Pitchside Europe

Five things we learned from the third Champions League matchday


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The latest round of games in the Champions League supplied no end of drama and farce, as well as a collection of stunning goals. Here we pick out the five things we learned from this week's action...

1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the most electrifying man in football

Tired debates over the world’s best footballer will always divide along the Messi-Ronaldo faultline, and for good reason. The respective records of the two are incomparable in the modern era and stand up to the best of all time.

But let's face it: the saintly Messi is a bore, and there is little to admire in Ronaldo’s humourless, egotistical persona either.

Goals are their currency, but neither can claim to be the most charismatic nor the most compelling character in football. Instead, for sheer distilled genius, infused with a flavour of arrogance and rage, no one comes close to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

On Wednesday night, Ibrahimovic put on another enthralling exhibition of his talent, becoming the first Paris Saint-Germain player to score four times in a European Cup game as he demolished Anderlecht in a 5-0 win in Belgium. Having only days before described his outrageous taekwondo-esque backheeled goal against Bastia as one of the best goals in his career, the Swede was forced into a new reappraisal of his extensive back catalogue with one of the most thunderous finishes of this or any other year.

His scorching, 100kmph effort from long range - which you can watch here - caught the very corner of the net to bring up his hat-trick was greeted with a standing ovation from the home supporters. “It was crazy, I had goosebumps,” said Ibrahimovic of the reception Anderlecht fans gave him. “It is a great honour for me. I want to thank the fans.”

The genius of Ibrahimovic is that he is able to score every kind of goal: from headers to tap ins, acrobatic volleys to long-range howitzers, incredible dribbles to overhead kicks. The breadth and depth of his goalscoring is simply remarkable, the array of finishes and flicks just breathtaking.

No one – not Messi, not Ronaldo – has Ibrahimovic’s invention or imagination when it comes to the art of goalscoring. It is this unpredictability, wrapped up with his combustible nature, which means Ibrahimovic is incomparable in terms of pure entertainment. He is Zlatan, hear him roar.

2. Kaka is back, sort of

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It was not so long ago that the sight of the name ‘Kaka’ on a Champions League team sheet would have been cause for genuine dismay for an opposition manager. Between 2005 and 2007 the playmaker was arguably the finest player in world football, casting a spell over the competition. Yet his world record move to Real Madrid – a mark which lasted a matter of weeks before Cristiano Ronaldo joined him at the Bernabeu – was a ruinous one for his career. Kaka’s status slipped dramatically as his form deserted him and fitness problems struck, to the extent that when he returned to Milan this summer, the once great playmaker even decided not to collect a salary while injured.

Those who fondly remembered Kaka destroying teams, always elegantly, with his wonderful dribbling and precise passing hoped a return to his former club would rejuvenate the Brazil international, and as such Tuesday’s draw against Barcelona was a heartening sight. Stationed on the left wing of Massimiliano Allegri’s team, Kaka was a constant concern for Barca and set up Robinho for Milan’s goal with a lovely waft of his boot.

"All this affection from the fans is an extra motivation for me," he said. "Every time you play at the San Siro it is special. Having played plenty of times against Barcelona I knew the importance of the flanks. Tactically it needed to be a match of sacrifices. I still need to find my best form. The manager knows where I want to play but every now and again you need to make these sacrifices."

Allegri was also impressed, telling the press: “Kaka had an extraordinary game and he proved he is a champion. I don’t mean just in technical terms, as we all know that, but he worked so hard and even acted as a full-back at times when harassing the Barcelona players. Kaka proved once again to be a champion it’s not enough to have great feet, but to work hard and put the effort in.”

At 31, and with a growing list of fitness problems to his name, no one is suggesting that Kaka will recapture the form of old, but there was something thrilling in seeing a talent many had written off produce a flash of his old self. Long may it continue.

3. It’s the Champions League, stupid

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For an elite competition, there was an impressive array of idiotic behaviour in Europe this week, and this column just couldn’t decide which incident was its favourite. Tuesday, for example, witnessed an incredibly silly red card for Porto’s Hector Herrera. Just six minutes into what became a 1-0 defeat by Zenit St Petersburg, Herrera was shown a deserved yellow card for a cynical hack on former Porto forward Hulk. He then followed that up by encroaching during the subsequent free-kick to earn a second booking and an early bath.

Wednesday’s round of games also possessed an element of high farce, most hilariously, perhaps, in the shape of Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal. With Juve 2-1 down at Real Madrid, the Chile international drove into the box and swung his right boot at the ball in an attempt to cross. Having instead caught the turf and tripped over in comical fashion, Vidal gazed up from the floor and tried to convince the referee that Asier Illarramendi, a full metre away from him, was responsible. Shameless.

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But perhaps the most stunning display of ineptitude was on show in Portugal, where Benfica and Olympiacos were forced to play on in conditions that better suited a water polo contest. Both teams found it near impossible to pass the ball as the vast amount of standing water on the turf meant it was unable to roll more than a few metres – with Olympiacos’s David Fuster even denied a goal when his effort sunk into a puddle. Players were slipping to ground all over the place and it was probably fitting that the match finished in a 1-1 draw.

"We wanted to win but in the Champions League every point is important. Our players fought a lot, including against this rain," said Benfica coach Jorge Jesus, who, come to think of it, should really be able to walk on water anyway.

4. UEFA is under pressure over racism once again

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The paltry fines UEFA impose on clubs whose fans are guilty of racism have become football’s longest running joke - well, after Emile Heskey at least. Disgraceful behaviour in the stands is under scrutiny once again after Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure was subjected to monkey chants in his side’s victory away at CSKA Moscow on Wednesday night. An angry Toure demanded strong action from the game's governing body after the match.

This column wishes it shared Toure's optimism. Sadly, though, UEFA's track record is unimpressive to say the least. Examples are too numerous to catalogue in full here, but let's pick an example from, say, yesterday. That's right, just as City's hate-scarred match with CSKA was progressing, UEFA announced it had back-tracked on its decision to impose a stadium ban on Lazio for their upcoming Europa League fixture against Apollon Limassol. Instead, only the Stadio Olimpico's Curva Nord will be closed.

The punishment was imposed following racist behaviour from fans during a game against Legia Warsaw in September. And this after Lazio were sanctioned on four separate occasions last season - four! - for racist chanting from their supporters, leading to the Italian club playing knockout matches against Stuttgart and Fenerbahce behind closed doors. UEFA can plod along with partial or full stadium bans all it likes, but until points are deducted and teams expelled from European competition, their treatment of the most serious of matters will look seriosuly inadequate.

5. One of the competition's most impressive records looks under genuine threat

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Given the financial restrictions imposed by their move to a new stadium, it is rather remarkable that Arsene Wenger has safely steered Arsenal through to the knockout stages of the Champions League for no less than 13 seasons in succession. It would be a cruel twist, then, if such a run ended after they had finally found the cash to buy a player as sumptuously talented as Mesut Ozil.

At the half-way stage of Group F, Arsenal find themselves top of the table - but that disguises a perilous position. The Gunners are level on points with Napoli and Borussia Dortmund but must travel to face both sides in their remaining three games. Assuming all three clubs beat Marseille again, Arsenal may have to win either of those two away games to prolong their participation in the competition - and neither Dortmund nor Naples is a forgiving place to visit.

Tom Adams - @tomEurosport

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