The UEFA Cup group stages are beginning to take shape with some interesting clashes on matchday 3 last night.
In Group A Manchester City, minus Robinho, Elano and Pablo Zabaleta, secured an excellent 2-0 victory in Gelsenkirchen over FC Schalke seize control of the section. The nature of the Citizens’ line-up combined with the form thus far of the Germans suggested that this one would be a home banker, and while the hosts started brightly their resilient and disciplined opponents absored the pressure to strike with a goal in each half.
The pace City had on the break from the likes of Daniel Sturridge and Shaun Wright-Phillips caused problems to Schalke all evening and it was no surprise that the former’s cross reached Benjani with some assistance and the Zimbabwean slotted high into the net to give the visitors the opener. With the home fans disgruntled, Schalke’s Dutch coach Fred Rutten’s problems were compounded when Stephen Ireland latched onto a looping, deflected ball and slotted past Manuel Neuer from 12 yards out.
With Twente Enschede taking break from the action, the remaining game in the group was a keenly fought draw with Paris Saint Germain hosting Spanish opposition in the form of Racing Santander. The Parisians lost their opener 3-1 in Gelsenkirchen, while the Spaniards were searching for their first win after a narrow defeat in Enschede and their ensuing draw with Schalke, hence a win was vital for both teams and it showed.
An end-to-end opening saw PSG strike first through Serbian striker Mateja Kezman, who curled his effort into the top corner of the net after some good work from Peguy Luyindula. Santander were playing a high line in their attempts to find an equaliser but this was breached by Jerome Rothen’s through-ball and it was Luyindula this time around who made no mistake with the finish.
The visitors plugged away and got themselves a critical consolation before half-time. Former Real Madrid man Pedro Munitis delivered a free-kick into the danger zone and Sammy Traore was the unfortunate recipient, guiding the ball into his own goal. Ten minutes into the second period the visitors’ well travelled midfielder Gonzalo Colsa struck a blow to PSG’s hopes of progress when he drove the ball in off the post from fully 30 yards, though no team could ultimately find a winner.
The French club will need to pick something up from their next fixture in Manchester to realistically keep their slim qualification hopes alive, while Santander have a week off before hosting City themselves in the final fixture. Schalke, meanwhile, will play their final game on matchday 4 with a trip to the Netherlands, where a win would almost certainly send them through.
There were a couple of notable results in Group B where Galatasaray surrendered their 100% record at home to Metalist Kharkiv. The side from the Ukraine had already comfortably dispatched Turkish opposition this season with a 4-1 aggregate victory over Besiktas, although they did lose 1-0 in Istanbul and perhaps with this in mind, Galatasaray went on the offensive from the outset.
Unfortunately for them, Olexandr Goriainov was inspired in the visiting goal and even when he was beaten, by Milan Baros in the 31st minute, the Czech striker was flagged for offside. Sabri Sarioglu was instrumental for the Turks and he brought the best out of Goriainov either side of the interval and they pressed for an opener. Ultimately, and perhaps somewhat inevitably, they were made to rue their missed opportunities when Edmar scored the opener with a low shot and give Kharkiv a vital 1-0 victory. That said, Gala still have 2 wins under their belt and remain in a strong position to qualify if they can pick up a point when they travel to the group’s absentees on matchday 3, Hertha Berlin.
Olympiakos lost their opening fixture in Istanbul and responded with a brilliant 5-1 victory over Benfica in the group’s other game, virtually eliminating the Portuguese club from the tournament. Luciano Galletti set the tone for the evening when he put the Greeks in front within 60 seconds, hammering home from an acute angle. A Nuno Gomes effort was disallowed for offside not long after and the night rapidly deteriorated for Benfica; on 18 minutes Christos Patsatzoglou took advantage of some sloppy defending to send a shot looping over Quim in goal and by 25 minutes it was 3-0 as Diogo, who was exceptional, danced through the defence and made no mistake. Luiz pulled one back for the visitors soon after but it proved no more than a consolation as Galletti turned provider for Fernando Belluschi before Diogo completed the rout early in the second-half.
Standard Liege top Group C after their 1-0 victory in Belgrade over Partizan. The Belgians are rapidly growing in stature this term having been unlucky to have been eliminated from the Champions League by Liverpool, beating their near neighbours Everton to secure a UEFA group slot and then beating 2006 and 2007 winners Sevilla in their opening fixture.
They have shown discipline and bundles of energy so far this season and it was no surprise that they attacked the hosts from the off – despite only one win in their previous eleven away European fixtures – a succession of near misses culminating in Igor De Camargo’s opener with a headed effort on 36 minutes. The Serbs responded after the break and pushed for an equaliser; Manchester United-bound winger Zoran Tosic had three good attempts, the best of which hit the crossbar, but it was Liege who held on and took the points back to Belgium to make it two wins from two matches and send the hosts crashing out of the competition.
The group’s other game took place in Italy with Sampdoria held to a 1-1 draw by Stuttgart. The visitors surged into an 8th minute lead courtesy of Marica but it was cancelled out towards the end of the first-half when Paolo Sammarco finished well from a corner. It was a game in which chances were few and far between, with many efforts coming from long-range and, although having to settle for a draw, the Germans’ new coach Markus Babbel will know there is a lot that could still happen in the group. Sampdoria have a game in hand on the Germans but that is in Liege, while Stuttgart then host the table-toppers when Sevilla travel to Italy.
Tottenham Hotspur gained another victory in Group D with a 1-0 victory over NEC Nijmegen in Holland. It is a result which not only helps to dispel memories of Juande Ramos’ poor start to the season – culminaing in their opening defeat at Udinese – but when combined with their 4-0 hammering of Dinamo Zagreb, leaves Harry Redknapp’s men in a very strong position to qualify whatever the result in their final fixture at home to Spartak Moscow, Udinese overcome Zagreb in Italy next Wednesday.
It was Jamie O Hara’s solitary strike on 14 minutes that proved to be the difference between the two sides. Gareth Bale went clear and sent in a cross from the left that Frazier Campell turned onto the underside of the bar, and O Hara was on hand to knock home what proved to be the winning goal. It was not a game of many chances but with Spurs missing the likes of Vedran Corluka and Roman Pavlychenko, they will not be complaining.
Meanwhile Dinamo, so demoralised by their trouncing in North London a few weeks ago, were dealt another killer blow as Ivan Saenko struck a late goal to give Spartak Moscow a 1-0 victory in Croatia. They looked to have little in the way of creativity although Spartak, managed by Danish legend Michael Laudrup, were restricted to long-range efforts themselves in a poor game. As it appeared to be heading for a goalless draw, Saenko popped up with a timely winner from the edge of the box.
Group E provided one of the games, if not the game, of the evening as AC Milan and their wealth of talent arrived on England’s south coast to face Portsmouth. What proved to be Harry Redknapp’s final game at Pompey was the 3-0 opening day defeat in Portugal against Braga, thus Tony Adams’ troops were looking to atone for that defeat and pick up three points against a team which rested the likes of Ronaldinho and Alexander Pato.
The typically English conditions contributed even more so to what was a delightful game for the neutral but one which would have had the home fans sombre on its conclusion. Filipo Inzaghi went extremely close in the first-half on a couple of occasions; firstly picking up a deflected Andrey Shevchenko free-kick and guiding it past the despairing David James but onto the post and then expertly lobbing the England goalkeeper from 18 yards only to see his effort land on the roof of the net. Milan looked the more threatening but Pompey’s height – boosted by the likes of Peter Crouch – and physical, direct nature caused Milan a host of problems themselves.
Unsurprisingly, it was two converted crosses that put the English side into a two goal lead. The outstanding Glen Johnson was the provider on both occasions – the finishing done by Younes Kaboul and Kanu. Milan boss Carlo Ancelotti threw his last dice with the introduction of his Brazilian stars and it wasn’t long before Ronaldinho magnificently silenced the home fans, curling in a hotly-disputed free-kick from 25 yards. Fervour was replaced by anxiety inside Fratton Park and deep into stoppage-time the predatory Inzaghi controlled a lofted ball into the box before guiding it into the bottom corner to secure a point for the Rossoneri.
It was a result which also kept Milan’s unbeaten record intact and the only other team in the group with such sanguinity right now must surely be Wolfsburg. The German side travelled to Braga and, despite going a goal down, emerged 3-2 winners with Zvjezdan MisimoviÄ‡ the saviour. They had already demolished Heerenveen 5-1 in their opener and now have maximum points with Pompey and Milan to face.
What would have made victory all the more sweet was the fact that, until the 83rd minute, the visitors looked like leaving Municipal empty-handed as an Albert Meyong brace sandwiched by a reply from Edin Dzeko left Braga 2-1 up and, if Luis Aguair had not been unlucky with a set-piece, it could have been 3. Cue Misimovic, who first despatched a penalty after Dzeko had been fouled and then showed good control before blasting the ball home in stoppage-time. All may not be lost for Braga though, as if they can win in Holland and Portsmouth fail to win in Germany, the third qualification slot will be theirs.
With Aston Villa, Group F leaders, out of action it was up to the rest of the teams to play catch up and Ajax went a long way to securing their passage through with a 1-0 victory in Hamburg. Hamburg coach Martin Jol is no stranger to this competition after his time at Tottenham, and his side started brightly with Ivica Olic going close twice in the first period.
Ajax failed to create a great amount all evening and, with Hamburg not firing on all cylinders, it looked to be heading for a draw until Leonardo stole it for the men from Amsterdam. A suicidal backpass from Hamburg skipper David Jarolim was seized upon by the Brazilian, not long on as a sub, who then rounded the keeper and thought he had won it for his team – only to watch his effort hit both posts before having to finish the job at the second time of asking.
Realistically, all is not lost for Hamburg and it would be a major surprise if they did not go on to qualify, particularly given the lack of quality possessed by both Slavia Prague and MSK Zilina as both sides had to settle for a 0-0 stalemate in a match largely dominated by the Slovaks.
In Group G, St Ettienne are guaranteed a top 3 spot after a 1-1 draw at Club Brugge. David Gigliotti gave the French outfit a lead from close range going into the interval despite Brugge’s Nabil Dirar striking the woodwork on 14 minutes. Ronald Vargas brought the hosts back into it not long after the break but it is Ettienne who will be happier with the point, particularly having lost their last seven matches in Ligue 1.
Valencia are also looking strong in the group, demolishing Rosenborg in Norway 4-0. The Spaniards were beaten twice by their opponents in last season’s Champions League and sent out a clear message of intent with goals from Juan Mata, Pablo Hernandez, Ruben Baraja and Joaquin. The opener was rather fortunate, deflecting in via the Trondheim keeper Rune Jarstein, but from there on in it was plain sailing for classy Los Che. Brugge and Rosenborg now face a battle with FC Kobenhavn, who had the night free, for the third place in the section.
In the final Group, H, CSKA Moscow continued their outstanding form to beat Polish side Lech Poznan at Luzhniki. The 2005 winners made a bright start and, barring a couple of intermittent Lech opportunities, were rewarded with a two goal lead at half-time; 18-year-old Alan Dzagoev enhanced his reputation following his brace against Deportivo, stroking the ball past Ivan Turina and marauding full-back Yuri Zhirkov doubled the advantage with a volley inside the box. Semir Stilic pulled one back from a free-kick for Lech but ultimately it was not enough.
On analysis of the group before a ball was kicked, however, one surely cannot have anticipated that Feyenoord would be rock bottom with three defeats from three matches, but that is exactly the predicament they find themselves in after a 3-0 defeat against Deportivo La Coruna in Spain.
The Dutch side now find themselves out of the competition after what was a must-win encounter for both teams following their respective losses in Moscow, while the Rotterdam club were also comprehensively outplayed in Nancy.
Deportivo were a class apart on the night and once Alberto Lopo opened the scoring it only seemed that Feyenoord’s defensive exposures would come to the fore once again and so it proved in two second-half minutes via a Kevin Hofland own goal and Andres Guardado. AS Nancy-Lorraine had the matchday off and are in a strong position behind CSKA and Depor have done themselves no harm with this victory.