As promised, the first set of Champions’ League matches was filled with intrigue, breakout performances and thrilling comebacks. Some teams are exactly where they were expected to be, some are in a surprisingly good position, and others will be disappointed with their result.
FC Barcelona matched eternal rival Real Madrid’s feat by turning a 2-1 second-half deficit into a 3-2 win, though in a decidedly less dramatic fashion. Chelsea and Juventus played out an exciting draw, and BATE Borisov pulled out the upset of the week by knocking off LOSC Lille. Which players stood out? Let’s have a look.
GOALKEEPER: Vito Mannone (Arsenal)
With first-choice ‘keeper Wojciech Szczęsny dealing with an injury, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger had to turn to Italy youth player Vito Mannone between the sticks against Montpellier. And despite being duped by Younès Belhanda’s “Panenka” chipped penalty, Mannone made a great claim for the top spot on the lineup.
The chipped spot-kick was well-executed by the Moroccan, but Mannone at least made an effort to recover quickly and take a swipe. But continued good play, including stopping Belhanda late in the match and having great command of the area, ensured that his side’s pair of goals before half-time held up to get the Gunners the three points.
DEFENDERS: Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa (Montpellier), Thiago Silva (Paris Saint-Germain), Dante (Bayern Munich), Marcelo (Real Madrid)
Coming out on the losing side, Montpellier will probably be disappointed with their Champions’ League Debut, especially with it coming at home. They did not play poorly by any means, and certainly had chances to snatch a point. Key in keeping the match close was captain Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, whose defensive steel helped Montpellier get to this tournament in the first place.
Going up against his old teammate Olivier Giroud, Yanga-Mbiwa was composed as ever. It was as if he knew all of Giroud’s tricks, like he had a lot of first-hand experience in dealing with him. AC Milan will be disappointed in not acquiring the Frenchman’s services last month, as his reading of the game and leadership are just some of many qualities to make him a top-class talent.
Speaking of top-class talent, that’s exactly what Thiago Silva was for AC Milan before his moneybags move to Paris Saint-Germain. Now, the Brazilian stopper is paying major dividends for the Qatari-backed side, playing a huge role in the capital club’s 4-1 thrashing of Ukrainian giants Dynamo Kiev.
Making his debut for the French giants, he put in a fantastic display. He took his goal with aplomb, smashing home from a corner. And he did what his former managers at Milan, Carlo Ancelotti and Leonardo, bought him to do: defend. He didn’t allow the likes of Ideye Brown and Andriy Yarmolenko any free time on the ball, suffocating a dangerous attacking force.
Sticking with the Brazilian defensive theme leads us to Bavaria where fellow summer transfer Dante was making his Champions’ League debut with Bayern Munich. The former Borussia Mönchengladbach man put in a sturdy display against Valencia, helping last year’s runners-up earn a deserved 2-1 victory in their quest for redemption.
The defender showed great control on the ball, and his distribution from the back was pivotal in springing many of his side’s dangerous attacks. He read the game well to aid partner Jérôme Boateng in sweeping away loose balls and controlling Spain international Roberto Soldado.
In what will be a third Brazilian defender on this list, Real Madrid full-back Marcelo jumps into the fray. His forays on the left side of José Mourinho’s formation were a constant threat to Manchester City, and he ended up with his name on the scoresheet at the end of the day.
City were bombarded by the combination of Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo down that flank, as newcomer Maicon and skipper Vincent Kompany were completely overwhelmed. Marcelo’s goal may have come off a deflection but it was still a wicked shot that might’ve earned him a goal anyway. His overall attacking impetus will be a continued menace for clubs in this competition.
CENTRAL MIDFIELD: Camacho (Málaga), Arturo Vidal (Juventus)
Málaga were making their much anticipated first appearance in the Champions’ League, and thrown right up against fellow rich boys Zenit St. Petersburg. The Andalusian side stormed out of the gates with two goals inside 15 minutes, and ended up with a 3-0 win. One of their top performers was defensive midfielder Ignacio Camacho.
The Spaniard put in an assured performance, and he needed to against the likes of Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Hulk, and Axel Witsel. An assured performance kept his side level-headed, and good distribution aided the likes of Javier Saviola and Francisco Portillo in bombing forward against the Russian side.
Joining Camacho in the center of midfield is Juve’s Chilean standout Arturo Vidal. The midfielder took a heavy knock early on, but that did not stop him from making an impact when his team needed it most.
Already down a pair of goals, Vidal struck assuredly to bring the deficit back down to 1 goal before half-time. His solid defensive play keep affairs close, and good passing made sure that Juventus could continue searching for the all-important equalizer, which they eventually got through Fabio Quagliarella.
ATTACKING MIDFIELD: Oscar (Chelsea), Isco (Málaga), Lukas Podolski (Arsenal)
In what was one of the most-hyped matches of the week, Chelsea began their title defense with a hard-fought 2-2 draw with Juventus. Scoring both goals for the Blues was young Brazilian wonderkid Oscar, who was making his debut in European competitions. And what a debut it was.
He picked up his first goal after half an hour, though it took a wicked deflection to get past Gigi Buffon. The second, however, was a beauty. Coming within 2 minutes of the first, he took a touch that sent the ball five yards further away from goal before whipping a stunning curled strike just under the bar. The strike sent Stamford Bridge into raptures, but it wasn’t enough to get 3 points.
Another young playmaker bagged a brace in his Champions’ League debut, but managed to be on a winning side. That youngster is Spaniard Francisco Alarcón, better known as Isco. Having been linked with a move away from Málaga’s seemingly dire financial situation, Isco stuck around and has been impactful for his club.
The 20-year-old was seemingly in a hurry to make his impact, scoring the first goal of the group stage with a wonderful run and composed finish. He struck his second time in the later stages of the match to put the result beyond doubt with a crashing strike from the edge of the area. It’s no wonder teams were fighting to secure his signature.
One player who did make a move away from a troubled club is former Köln striker Lukas Podolski, who jumped to England by joining Arsenal. He announced the move before the end of the season as Köln were relegated, and he has slotted right into Arsène Wenger’s formation. And he hasn’t missed a beat with his new club.
He followed up a pair of great Premier League performances with a strong showing against Montpellier, taking advantage of some neat play by fellow new boys Giroud and Santi Cazorla and finishing neatly. He continued bursting forwards to prove a menace to the French side’s defense, and helped earn his team 3 vital points away from home.
STRIKER: Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
In a stunning turn of events, Spartak Moscow used Dani Alves’ own goal as impetus to grab a 2-1 lead at Camp Nou. But when Barcelona needed him most, Lionel Messi stepped up to the plate. The diminutive Argentine brought his team back from the depths to secure an expected victory over Barcelona’s Russian opposition.
Exciting youngster Cristian Tello, who had scored the opener for the Catalan giants, beat his marker well and cut the ball back inside from the endline, and Messi calmly slotted home from six yards out to equalize. With ten minutes left, Alexis Sánchez delivered a dangerous cross from the left that Messi leapt to head home to send the crowd into hysterics.
Honorable mentions: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Toni Kroos (Bayern Munich), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Cristian Tello (Barcelona)