Rooney, Van Persie connect twice; Barcelona wins, but at a cost
Wayne Rooney could be the solution to Manchester United's dilemma in midfield
Bayern Munich was shocked 3-1 by BATE Borisov but still should advance
Barcelona suffered a massive blow with defender Carlos Puyol's late arm injury
Reaction to the first night of Matchday Two of Champions League action ...
1. Van Persie's goals could redefine Rooney's position. This was the first match that Wayne Rooney has started alongside Robin van Persie. In a come-from-behind 2-1 win over CFR Cluj you could see why United spent £24m ($38.7 million) on the Dutch striker. Never mind that the selection came at a price, as Sir Alex Ferguson went for a narrow, and rare (for him), offensive strategy with no wingers; or that United's defense still has major problems. This was Van Persie's night: if his first goal was a little fortunate, as Rooney's free kick looped off his shoulder for an equalizer, the second was pure class, as he latched on to Rooney's super pass with a cool left-footed flicked volley.
"Everything starts with a good pass so I have to thank him, not many players can give a pass like that," Van Persie said. "I knew he could see it, and give it the way I wanted, so credit to Wayne."
Van Persie has now scored seven goals in as many starts for United, and the question facing Ferguson now is how to get the best out of Rooney when the Dutchman is also playing. Though the pair is clearly still working on its partnership, we saw some clues in Cluj: the Englishman had a freer role, regularly dropping deep into midfield to launch attacks.
For over a season now -- in fact some fans would say since Roy Keane left the club in 2005 -- United has been short of a player who can be decisive in both penalty areas, breaking up attacks at one end and finishing them at the other. And though United has been linked to the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Luka Modric, Mousa Dembele and Javi Martinez, the answer may already be in the squad. Rooney would be the ideal solution to United's midfield dilemma, playing alongside Darren Fletcher as the more defensive player. Paul Scholes recently spoke of his ideal midfield duo being a player who pushed forward while the other sat back; but the return to fitness of Fletcher, and the prospect of Rooney next to him, could speed up Scholes' (second) retirement. Where Rooney's best position is will not be the only conundrum occupying Ferguson's thoughts Tuesday night.
United's problems at the back continued, with Patrice Evra and Jonny Evans, who went off injured, exposed for Cluj's surprise opener. It appeared they had paid no heed to former teammate Gary Neville's brilliant analysis of United's weekend 3-2 defeat to Spurs, in which he spoke of the "huge gaps" between the center backs and fullbacks. This was the sixth time in nine games this season that United has conceded the game's first goal, and while it seems safe at the top of Group H, it is a worrying trend Ferguson will want to stop.
2. Are BATE Borisov this season's APOEL Nicosia? If BATE Borisov caused the shock of Matchday One by beating Lille 3-1 in France, it went one better Tuesday, deservedly beating Bayern Munich 3-1 in Minsk. It was a limp performance from last year's runner-up, which came into the match on a run of nine straight victories.
Alexander Pavlov put it ahead against the run of play but in the second half, as Bayern streamed forward, BATE created chance after chance. Manuel Neuer kept the Germans in it with a terrific save from Edgar Alyakhnovich before Pavlov somehow hit over from eight yards: both chances were created by the excellent Alexandr Hleb. It was no surprise when Vitali Rodionov, veteran of six straight titles in Belarus, doubled the lead. Franck Ribery had two late Bayern efforts saved and eventually pulled one back, but it proved a false dawn: Renan Bressan killed off any chances with a breakaway third to put BATE top of Group F.
The result will not ruin Bayern's season -- though it may heap some pressure on coach Jupp Heynckes -- but BATE's upcoming doubleheader against Valencia (who were 2-0 winners over pointless Lille) will likely determine who joins the Germans out of the group.
3. Puyol's injury a massive blow for Barcelona. The image of a voodoo doll of Lionel Messi shown on the front page of today's Portuguese newspaper Record was an interesting take on how to stop the world's best player, but it didn't work. Messi was the architect of both Barcelona's goals in its 2-0 win at Benfica, crossing for Alexis Sanchez to tap home early on before a brilliant run from deep released Cesc Fabregas for the second.
But if Barcelona wanted an easy game in the run-up to Sunday's clasico against Real Madrid, this was not it. Benfica responded well to going behind, and Victor Valdes was called upon to make important saves from Salvio and Nemanja Matic. Fabregas was lucky not to be sent off in the first half, when he pulled the back of the referee's shirt following a yellow card. But more worrying was the injury that forced Carlos Puyol off late on. His arm totally twisted after a nasty fall and the club website later reported it as a disclocated elbow. Barcelona looked shaken after his departure: a good win in Lisbon, but it has come at a cost.
4. Hooper inspires Celtic to make history. It may have been helped by a red card shown to Spartak Moscow's Juan Manuel Insaurralde when 2-1 down, but Celtic's 3-2 win in Russia was a historic moment for the Scottish champion: a first away win in the Champions League after 20 attempts. The hero was Englishman Gary Hooper, a forward with a goal and an assist (and the man brought down for Insaurralde's correct dismissal). Hooper has never played in the top two divisions in England, yet is now being tipped for a call-up to the national team.
"He's a phenomenal player, he scores a lot of goals and it is the hardest thing to do, and he scores in the big games," said his coach, Neil Lennon, last week. "He is intelligent, very quick over five yards, his touch is sublime. He has led the line brilliantly for us this season and I think he is good enough to play for England."
5. Worrying times in Russia. This was meant to be Russian football's moment. Champions Zenit St Petersburg spent heavily to join the European elite, while Fabio Capello, its national coach, is charged with ensuring the World Cup 2018 hosts make it to Rio in 2014. But Spartak's qualifying dream may already be over: this was the same story as Matchday One, when it was 2-1 up on Barcelona and lost 3-2. Perhaps Valencia fans who criticized coach Unai Emery (now at Spartak) for underachieving in Europe despite admirable domestic finishes (three third places in a row) may not be surprised. With Spartak pointless, the pressure is now on Zenit, which has its own problems, to get a result against AC Milan, while Russia takes on Portugal in its most important World Cup qualifier in ten days.
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