Messi saves Barça; reigning champ Chelsea off to stuttering start

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Messi gets Barcelona out of jail: Competition favorite Barcelona is currently missing captain Carles Puyol with a knee injury and lost his regular partner, Gerard Pique, inside 15 minutes of its 3-2 win over Spartak Moscow. Javier Mascherano, a converted holding midfielder, was already starting alongside Pique, and Alex Song, another midfielder by trade, came off the bench to join him at center back.

Given that Barcelona's nominal fullbacks were Dani Alves and Adriano, there's a fair case to say that at one stage it had no defenders on the pitch. That certainly seemed the case when Romulo waltzed through on goal to put Spartak up 2-1. With Spartak coach Unai Emery, formerly of Almeria and Valencia, 10 minutes away from a first win over Barcelona in 13 efforts, Messi burst into life.

His two goals sealed the dramatic 3-2 win and already make him the huge favorite to finish as the top scorer in the competition for an unprecedented fifth successive season. His total of 53 Champions League goals is now only three behind Ruud van Nistelrooy's 56, and he is fast closing in on Raul's all-time record of 71. Messi has taken 69 games to Raul's 142. Even more astonishingly, Messi has scored 11 goals this season in his first seven Barcelona games, more than he managed at the same stage of last season, when his total was 73 goals in 60 appearances. He can't beat that tally, can he?

As for the center-back experiment, it is unlikely to be a trend imitated by other clubs: rather, it points to a worrying lack of defensive depth in the Barcelona squad. Song's positional switch did not come as a surprise to everyone: his former coach at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger, told friends last week that he expected Song to end up playing center back at his new club. Maybe Wenger will be surprised just how quickly it's happened.

Nervous defense from reigning champions: We are often reminded that, in the 20-year history of the Champions League, no club has ever retained the trophy. Before its 2-2 draw with Juventus, Chelsea rightly milked its famous victory over Bayern Munich last May ­-- the Champions League trophy was paraded around the stadium and the five players who started the final were announced as "European champion." But once the game began, it was clear that this may be the same club, but it's a very different team.

Whereas last season Chelsea based its European campaign on defensive solidity and a counter-attacking goal threat, against Juventus it showed off a new game plan, with new signings Oscar and Eden Hazard playing behind Fernando Torres. In truth, it didn't really work: Juventus wasted two good chances before Oscar scored two goals in as many minutes, the first a deflected effort, the second a touch (cue the debate whether the ball came off the defender) and glorious curling shot that drew comparisons with Gianfranco Zola (specifically this 1997 FA Cup semifinal goal against Wimbledon) and went some way to explaining the buzz around the £25 million 21-year-old.

"Oscar is a good creative player, and I think this is the right game to start him [for the first time] tonight, as Champions League is not as quick as Premier League," said coach Roberto di Matteo, whose luck in this competition seems to have carried over into this season.

Arturo Vidal pulled a goal back before halftime, and in the second half, it was almost like watching Chelsea of last season; it defended deeper, tried to hurt Juventus on the counter (when Hazard had claims for a penalty waved away) and allowed its opponent plenty of possession and space in the final third. Some heroic defending, notably David Luiz's block on Claudio Marchisio, kept the Italians at bay, at least until Jon Obi Mikel needlessly gave the ball away and substitute Fabio Quagliarella beat the offside trap to level the score. It almost got worse for Chelsea, but Mauricio Isla's shot scraped the crossbar. This was a stuttering start to Chelsea's title defense, but not a particularly concerning one: after all, that's how it won the trophy last year.

Shock of the night: BATE Borisov 3, Lille 1. Lille was the last team to qualify for the group stage, needing extra time to get past FC Copenhagen on the final day of prequalifying. It was seen as just reward for a club that has never over-stretched itself and this summer moved into a new 50,000-capacity stadium perfectly suited to grand European nights. Except that now Lille may well be the first team eliminated from the competition after a calamitous first 45 minutes against BATE Borisov. "We were not good enough in any area of the pitch," was coach Rudi Gardia's verdict at halftime, when Lille was already down 3-0. It pulled one goal back, but a 3-1 home reverse to the group's fourth seed is not a good start. Romanian side CFR Cluj also deserves mention for an impressive 2-0 win at Sporting Braga.

Fletcher return overshadows penalty drama: Over 10 months after his last appearance, and following a spell on the sidelines that many felt would never culminate in a return to professional football, Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher's second-half substitute appearance was the feel-good story of the week. His comeback in a 1-0 win over Galatasaray, for his first appearance since Nov. 22, after which he was diagnosed with chronic bowel condition ulcerative colitis, might help United overcome challenges such as Galatasaray provided with more ease in the future. Despite an early Michael Carrick goal, United was hanging on for much of the game, as the Turkish champions hit the woodwork three times; United also needed David de Gea, recalled to the side, at his best to make two important late saves.

It was also a tale of two penalties, one of which was given, the other not. The first incident came in the second minute, when Galatasaray forward Burak Yilmaz looked to have been caught by Nemanja Vidic, but the referee waved play on. The second was after 52 minutes after Rafael da Siva was fouled, and a spot kick was awarded. Even though in its last two games, United had missed from the spot --­ first Robin van Persie (against Southampton) and then Javier Hernandez (against Wigan) ­-- it was a surprise to see Nani step up to take it. Fernando Muslera, something of a penalty specialist, saved his unconvincing effort, and the questions started: why did Van Persie not take it, and had Sir Alex Ferguson nominated Nani as the penalty taker? More pertinently, who will take United¹s next penalty? Wayne Rooney's return cannot come quick enough, it would seem.

That said, United is not the only team with penalty problems. For the first time in the history of the Champions League, all three German teams in action this week also missed from the spot. Mats Hummels was the villain for Dortmund, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar for Schalke and, for runner-up Bayern Munich in tonight's 2-1 over Valencia, Mario Mandzukic messed up. Just like United, the German trio all won.

Remember the name: Henrik Mkhitaryan. OK, so Shakhtar Donetsk's 2-0 win over Nordsjaelland won't make many headlines --­ even though the result puts the team, a dangerous sleeper in Group E, top of the pile ahead of matches against Chelsea and Juventus --­ but this was more about the coronation of a new kid on the (Eastern) bloc. Henrik Mkhitaryan is a 23-year-old Armenian striker whose goals for his national team this year helped it reach a record FIFA ranking of 41. In his second full season in Donetsk, Mkhitaryan now has 14 goals in his first 10 games. With that kind of record, he's going to start earning comparisons with a certain Argentine at Barcelona if he's not careful.