The UEFA Champions League is up and running for the 2012-13 season with the top sides from all over Europe clashing in some fascinating early group stage duels.
Last season’s La Liga ended with Real Madrid as champions, Barcelona as runners-up and Valencia in third place, all earning an automatic place in the group stages of the competition. Fourth-placed team Malaga had to go via the play-off route, and beat Greek side Panathanaikos 2-0 on aggregate after building up a healthy first leg lead at home.
Real Madrid have certainly been handed the toughest group stage draw of the quartet, with the current champions of England, Germany and Holland all drawn against them. Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax should all present formidable opposition in their own right.
Jose Mourinho’s men started with a home victory over Man City, but it was a very hard-fought win at the Santiago Bernabeu despite the home side dominating for much of the first hour of the game. City broke the deadlock with a counter-attack goal 20 minutes from the end, Edin Dzeko scoring, and the floodgates were suddenly open.
Marcelo curled a deflected effort into the top corner to level matters, before Aleksander Kolarov put City back ahead with just five minutes left. Karim Benzema immediately equalized yet again, before a last-minute winner came courtesy of Cristiano Ronaldo; 3-2 to Real Madrid it ended.
For Malaga, their first foray into the Champions League ended with a routine and well-deserved win over Zenit St. Petersburg. A full debut for Zenit’s Brazilian forward Hulk was overshadowed by the sensational Isco who scored twice, the second a fierce, fizzing drive from distance which impressively found the top corner. In between his goals, Javier Saviola announced his return to Spain in style with a side-footed effort which went in off the post.
Malaga will also face AC Milan and Anderlecht in their group and, though they should take nothing for granted, already look a good choice for qualification with the Italians struggling for form and identity.
Wednesday night saw the second two Spanish sides begin their European adventure for the season: Barcelona and Valencia.
Valencia will have to be at their very best to make it out of Group F, with a hugely difficult group including Bayern Munich—who they faced first—to navigate. The excellent French side Lille and BATE Borisov of Belarus are the other two teams in the group.
Away in Bavaria, Valencia were roundly and deservedly beaten 2-1 by the Germans. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos put Bayern two goals up before Nelson Valdez pulled one back, but a red card for Adil Rami means he will miss the next match for Los Che. BATE beat Lille 3-1 in a surprising result, so Valencia will have their work cut out to make up ground over the next couple of fixtures.
For Barcelona in Group G, Spartak Moscow—their first opponents—, Celtic and Benfica should present few difficulties over the six matches but the Catalans will want to get off to a good start, taking advantage of their fine early domestic form.
A 3-2 win over Spartak ensured that three of the four Spanish sides started with three points in the bag, but they had to come from behind courtesy of two Leo Messi goals to claim the victory. Cristian Tello also scored for Barcelona, with Romulo and a Dani Alves own goal momentarily turning the tie on its head.
Not since 2008-09 have all four qualifying Spanish sides made it through the group stages into the knock-outs in the Champions League, but this year’s particular quartet certainly look well-equipped to do so if form and fitness allow—though Valencia have work to do.