Matchday Five thoughts: Dortmund the star of the Champions League
Borussia Dortmund have topped the Group of Death and could progress very far
Italian-led Zenit, PSG and Man City have all had their share of troubles this year
Although it has been often overlooked, Porto has managed to easily win Group A
Six teams confirmed their places in the Round of 16 in an enthralling round of Matchday Five action, but the champions of England, Russia, France and Greece were not among them. This was the night that Manchester City, Zenit St Petersburg, Montpellier and Olympiakos were all eliminated, while Borussia Dortmund confirmed its status as a potential winner of this year's competition. Here are the highlights from Matchday Five's action:
1. Dortmund, team of the group stage, tops the Group of Death. German champion Borussia Dortmund swept past Ajax with a three-goal first-half salvo in a 4-1 drubbing in Amsterdam and confirmed its place at the top of Group D. The German champion can afford to lose to Manchester City on Matchday Six and still stay ahead of Real Madrid, an opponent that no group winner will want to face. Those who thought Dortmund had peaked with its breathless Matchday Two draw at the Etihad got it wrong; it went on to earn four points from the double-header against Madrid (only a last-minute Mesut Ozil equalizer prevented a six-point haul) and, if it can maintain this form in the spring, admittedly a big if, has to be seen as a realistic contender for the competition.
Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp admitted last week that his name last summer was on the wanted-list at Chelsea and Liverpool "me, Jurgen Klopp, the guy from the Black Forest, that's kind of nice," he said, endearingly and has spoken of a dynasty that he wants to build in Germany. Only two of Dortmund's outfield starters in Holland were over 25, and he thinks that the likes of Mats Hummels, 23, Mario Gotze, 20, Marco Reus, 23, can spearhead a period of dominance for the 1997 Champions League winner.
"We have 80,000 spectators for home matches and take 15,000 fans for away games," Klopp told France Football magazine. "Many of our young players grew up together. The team spirit is fantastic. And, frankly, the guys don't get paid so badly. No player dies of hunger here. They could earn more money elsewhere, but they don't seem too bothered by it. It's cool if [most of the squad] can spend the next four years here, and we continue to progress, I can't tell you what we might achieve."
2. This has been a tough week for Italian coaches. Less than 12 hours after Chelsea confirmed the dismissal of last season's Champions League-winning coach Roberto di Matteo, this was not a good Matchday for two Italian coaches on the continent. In Group C, Luciano Spalletti's Zenit St Petersburg was eliminated after his expensively-assembled side could only draw 2-2 with a depleted Malaga, group winners, in Russia.
The clash of the former Inter Milan coaches also went against another Italian, Roberto Mancini, whose Manchester City team is still bottom of Group D but not quite out of Europe entirely after a 1-1 draw with ten-man Real Madrid. While an early exit might help City regain its title as English champion, it was not in this season's masterplan: in truth, Madrid could have been out of sight within 20 minutes. After Karim Benzema put the visitors ahead, Cristiano Ronaldo (twice) and Sami Khedira (three times) squandered chances to double the lead.
Mancini made changes that improved City's performance retuning to a back four and, notably, bringing on Javi Garcia and pushing Yaya Toure upfield and his team drew level when Sergio Aguero converted a penalty following a foul for which Alvaro Arbeloa was shown a second yellow card (Aguero could have scored earlier but his point-blank volley was brilliantly stopped by Iker Casillas).
But City rarely threatened after that, and this game failed to ignite in the way its previous group matches had. City is not out with whimper, and though the second-half performance may have restored some pride, the result changes little. Put in the toughest of groups, City failed to win any of its three home matches, and has paid the price.
There was some let-up for two under-pressure Italians, Carlo Ancelotti and Massimiliano Allegri, whose sides both won away from home. Ancelotti admitted that Paris Saint-German was "in crisis" after losing to nine-man Rennes at the weekend, but two goals from Ezequiel Lavezzi secured a 2-0 win at Dynamo Kiev and ensured PSG's path to the next round. It could even top the group if it beats Porto on Matchday Six.
AC Milan, meanwhile, gave Allegri a break after goals from Stephan El-Shaarawy, Philippe Mexes, with an overhead kick from outside the area (not quite out of the Zlatan school, but still pretty impressive) and Alex Pato, earned a 3-1 win at Anderlecht. Milan qualifies from Group C in second place.
3. Porto is another team to avoid. Perhaps because it is in the same group as the more newsworthy Paris Saint-Germain, Porto's cake-walk in Group A, where it sits top, has gone somewhat unnoticed. For all the talk of club philosophies at Barcelona and Ajax, Porto has almost always been playing with a 4-3-3 system since Antonio Oliveira was in charge during a run of five straight titles in the mid-1990s. Back then, Ljubinko Drulovic and Nuno Capucho were the wide players; when it won the 2011 Europa League under Andre Villas-Boas, Hulk and Silvestre Varela were on either side of Radamel Falcao; in tonight's 3-0 win against Dinamo Zagreb, Varela and James Rodriguez were out wide with Jackson Martinez central. Even though tonight's first two goals came from central players, Lucho Gonzalez and Joao Moutinho, with Varela bagging the third, that is a trio that could cause damage in the knock-out stages.
4. Montpellier will struggle to hold onto its stars. This has been a tough campaign for surprise French champion Montpellier, and you can't help thinking it will be a long time before it is back in the competition. It did well to sell only one first-teamer, Olivier Giroud, last summer, but now it is out of Europe, the exit door beckons for some more players. There could be January bids for Younes Belhanda, Remy Cabella and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, and larger-than-life president Louis Nicollin will have to decide whether to cash in his chips soon, or wait until next summer. All three have proved they can cut it at a higher level.
Giroud, once again, was one of the stars of Arsenal's 2-0 win over his former side, with two assists: the second, a beautiful chip over three defenders, setting up Lukas Podolski to volley home one of the best goals of the round. After a slow start to his Gunners career, the Frenchman is looking very much at home now. Arsenal has qualified, but Schalke's 1-0 win Olympiakos makes second place more likely.
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