Pitchside Europe

5 things we learned from the fourth Champions League matchday


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It was another dramatic matchday in the Champions League this week, as Arsenal stunned last year’s runners-up Borussia Dortmund in Germany and Lionel Messi broke his scoring drought against AC Milan.

Manchester City reached the knockout phase for the first time in their history while only two teams, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid, have won all four of their games so far. Here are some other talking points from Matchday Four:

1. Goalkeeper of the week (and who can trust a coach’s logic?)

As any former England goalkeeper will tell you, it’s not easy being a number one. Ray Clemence has called the position "a pressure-cooker" and Paul Robinson described the criticism he took on wearing the England jersey as "a witch-hunt". This week, Joe Hart has dropped to the Manchester City bench while Juventus chose to keep faith with Gigi Buffon after he made some uncharacteristic errors. Iker Casillas, essentially Real Madrid’s reserve this season, was outstanding in Turin while Hart’s replacement Costel Pantilimon had little to do but still conceded twice as City made it to the knock-out round for the first time.

But one goalkeeper stole the show on Matchday Four: Roberto Jimenez Gago, known as Roberto, who made seven outstanding saves as Olympiacos somehow withstood Benfica's onslaught to win their Group C game 1-0. Olympiacos are now three points ahead of Benfica and a Matchday Six win over Austria Vienna should be enough for them to seal qualification.

After the game, both coaches agreed that Roberto had made the difference: “He was greater than a saint tonight, maybe only the Pope is more saintly," said Olympiacos boss Michel, who promised to invite the Spaniard to dinner at his house to celebrate.

Benfica coach Jorge Jesus was slightly less generous. “It is rare to get a game where a goalkeeper has this kind of influence. It wasn't a fair result, we could have scored lots of goals.” Roberto was the reason Benfica didn't score, and the sub-plot to his performance was that he spent one season at Benfica, in 2010-11, before spending two seasons at Real Zaragoza.

Jesus seemed to be covering his tracks somewhat when he added: "Roberto is proof that Benfica produce great players." Where do you start with a statement like that? With the fact that Jesus bombed Roberto out of the club back in summer 2011? The fact that Roberto was 24 when he joined Benfica? Or that he had spent his teenage years at the Atletico Madrid youth academy?

As an aside, Roberto's career path sums up the modern game all too well; Benfica bought him from Atletico, sold him to Zaragoza via an investment fund (Zaragoza were under a transfer embargo and he reportedly cost €8.5m (£7.1m)), then Atletico bought him back after the fund defaulted on its payments. Atletico have now loaned him out to Olympiacos, but next season, if Thibaut Courtois moves to his parent club Chelsea, could bring back Roberto as number one.

As for Jesus’s comment: sometimes coaches make a mistake, like the rest of us. But if Jesus really was claiming credit for Roberto denying Benfica a result, then the football world is madder than we originally thought.

2. Power over placement sometimes works

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More penalties were missed on Matchday Four than scored, and looking at how they were taken, you can see why. The misses were decisive too: Robin van Persie hit the post as United drew at Sociedad (a result that could come back to haunt them) while Hulk's effort was saved in Zenit's draw with Porto. Lionel Messi, though, scored; his penalty came under pressure, given the so-called drought (three games) he was enduring.

It wasn't a surprise to see Messi blast it down the middle – often it’s the best way to score from the spot, and it was surprising that a player as powerful as Hulk chose against that strategy. Not many goalkeepers would stop one of his blasters from 12 yards. The option to shoot down the middle, or rather for goalkeepers to save down the middle, only became apparent after Johan Neeskens scuffed his spot-kick down the middle in the 1974 World Cup final, but even now, many goalkeepers never stay central on principle. Messi was able to take advantage.

3. Some coaches just work at certain clubs

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Sometimes it’s a chemistry thing, other times it’s luck, or fate, or another intangible. But what Staale Solbakken’s success at FC Copenhagen tells us is that a coach who struggles at one club is not necessarily a bad coach, just a coach who does not fit that club. After a difficult few years at FC Cologne and Wolves, Solbakken returned to FCK this August – not always an easy step to take, that reunion – and continued where he left off at the Danish champions. FCK's win against Galatasaray keeps them in contention for qualification, though with games against Real Madrid and Juventus to come, it’s no wonder Solbakken's ambition is to target third place and a Europa League spot.

4. Who said the group stages were boring?

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When the group stage draw was made in late August, Group F was the one that stood out as the toughest and, sure enough, runners-up Borussia Dortmund face a tough task to qualify: in theory, three teams could finish with 12 points and one miss out. But elsewhere, Matchday Six is shaping up to be fascinating: Manchester United take on Shakhtar Donetsk in what could be a qualifying play-off; in Group B, Juventus at Galatasaray could determine who progresses; Benfica might need to beat Paris Saint-Germain to get through, while Milan’s game against Ajax could be a second place decider.

5. Ajax have still got it

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It may not have been a vintage performance – or even much of a game – but Ajax midfielder Lasse Schöne scored Goal of the Matchday (and a contender for goal of the group stage) with a smart finish to cap a one-touch 16-pass move that could have been trademarked in Amsterdam. Ajax coach Frank de Boer is a product of the same system and while now the world coos over Spanish technique or German flair, this was a reminder that it all started at Ajax. That said, Ajax have games against Barcelona and Milan to come, and a place in the Europa League is De Boer’s stated target.

Ben Lyttleton - @benlyt

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