Matchday Two key for Manchester City to stay afloat in deep group
No team is going to win the Champions League on Matchday Two, but it could go some way to losing it. At this stage last season, Manchester City was beaten 2-0 at Bayern Munich, a defeat that was overshadowed by the Carlos Tevez row, and the Argentine's subsequent six months out of action.
City was not the only team left ruing game No. 2 in this competition: neighbors Manchester United drew 3-3 at home to Basel, Shakhtar Donetsk was held 1-1 at home by APOEL Nicosia and Valencia drew 1-1 with Chelsea. All three results contributed to their group-stage departures. This time around, there are already some decisive fixtures that stand out.
The obvious one is City's game against German champion Borussia Dortmund, after late goals on Matchday One changed the landscape of Group D. With five minutes left to play, City was leading Real Madrid 2-1, and Dortmund 0-0 against Ajax; at full time, City had lost 3-2 and Dortmund won 1-0. It means that City needs to win Wednesday night, with both sides having shown frailties this season.
City has yet to keep a clean sheet in its nine games, conceding 17 in the process, while Dortmund reacted to losing its 31-game unbeaten run of league games by destroying Borussia Moenchengladbach 5-0 on Saturday. While City coach Roberto Mancini's Achilles heel has been guiding a team beyond the quarterfinal in this competition, Dortmund's Jurgen Klopp is still waiting to make an impact, too: last season, a dramatic Matchday Six home defeat to Marseille saw his side finish bottom of its group.
There are greater problems between the top two seeds in Group C, Zenit St. Petersburg and AC Milan, who clash on Tuesday night. Zenit's crushing 3-0 Matchday One loss to debutants Malaga was the start of a terrible fortnight, in which club captain Igor Denisov and striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov were banished to the youth team for complaining about the inflated salaries of new signings Hulk and Axel Witsel, who joined for over €90 million ($116 million) on transfer deadline day.
"I was the one who told our bosses to buy top-class players, and they did," Denisov told the Russian press. "But why would foreigners earn three times more than the best players in the team? If Hulk and Witsel were [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo it would be fine, but they're not. So why do we have this imbalance in wages then? I asked for a pay rise, but was axed by [coach Luciano] Spalletti. Money should help create a good climate in the team, not destroy it."
Finance is also at the root of AC Milan's crisis, though frugality rather than extravagance is its problem. Selling Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, both of whom scored for Paris Saint-Germain in its Matchday One win over Dynamo Kiev, has left a hole in the Milan side, which lost three of its first four Serie A matches. Drawing 0-0 at home to Anderlecht increased the pressure on coach Massimiliano Allegri, who was forced to explain that a reported confrontation with Milan's Under-17 coach, Pippo Inzaghi, his former striker and in the running to replace him, was actually a friendly exchange of views. Every defeat puts Allegri closer to an exit.
The other potentially decisive game is in Valencia, who hosts Lille, shock victims of a 3-1 home defeat to BATE Borisov. Lille needs a result in Spain, knowing that it has blown its "banker" match and with a doubleheader against an impressive-looking Bayern Munich next up. Except with only two wins in its first 10 games of the campaign, an Eden Hazard-shaped hole in attack becoming ever more apparent, and Valencia's excellent record against French opposition (15 games, no defeats), an early elimination could be on the cards.
UEFA president Michel Platini would have been pleased by the success of smaller clubs a fortnight ago: CFR Cluj surprised Sporting Braga with a 2-0 away win in Group H though might find a tougher challenge with the visit of Manchester United. BATE, conqueror of Lille, also has a tricky game as last year's runner-up Bayern comes to the Belarussian capital.
Elsewhere, Porto and PSG face off in what could be a battle for the top spot in Group A, while Juventus-Shakhtar Donetsk is vital for both teams' qualifying hopes in Group E. Barcelona's Messi is already the competition's joint top scorer with two goals on Matchday One: looking to break his record of 14 goals from last season, he takes his scoring boots to the Portuguese capital and a test against Benfica.