The Champions League is back, but who impressed?

The Champions League is back, and back with aplomb with some memorable performances from both European giants and minnows. Here I take a look at four players who excelled in the first round of fixtures, alongside a little bit of background information.

Yacine Brahimi in action for FC Porto
Yacine Brahimi in action for FC Porto

Yacine Brahimi

   Porto’s attacking midfielder cum winger became the seventh player to score a hatrick on his Champions League debut on Wednesday, as he led Porto to a 6-0 win over Belarusian minnows Bate Borisov. His first came courtesy of an awful mistake by goalkeeper Sergei Chernik, as he rolled the ball to Brahimi when under no pressure whatsoever. The Algerian responded by firing the ball into the roof of the net from a tight angle. His second came after a superb run down the left flank as he beat two defenders, before firing in his third directly from a free kick in the 57th minute.

Brahimi appeared in three games for Algeria at this summer’s World Cup, scoring once against South Korea. Tottenham, Everton and Roma were said to be interested in signing him after his good form in the tournament, but the Portuguese giants beat them to it by snapping him up for 6.5 million, which now looks a bargain.

Gervinho

   Much to the aghast of Arsenal fans, the Ivorian is enjoying a renaissance in Rome. After struggling with the Gunners for two seasons his previous manager at Lille, Rudi Garcia, swooped to bring him to Rome. Since signing he’s been a revelation, providing an attacking outlet down the left that few defenders have coped with. He played a big part in Roma’s return to the Champions League after three seasons away, scoring nine teams last season as Roma finished second only to Juventus.

This was no more evident than in Tuesday’s 5-1 massacre of CSKA Moscow. La Giallorossi overran the Russians and were 4-0 up after half hour. Gervinho was key to this electric start, scoring twice. His first contribution though came in the sixth minute, when he slipped a ball through to new signing Juan Manuel Iturbe, who dispatched confidently past Igor Akinfeev. Iturbe, who was to go off injured at half time also impressed, as he repaid the favour to Gervinho when setting him up for his first. Then in the 31st minute, Roma legend Francesco Totti set the Ivorian free to cut inside his marker, before firing home. There was a slight let up after the frenetic opening 30, but Roma ran out 5-1 winners to a backdrop of crowd trouble in the Olimpico.

Joe Hart

Manchester City keeper Joe Hart gave an outstanding performance in Germany as his club slipped to a late 1-0 defeat to Bayern Munich, courtesy of ex City defender Jerome Boateng’s lashed volley. Hart stood no chance with the shot, which took a slight deflection off of Mario Gotze. England’s number one had played brilliantly throughout, and without him Bayern would surely have been five or six to the good. He made three or four top class saves in the first half alone, though his handling at crosses did leave a little to be desired at times.

After being at fault for Stoke’s winning goal a couple of weeks ago Hart’s form has picked up. This can in part be attributed to Manuel Pellegrini’s decision to sign Willy Caballero as genuine competition for the role between the sticks. Caballero came from Malaga with a big reputation, and will provide sterner competition than Costel Pantillimon and Stuart Taylor ever did. However, if Hart continues to play as he did against Bayern, he will have little trouble holding on to the number one position.

Joe Hart pulls of another save against Bayern
Joe Hart pulls of another save against Bayern

Carlos Tevez

   Carlos Tevez and Juventus earnt a welcome 2-0 win at home to Swedish team Malmo on Tuesday. Tevez scored both goals – after going the previous five years (and over 1000 minutes) without finding the net in the Champions League. The Argentine’s troubles in Europe are reflective of his club, Juventus, who crashed out at the group stage last season after several miserable displays. Similar to Juventus Tevez has excelled in Serie A, scoring 19 times last season as the Old Lady marched to a third consecutive title. Yet only now is he transferring that form onto the European stage.

Under new manager Massimiliano Allegri the Bianconeri had made the familiar slow start to European games, only truly taking control of the game when impressive forward Marcus Rosenberg (who flopped at West Bromwich Albion) left the pitch in the 53rd minute. With the Swedish forward no longer haranguing the Juve defence they were able to push forward, and when Tevez played a one two with Kwadwo Asamoah he was through on goal, drilling past Robin Olsen. His second came courtesy of an exquisite free kick from just outside the box. Tevez was withdrawn late on amid a standing ovation from the fans. Next up for Juve is Atletico away, and they’re going to need Tevez firing on all cylinders again.

The Rise and Rise of Roma

Ashley Cole lurking at the Roma team photo
Ashley Cole lurking at the Roma team photo

   Serie A’s dead they say. And so you would think at first glance, given traditional domestic heavyweights Inter Milan’s, AC Milan’s and Lazio’s current plight. Big players have left the league aplenty in the past five years, with little arriving in the other direction – Higuain and Gomez last summer the exception. The state of footballing affairs in the country is so bad that aside from Juventus and Napoli, no other Italian team is considered competitive in Europe. Then you look at Roma.

   The club’s rise since James Pallotta took charge two years ago has not been smooth. His first season in charge saw the club sack his own appointment, Zdenek Zeman, in February and replace him with rooky Aurelio Andreazzoli. He was moved back upstairs  after a sixth place finish and defeat to Lazio in the Coppa Italia final, and Roma needed another new manager. Enter Rudi Garcia, and the stability the club needed to progress.

   He arrived to a disenchanted squad after the heartbreaking derby loss and several of his star players wanted to leave – including club legend Daniele de Rossi, who had been on the target of abuse for frustrated fans. Zeman almost encouraged that behaviour with his public shaming of players, but Garcia immediately took the opposite stance, shielding his players in public whilst telling some home truths in private. A certain Sir Alex Ferguson also stood by that rule and it didn’t do him much harm. 

   The players took to Garcia like they never did to Zeman, and de Rossi was convinced to stay despite overtures from Manchester United. Franceso Totti has also been extremely impressed by Garcia, as has Garcia by the 37 year old Roma legend, describing him as ‘illuminating” after he orchestrated a 3-2 win against Udinese last year. Totti has been at Roma for what seems like eternity, and his form is another reason the Giallarossi are back at the top.  He finished last season with 8 goals and 10 assists, putting him a comfortable second on the all time Serie A goalscorers list. He says his target is to surpass Silvio Piola in first, and  given he’s just signed a new 2 year contract don’t rule it out.

   As crucial as Totti is, Roma are now very much a team under Garcia. And an attractive one at that. After the big name departures of Marquinhos, Lamela and Pablo Osvaldo last year Garcia was given the money to spend. In collusion with now technical director Andreazzoli the club bought in Strootman, Benatia, Ljajic, Destro and Gervinho last year, plus several others. The majority have been a success – particularly Stootman in the distruggitore del gioco role, and Gervinho on the flank. Yes you heard right, Gervinho! The Ivorian excelled under Garcia at Lille and playing back under his old manager seems to have done him the world of good. Even the hard to please Italian press have been raving about him, with Sebastiano Vernazza of the Gazzetta Sportiva raving ‘every day in Africa a gazelle wakes up and wishes it could be as fast as Gervinho.’ An odd sentiment, but a positive one none the less.

   Their dealings this summer have also been impressive. Juan Iturbe signed for the club ahead of Juventus, and Radja Nainggolan signed permanently after a loan spell last year. Promising youngster Salih Ucan has been signed on loan from Fenerbahce, as has Davide Astori from Cagliari. Perhaps the most intriguing singing they’ve made though is Ashley Cole. Now notorious for that team photo, Cole brings Roma a wealth of Champions League experience, which should stand them in good stead for the coming season. Although now 33, the slower pace of Serie A should see Cole excel, as Maicon has since his return to Serie A with Roma. 

   Roma’s mix of youth and experience could also see them fare well in the Champions League, if given a favourable draw. It’s been a common theme of the last few years that there is one team that surprises in the competition – Atletico last year, Dortmund the year before. Looking back further Schalke, Lyon and Porto have all made deep runs into the competition in the past decade. Roma’s squad is more than capable of doing so, if Garcia doesn’t repeat Antonio Conte’s mistakes and rotates his team enough.

Roma's new stadium will be completed for the 2016/17 season
Roma’s new stadium will be completed for the 2016/17 season

    So what are Roma doing that other Italian clubs aren’t? They, along with Juventus, have made themselves sustainable, by building their own stadium. The Stadio della Roma (shown above) will seat up to 60,000 spectators for major matches, and has been built with these fans in mind. Ultras play a huge part in the game in Italy, so the club will be building a 14,000 seat section behind one of the goals to house them, replacing the Curva Sud from the Stadio Olimpico. But the main reason for a new stadium is commercial. A lot of the matchday revenue for clubs now comes from the corporate packages that can be sold to businesses – ever wondered why that section in the middle of the stand at Wembley is always empty? That’s the corporates. Roma’s new stadium is going to built in the style of the Colloseum as a tribute to the city, and there is a feeling around the club that Pallotta really understands Roma, being a fan. 

   With the bigger clubs falling and Roma now in a position to take advantage of that, do not be surprised to see them competing at the top of Serie A for the foreseeable. As well as the experience in the squad, there’s a nice blend of youth coming through. Alessandro Florenzi enjoyed a breakout year last season, and Alessio Romagnoli and Tonny Sanabria are expected to make an impact this year. 

   Roma are back competing with Juventus at the top, and Totti’s playing as well as he ever has. It’s like 2001 all over again.