After all the drama of Champions League Matchday One, which had great goals, controversies and the odd shock result as well, Europe’s elite competition is back this week with another round of fascinating encounters.
Two favorites for the title, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, lock horns, while Chelsea needs to get back to winning ways after losing at home to FC Basel. Here are some storylines to watch ahead of this week’s games:
What did Galatasaray just do?
Unal Aysal is not a popular man in Istanbul at the moment. He is the president of Galatasaray, who last week took the surprising decision to fire Fatih Terim, Turkey’s most successful coach and a national hero, and replace him with former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini. No one saw the sacking coming, and while it may look like results played a role -- Galatasaray won the last two league titles but started the season slowly and was steamrollered 6-1 on Matchday One at home to Real Madrid -- the move was largely political.
Aysal and Terim did not get along, and their relationship was tested further in August when Terim accepted a short-term position, apparently taken with Aysal’s blessing, to return as Turkey's national coach for the final four World Cup qualifying matches (his presence has already helped, with a 2-0 win in Romania giving Turkey a real shot at a playoff berth).
Aysal acted when Terim failed to respond to a request to renew his contract by another two years. Terim could have been forgiven for the delay; he’s waiting to find out if he would be at the World Cup (and if the Turkish FA wanted to take up their option to sign him for another three years). But Aysal couldn't wait and, like so many clubs before, took decisive action before having a clear succession policy in place. Turkish media reported that Terim refused to answer Aysal’s calls after his dismissal, while Turkish FA president Yildirim Demiroren seemed to enjoy the saga a little too much and ended up in a media slanging-match with Aysal.
Half of the Galatasaray team praised and thanked Terim on social media while the board set about finding a replacement. Tensions quickly spilled over in training, where it was reported that Wesley Sneijder and Emmanuel Eboue had a row in the first session without Terim. Galatasaray only drew 1-1 at home to Rizespor on Saturday.
So where does this leave the Turkish champion ahead of Tuesday’s tricky game at Juventus? With a new coach. After being linked with the last two Champions League-winning coaches, Roberto di Matteo and Jupp Heynckes, Galatasaray struck a deal with Roberto Mancini. Even with Mancini, it seems unlikely last year’s quarterfinalist has any chance of toppling Juventus or Real Madrid to earn a top-two spot in Group B.
As for Terim, he has vowed never to return to Galatasaray again. “If I ever come back, it will only be as chairman,” he said.
Can Napoli and Atletico Madrid peak at the right time?
It was one of the surprising results of Matchday One: last year’s runner-up Borussia Dortmund losing 2-1 at Napoli, the fourth seed in Group F. And yet can we really say how good Napoli is at this early stage? Everything that could have gone wrong for Dortmund did. Mats Hummels went off injured, Roman Weidenfeller was sent off, as was coach Jurgen Klopp, and the team was already missing Ilkay Gundogan, Lukasz Pizsczek and Kuba through injury.
It’s hard not to be impressed with Rafa Benitez’s team though. He has drilled his fullbacks (who were wing-backs last year) to be solid, Marek Hamsik is in the form of his life and Lorenzo Insigne has an impudence to his game that is refreshing.
Then there is Benitez himself: master tactician and brilliant in European competition. But can Napoli become a serious contender this season, just like the team it beat two weeks ago was last year? We will know more about Napoli’s status as a sleeper side this season after its Tuesday trip to Arsenal, who last failed to get out of its group in 1999-2000 (when it was drawn with Barcelona, Fiorentina and AIK).
And look out for the crowd reaction to Gonzalo Higuain, who turned down the Gunners to move to Napoli this summer. Napoli’s fate is tied to the Argentine; if he is injured, it could struggle.
You could say something similar about another dark horse, Atletico Madrid, who has not only won seven out of seven to top La Liga but also served notice of its credentials as a realistic Spanish title contender by beating Real Madrid at the Bernabeu 1-0 Saturday night. Diego Costa, the match-winner in Madrid, has scored eight goals this season and is Europe’s in-form forward. No wonder the Spanish FA, not short of talent coming through, officially requested permission to select the Brazilian-born striker last week. Atletico beat Zenit 3-1 on Matchday One and travels to Porto in a match that could determine top spot in Group G. It’s definitely a team that has the talent to reach the later stages of the competition, but like Napoli, is it peaking too early in the season? Can Atletico keep up this form in the spring?
A chance to assess City and Bayern progress
Pep Guardiola is two for three when it comes to Bayern’s biggest games this season: The club lost the German SuperCup 4-2 to Borussia Dortmund but won the European SuperCup, beating Chelsea on penalties, and last week beat Schalke 4-0 in a performance that suggested the team was coming together nicely.
Manchester City, meanwhile, has won its important games under new boss Manuel Pellegrini but dropped points before each of its Champions League group games when it has rested key players but also suffered from Joe Hart’s alarming drop in form.
City beat Manchester United 4-1 but lost 3-2 at Aston Villa last weekend. It remains overly dependent on Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure. Still, Manchester City should reach the knock-out stage for the first time this season.
How Bayern respond to City will be fascinating. It would appear Guardiola is already learning from his mistakes, and has changed his decision to play only one holding midfielder. In the absence of Javi Martinez and Thiago Alcantara, he is partnering Philipp Lahm with Bastien Schweinsteiger, and it is working.
Meanwhile, the support for winger Franck Ribery to depose Lionel Messi as winner of the FIFA Ballon D’Or continues to grow in Munich, with honorary president Franz Beckenbauer leading the calls. “Franck has to win it. He’s the only one who won every title going last season,” Beckenbauer said. “Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben, who scored more decisive goals in the Champions League, and Bastian Schweinsteiger also have a chance, but Franck is more likely, because he is the most spectacular and the most high-profile at Bayern. He is also the one that best embodies our club. Whenever he loses the ball, he immediately helps his teammates in defense to win it back. Do Messi and Ronaldo do that?”
Will absent center backs hurt the big boys?
Paris-Saint Germain takes on Benfica in Group C but will be without Thiago Silva, its center back colossus, for the next six weeks. How will PSG cope? Replacing him alongside Alex will most likely be Marquinhos, the 18-year-old Brazilian whose form has been mixed so far that Leonardo signed for over €30m. Also missing at center back for Barcelona is Carles Puyol and his backup, Javier Mascherano. The Spanish champion has made much of Neymar’s arrival -- and the Brazilian has made an impressive start to his career at the club -- but more pressing was Barcelona’s obvious need to sign a center back in the summer. It never happened, and with Jordi Alba also missing from the back four, facing Celtic will be a challenge for likely replacements Marc Bartra and Adriano. Celtic famously beat Barcelona in Glasgow last season. A repeat may be unlikely, even though Barcelona is also without Lionel Messi, but Barca's defensive headache could come back to haunt the club later in the competition.