Champions League Wrap: Winning times continue for Arsenal, Atletico Madrid
The first night of Matchday Two may not have had the drama of a fortnight ago, but the groups are beginning to shape up. The night’s biggest winner was Arsenal, who coasted past Napoli, while Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund also got their campaigns back on track. We also saw Barcelona struggle without Lionel Messi. Here are the stories that caught our eye:
Party time for Arsene Wenger
Seventeen years to the day Arsene Wenger officially began his career as Arsenal coach -- a few months after London paper the Evening Standard infamously unveiled its ‘Arsene Who?’ headline (when he stayed in Japan to finish his contract) -- Arsenal took control of Champions League Group F’s Group of Death with a clinical demolition of high-flying Napoli.
Its 2-0 win over a team that was previously unbeaten this season -- though missing center forward Gonzalo Higuain with a calf injury -- saw Wenger’s philosophy come to life as, in the first half at least, it played football as breathtaking as at any time in the previous 17 years.
And to think that just a few months back, the Arsenal fan base was split between those who wanted a change in the dugout and those who still believed that ‘Arsene Knows.' Rather than celebrating 17 years, the most significant anniversary to mark at the Emirates was one month: It was only on Sept. 1 that Mesut Özil joined Arsenal for £42.5m and, in no time, helped galvanize the club.
Arsenal’s first four league goals after the transfer were all made by Özil, and it was the German who broke the deadlock against Napoli after eight minutes, masterfully drilling home Aaron Ramsey’s cross from the edge of the area after a brilliant move initiated by Olivier Giroud. Seven minutes later, Özil was at it again, jinking into space down the right for Giroud to tap home.
If the wonderful ‘Wizard of Özil’ was lighting up the game, his backing cast was rather impressive too. Arsenal may have only spent money on one signing this summer, but Mathieu Flamini, a free transfer, was outstanding. And while the preseason gags suggested Abou Diaby would be hailed as ‘like a new signing,’ it has in fact been Aaron Ramsey who has surpassed expectations (maybe not Wenger’s) and become indispensable to this team. So much so that Jack Wilshere, the talisman last season’s team was built around, started this game on the bench. And Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott were both out injured.
And what of Giroud, the striker who yesterday celebrated his 27th birthday by watching "Gladiator"? On the day of the game, he admitted the pressure of replacing Robin van Persie had affected him last year.
“When I started, my finishing was off and I played as stiff as a stick,” Giroud told France Football. “As I won my place, I played with the handbrake off a little more.”
Giroud also suggested there was more to his game than goals. He proved as much with his crucial role in that first goal.
“People will now say that it is easier to score for Arsenal now Özil is there," Giroud said. "And when Giroud scored it will be because Özil was there. But Giroud, he was already scoring before Özil arrived.”
Arsenal was helped by a woeful Napoli performance in the first half. It was wearing a camouflage kit, and too many players went missing, especially Camilo Zuniga, the left back who was AWOL for both goals just one day after celebrating (maybe too much?) a new contract with Napoli to keep interest from Juventus and Barcelona at bay. With a €35m buy-out clause, I can't imagine those two clubs will ask again for him anytime soon.
The subplot to this game, indeed this period in Arsenal’s history, is that Wenger’s contract expires at the end of this season, and there is the feeling that he is assessing his team before deciding whether to stay or not -- despite him saying last week that he “wanted to stay forever”. If Arsenal continues to hit the heights of this performance, Wenger might want to stick around and whisper it quietly. Could Arsenal's eight-year trophy drought be coming to an end?
Mourinho ends Mata exile
That didn't last long, did it? Less than a week after Jose Mourinho said that Oscar was his first-choice No. 10, the Chelsea coach restored Juan Mata to that position for the Blues’ crucial 3-0 win at Steaua Bucharest. Mata played a role in Chelsea’s first goal in which Ramires toe-poked a Samuel Eto’o flick into the goal to ensure a happier return to Romania after last season’s 1-0 Europa League defeat.
Ramires added a booming third from Oscar’s pass to cap a fine night for Chelsea made better by FC Basel's 1-0 loss at home to Schalke. Julien Draxler's volley for the outside for the lone goal in that contest may have been the goal of the night. Schalke's win was held up as Greenpeace activists abseiled down stands and onto the pitch protesting against UEFA sponsors Gazprom. Given that Basel is bidding to host matches at EURO 2020, the repercussions could be severe.
Mourinho also used the trip to catch up with old friends. He met former Inter Milan defender Cristian Chivu on the afternoon of the game but had a request to visit Steaua owner Gigi Becali in a Bucharest jail turned down.
“I can’t have him seeing me like this!” exclaimed Becali.
Barcelona wins, but goalkeepers dominate
Lionel Messi missed Barcelona's trip to Celtic, and the Spanish champion struggled to break down the host at Celtic Park. This was the big chance for Neymar to shine in Messi's absence, but it didn't quite work out like that. Neymar proved to be a key player in the game, drawing the fury of home fans for making the most of a kick on him from Scott Brown for which the Celtic captain was sent off. Despite the exaggerated response, it was still a kick and red was the right decision.
Celtic, with ten men, managed to frustrate Barcelona for almost 20 more minutes before Neymar and Alexis combined for Cesc Fabregas to head home the winner. One minute earlier, Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes had kept the scores level with a fantastic save from James Forrest before Charlie Mulgrew grazed the crossbar.
It was the late saves from Fraser Forster that marked this match. The goalkeeper has been called up by England coach Roy Hodgson in the past but never selected. With concern growing about the form of Joe Hart, it might be an interesting time to give him a chance. On the opposite side, Valdes has confirmed he is leaving Barcelona next summer, and it is looking for a new keeper.
Time to take Atletico Madrid seriously
If Napoli failed to live up to expectations on Matchday Two, the same cannot be said of Atletico Madrid. The Spanish side is seven-for-seven in La Liga and even without top scorer Diego Costa, was able to overturn a 1-0 deficit at Porto to win 2-1. This was a significant victory, not just because it broke a 74-game unbeaten home record for Porto.