opened the scoring in just the eighth minute when he muscled a header home; Djebbour got the winner when Mats Hummels slipped to allow him in one-on-one with Neven Subotic, whom he beat well.
Mario Goetze did his best to lift Dormund back into the match, finding Robert Lewandowski in the 26th to draw level, but he faded badly as the night went on as the Greeks continued to look both the stronger and the smarter. Jurgen Klopp now has some ugly questions to answer as his side are staring up at the pack from the bottom, holding but a single point.
At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea made mincemeat out of a Genk side that doesn’t look like it even belongs in this tournament. Two goals from Fernando Torres, bracketed with strikes from Raul Meireles, Salomon Kalou and Branislav Ivanovic, made this one not only a stroll, but an embarrassment.
The mystery is not how Chelsea equaled their European home record for biggest ever win, but how Genk held Valencia to a 0-0 draw on Match Day One for their only point. Not only could they not defend — `keeper Laszlo Koteles was dreadful — but they didn’t even put a single shot on frame. Numbers often lie, but not here, not today: UEFA credited the Blues with 28 shots; Genk with four. And that’s generous to the Belgians.
The other game was far better, a superb turnaround win from Bayer Leverkusen that saw them score twice inside four minutes to stun Valencia. This was a slug-fest, with Valencia looking by far the better side in the first half, getting great service from Ever Banega and Roberto Soldado. Soldado hit the woodwork, missed an open net, but then set up Jonas in the 27th to seemingly put the Spaniards on the right path.
After the break — and a half in which they had been well outplayed — Leverkusen got off to a storming start with a feisty Andre Schurrle taking an immediate booking, and then following it up with a goal from the edge of the area. Three minutes later, Sidney Sam raced onto a ball from Michael Ballack to leave Diego Alves no chance to stop a left-footed curler.
The result leaves Unai Emery’s team in a deep hole on only two points, but then again, they have Genk cushioning them in dead last. Leverkusen are set for second on six points.
In Group G, the match of the night - and maybe of the year - took place in Ukraine, where visiting Zenit St, Petersburg attacked from the start only to be continually foiled by brilliant Oleksandr Rybka in the Shakhtar Donetsk goal in a 2-2 draw that produced individual brilliance and absorbing football for 90 minutes.
Rybka denied the outstanding Danny on four different occasions as Zenit did everything but take three points back to Russia. Still, the result left them tied for second in the group since Porto could do no better than manage a home draw against APOEL Nicosia, the Cypriot side which remains top of the section against all the odds.
In Donetsk, where Shakhtar built their reputation in this competition a year ago by finishing ahead of Arsenal at the group stage, you would have thought Zenit was the home side. Despite playing against a sea of orange flags, the Russians took the game right to their hosts and should have been on top inside the first quarter-hour. Roman Shirokov badly hit his penalty kick attempt, however, Rybka saved and the night's storyline was set.
Shakhtar broke on top against the run of play when Willian left Igor Denisov standing rooted before finding the far top corner of Vyacheslav Malafeev's net in the 15th minute. Shirokov atoned for his miss to get Zenit level, taking a wonderful pass from Aleksandr Bukharov and tucking the ball home from what looked like the most impossible of angles at the right post.
Despite being forced deep into their own end much of the night, Shakhtar left the field on top at the interval, with Luiz Adriano's close control of a Razvan Rat pass allowing him to make the turn needed to beat the stationary Malafeev.
Zenit refused to quit, throwing everything at Rybka and the Shakhtar defense. Viktor Fayzulin's equalizer came after he picked off an ill-judged square pass across the defense and was free to lob into Rybka's net when in alone. A bad mistake, that, but it was the result of accumulated pressure applied by the visitors.
Somehow Shakhtar survived the final 30 minutes, but they have only two points from three matches and perhaps cannot expect Rybka to be Superman every night.
In Portugal, FC Porto disappointed the home crowd despite taking a 13th minute lead when Hulk's free kick was completely missed by APOEL `keeper Dionios Chiotis. Chiotis had been injured in the opening minutes in a collision with Kleber and eventually left the field five minutes into the second half; perhaps that explains first his late reaction, then his futile attempt to stop what was a rather ordinary free kick.
Porto `keeper Helton shares some of the blame for Ailton's equalizer six minutes later, although the Porto defense backed off, allowing the shooter time to aim from 25 yards. Helton got down late and was beaten. After that APOEL gave as good as it received and back-up `keeper Urko Pardo did what he had to preserve the point. Minnows? No minnows here.
Neither Barcelona nor Milan were ever in trouble in their home ties in a group everyone knew would not be truly competitive. The two giants will advance, and the two weaklings — who drew against each other — may not even be able to settle the Europa League place except via goal-difference.
Andres Iniesta, after a four-pass movement inside the box with Lionel Messi, put the champions on top in the 10th minute. David Villa clinched it in the 82nd. In between Barcelona tapped the ball around, Viktoria Plzen defended in total depth, and the Camp Nou crowd had little to be enthused about.
In Milan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic put his team in control against BATE Borisov with a 33rd minute strike, then Kevin Prince-Boateng made it 2-0 with a fine shot off the underside of the bar and home in the 71st.
Truth be told: Barcelona and Milan played as if they knew they couldn't lose and conserved their energy. Like Plzen, BATE soldiered on gamely but neither they, nor the Czechs, are a real factor in this competition.