- Associated Press - Thursday, October 3, 2013

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.

After not making much of a mark at Arsenal (nearly half of his 158 appearances have been as a substitute), Bendtner was loaned to Sunderland and then Juventus for the past two seasons. The Denmark international looked likely to leave Arsenal this summer before Wenger blocked the move, recognizing that his team was short of strikers.

It still is.

THE OSCAR GOES TO … NEYMAR: A propensity by some players at Barcelona to play-act and feign injury has at times been a blot on that club’s otherwise fabulous brand of soccer. Unfortunately, new recruit Neymar showed against Celtic that he seems inclined to do it, too.

In 2011, Barcelona right-back Dani Alves made a meal of a coming together with Real Madrid’s Pepe in the Champions League semifinals. Screaming, mouth agape, the Barcelona defender acrobatically spun to ground, clutching his right calf muscle. Referee Wolfgang Stark sent Pepe off.

Sergio Busquets dropped like a man shot when Thiago Motta slapped the Barcelona midfielder across the neck in the 2010 semifinals. Infamously, as he lay on the floor clutching his face, Busquets was caught on camera appearing to peek through his fingers to see referee Frank De Bleeckere send off his Inter Milan rival.

In Neymar’s defense, Celtic captain Scott Brown did appear to kick the Brazil forward in the small of his back after bundling him over in the 59th minute at Celtic Park on Tuesday.

Still, Neymar perhaps didn’t need to writhe on the turf quite so dramatically, clutching his back as though he’d just donated a kidney without anesthetic.

Referee Stephane Lannoy showed Brown a straight red card. Celtic succumbed to Cesc Fabregas’ winner 16 minutes later.

“Neymar has a reputation in the game,” Celtic manager Neil Lennon said. “Sometimes he exaggerates things a little bit.”

FANTASTIC FLAMINI: Wenger looked like a penny pincher willing to settle for second best in August when, instead of buying a star (this was before Arsenal spent a club record $66 million on Ozil), he welcomed back free agent Mathieu Flamini, out of contract at AC Milan.

Six games later, including Arsenal’s 2-0 humbling of Napoli on Tuesday, re-signing the bossy, tidy, midfield organizer is looking like some of the best money Wenger never spent.

Having made 153 Arsenal appearances from 2004-2008, Flamini slotted back in immediately this season. From his first game, a 1-0 Premier League defeat of Tottenham on Sept.1, the Frenchman noticeably strengthened Arsenal’s spine, yelling at teammates about their positioning, breaking up opposition attacks and distributing the ball from the base of Arsenal’s midfield to its goal creators up front.

In its next Group F match against Borussia Dortmund on Oct. 22, Arsenal will need Flamini at his disruptive, combative best against the invariably dangerous Robert Lewandowski and Marco Reus, Dortmund’s scorers in its 3-0 victory on Tuesday against Marseille.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at https://twitter.com/johnleicester

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