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Notes from Matchday 5 of the UEFA Champions League: Upsets for Barcelona and Chelsea

FEATURED COLUMNIST
28 Nov 2013, 17:30 IST

We are done with matchday 5 of the 2013/14 UEFA Champions League; a matchday that saw some upsets along with routine wins for some of the big teams. The one thing that it did throw up is that qualification scenarios in many of the groups is still undecided and the action will go into the last round of games.

Poring over the games and the results, here’s a list of the stories that stood out:

Shinji Kagawa finally plays in his most-favoured role at Manchester United

Shinji Kagawa finally played in his preferred position under David Moyes

A combination of injuries and paucity of options eventually forced United manager David Moyes to finally field Japanese midfielder Kagawa in the hole behind the main striker, something that the player himself and sections of the United fans have been calling out for.

And the result? A 5-0 win away at the Bay Arena, home of Bayer Leverkusen, currently the second best team in the Bundesliga and a team that had not lost at home this season in  nine matches.

United’s win by such a huge margin was all the more startling considering their rather indifferent from away from home previously, both in their domestic league and in Europe.

Kagawa enjoyed a splendid night in his preferred position and along with Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney was the star attacker for the English champions. Every time he attacked the Leverkusen half with the ball at his feet, he looked threatening. He was deservedly voted the man-of-the-match – the energy on the ball along with the quick distribution and smart flicks and passes were a joy to watch.

It was a good call on Moyes’ part too as he chose to not go in with the somewhat leggy Marouane Fellaini in midfield, instead opting for the very impressive Phil Jones. The midfield pairing of Jones and Giggs worked like a gem with Jones breaking up the play and acting as a defensive screen to allow Giggs plenty of time on the ball to wield his influence. It also meant that Kagawa had less tracking back to do and focus fully on his play in the attacking third.

United fans will be hoping that the Red Devils’ latest victory is finally enough to convince Moyes to give the Japanese more playing time.

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The growing influence of Bale and the class of Isco

Isco

In the last round of notes after Matchday 4, I had jotted down how the Ronaldo and Gareth Bale partnership was beginning to develop a good understanding. With the Portuguese captain sidelined on Wednesday night, Bale was the centre of attraction.

And he kick-started proceedings with a sumptuous free-kick that got past Uruguay international keeper Fernando Muslera in the Galatasaray goal. Real Madrid didn’t have any problems whatsoever even with Ronaldo missing; even after they lost Sergio Ramos to a very, very soft red card that saw Gala equalize and take the game into half time at 1-1, they came out in the second half and put Roberto Mancini’s side to the sword.

But one player who really stood out is 21-year-old Spain midfielder Isco. There’s something incredibly fascinating about Isco’s talents – great touch, excellent passing vision and a great final shot. He scored for the second game in succession, but more importantly ran the show sitting behind the main forward with Bale and Angel Di Maria either side of him. He was the man-of-the-match in the weekend mauling of Almeria too and was just as instrumental last night as well.

The Spaniard had a blistering start to his Madrid career before being laid low by injury. Back to full fitness and his playing best, Isco’s return marks a huge shot in the arm for Carlo Ancelotti.

Tata Martino’s first loss with Barcelona

Martino suffered his first loss as Barcelona manager

It had to come sometime, but nobody did expect it to happen against Ajax Amsterdam. Ajax beat Barca at their own game (or atleast their game under Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova) based around neat interplays and quick ball-movement.

Martino said after the match that the intensity was severely lacking from his players in the first half.

“Ajax began with more intensity than us and we paid the price, the second half was a different story and we played in a way more in tune with what Barca represents,” Martino said.

“The problems in the first half came more when we had the ball than when we didn’t.”

“We lacked mobility and precision. In a Champions League match against a rival who is fighting to qualify for the next round you need intensity for the full 90 minutes.”

It’s a shortcoming that cropped up a few times under both Pep and Vilanova, where even while hoarding all the possession, Barca sometimes ran out of ideas as to what to do with it.

The directness that has been infused into the side with Martino’s arrival was missing from the pitch with an air of lethargy prevailing over the men in claret and blue.

said Martino, who took over from the ailing Tito Vilanova in the close season, said at a news conference.

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