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Barcelona's potential weak link; Gasperini in trouble at Inter


Ten Champions League thoughts from Round 1 of the Group Stage:

1. Barcelona's weak link. Even with a defensive partnership made up of two central midfielders Barcelona showed it could have beaten AC Milan by a decent margin, just as it could probably beat most teams. But that doesn't change the fact that both the rossoneri's goals in the 2-2 draw were likely a function of having non-specialists (one of them a mere 5-foot-9 tall) at the heart of the back four. With Carles Puyol now 33 and beset by injuries, Gerard Pique, who was unavailable on Tuesday, is the only bona fide, legit option at that position (unless Marc Fontas suddenly lives up to the hype). And that could be a problem.

2. A living legend. At 35 and with a reconstructed knee, Alessandro Nesta can't be expected to be his old self week in, week out. But at the Camp Nou he showed just why he has been one of the very best defenders in the world over the past 15 years, frustrating Leo Messi with his blend of intelligence, athleticism and quickness. On nights like these, with Thiago Silva alongside him, Milan's center-back partnership is second to none.

3. Rolling back the years. Speaking of golden oldies, Ryan Giggs scored the equalizer against Porto, 17 years to the day after his first ever Champions League goal (against Goteborg, a 4-2 win). You run out of superlatives with the Welsh winger, who turns 38 in November. Most amazing perhaps is the fact that he had not started a game since the Champions' League final last May, yet played as if he'd never been away.

4. The blue half of Manchester debuts. Manchester City came through its debut on the big stage with a 1-1 draw against a feisty Napoli side in one of the most entertaining matches of the round. The good news for City is that the formation with three front men (Edin Dzeko, David Silva and Sergio Aguero) and Samir Nasri pulling the strings behind them, works. The bad news is that, if you're going to do that, you had better have Nigel de Jong in the middle of the park. Gareth Barry as the last defensive hurdle is a stretch against counterattacking sides.

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5. The ego has landed. Cristiano Ronaldo blamed jealousy for the treatment he received during Real Madrid's 1-0 win at Dinamo Zagreb. Showing off his blood- drenched sock, he said: "Some referees allow [opponents to batter me] like Dinamo did today because I'm rich, handsome and a great player. They envy me, there's no other explanation." Ronaldo is probably a better footballer than he is a referee behavioral psychologist, but it's pretty obvious he's among the most targeted players in the world. It's an old trope, but one worth repeating: skill players need a degree of protection.

6. Trouble at Inter. Gian Gasperini may be out of his depth at manager of Inter. But, until he's sacked, he deserves a chance to do things his way. His 3-4-3 may be unworkable with this group of players, mainly because it takes time to learn the tactical movements (and older guys, especially successful veterans like Inter's aren't always the best students) and because the squad is unsuited to that formation. But Inter knew his tactical vision before he was appointed and, presumably, the 3-4-3 is part of the reason he was picked. Make him play a more traditional formation and he becomes just another coach.

7. Villas-Boas shows he's his own man. By contrast, Andre Villas Boas may be the managerial prodigy last season suggested. Or he may crash and burn at Chelsea. But whatever happens he has shown he has the courage to make his own decisions. He dropped (sorry, "rested") Fernando Torres against Sunderland last weekend and on Tuesday, against Bayer Leverkusen, did the same with John Terry and Frank Lampard. Chelsea won both games, if things had gone awry, it's fair to assume he would have faced criticism, either from the proprietor (one Roman Abramovich) or from the fans and English media.

8. Bayern no longer a two-man show. One of the criticisms of Bayern under Louis Van Gaal is that it lived and died by the form of its wingers. And when those wingers are Frank Ribéry and Arjen Robben, hardly the most durable duo in the game, that was a problem. This year's version, with Jupp Heynckes, is different, as evidenced by the two-nil win at Villarreal. Robben was unavailable, Ribéry was there and played well, but the difference is that Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller are taking on much more of the creative load. And that bodes well.

9. A surprise capitulation. Zenit St. Petersburg was some people's dark horse to make a real impact in the Champions' League this season. There is talent up and down the lineup and coach Luciano Spalletti is one of the brightest minds in the game. Everything was going swimmingly at APOEL, with Zenit ahead when two goals in the space of a minute sent the Russians crashing to a 2-1 defeat. This was followed by Bruno Alves' needless red card, which will bring a suspension. Talent and tactics are fine, but you need nerves to go with it.

10. One to keep an eye on. Ivan Perisic will probably struggle to get much playing time as a starter with Borussia Dortmund this season. As a 22-year old newcomer from the Belgian league joining a well-drilled side, that's par for the course. But when you score a goal like the one he did against Arsenal -- as gorgeous as it was important -- that's quite a calling card. I have a feeling we'll hear from this young man again.