Matchday Four pivotal for Champions League contenders
UEFA Champions League Matchday Four could prove to be pivotal as Arsenal, Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk and Benfica all need to get results to keep in touch in their respective groups. As always, there are some intriguing storylines to look out for. Here are a few we will be keeping our eyes on:
Will Arsenal regret gung-ho approach?
Two weeks ago, Arsenal went all out for a home win against Borussia Dortmund and was caught on a classic counterattack to concede a late Robert Lewandowski winner at the Emirates. The Gunners are still top of Group F, on the same points as Dortmund and Napoli, but it could be facing a different picture if it fails to get anything Wednesday night from the Westfalenstadion.
With Napoli expected to beat Marseille at home, Arsenal could be three points back from its two rivals with a trip to Naples still to come -- not a position inwhich Arsene Wenger would want to be. After beating Liverpool this past weekend, there is no doubt confidence is high; then again, Dortmund beat Stuttgart 6-1 on Friday and has been boosted by coach Jurgen Klopp extending his contract at the club until 2018. Arsenal has a trip to Manchester United next weekend, but for Wenger, getting something from this game is potentially more important.
Is it too early for Juventus to get twitchy?
Normally one of the seeded teams can afford to drop points early in the group stage -- look at Chelsea, top after three games despite losing at home to FC Basel -- but as Group B goes on, Juventus' Matchday One draw at FC Copenhagen is looking increasingly significant. Already the Italian champion is seven points behind perfect Real Madrid, whom it welcomes to Turin on Tuesday. But more dropped points would leave Galatasaray, already two points ahead, in pole position for second place.
There could be goals on Carlo Ancelotti's return here, as Madrid has conceded seven in its last three games, and scored 10. Gareth Bale is playing, scoring and creating, but at the back, Madrid's collective switch-offs will give Juventus hope.
Who needs Ibra?
So maybe Paris-St. Germain is not as Zlatan Ibrahimovic-dependent as we thought. Last Friday, PSG was without its Swedish top scorer and still flourished in an impressive 4-0 win over Lorient (which extended its lead at the top as second-place Monaco lost its first game of the campaign, 2-0 at Lille). The star man was Marco Verratti, the diminutive midfielder whose place has been secure ever since coach Laurent Blanc switched to a three-man midfield with Verratti on the right of Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi.
"He makes quality long passes, has good feet and excels in small spaces too -- he has already simplified his game," Blanc said.
His pass success rate is 90.5 percent in Ligue 1, a figure that rises to 94.6 percent in the Champions League. Despite extending his contract with PSG until 2018 last summer, there have been rumors that the French champion will offer him in part-exchange to land Paul Pogba from Juventus. For now, PSG's Player of September is focusing on continuing his development.
"I am playing better this year, but I still have to improve," Verratti told RMC last week.
And there's bad news for Anderlecht, which conceded four Ibra goals last time out. Ibra should be fit to play this week.
What about Costel?
There are two schools of thought about what type of reserve goalkeeper to have at a big club; either someone who is a level below the first-choice, a young tyro being groomed to replace him, or a player at the end of his career who has the experience and nous to step in when required (Mark Schwarzer at Chelsea, Brad Friedel at Tottenham).
The alternative is to have someone who battles with the No. 1 for the jersey outright, like Diego Lopez and Iker Casillas at Real Madrid, or David de Gea before he saw off the challenge from Anders Lindegaard at Manchester United. Manchester City goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon fits into neither category, and perhaps that is part of the problem.
He is 26, and though Joe Hart's sustained drop in form has been put down, in part, to complacency, because there is no-one challenging him for his position, we still haven't seen enough of the giant Romanian to evaluate how good he is. Romania coach Victor Pitruca does not seem convinced: he has only played 16 times for the national team since 2008, and Pantilimon was not in Piturca's provisional squad list for the World Cup qualifying playoff against Greece next week. There is a sense now that the City shirt is his until he makes a mistake; and if that mistake doesn't come for a while, then Piturca might have to sit up and take notice as well.
Diego Simeone, others deserve COY recognition
I have a confession to make: I used to love the Ballon D'Or award. I would look forward to the publication of France Football magazine when it revealed the 23-man list and pore over the voting patterns of the 52 journalists based in each European country who voted for their top three.
In 2010, it all changed. FIFA got involved, and merged it with its World Player of the Year award. Now we still get interesting voting, but we also get a short-list for the Coach of the Year award that can only have been compiled by someone in a Zurich office. Never mind that Jupp Heynckes is a shoo-in for the award anyway: why was Arsene Wenger, who until two months ago, was the subject of "You don't know what you're doing" chants from his own fans, on the list? What about Luiz Felipe Scolari, whose Brazil side won the Confederations Cup, a pre-World Cup friendly tournament, but has not played a competitive match all year? And Jose Mourinho, who ended his third year at Real Madrid with a runner-up spot in La Liga, a Champions League semifinal and defeat in the Copa del Rey final?
More importantly, where was Stephen Keshi, who coached Nigeria to the Africa Cup of Nations title in February? And where was Diego Simeone, whose side beat Madrid in Copa del Rey final, and has started this season with 11 wins in 12 leagues games, a perfect record in Europe and is just one point behind Barcelona in Spain? Simeone won't care about this kind of thing, of course. He is happy talking down Atletico's title chances and prepares his side for a home match against Austria Vienna that, if Atletico wins, will confirm its place as the first team through to the knockout round. And not many teams will fancy facing capital club at that stage.