Twelve Champions League thoughts from Round 5 of the Group Stage:
1. Real Madrid's dominance. If Real wins its final game against Ajax, it will break Spartak Moscow's record: six wins out of six and an insane goal difference (Real is up to +14, Spartak got as high as +11). Jose Mourinho could probably care less about that record, and if he doesn't win the Champions League it will likely soon be forgotten. But, more than the numbers, is the fact that this year's Real Madrid has turned into an offensive juggernaut, unlike last year's version, which was often more safety-first. And Mourinho continues to experiment: against Dinamo Zagreb, he used Karim Benzema as a winger, and the Frenchman was among the best players on the pitch. Mourinho has already rehabilitated Kaka. Now Benzema is finding a new dimension, too. These are all extra weapons in Real's arsenal, and they could be invaluable come the spring.
2. Time for Manchester United to panic? Sir Alex Ferguson walked out of the news conference following a 2-2 home draw with Benfica after being told that his team and Manchester City had been "struggling" in the Champions League. But the fact is, United has been struggling. Placed in one of the easiest groups -- at least on paper -- the return has been three draws and two wins against Otelul Galati (hardly Real Madrid). United won't win the group for the first time in six years. The performances haven't been particularly good, either. No point in freaking out just yet, but whatever Sir Alex does in public, it's a safe bet that, in private, he's working to fix things. Because there's plenty to fix right now.
3. AC Milan stood up to Barcelona. With passage to the Round of 16 secured, Milan faced no pressure when it took on Barcelona. And that's how Massimiliano Allegri treated the game. He packed the midfield with attacking players (Alberto Aquilani, Clarence Seedorf, Kevin Prince Boateng) and went for it. It's always dangerous to attempt to out-Barcelona Barcelona, and Milan fell 3-2. But the fact that it could hang with the Catalans for large chunks of the game is encouraging.
4. More Messi magic. Leo Messi's pass to Xavi for Barcelona's third goal may be the most amazing thing we've seen in the Champions League this year. A man running at full pace who squeezes the ball between four opponents to a teammate who collects it without breaking his stride and beats the keeper is the kind of stuff you normally see in the Xbox and nowhere else. Then again, watching Messi is a lot like watching a real-life video game.
5. Surviving, thriving in the Group of Death. Franck Ribéry is back to the levels he was at three years ago, and that's a scary thought. Bayern rolled through the so-called "Group of Death" without breaking a sweat and, top to bottom, looks better than it has in years. With Mario Gomez banging them in up front and a genuine Oliver Kahn-like match winner in goal in Manuel Neuer, the Germans belong just behind Barcelona and Real among the favorites to win it all. And, remember, Arjen Robben is still not fully fit.
6. What's wrong with Chelsea. Its last-ditch defeat to Bayer Leverkusen means the club has just seven points from its past seven games in all competitions. Andre Villas-Boas will, no doubt, get the blame: after all, he's the manager, the buck stops with him. But it might be worthwhile if Chelsea's owner also remembers that some of the problems are well beyond the manager's control. Waiting until June 22 to appoint him left him just over seven weeks to prepare for the season: that's not his fault, that's the club's. Keeping eight attacking players on a team that only plays three at a time, meaning veterans like Salomon Kalou and Nicolas Anelka hardly ever get on the pitch and neither does Romelu Lukaku, supposedly the club's future center forward: that's not his fault, that's the club's. And, most of all, leaving a 34-year-old in his first job in a major league with little or no public support (hands up anyone who can pick Chelsea chief executive Ron Gourlay out of a crowd): that's not his fault, that's the club's.
7. Benfica blossoms. Jorge Jesus upsets some purists for packing his lineup with foreign players, despite the fact that Portugal continues to produce plenty of talent. But the way Benfica is going, few will mind. Undefeated in the group stage thus far, the blood-and-guts combination of Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel is one of the toughest midfield partnerships around and the basis of the club's success thus far.
8. Arsenal keeps streaking. Rumors of Arsenal's demise are, obviously, greatly exaggerated. Arsene Wenger made it 12 straight years of taking the Gunners past the group stage, a remarkable achievement. But there is still plenty to do. Robin van Persie has been outstanding, but his injury record is there for all to see. Wenger needs to figure out who the alternative to the Dutchman might be. Marouane Chamakh? Park Chu-Young? Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? Gervinho? If he doesn't find another goal scorer in-house, expect him to hit the January sales.
9. What's next for Inter. Is Ricky Alvarez for real? Two good performances in a row don't dispel all the doubts surrounding the former Velez Sarsfield star. The challenge for Claudio Ranieri is to find a way to get him to contribute, ideally alongside Wesley Sneijder, rather than as an alternative to the Dutchman. The good news for Inter is that it won't have to worry about the Champions League for the next few months and can instead focus on remedying the club's awful league position. The nerazzurri bought themselves some time: they now have until February to show they belong in this competition.
10. Collapse of City. Manchester City's first Champions League participation will, likely, come to an end on Matchday 6. If it does, there's a silver lining, of course: it will allow the club to focus on winning its first league tile since 1968. And City boss Roberto Mancini will, no doubt, spin it that way. Either way, he would be wise to study the two legs against Napoli and figure out just how he came away with a single point against a side whose wage bill is one-fifth as high as his team's. (There's less to learn from the loss to Bayern, who, right now, are legitimately one of the top three or four sides in the competition.)
11. Napoli's deep list of standouts. Speaking of Napoli, the front trio of Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik have hogged the headlines and rightly so. When they're on, they're devastating (and, as they mature, they'll be "on" more often than not). But credit must also go to Walter Gargano, Christian Maggio and, at the back, Hugo Campagnaro. They're the unsung heroes who make the front three so effective.
12. The pride of Cyprus. What more can you say about APOEL? The underdog's underdog survived an onslaught in St. Petersburg to secure a place in the Round of 16. It has shown that it can withstand a siege, as well as chase a game. APOEL is evidence that a solid unit with plenty of tactical nous and a smattering of good fortune can achieve the (quasi) impossible. So much for those who lament the financial imbalance in the tournament. You still have to go out and play the games.
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