Champions League: Lopez clutch for Madrid; Moyes can breathe easier

Tuesday September 17th, 2013

Real Madrid goalkeeper Diego Lopez came on early in the first half after Iker Casillas was injured.
Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images

It was all about firsts as the 2013-14 Champions League kicked off Tuesday: the first game in the competition at their new clubs for a host of coaches, including Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti, Manuel Pellegrini, Laurent Blanc and David Moyes; the first start for Iker Casillas this season, and the first since Cristiano Ronaldo signed his big-money contract at Real Madrid; it was also Edinson Cavani's first European start for Paris Saint-Germain alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Here are some thoughts on a thrilling first round of matches:

Ronaldo hat-trick but Lopez heroic for Madrid: In his three years at Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho did not win the Champions League, the famous "decima" that it has been chasing for 12 years, but one signing from his reign as coach saved the day as Real Madrid rode its luck in a tough opener at Galatasaray. While all eyes were on Cristiano Ronaldo, in his first match since signing the contract that made him the world's best-paid player, it was 31-year-old substitute Diego Lopez who came off the bench to keep Madrid in the game before it ran out, incredibly, 6-1 winners in Istanbul.

It can't be an easy job being Madrid goalkeeper when Iker Casillas is your teammate -- especially when, like Lopez, you are in the form of your life. Lopez only joined last January and after some outstanding performances, Mourinho admitted that he wished he had signed him sooner -- words that were taken as a slight against "San Iker", veteran of over 600 Real Madrid matches and captain for both club and country.

And yet new coach Carlo Ancelotti came to the same conclusion when he took over: Lopez has done nothing to deserve to be dropped, and, amid a storm in the Spanish capital, kept his place, justifiably so if his stellar performance in the weekend's 2-2 draw at Villarreal was anything to go by.

In Turkey, though, Ancelotti deviated from the script: Casillas got his first start of the season and lasted 12 minutes, in which time he made a flying save from Felipe Melo, and took an elbow in the ribs from teammate Sergio Ramos that forced him off. On came Lopez, and it was business as usual: two world-class saves, both from Melo, kept Madrid level in the first half.

Then Angel di Maria, whose place is under threat from Gareth Bale, gave Ancelotti something else to think about with a delightful lofted ball that Isco controlled with his first touch, and with his second rolled into the net off the post. Isco was a Matchday One break-out star last season and has started this campaign in the same vein: this brilliant goal was his fourth of the season.

And what of Ronaldo? We saw the most expensive snarl in soccer when Mark Clattenburg failed to award him a penalty for what looked like a trip in the box; a glimpse of the old Ronaldo when he refused to square the ball just before halftime, instead trying his luck from a ridiculous angle. Karim Benzema, unmarked in the centre, was unimpressed. The Portuguese had two decent chances saved by Muslera in the second half, on either side of Benzema doubling the lead after a midfield mix-up and a smart touch by Isco.

But then came the moment Ronaldo finally broke into a smile: Isco's last touch was a header that set him up for a tap-in from one yard after good work by Di Maria. That made it 3-0, and two minutes later, he prodded home from two yards after the host failed to deal with sub Gareth Bale's swerving free-kick. Goal number 205 for Madrid, in game number 204.

By this stage, Ronaldo was in his element; Galatasaray was tired, leaving gaps, and had to deal with Bale's pace on the right flank too. No wonder it was conceding chances galore. Benzema and Umut Bulut shared late goals before Ronaldo's showpiece moment: jinking between two defenders and curling a rising shot past Muslera. That's what you get for €18m per year.

Ronaldo has also given himself an early lead over Lionel Messi in the now annual race between the two to be Champions League top scorer. And while he will hog the headlines, he should give a nod to Lopez. He was crucial to this result.

Happy Tuesdays in Manchester: There were banana-skins aplenty for Manchester's two new head coaches to negotiate on Matchday One, not least at Old Trafford where David Moyes took charge of his first group game -- and the first time Sir Alex Ferguson did not pick a United team for a European tie since March 1985 (that was when Ron Atkinson was in charge of a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup quarterfinal second leg against Hungary's Videoton, which United lost 5-4 on penalties, if you were wondering).

Moyes raised eyebrows with his team selection -- Marouane Fellaini and Shinji Kagawa made their first starts of the season -- but United, and specifically Wayne Rooney, were outstanding. United beat Bayer Leverkusen 4-1, and Rooney's two goals will no doubt lead to talk of an end to the frosty relations between player and club after a tricky summer; maybe it will with a new contract. If Rooney's ovation from the fans was a sign they have short memories, the sight of Antonio Valenica kissing his tattoo of Chucho Benitez, his Ecuador teammate who died last month, was altogether more moving. Valencia, who scored United's fourth, had a nightmare with injuries and loss of form last season, but looks back to his best form.

There was also a first for Manchester City: a Matchday One win at the third time of asking. In 2011, it was a draw with Napoli, last year a defeat to Real Madrid. This time, it beat Viktoria Plzen 3-0 to take control of Group D alongside Bayern Munich, comfortable 3-0 winners over CSKA Moscow. City coach Manuel Pellegrini made clear his priorities by resting several players in last weekend's 0-0 draw with Stoke, and was vindicated with three second-half goals from Edin Dzeko, Yaya Toure (a screamer from outside the area) and Sergio Aguero. For once City has avoided a Group of Death and could be a sleeper team to watch next spring.

Weiss, Weiss, Baby: Vladimir Weiss comes from a proud football family; his father, Vladimir, played for and was coach of Slovakia; and his father, also Vladimir, played for Slovakia too. It's likely neither would have scored a goal like Vladimir did tonight in Olympiakos's 4-1 loss to Paris Saint-Germain in Athens.

Taking the ball on the right touchline, Weiss nut-megged Marquinhos and dribbled the ball around Maxwell before scoring a wonderful individual effort. Weiss has had short-lived spells at Manchester City, Bolton, Rangers and Pescara: he is still only 23, and had already hit the crossbar before his moment of genius embarrassed PSG's Brazilian backline. Edinson Cavani had put PSG ahead and the French side took over in the second half, with Thiago Motta, normally the corner-taker, scoring two headers from Lavezzi corners in quick succession. There was time for Ibrahimovic to miss a penalty before Motta decided to take a corner; and he planted it straight on Marquinhos's head to score. By then, Weiss's mastery was long-futile, but as one Olympiacos fan put it: "It was the best goal I've seen from a number 79 all season."

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