This week threw out some of the most solid performances from Europe’s elite, with favourites such as Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Barcelona all bagging very comfortable victories, putting them all in prime positions to qualify for the knockout stages. At the halfway point in the Champions League, this week has taught us, or rather reiterated, that these aforementioned four teams show no sign of stopping or slowing down at all. Here are a few things to take away from this week in the Champions League:
Diego Costa may be missed, but Eden Hazard is irreplaceable
Loïc Rémy started the match against NK Maribor, but an apparent groin injury forced him off minutes after, to be replaced by club legend Didier Drogba. Chelsea have gone from, at the end of last season, a squad that couldn’t buy a goal from a striker, to three more than capable forwards who clearly know how to put the ball in the back of the net. That aspect of Chelsea’s squad has been firmly taken care of; the problems will only come for Chelsea this season if Eden Hazard is forced out. He has been instrumental in the Premier League thus far, and is beginning to show the world why he must be considered one of the best. Denied by a single own goal on the night, Hazard should have had his hat trick, His penalty and subsequent final goal in the 90th minute serves as proof that the Belgian international has the class, patience, and clinical finishing touch to be world class.
Chelsea has a wealth of talent in attacking positions – in the starting XI and on the bench – but Eden Hazard is one of those players that can change a game; that can find and execute a cutting pass for a great assist, or, as we saw this week, he can also take on one of those passes, control the ball, fake out a defender once or twice, and then bury the ball in the net. The key to Chelsea’s return to Champions League success this year can be found primarily on the left wing, but don’t stop the search there, because Hazard is the type that looks to be comfortable anywhere in the opposition’s half.
Marco Reus is back, and not a moment too soon
In his second match back in action with Borussia Dortmund, the Champions League was graced with a reminder that Marco Reus is one of the brightest talents in the game. The 25-year-old German international had a major setback this summer, missing out on Germany’s World Cup triumph in Brazil. But he hasn’t shown much of a hangover from his injured start to the season at all, returning with full force with an assist and an absolute beauty of a strike away to Galatasaray on Wednesday, helping Dortmund to a 4-0 win.
Dortmund could be the surprise for the Champions League this season; in fact in my opinion that’s how they do their best, playing the role of the dark horse. But the problem is that they are no longer considered dark horses; they’re expected, now, to make it out of their group, and make it at least into the quarterfinals. But it’ll take some doing in overthrowing local rivals Bayern Munich, just ask Roma, but they’ve made it to the final once before, and Dortmund look like a much stronger side this time around, so don’t count Jürgen Klopp’s men out for top spot.
Italian teams have truly lost their way among Europe’s elite
I had to do a double take when I saw that there were only two Italian teams in the competition this year. That fact, for Italian football, is testament to what it has become in recent years. Gone are the glory days of seven-time champions AC Milan, or the dominance of crosstown rivals Inter with their emphatic treble in 2010. Juventus and Roma are leading the charge this season as representatives of Italian football, and this week marked a dismal occasion for both. Juventus fell in Greece to Olympiakos, which surprised many, but that wasn’t the upset of the week by a long shot.
I expected that Bayern Munich would take care of business in Rome, but I don’t think I’m the only one a bit shocked when I saw the final scoreline. When a team 7-1 in the Champions League means only thing: it shouldn’t be there. This isn’t the first time that Roma have succumbed to a heavy defeat; I can remember a similar thrashing being dealt to them at Old Trafford in 2007. Impressive results home in Italy only lead me to one conclusion: the Italian league is nowhere near what it used to be. Germany, Spain, England, even France now are surpassing Serie A; to get back to their best seems to be an uphill battle, but for the time being, we won’t be seeing Gigi Buffon or Francesco Totti lift the trophy in Berlin.
Liverpool hasn’t arrived yet
I think they’re somewhere in 2005, I just know it. Liverpool hosted Real Madrid on Wednesday, and Liverpool, coming off of a shaky win against Queens Park Rangers on the weekend needed a solid performance. It didn’t come; in fact it hasn’t come all season for the Merseysiders, who have struggled in the Premier League and look a completely different outfit to last season, when they regained their lost form and gained entry back into the Champions League. A couple more performances like Wednesday’s, though, and Liverpool might be playing Europa League football for the rest of the campaign.
Now there’s no shame in losing a match against Real Madrid; the defending champions are looking very solid and could be on their way to winning back-to-back titles. The problem that I had with Liverpool was their lack of invention and creativity. When a team only forces Iker Casillas into action twice, it leads to the assumption that the creative players such as Coutinho, Sterling, Lallana, are not gelling in the way that Brendan Rogers would like to see this far into the season. The issue is enlarged when you’re dealing with a striker who can’t put away the few chances that are created. Balotelli hasn’t scored yet and honestly looks a shadow of his Milan and Man City days. In all aspects of the field, Liverpool are looking like they need a major reshuffling if they’re going to get anything out of this season.
Manchester City is the icon of consistency in European football
The love-hate relationship that has gone on between Manchester City and the Champions League has been one of the highlights of the Sky Blue rise to prominence in England. While they may be a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League – just ask Tottenham how much they adore Sergio Agüero – they have yet to show their true potential on Europe’s biggest stage. Since 2011, City has been ever present in the Champions League, however only making it out of their group on one occasion.
Tuesday’s 2-2 draw away to CSKA Moscow just reiterates how frustrating it is to be a Man City supporter sometimes. Surrendering their two-goal advantage was about as predictable a result as you’ll find this season, but the question must be asked; how does a dominant side like Man City perform so well in England, making themselves title favourites each year, and yet when it comes to European football, falter so painfully? A lot of it has to come down to the sheer dumb luck of the draw; for the past four seasons Manchester City have been placed in four groups of death. Three out of four of those groups have included the biggest thorn in City’s side: Bayern Munich.
The Sky Blues have not been able to shake off the annoyance of Bayern for far too long, with their most recent deficit coming in the first game in the group stage, losing 1-0 in Munich. Say what you will, but City is nothing if not consistent in Europe, and we love consistency, right? Not if you wear sky blue every weekend. The Champions League is the one competition that money clearly hasn’t been able to buy for the Citizens, and it’s proving to be more and more elusive with each passing group stage exit.