Balotelli saves City from disaster; Ronaldo displays brilliance again
Mario Balotelli's 90th-minute penalty kick salvaged a 1-1 draw with Dortmund
Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat trick in Real Madrid's 4-1 victory against Ajax
AC Milan's Massimiliano Allegri may have saved his job with a 3-2 win over Zenit
Reaction to the second night of Matchday Two of Champions League action ...
1. Balotelli rescues City, Mancini. Manchester City coach Roberto Mancini had insisted that Champions League was no longer a learning experience for him prior to the 1-1 draw with German champion Borussia Dortmund. And yet this match must have been chastening for the Italian: his team was second-best and fortunate to escape with a draw after a hotly contested penalty was converted in the last minute by ice-cool Mario Balotelli.
City has scored a lot of late goals this season -- it has needed to -- but none will be as valuable as this one. The prospect of ending the first two matches without a point would have been devastating for Mancini, whose European expertise might now be called into further question. While it was substitute Jack Rodwell who gave away the ball to allow Marco "Rolls" Reus to run through on goal and beat Joe Hart, it was another substitution, Alexandr Kolarov, coming on for Samir Nasri, that cost City. Kolarov was brought on as wing back, with Pablo Zabaleta on the other side, as City switched to a three-man central defense of Vincent Kompany, Matija Nastasic and Gael Clichy. It lasted only five minutes, during which time Reus did what Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski had failed over and over again to do: beat the seemingly unbeatable Hart.
"We needed a point, and the group still alive for us," said Hart, the City goalkeeper who boosted his credentials as the world's best Wednesday night. "They were getting chances against us with four at the back, 10 at the back, so it [the change to three] didn't make any difference. It could have finished 10-10."
That Dortmund needed Reus' burst of pace and smart finish was, in itself, something of a shock: the yellow-and-blacks had controlled much of the first half, in which Hart twice tipped efforts from Gotze onto his woodwork. At the other end, Dortmund's Roman Weidenfeller had been winning his own personal duel with Sergio Aguero; and yet it was David Silva who missed the best chance of a compelling first half, volleying over from four yards out.
The second half was a similar story, although City was unable to carve out any decent opportunities unlike its opponents, for whom Lewandowski missed the target after a brilliant curled pass from Ilkay Gundogan. That miss, with Dortmund already ahead, proved costly when Neven Subotic was ruled, somewhat harshly, to have handled the ball in the box. Dortmund beat Ajax on Matchday One with a last-minute goal, but this time Balotelli broke German hearts. In doing so, he kept City's European hopes alive -- and might even have kept his coach in a job.
2. Ronaldo makes the extraordinary seem ordinary. When Cristiano Ronaldo scored Real Madrid's final goal for his hat trick (his first in this competition) in its 4-1 win over Ajax, it was his 158th goal in 154 appearances. It put him two ahead of Lionel Messi on goals scored for the season -- 12 in 10 matches, with six in La Liga and four in Europe (the other two were in the SuperCup). But it will barely merit a mention outside of Spain.
Why? Because this has been the story of the last three seasons: Ronaldo and Messi just do not stop scoring. Only when they retire will we appreciate just how good they were. (I do think that each other's presence spurs them on to greater things.) For now, we should just enjoy the rivalry, and the brilliance.
3. Cancel that Italian job swap ... for now. AC Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri has received so many votes of confidence from vice president Adriano Galliani in recent weeks, he must be surprised to still be in the job. If reports in Italy are anything to go by, owner Silvio Berlusconi wants him out, with Zenit St Petersburg coach Luciano Spalletti the favorite to replace him. As one Italian paper put it: "Opponent today, coach tomorrow." But this result, Milan winning 3-2 at Zenit, could change a few things.
For a start, Milan's performance was much more dynamic than in the Matchday One draw with Anderlecht, with two stand-out players: goalkeeper Cristian Abbiati and Stephan El-Shaarawy, one of Europe's most prolific forwards. "The Little Pharoah" has scored five of Milan's last seven goals, in just four matches, and his jinking run, through a gaping Russian defense, and cool finish was a first-half highlight.
Where this leaves Spalletti is another matter entirely. Zenit was unbeaten in its last 16 European home matches but has won only once in six games since signing Hulk and Axel Witsel for €80 million on Russia's transfer deadline day (and that was against a second-division side, Baltika, in a Cup tie).
Zenit showed some heart to come back from 2-0 down to tie the game before Tomas Hubocan's own goal clinched it for the visitors. With back-to-back games against Anderlecht to come, Zenit is not totally out of contention, but zero points from two games was not in the plan. "It was an important win, but I still think that this group will be decided on the final Matchday," Allegri said. Whether either coach will still be in charge then is anyone's guess.
4. Gervinho remains an infuriating talent. Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger has experience converting wingers into center forwards: Thierry Henry became the club's all-time record goalscorer, after all. And things aren't going so badly for Gervinho, either. Now in his second season at the Emirates, the Ivorian scored the opener in Arsenal's victory over Olympiakos, a fifth goal of the season which already betters his tally for the whole of last season.
Minutes later, though, Gervinho was caught dozing, and his failure to close down Greco allowed the winger to cross for Kostas Mitroglu to head home an equalizer. Arsenal has a clear weakness from crosses at the moment, and with West Ham -- and a fit-again Andy Carroll -- its weekend opponent, it needs to improve quickly. Lucky for the Gunners, then, that Gervinho woke up in the second half and set up Lukas Podolski for Arsenal's second in a 3-1 win.
5. Champions League continues to unearth brilliant talent. If you thought Matchday One was exciting, some of the goals from Matchday Two were outstanding: Karim Benzema's overhead effort for Real Madrid, Eliseu's opening strike for Malaga, which won its second successive match 3-0, and Karim Ait-Fana's goal for Montpellier.
There were also some brilliant individual performances: credit must go to Porto's James Rodriguez, his match-winner against Paris Saint-Germain (look out for Christian Atsu, too, next in line behind Rodriguez), Julien Draxler, the latest teenage German wunderkind, who scored for Shalke before going off with a fractured forearm and Milan's El-Shaarawy, still only 19. The prospect of an Italy forward line featuring El-Shaarawy and Balotelli is hair-raising, to say the least.
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