Minnows 2 Elitists 0

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This is where I suck up to Michel Platini, the UEFA president who, indirectly, keeps me in a job.

When he suggested opening up the UEFA Champions League to teams that the British press, with characteristic open mindedness, dubbed “minnows,” there was much dire prognosticating that this utter folly would lead to the kind of 10-0 thrashings not seen in Europe since English teams stopped facing clubs from Luxembourg.

The records of Cluj and BATE, from such unfashionable parts of the football world as Transylvania and Belarus, have exposed this as hollow, misconceived elitism.

Teeny, tiny little Cluj celebrate making light work of Roma 

Cluj and BATE have now tested Chelsea, Juve and Roma. And, in Cluj’s case, given the media a welcome cue for a whole host of bite/vampire/teeth related headlines and intros.

To be honest, both sides look more competitive than such established regulars as PSV and Marseille.

You would expect me to say this, as editor of the official UEFA Champions League magazine, but that doesne’t make me wrong. After a fascinating week’s results, here is the first part of my view on the state of the tournament. (Groups E-H will follow Friday. Promise)

Group A
Against the Cheeky Girls’ hometown team, Chelsea had more of everything – possession, corners, shots on target i– except goals. In truth, 0-0 wasn’t bad. It could have been worse. Petr Cech rescued Chelsea after the magnificent Alvaro Pereira took advantage late on as Jose Bosingwa fell asleep.

Cluj coach Maurizio Trombetta, appointed this summer, has done a magnificent job. But, even though Cluj are joint top with Chelsea, he insists, “our target is still to finish third.”

Chelsea huff and puff their way to goalless draw in Romania

Bordeaux, pointless after two games, may miss out on the last 16 after the Beast – Julio Baptista – inspired Roma to comeback and win 3-1 in France.

Totti hopes to be fit for the upcoming double header against Chelsea which, judging by the thickness of his knee brace, Drogba seems unlikely to be. The nightmare scenario for the two group favourites is that Cluj do the double over Bordeaux and have 10 points after four games.

Note for stattos: this was the first time Chelsea haven’t scored under Scolari.

Group B

It hasn’t taken long. This Tuesday, Gazzetta dello Sport was asking whether Mancini’s Inter were better than Mourinho’s. And as Inter drew 1-1 with Werder, the first angry whistles from home fans resounded around the half empty San Siro.

But Inter still look favourites in Group B. They can almost bank on three points at home to Panathinaikos and face Anorthosis at the San Siro next.

The bigger question is what shape Inter will be in as the knockout stage starts. As Roy Hodgson suggested on Sky Sports, it is possible that Mourinho still doesn’t know his best XI.

Decisions, decisions 

The three strikers – Ibrahimovic, Adriano and Balotelli – looked less fluent against Werder, over 90 minutes, than the more traditional 4-3-3 (with the Swede as lone striker, supported from the flanks) deployed in Athens.

Still, it was good to see Adriano, in flashes, looking more like a genius and much less like the Mr Blobby who was so immobile at the 2006 World Cup.

Only Anorthosis and Werder can seriously hope to qualify alongside Inter. On matchday five, Bremen travel to Nicosia for a match that could decide the issue. Form and pedigree favour the Germans but Anorthosis have now drawn or beaten Anderlecht, Hertha Berlin, Olympiakos and Spurs at home.

Group C
Being outplayed by Shakhtar Donetsk for 88 minutes, yet snatching victory through the brilliance of Lionel Messi will not convince Pep Guardiola’s critics his Barcelona are improving. Still, six points from two matches puts Barca in pole position and it’s hard to see them failing to make the last 16.

Messi to the rescue as late brace buries Shakhtar

Who joins them could become clear after the Sporting-Shakhtar double header. These ties will be intriguing tactical contests. Paulo Bento’s men often make opponents struggle by dictating the pace and will look to slow the game to suffocate Shakhtar before going on the offensive.

Although Shakhtar coach Mircea Lucescu fumed about Barcelona’s gamesmanship, his real concern must be Shakhtar’s propensity to ship late goals.

This week’s disappointment reminded many fans of their exit to Sevilla in the 2006/07 UEFA Cup. Leading 2-1 in the fourth minute of added time, they heroically contrived to lose 3-2 in Donetsk.

Group D
Believe the hype. Sergio Aguero probably is the best striker in the world right now. His goal against Marseille showed speed of thought, technique, determination, focus, a low centre of gravity and predatory instincts.

Although Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez insists it’s still all to play for, this already looks like a two horse race between Fernando Torres’ old team and his current team.

Aguero on target again as Atletico steer past Marseille

After Aguero, the best player at the Calderon was Mamadou Niang. 29 this month, the Senegalese striker has scored goals in industrial quantities in the last year: 18 in 29 Ligue 1 games – and four in 10 European matches – in 2007/08.

He already has three in four European games in 2008/09. Niang paired well up front with Danijel Lluboja and Mickael Pagis at Strasbourg and, if the goals keep coming, could be worth £15m next summer.

At Anfield, the player I was most intrigued by was PSV’s Nordin Amrabat. Only 21, he normally plays on the wing but looked lively, cheeky and talented given the thankless task of playing alone up front in a transitional PSV side that, at times, played five at the back.

Note for stattos: Gerrard’s 100th goal for Liverpool was also the Reds’ 100th goal in the Champions League.

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