Friday, September 15, 2017

Parisian starlets set the pace

Parisian starlets set the pace.
The UEFA Champions League gets going once again
After the first round of Champions League games it looks like money talks for PSG.

Their galacticos made light work of Scottish champions Celtic at Parkhead, cruising to a 5-0 away win in Glasgow with their newly acquired gemstones, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe both on target.

While it is hardly news to say that a club's success correlates with their spending, the quantum leap PSG took in the summer by bagging that duo made the transfer arms race that much more of a handicapped one.

It is probably true that their summer splurge had more to do with Middle Eastern geopolitics than football, as Qatar is quarrelling with its Arab neighbours right now, but that puts more of an onus on UEFA to enforce its financial fair play rules and prove that the game has a soul.

When sovereign nations start owning teams the only end game is China v the USA, and given the ownership of several Premier League teams (7:3 to America so far), that already seems to be happening.
The Dutch champions Feyenoord lost 4-0 at home to another expensively assembled toy shop Manchester City, proving the gap between Europe's top leagues and the rest is now an impossible chasm.

Pity the fans at De Kuip, eager to see their side back in top continental action, winded and grounded within minutes as their visitors cruised into a commanding lead.

The days of Ajax, PSV, Porto, Red Star or Steaua Bucharest, sides skilfully assembled with a modest amount of money, capturing the Champions Cup, are long gone.

Monaco, the most exciting team in last season's competition, were decisively asset-stripped over the summer, losing Tiemoue Bakayoko, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva as well as Mbappe, and began their campaign inauspiciously with a 1-1 draw away to Leipzig. There are no obvious suspects for a dark horse this time.

The usual suspects all won convincingly with the exception of Juventus, who defended uncharacteristically abysmally in losing 3-0 in Barcelona.
Only Besiktas' 3-1 win at Porto and Tottenham's defeat of Borussia Dortmund by the same score could be seen as surprises but neither are expected to topple the big usual suspects.

The latter game was exceptionally entertaining and interesting for the fact once more that clinical, thrusting attacks trumped ball possession. Spurs too, have finally managed to make the vast spaces of Wembley work for them.

The most notable event of the night however was Sevilla coach Eduardo Berizzo, recently arrived from Celta Vigo, being sent off for idiotically throwing the ball away twice when gathering Liverpool throw-ins.

How such infantile behaviour is still practised by top team managers in front of the camera beggars belief, but any entertainment is welcome to the neutral.

His team had started off some lovely passing football beyond the ken of their English (despite not fielding one British Isles player) hosts and were good value for their 2-2 draw in the end, reminding us the Premier League still has a technical deficit.

The bookies rate the top five in order this season as Real Madrid, PSG, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City.

PSG look already likely to reach the semi finals at least but their lucre-gilded gatecrashing of the party seems to devalue their challenge somewhat.

Bayern seemed to stutter at home to Anderlecht but came out 3-0 winners in the end, a reminder that the German giants are always a wise bet for the final four.

City's slick win in Rotterdam seemed to suggest they could make the semi-finals this time, while Chelsea's equally efficient 6-0 demolition of Qarabag means nobody should write off their chances either.

Even Manchester United, with a world-class No.9 in Romelu Lukaku, defensive steel in Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelof and an emboldened Jose Mourinho, still the tactician par excellence, could be in with a shout.

Barcelona remain in transition, longing for a new Xavi and a young Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi and hoping Luis Suarez remains fit and avoids suspensions. Roma and Juventus showed hairline cracks ready to be breached.

Atletico Madrid are hampered by their transfer ban which expires in early 2018 and Tottenham lack Champions League experience however attractive their game is to watch.

Real are clearly therefore the team to beat again, as their polished, well-honed capture of the crown in Cardiff last season confirmed.

They might have some players who seem to have been there for yonks - Marcelo, Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo for instance, but 21 year-old Marco Asensio is shining very brightly and the old guard still have plenty of life in them.

For the sake of spectator interest however, let us hope Zinedine Zidane's men face some stiff competition at least in this season's competition.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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