One third of the way through the Champions League group stage, it’s no longer too early to start drawing some conclusions. As expected, Europe’s big teams are already starting to pull ahead. Here are five thoughts to chew on from this week’s matches:
BAYERN THE BULLY: For Manuel Pellegrini to avoid the same fate as predecessor Roberto Mancini, Manchester City is going to have to do far better than its weak 3-1 loss Wednesday to Bayern Munich, the defending champion.
City’s opening 3-0 victory last month over Viktoria Plzen at least means Pellegrini has done better than Mancini last season, when his expensive team won none of its six group games against Real Madrid, eventual finalist Borussia Dortmund and Ajax. Mancini was subsequently fired in May and is now managing Galatasaray.
But Bayern, now led by ex-Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, made City look transparent. Bayern winger Arjen Robben said Guardiola has urged his team to be even more offensive and dominant than last season, when it won the Bundesliga, the German Cup and the Champions League under manager Jupp Heynckes.
Bayern perfectly executed Guardiola’s strategy against City, suffocating the team that just 10 days earlier had crushed Manchester United 4-1 in the Premier League.
Particularly worrying for City were Joe Hart’s porous goalkeeping and Pellegrini’s slowness to switch his tactics that clearly weren’t working as Bayern rode roughshod over his midfield.
Particularly worrying for the rest of Europe is that Guardiola seems to be making a winning team even better.
DROGBA’S STILL GOT IT: At age 35, Didier Drogba struck a blow for the golden oldies with a goal and an assist in Galatasaray’s 2-2 draw at Juventus on Wednesday.
Drogba moved to China after winning the Champions League with Chelsea in 2012. His talents, however, were wasted at Shanghai Shenhua and he came back to Europe in January to join Galatasaray.
But Drogba scored just once for the Turkish club in the Champions League last season _ in a 3-2 quarterfinal win against Real Madrid that wasn’t enough to erase the Spanish side’s 3-0 win in the first leg.
Drogba struck first for Galatasaray against the Italian champion in Group B on Wednesday. That gives the Ivorian 41 goals in 81 Champions League appearances.
BENDTNER OFF WITHOUT HIM: With Borussia Dortmund being the next and most formidable opponent in Group F, Arsenal and its fans must cross fingers and toes that striker Olivier Giroud stays healthy because the alternative is scary: the London club, for the lack of anyone better, being forced to rely on Nicklas Bendtner for goals.
Pundits have purred over Arsenal’s capture of midfielder Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid in September _ and not simply because of his fancy footwork party trick where he spits out his chewing gum, kicks it up in the air and then catches it in his mouth.
In what manager Arsene Wenger hailed as “one of the best halves we have played for a long time,” Ozil both scored and set up Giroud in the 2-0 win against Napoli on Tuesday that gives Arsenal some early breathing room at the top of the toughest Champions League group.
Helpfully for Wenger, Ozil’s glitter is also distracting attention from his inability to recruit a recognized striker this summer. But Wenger will surely face renewed criticism should an injury to Giroud force him to field Bendtner, on the bench against Napoli, in big games.