Posted: Tuesday October 23, 2012 5:31PM ; Updated: Tuesday October 23, 2012 6:12PM
Tom Dart
Tom Dart>INSIDE SOCCER

Barcelona, United escape in nervy night of Champions League action

Story Highlights

Jordi Alba scored three minutes into injury time to save Barcelona, 2-1 over Celtic

Manchester United beat Braga 3-2, but its insecure defense is a very big concern

Chelsea is not assured of advancing with a surprising 2-1 loss to Shakhtar Donetsk

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Lionel Messi, Jordi Alba
Lionel Messi, Jordi Alba and Barcelona are 3-0 and five points clear of Celtic for first place in Group G.
Manu Fernandez/AP

Braga, Celtic and Nordsjaelland came close to massive upsets, while the holders tasted defeat on a stressful night for many of Europe's leading clubs as half of the Champions League's groups reached the midway point on Tuesday ...

1. Cruel on Celtic as Barcelona prevails. With a 2-1 escape, Barcelona is unbeaten at home in Europe since losing 2-1 to Rubin Kazan in October 2009: a span of 18 matches. Celtic's win over Spartak Moscow earlier this month was its first-ever road victory in Champions League play.

So it's fair to say the scoreline with almost half the match gone at Camp Nou on Tuesday had an unexpected look. One of Barcelona's few vulnerabilities is set pieces -- one of Celtic's few strengths. Charlie Mulgrew's free kick was deflected past his own goalkeeper by Javier Mascherano after 18 minutes to give the visitors a 1-0 lead.

Barcelona was without Sergio Busquets, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol. Were the conditions set right for a miracle? Well, not quite. Andres Iniesta equalized shortly before halftime with a fine goal that was typical Barcelona for its blend of intelligent teamwork and individual technique.

The Catalans were predictably dominant in the second half, but as Chelsea showed last season, it is possible to hang on grimly and avoid defeat with a combination of luck, grit and superb goalkeeping. Celtic was about to do the same, but three minutes into injury time, Jordi Alba popped up at the back post to poke the ball in and cruelly deny the Scots a famous draw.

It was a devastating blow, but the perfect pick-me-up for Neil Lennon and his men can be found if they care to glance at the Group G standings: Celtic is second after three matches and doing far better than it could possibly have expected.

2. Manchester United shows powers of recovery. Pre-match talk about whether Manchester United would employ a "diamond" midfield formation overshadowed the low-carat quality of the team's defense in a 3-2 win.

Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to rest Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra for the Group H match with Braga looked questionable within two minutes. With a view to Sunday's Barclays Premier League clash with Chelsea, the United manager put Michael Carrick in Ferdinand's place at center back alongside Jonny Evans and Champions League debutant Alexander Buttner at left back instead of Evra.

It was a potential vulnerability Braga was likely to target and they profited inside two minutes when a cross from the left was looped hopefully into the box by Hugo Viana. Alan attacked it and headed the visitors into the lead while three United defenders gawped.

Braga was 2-0 ahead after 20 minutes when Eder easily skipped past Carrick down the left and centered for Alan, who scored with aplomb.

Ferguson pointed out before the match that Braga is a danger on the counter-attack and was unbeaten in its previous seven European road fixtures, but United looked complacent and disorganized. The manager had promoted the idea that a diamond shape would make his team unpredictable; looking at the early scoreline, he certainly got that right.

However, United's attack is irresistible, and Braga had scored so early, its opponents had ample recovery time. Javier Hernandez quickly pulled one back, Evans drew the sides level after the break, and the Mexico striker completed the turnaround with 15 minutes left -- a timely reminder of his quality as a penalty-box predator, given the limited match action he's seen this season.

It's a truism in England to say that the Premier League and Champions League are two very different beasts, but United's performance here paralleled its domestic displays: insecure at the back, scintillating going forward. It's hard to see United getting anywhere close to lifting the trophy unless it can tighten up, but at least with three wins from three matches, Ferguson's men are almost sure to avoid the embarrassment of failing to progress out of their group, as happened last year.

3. Holders go down in Donetsk. Shakhtar against Chelsea was an intriguing meeting of clubs with four points from their first two matches who top their domestic leagues. The 2-1 Donetsk win was a reality check for Chelsea, who have started to look imperious in England but have yet to impress in Europe.

John Terry missed Chelsea's dramatic win over Tottenham last weekend because he had just started to serve a four-game domestic ban for racist abuse of QPR's Anton Ferdinand in a game exactly a year ago. So there was a degree of irony in Terry taking to the pitch on Tuesday wearing a captain's armband emblazoned with the words "Unite Against Racism" as part of a UEFA-backed Europe-wide campaign against discrimination.

Attention soon turned from his attire to his role in the action, however, as Shakhtar took a quick lead. Terry blocked a shot, but the ball fell to Alex Teixeira, who put the home team in front.

Shakhtar coach Mircea Lucescu told media before the match that his side is better organized and more skillful than Tottenham, and the evidence of this encounter suggests he might be right. Shakhtar was easily the better side in the first half as Chelsea adjusted to the twin setbacks of conceding early and losing Frank Lampard to injury. He was replaced by Eden Hazard, an unexpected omission from the starting XI.

Hazard lost possession in midfield in the second half by Fernandinho, who went on to finish the move to make the score 2-0. Oscar claimed a late consolation. The good news for the Blues, though, was Juventus' failure to win, which leaves Chelsea a point clear of third place in Group E. At this time, though, the holders are far from certain to make it out of the group stage.

4. Nordsjaelland almost get the perfect gift. Prior to this match, the little Danish club's coach, Kasper Hjulmand, told reporters that to host a team of Juventus' stature felt like "Christmas Eve." For much of this encounter, Hjulmand must have felt like it was Christmas, his birthday and a lottery win all rolled into one.

Nordsjaelland is more like plankton than a minnow, while Juventus is the Italian champion, current Serie A leader and on a 47-game unbeaten streak in the domestic league. The Danes had lost 4-0 to Chelsea and 2-0 to Shakhtar in their maiden Champions League group games but took the lead in the 50th minute with a goal from Mikkel Beckmann. Nordsjaelland tired after that and finally conceded after 81 minutes with an expert finish from Mirko Vukinic, converting Mauricio Isla's marvelous cross.

It finished 1-1, so what would have been an incredible result was downgraded to an outstanding one, but the outcome was still excellent news for Hjulmand's club and the Champions League in general.

Efforts in recent years by UEFA to make the group stages more diverse are commendable in theory, but in practice make for a surfeit of one-sided contests between big clubs and European novices that arguably hinder the tournament more than help it. Games such as this are a powerful way to refute that claim. Even this most money-fueled of soccer competitions has its romantic moments.

5. Spartak back in contention. Who's going to qualify from Group G with Barcelona? Though Spartak Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium is a brutal place to visit thanks to the cold weather and artificial surface, Benfica's 2-1 defeat was still a mild surprise. Spartak had lost its past three matches in all competitions while the Portuguese had won their past three.

Spartak was bottom of Group G after a pair of 3-2 defeats, to Barcelona (not surprisingly) and Celtic (shockingly). And its injury woes were another reason to favor Benfica. The Russian side was without leading scorer Emmanuel Emenike, captain Sergei Parshivlyuk and its top two goalkeepers, meaning a first European start for Artem Rebrov between the posts.

He was not unduly busy. Rafael Carioca gave Unai Emery's team a third-minute lead canceled out a half-hour later by Benfica's first genuine chance, a close-range header from Lima.

It was not a goal that could have been scored last season. UEFA has changed the competition's rules so a player who featured in the qualifying rounds for another club can now turn out for a different one in the group stages.

Lima, who was last season's joint-top scorer in the Portuguese league, was bought by Benfica from Braga in a deal so late it was only confirmed on Sept. 1, a day after the window slammed. The 29-year-old had appeared for Braga in a playoff qualifier against Udinese.

It's a fair tweak to the regulations given the number of transfers that happen late in the summer window, once Champions League qualifying is already under way. But it's just another disincentive for clubs to get their shopping done earlier before competitive matches begin.

A Jardel own goal handed the lead back to Spartak before halftime, and Benfica created little after the break. The same was true of Spartak once the exciting Jano Ananidze was substituted in the second period. Ananidze's tricky wing play was the highlight of a mediocre match that gave Spartak new hope and has Benfica desperately needing to avenge this result when the clubs meet again Nov. 7.

 
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