Champions League Rewind: Bale lifts Real Madrid; Atletico, Arsenal fall
The 2014-15 Champions League got underway Tuesday, and it was business as usual as a dramatic night of action saw goals, red cards, surprise results and some new heroes emerged. Reigning champion Real Madrid hit FC Basel for five, and Borussia Dortmund frustrated Arsenal, while Mario Balotelli and Steven Gerrard had a dramatic impact on Liverpool's return to Europe's grand stage.
Here is what caught our eye from the opening day of group play:
Player of the Day
It may have had a difficult start to the season, but it didn't take long for Real Madrid to shake off the European cobwebs, as the defending Champions League winner scored four on FC Basel in the first 38 minutes. The pick of the scorers was Gareth Bale, last season's Champions League final extra-time hero, who ran onto a sumptuous lofted pass from Luka Modric, chipped the goalkeeper with his first touch, and tapped it home with his second.
Bale showed both sides of his game in what followed; a trademark cross for Ronaldo to tap home Madrid’s third, then a hopeful shot on goal when his Portuguese teammate was unmarked in the middle. For Ronaldo, closing in on Raul’s all-time Champions League scoring record (he has 68 goals; Raul's record stands at 71), those opportunities are crucial.
Madrid may not find the defense of Liverpool, or even Ludogorets, to be quite as accommodating as today’s visitor, and Bale may not have Ronaldo’s commercial weight or global appeal, but he is becoming just as important in this team.
A notable mention also to Carlos Tevez, who ended a five-year Champions League goal drought to score twice in Juventus’s 2-0 win over Malmo.
Goal of the Day
Borussia Dortmund's Ciro Immobile has played for five clubs since his Champions League debut in 2009 as a substitute for Juventus – and three of those clubs were in Serie B – but there was nothing second-rate about the Borussia Dortmund forward’s opening goal in the 2-0 win over Arsenal.
Immobile had caused the Gunners defense no end of problems in the first 44 minutes – the host side peppered Arsenal’s goal with 14 efforts in a one-sided first half – and ran from inside his own half, jinking between two defenders, to score his first goal since moving to Germany for a reported €19.4 million from Torino.
There were some pretty handy assists too: James Rodriguez’s back-heel to Nacho for Real Madrid’s opener, and Kwadwo Asamoah’s back-heel for Carlos Tevez’s first goal were smart, but perhaps the sweetest was Dimitar Berbatov’s cushioned header for Joao Moutinho to open the scoring for Monaco against Bayer Leverkusen – one of Berbatov's former teams.
Turning Point of the Day
Minutes before Immobile scored for Dortmund, Arsenal had its first clear chance, when Danny Welbeck struck his effort wide with goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller stranded. Welbeck had two more chances in the second half – one at the near post early on and then another as he blasted over from the edge of the area after a neat turn on 75 minutes – to put his goal-scoring record under the spotlight.
It was Welbeck’s miss for Manchester United against Bayern Munich last season that was said to have convinced the club that the Englishman could be sold; so far in two games for Arsenal, he has no goals from four chances. The conversation over Welbeck’s finishing will continue.
The other threat from Dortmund had come down the left wing, where Marcel Schmelzer and Kevin Grosskreutz were doubling up on Arsenal’s 19-year-old debutant Hector Bellerin. And while that selection showed how thin Arsenal already is in defense, Immobile’s goal also highlighted the need for a holding midfielder.
With Mathieu Flamini injured and watching the game from the press box, questions will once again be asked of Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger’s summer recruitment strategy.
Surprise of the Day
Benfica slumped to its first home defeat in 52 games, a run lasting almost two years, as Zenit St Petersburg’s contingent of former Portugal-based players made life miserable for Jorge Jesus. First, Hulk (ex-Porto) opened the scoring with a left-footed curler into goalkeeper Artur’s far post. Artur did not stick around for much longer, as he was dismissed for bringing down Danny after 18 minutes.
Three minutes later, Axel Witsel headed Zenit 2-0 ahead, the former Benfica midfielder offering an apologetic celebration. For Zenit coach Andre Villas-Boas, it was a pleasant homecoming and gives the Russian side, already six points clear after just seven games in the league, an early advantage in a tight group.
The other surprise result was in Greece, where Olympiakos beat runner-up Atletico Madrid 3-2. Atletico won all six group games last season, but is already up against it now after its defense went AWOL for the Greek champion’s first-half goals from Arthur Masuaku and Ibrahim Afellay. For Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak, Masuaku’s strike ended a run of 953 minutes without conceding a goal.
The Rojiblancos will demand a quick response, but with Juventus its next opponent, this group stage won’t be easy.
Late Twist of the Day
That came at Anfield, where Liverpool put in a nervous performance on its return to the Champions League. At first it looked like Balotelli had got the Reds out of jail with an 82nd-minute goal, but a move on 90 minutes involving Junior Caicara and Hamza released substitute Dani Abalo to round the onrushing Simon Mignolet and level the score for Bulgarian minnow Ludogorets.
That was not the final twist, though. Almost immediately after the equalizer, Ludogorets’ reserve goalkeeper Borjan took a heavy touch on a back-pass and took down Manquillo for a late penalty. Gerrard, Liverpool's captain, rolled the ball into his right-hand corner from the spot and relief swept around Anfield. Three points for Liverpool, but with a trip to FC Basel next up, there's plenty of room for improvement.
The other late turn of events took place in Turkey, where Galatasaray rescued a point through Burak Yilmaz at the death, preventing Anderlecht from stealing a road result in a group that features Dortmund and Arsenal.
Major Takeaway of the Day
Crisis has been averted in Real's half of Madrid… for now. Real Madrid, the reigning Champions League winner had lost three of its first six games of the season going into its opener against FC Basel. But four first-half goals, including efforts from the galactic trio of Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez and Cristiano Ronaldo, eased the tension at the Bernabeu.
The mood improved so much that there were moments when Iker Casillas, the captain whose position in the side had dominated the build-up, was cheered by (some of) his own fans. That in itself represents progress for coach Carlo Ancelotti, who demanded an end to the Spanish inquisition about his goalkeepers. A few wins will render the debate moot anyway, and no blame can be afforded to Casillas for the Basel’s consolation goal.
That left Karim Benzema, with only two goals in his previous 18 games, as the recipient of some cat-calls from the home crowd, but they stopped when the Frenchman wrapped up the 5-1 win with a late goal, helped by the post. Benzema has looked short of confidence this season and was whistled off when Javier Hernandez replaced him. The victory is some respite for Ancelotti and Real Madrid – as long as it keeps on winning.
Real Madrid 5, Basel 1
Olympiakos 3, Atletico Madrid 2
Monaco 1, Bayer Leverkusen 0
Liverpool 2, Ludogorets 1
Borussia Dortmund 2, Arsenal 0
Juventus 2, Malmo 0
Benfica 0, Zenit 2
Galatasaray 1, Anderlecht 1