Champions League: Real Madrid overwhelms; Arsenal claws back
After 40 goals in eight group games on Tuesday, Wednesday's Champions League action brought a relative drought: 19 goals. But there were some beauties among them, and the day saw comfortable wins for Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, late twists at Arsenal and Ludogorets and a surprise defeat for Juventus.
Here is what caught our eye:
Player of the Day: Marco Reus, Borussia Dortmund
How much more prolific might champion Germany have been at the World Cup had Reus been fit? The Dortmund forward, still the subject of back-and-forth interest from Bayern Munich – club CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was asked about it earlier this week while Maro Goetze said "it would be nice" to have his friend with him at Bayern – had made his first start since suffering an ankle injury in June last weekend in Dortmund's 2-1 loss at FC Cologne, its fifth loss in eight games. The club's form is totally different in Europe, as Dortmund racked up a third straight win with an impressive 4-0 win at Galatasaray, and Reus was the architect.
He set up Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's first goal with a smart burst down the left flank and a pinpoint cross that needed just a tap-in. He then scored Dortmund's third, a nonchalant 25-yard strike that arrowed into the far corner. Dortmund director of sport called BVB's recent run of form "a crisis" but with Reus in full flow, it could be over soon. The fixture against Bayern in 10 days, at least, could be interesting.
Goal of the Day: Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid
You could say Real Madrid's game turned on an early injury to James Rodriguez at Anfield. The game was stopped while the Colombian received treatment on a cut above his eye and it suited the visiting side quite well. Before then, Liverpool had been tigerish in the tackle and sharp in its movement; but minutes after James returned with a bandage over his eye, Real Madrid woke up. James scooped a pass over Dejan Lovren and Ronaldo, running past Martin Skrtel, swept the ball first-time past Simon Mignolet with the flick of his right foot.
The goal was Ronaldo's first at Anfield and merely confirmed his status as the world's most in-form outfield player. He has 20 goals in 13 games this season, and at least one goal in each of his last 10 games. Ronaldo was subbed off with 20 minutes left, a very rare sight, but with Barcelona next up on Saturday, it was easy to see why. It can surely now only be a two-horse race between Ronaldo and Manuel Neuer for the Ballon d'Or, with the long-list for the world's top player being announced next week.
Turning-Point of the Day: Podolski wins it for Wenger
Arsene Wenger could not have enjoyed his 65th birthday for most of the game at Anderlecht. Arsenal was off the pace, and with minutes left to play, the Belgian host was 1-0 up (through for MLS Rookie of the Year Andy Najar) and pressing for a second; Anthony Vanden Borre hit the post on 86 minutes. But there was still time for Kieran Gibbs (88 minutes) and Lukas Podolski (91 minutes) to smash home a winner from close range.
"That was a lucky result, it just covered over the cracks in this side," said ex-Arsenal player Paul Merson after the game.
Nevertheless, it almost secures Arsenal's place in the top two in its group. At the halfway stage, the club is already five points clear of Anderlecht and Galatasaray. But not for the first time this season, it was a disappointing performance from the Gunners.
Surprise of the Day: Michel does it again
When previous Juventus coach Antonio Conte left his position last summer after winning three straight Serie A titles, the job facing Maximiliano Allegri, his successor was clear: continue the domestic dominance and start performing in Europe. Juventus's 1-0 defeat at Olympiakos – courtesy of a great goal by Patjam Kasami, set up by his ex-Fulham teammate Kostas Mitroglou, along with a succession of great saves from Olympiakos goalkeeper Roberto – has left Group A wide open, with Atletico Madrid joining the Greeks on six points while Juve and Malmo, beaten 5-0 in the Spanish capital, are on three points.
Olympiakos boss Michel won admirers after his side beat Benfica and Manchester United at home in Europe last season – notably in Madrid, where he will be among the front-runners to replace Carlo Ancelotti at the Bernabeu when the time comes – but for Allegri, the pressure just cranked up.
Major Takeaway of the Day: Why always Mario?
It took 90 seconds for Mario Balotelli to find himself in space, after an early error from Isco, and take the wrong option by turning to the right wing when Raheem Sterling was in space on the left. It didn't get much better for the Italian as the first half went on, though his performance was no worse than some other players wearing red.
And yet pictures of him swapping shirts with Real Madrid defender Pepe at halftime will infuriate Anfield fans and guarantee Balotelli more column inches in the post-mortem of a chastening defeat for Liverpool. Reds coach Brendan Rodgers benched Balotelli at halftime, furthering the narrative that this result, and perhaps Liverpool's struggles this season, are down to his arrival.
The truth, in fact, was apparent in an 11-minute spell in the first half, when Madrid scored two goals, both as a result of appalling defending, to go ahead 3-0. Karim Benzema headed home the first and toe-poked the second after calamitous efforts to clear a corner. It was Liverpool's seventh goal conceded in 12 games and the team's weakness at the back - it was a vulnerability last season, but there's no doubt it's worse this season - is the root cause of Liverpool's problems this season. You can expect Balotelli to hog the headlines. The problem up front can be sorted much more easily, though, than the nightmare that is Liverpool's backline.
Late Twist of the Day: Ludogorets makes its mark
Everyone expected Ludogorets to be the weak link in Group B. The Bulgarian champion was unlucky to lose at Liverpool on Matchday 1, and pushed Real Madrid close on Matchday 2. The third proved to be the charm, as a late strike from Yordan Minev was enough to beat FC Basel 1-0 and leave three teams tied on three points.
Before the games, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard said he hoped that FC Basel dropped points in these two doubleheaders, as he assumed that the race for second place was a two-way fight. He was wrong. There are now three teams in the battle for second.
Atletico Madrid 5, Malmo 0
Olympiakos 1, Juventus 0
Liverpool 0, Real Madrid 3
Ludogorets 1, Basel 0
Bayer Leverkusen 2, Zenit 0
Monaco 0, Benfica 0
Anderlecht 1, Arsenal 2
Galatasaray 0, Borussia Dortmund 4