Pitchside Europe

5 things we learned from the second Champions League matchday

Pitchside

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There may not have been many shocks on Matchday Two but there was no shortage of drama, late goals, individual brilliance and talking points. Here’s our regular look at five things we learned from this week’s European games.

1. Coaches can make the difference

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Sometimes coaches get a rough ride but when they get it right, they deserve the credit. That's why Pep Guardiola was so happy with Bayern Munich’s win at Manchester City – “our best performance of the season,” he called it – but he’s not the only one who played his cards right this week. Hats off to Diego Simeone, whose Atletico Madrid side beat Real Madrid 1-0 at the Bernabeu last Saturday to continue their 100 per cent winning start to the league season. On Tuesday night, they faced another tough test: away at Porto, whose unbeaten run at O Dragao stretched back four years and 74 games.

Not only that, but Atletico were without Diego Costa, top scorer and arguably European football’s player of the season so far (sorry Arsenal fans). Simeone started with a 4-4-2 system with David Villa and Leo Baptistao up front. It didn’t work and with Porto bossing the midfield, the home side deservedly went into the break one goal up.

The sign of a good coach, though, is to recognise when things aren't working and correct them (though it helps to avoid making mistakes in the first place). Simeone switched things at half-time, replacing Villa with right-winger Cebolla Rodriguez, and switching to 4-5-1. Once Diego Godin headed in an equaliser, Simeone made another change: taking off Leo for playmaker Koke and essentially playing with no strikers on the pitch.

No matter: when Gabi's smart free-kick routine was turned in by Arda Turan, Atletico Madrid sealed the win and showed that this team has the confidence, and trust in Simeone, to eke out results even if things are not going their way (and Porto did have more possession and shots on target).

The big question now is whether Atletico can match a team like Bayern Munich or Barcelona over two legs: well, we know they can because in the Spanish SuperCup last month, Barcelona only beat Atletico on away goals, after two draws. Their squad is not as deep as the biggest teams, but with Simeone on the bench, this is the week it was confirmed that Atletico will be a team to avoid in the knock-out phase.

2. One new signing can change a whole club

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When Mesut Ozil completed his move to Arsenal for half the price that Real Madrid paid for Gareth Bale, I asked the following question on Twitter: forget about price, which player would you rather have in your team? Both players are 24 and, in theory, have their best years to come. I had a huge response, which came in about 60% in Bale’s favour. One month later, the result might be different.

Ozil arrived soon after Arsenal had lost their opening match of the Premier League season, 3-1 at home to Aston Villa. Some fans had even chanted at Arsene Wenger, “You don't know what you’re doing". Ozil then created Arsenal’s next four league goals and on Tuesday night against highly-fancied Napoli, proved that Arsenal deserved top seeding in the Group of Death with a first-half masterclass.

While Ozil’s presence has clearly raised the general level of Arsenal’s quality, the more astonishing impact is its effect on other players. Bale’s individual ability seemed to overshadow his team-mates; Ozil allows those around him to flourish. Would we see an Olivier Giroud so confident and linking play so well, were it not for Ozil? Would Aaron Ramsey really be developing into a natural successor for Cesc Fabregas if Ozil was still at the Bernabeu? Of course we will never know, but it’s fair to say that Arsenal’s season – and possibly the future of Wenger as coach – changed on September 1, the day Ozil signed.

3. England have a goalkeeper problem

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It is just over a week before England take on Montenegro and Poland in two must-win World Cup qualifiers and the memory of Scott Carson's disaster show against Croatia in November 2007 will loom large for Roy Hodgson. Joe Hart was criticised by Hodgson’s assistant coach Gary Neville for conceding two goals for Manchester City at his near post but is now really the best time to throw in a debutant like Celtic’s Fraser Forster?

The wider issue is the lack of goalkeeping options open to Hodgson: in the Premier League, only three teams have an Englishman as their first choice: City, Norwich (John Ruddy) and West Brom (for whom Ben Foster is currently injured).

The weakness has not gone unnoticed abroad; the German TV commentator on the Bayern game mocked English goalkeepers while Manuel Neuer’s former coach Lothar Matuschak, a legend in German football for coaching so many goalkeepers to have made the grade (on one weekend last season, he had coached five keepers playing in the Bundesliga), said in a recent interview that England was lagging behind. “English goalkeepers are a devalued group these days, and when one makes a mistake, suddenly all of them are under the spotlight," he said. "Maybe because they always buy foreign goalkeepers, they missed the opportunity to develop their own.”

4. Who is Europe’s hat-trick king?

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You may think it’s Cristiano Ronaldo (five goals in two Champions League games) or Lionel Messi (three in one) but in fact it’s Olympiacos striker Kostas Mitroglou, whose three goals at Anderlecht marked his third hat-trick in seven matches.

The run began on September 1, when he came on as a 65th-minute substitute against Levadiakos and scored two goals in the last two minutes to complete his treble in a 5-0 win; two weeks later, he played the 90 minutes as Olympiacos beat Xanthi 4-0. Oh and in between, he scored Greece’s winner in their World Cup qualifying win in Liechtenstein. Not bad for a player described last season by The Times writer Rory Smith as "the man with the touch of a lorry and the look of an adulterous grocer".

5. Assists are the new goals

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What was the goal of the week? Maybe it was Alvaro Negredo’s consolation for City, Mitroglu’s third for Olympiacos or Julian Draxler’s winner for Schalke. No matter: the lasting images from this round of matches were the passes before the goals. Zlatan Ibrahimovic backheeled the ball to Marco Verratti, who scooped it into the area before Marquinhos scored PSG’s second against Benfica, while Angel Di Maria crossed for Ronaldo to score with a ‘rabona’, a pass made when the kicking foot goes round the back of the standing leg. Both were moments of genius that surpassed the goals themselves. Let’s see more of these please.

Ben Lyttleton

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