Concern for Arsenal after night of comebacks, controversies, draws
Schalke came back from 2-0 down to draw Arsenal 2-2 and keep the group lead
Both matches in Group D were 2-2 draws, keeping Borussia Dortmund in the lead
Mario Balotelli had his shirt pulled, but it was not called, angering Roberto Mancini
It has been an incredible Champions League so far this season and, once again, the first round of Matchday Four games did not disappoint. There were two dramatic comebacks from two goals down as well as controversial -- and significant -- decisions made in the last minutes. Dinamo Zagreb and Montpellier were eliminated, Porto and Malaga reached the next round, while things are looking bleak for Zenit St. Petersburg and Manchester City.
1. Worrying times for Arsenal. A lot can change in a month in football. Exactly four weeks ago to the date, Arsenal beat West Ham 3-1 and was being spoken of as a possible Premier League contender. It already had a 100 percent record after two Champions League Matchdays. The mood was positive. Since then, though, the Gunners lost four of six games, including a home match against Schalke, which left it contemplating a second-place finish in Group B.
For a while in Gelsenkirchen on Tuesday, it looked like the slump was over; Arsenal was 2-0 up on Schalke and seemingly in control. But it conceded just before halftime, and the hosts peppered the Gunners' goal until Thomas Vermaelen put one through his own net (credited to Jefferson Farfan in the 67th minute to make it 2-2). At that point, it seemed both sides were happy with the draw, but there was still time for Theo Walcott to miss what would have been a dramatic last-minute winner.
Coach Arsene Wenger picked a starting lineup that fans had wanted to see at Manchester United last weekend: captain Vermaelen moved to left back in place of Andre Santos and, significantly, Walcott starting his first game since a contract row began in August. The move paid immediate dividends: after defending for 15 minutes, Walcott scored against the run of play, and Olivier Giroud doubled the lead eight minutes later. But Klaas-Jan Huntelaar's strike on 44 minutes gave Schalke hope, and Arsenal was clinging on until the hosts leveled.
Arsenal should still qualify from Group B, despite having a trip to play Olympiakos, 3-1 winners over Montpellier, on Matchday Six, but no longer in the top spot it was accorded in the seeding. That will lead to a potentially tougher draw in the next round and memories of 2010-11, when it stuttered against Sporting Braga, finished second behind Shakhtar Donetsk and lost to eventual winner Barcelona in the Round of 16.
Of more concern is the general direction of the club, which prides itself on self-sustainability and keeping in line with UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations, but is so far away from challenging the top dogs in England that there was even some sympathy following its one-sided 2-1 loss at Old Trafford last weekend. It was the game when some Arsenal fans stopped hating Robin van Persie and actually realized the wisdom of his move to United; as a clear step up, to a club where big trophies now seem possible. That's no longer the case at Arsenal, which faces another tough fight for the fourth spot to make next season's Champions League: with Spurs and Everton its likeliest challengers.
This time last year, after the club had suffered embarrassing defeats (8-2 to United, 4-3 to Blackburn Rovers), Arsenal fans were up in arms about the future of Wenger as coach. After 10 league games, last year's Arsenal actually had more points (16) than this season's (15). The divisiveness among pro- and anti-Wenger factions is still there, but this time you get the impression that the coach has less fight in him. "Arsenal and Arsene Wenger are at a dangerous crossroads," is how France Football magazine put it.
Wenger rejected talks at the start of this season to extend his contract beyond 2014. "Two years is a long time in football," he said then. As Arsenal fans have discovered after another rotten October, so is one month.
2. Dortmund is a real contender this season. Don't be fooled by the Bundesliga table at the moment, which shows current champion Borussia Dortmund down in fifth place and 11 points behind leaders Bayern Munich. This autumn, coach Jurgen Klopp has prioritized the Champions League, and those pundits surprised by the Germans' high-tempo performance in its 1-1 draw at Manchester City on Matchday Two would have had déjà vu after Dortmund drew 2-2 with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Madrid coach Jose Mourinho was not just being polite when he said that Dortmund was a possible winner of the competition this year if it qualified from the group; now with eight points from its four games, the yellow-and-blacks are atop Group D, one up on Madrid and four points clear of Ajax in third.
The catalyst in another stunning game in this group was Marco "Rolls" Reus, who smashed in a superb volley high past Iker Casillas' near post -- a similar goal to one he put past Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer last season -- to open the scoring. Reus also scored Dortmund's opener in Manchester and is proving well worth his €17.5 million fee from Borussia Moenchengladbach.
That move was a significant one, not least because the winger turned down Bayern first. Bayern had been used to buying the best of young German players, but the examples of Jan Schlaudraff, Marcell Jansen and Lukas Podolski shows that it doesn't always work out. Dortmund took great pleasure from gazumping its rival, which spun that Reus had demanded guarantees about his starting place in the team. That was denied: the truth is that Reus grew up in Dortmund, his parents still live in the city and he began his career in its youth academy. His €35 million release clause is also less prohibitive to other clubs than any Bayern would have inserted.
The rest of Europe must notice him now: Reus has made the difference in big games this season, and in this form, Dortmund has to be taken seriously in the competition. It would have qualified already had Mesut Ozil not pushed aside Cristiano Ronaldo and equalized for Madrid with a late free kick. It was the second time Dortmund has conceded a last-gasp equalizer, but once again, it has made its point.
3. City controversy should not detract from underachievement. Manchester City had come from two goals down to tie 2-2 with Ajax when, in the last minute, substitute Mario Balotelli seemed to have his shirt pulled by his marker, Ricardo van Rhijn. Referee Peter Rasmussen blew his whistle -- only to signal for full-time and more points dropped for the English champion.
This is the third "must-win" game that City has failed to win in Group D, and coach Roberto Mancini's excuse about his team's lack of experience is wearing thin: as The Guardian pointed out, it has four Champions League winners (Maicon, Carlos Tevez, Yaya Toure and Balotelli), a World Cup and European Championship winner in David Silva and Copa America, Copa Libertadores, Olympic champions and league title winners spanning 10 countries. Compare that to Ajax, which has the youngest average age in this season's competition and started at the Etihad with eight graduates from its De Toekomst academy.
When Mancini stormed onto the pitch as Balotelli was raging, you expected him to hold back his Italian striker and keep him away from trouble: instead the coach joined him in haranguing the official. Mancini may have the passion, but City is now looking at another early Champions League exit. To blame the referee after this one may be convenient, but it would also be a red herring. "It's not that we're not good enough for Champions League, but it's a matter of time," captain Vincent Kompany said. The table, with City at the bottom with two points from four games, does not lie.
4. A young star emerges in an unlikely place. Given the millions its owners, Qatari Sports Investments, lavished on big-name players, it's something of a surprise to find that the youngest player in action Tuesday was Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Adrien Rabiot, who at 17 made an assured Champions League debut and was one of the bright spots in a flattering Zlatan Ibrahimovic-inspired 4-0 win over Dinamo Zagreb.
Rabiot once was on the books at Manchester City but left after six months as he struggled to settle; PSG signed him two years ago, and on the day Ezequiel Lavezzi joined the club, Rabiot signed professional terms. The first thing he did was see his father Michel, bed-ridden for the last five years with locked-in syndrome. "When I told him I was now a professional, I could tell that he was proud of me," Rabiot told Le Parisien. Remember the name.
5. Malaga reaches the last 16. At the first time of asking, Malaga confirmed its place in the next round after drawing 1-1 with AC Milan. It even went ahead at the San Siro, with Isco, one of the breakout stars of the competition, setting up Eliseu for the opener. Alex Pato leveled for Milan, a crucial goal which leaves the Italian side in second place (and was Malaga's first goal conceded in the competition). Malaga had to defend stoutly in the second half, but that it did so should be no surprise: it has already drawn at Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid this season.
It was not such a good night for Russian champion Zenit St. Petersburg, which is now at the bottom of Group C after losing 1-0 at Anderlecht. Without the injured Hulk (whose sister was reportedly released today after she was kidnapped earlier in the week), Zenit looked short of ideas up front and now needs two wins -- at home to Malaga and at Milan -- to have any chance of reaching the Round of 16. That seems unlikely and the wisdom of its €80 million deadline-day double-swoop for Hulk and Axel Witsel will be debated long into the Russian winter.
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